Growings On: Development of a sustainability calculator | Lifestyles

The term “wicked problem” was originally used by the German theorist Horst Rittel to refer to complex social problems for which a scientific/technical solution alone would be inadequate. Today’s ‘nasty’ challenges, including climate change, food stability and biosecurity, will increasingly require recognition and application by all sectors involved in agriculture to find solutions.

More sustainable agriculture has been the subject of substantial efforts for decades. Recent efforts by University of Georgia scientists can provide important tools to monitor and guide decisions to improve sustainability. Due to the complexity involved, definitions of ‘sustainability’ are many and varied, depending on the perspective and emphasis sought.

To encourage research and investment, federal legislation has defined “sustainable agriculture” as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices with site-specific application that, over the long term:

  • Meeting human food and fiber needs.
  • Improve the quality of the environment and the natural resource base on which the agricultural economy depends.
  • Make the best use of non-renewable and on-farm resources and incorporate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls.
  • Support the economic viability of agricultural operations.
  • Improve the quality of life of farmers and society as a whole.

As consumers are increasingly inclined to buy products marketed as “sustainable”, there is growing pressure on agriculture for greater transparency and traceability within the supply chain going all the way back to agriculture. origin of a product – the farm. These challenges also provide opportunities for producers and suppliers who are willing and able to document sustainable practices.

Until now, there was no reliable mechanism to measure sustainability in the field. With recent advances in technology, a multi-stakeholder initiative, Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, has been at the forefront of efforts to develop a science-based, results-driven approach to quantifying a farm’s sustainability.

After more than a decade of research, the alliance has developed a free online tool, the Fieldprint Calculator, which translates annual crop management practices into quantitative assessments based on eight indicators: land use, energy consumption, water quality, soil conservation, greenhouse gases. emissions, soil carbon, irrigation water use and biodiversity.

With funding from Cotton Inc. and the Georgia Peanut Commission, Kaylyn Groce Reagin, a cotton and peanut sustainability educator at the University of Georgia, is part of an ongoing research study with the University of Georgia Peanut Program. Integrative Precision Agriculture from the University of Georgia to help farmers use the Field Footprint Calculator. to improve their sustainability scores over time.

“Overall, farmers have always been environmentally conscious, but by adjusting their existing systems to improve each of the measures outlined by the alliance, producers are expanding their options for doing business with companies that are committed to source sustainably,” Reagin said.

Each year, Reagin and a group of county extension officers visit every agricultural collaborator – 45 farms – to collect and enter field data into the calculator. Once the data is analyzed, the calculator generates a web-like graph called a “spidergram” that displays the scores for each sustainability metric for the previous crop year. She visits each farmer to review the data and discuss specific changes that can be made to improve scores for each metric.

Reagin said that while some farmers are initially hesitant to meet eight separate measures, they typically find that by changing one management practice, such as incorporating cover crops between cash crops, they increase their scores on several measures.

An element of neighborly competition has arisen between producers, Reagin added.

“It’s funny how some farmers want to know their friends’ scores, and I think the friendly competition motivates them to make changes here and there to get a head start on the coming year.”

For each year over the next three years of the project, county extension officers will help identify and invite five new farmers to participate in the research. The goal is to establish accurate Georgia-specific baseline data that will help establish long-term national baselines for cotton and peanut production.

Eventually, Reagin hopes this research will expand to include other major products in the state.

“The truly inspiring thing about this initiative,” Reagin said, “is that by making progress in every sustainability metric, farmers are not only improving their bottom line, but they’re ensuring the longevity of the farm for generations. future, and from what I can tell, that’s what these farmers are most excited about.

Roger Gates is the Agricultural and Natural Resources Officer for the University of Georgia Extension in Whitfield County. Contact him at [email protected]

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