Time is now for transformative change in agriculture, says ISU professor

AMES, Iowa - The agricultural systems and processes that have developed in the past decades need to be re-examined, says an Iowa State University professor who has studied the issue for years.

Cornelia Flora, distinguished professor in the Department of Sociology, says that reducing financial risks and improving sustainability are important to everyone and public policy should move in that direction.

Flora is among the experts who have authored an article in the current issue of the journal Science. The article is a summary of a study conducted for the National Research Council and funded by the Gates Foundation and the Kellogg Foundation, "Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century."

"We need a long-range approach on how we use the land," said Flora emphasizing the need to be more sustainable. "And farmers are already making adjustments."

"Any system is always adapting, and most farmers are," she said. "Iowa farmers have changed. They may not all believe in climate change, but they are making adjustments to be more sustainable."

Flora says the goal of any future change should not be to decrease productivity.

"We are not trying to get big combines off the field," she said. "This is not big ag versus little ag. Both are important. We can do big ag in wonderful ways, and big ag is always looking for ways to do things like be more sustainable while at the same time making money."

Flora believes that no matter what system is in place, Iowa will still lead the nation in corn and soybean production, but she also wants farmers to become free from short-term price fluctuations by planting a wider variety of crops.

Some changes Flora sees involve using new crop rotations, planting fruit trees on marginal land that will keep soil in place, and having cattle graze on grasslands.

"Farmers can use some of their more unproductive land that is not very good for crops, and plant fruit trees on it," she said. "Even in places where the dominant crops are corn and soybeans, landowners can produce or lease some land to produce fruits and vegetables."

"Currently, we have a system of price supports and subsidies that supports the production of corn and beans," she said. "But if incentives changed so that farmers could have a more sustainable rotation, and make money and reduce risk, it would be a benefit for rural and urban people alike."

Public and producer opinion on sustainable agriculture is now in favor of farming with fewer inputs, said Flora.

"We've done interviews with farmers and they say, 'We'd like to do things differently, but we don't think we can afford to,'" she said.

Under a system that stresses sustainability, there would be fewer financial subsidies for corn and beans, and more for conservation, Flora added.

Society already is paying a high price for the current system, she says, in which roads are flooding more than before, when ditches are getting filled, and when bigger, more expensive water treatment plants are required to clean water from field runoff.

Flora said that under a more sustainable system, "The farmer would be earning more. And it would be with more diversified crops."

The change starts with public perception and changing a system that is entrenched.

"We have to say as a society that it is valuable to us to have more diversified agriculture, to maintain our quality of water, and of our air," she said. "Unfortunately the major driver to our current system makes it financially difficult to move out of corn and soybeans."

Flora admits that with historically high corn prices, getting farmers to change now may be difficult.

But, she says that when corn prices drop, as they always do, those who have diversified may be better off.

"The change ultimately comes from people expressing their norms and values in a democracy," she said "And we are working on getting those norms and values moved into rules and regulations and their enforcement. Policy should make it profitable to do what is good for society as a whole."