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Common Questions About Agriculture – Answered!

Water is necessary to grow plants that provide food, fiber and shelter for the world. Agriculture production in the U.S. accounts for approximately 80% of the nation’s “consumptive water use.” “Consumptive water use” is the term that describes water used and not returned to the original source. However, when we use water in our home, or when an industry like agriculture uses water, about 90 percent of the water used is eventually returned to the environment where it replenishes water sources and can be used for other purposes. But of the water used for irrigation, only about one-half is reusable. The rest is lost by evaporation into the air, evapotranspiration from plants, or is lost in transit. While agriculture requires significant water to grow crops and raise animals, unused water returns to the ecosystem. Farmers are focused on conserving water for several reasons: 1) Farmers know water wasted could mean a lack of the resource for future crops. 2) Water is expensive. Water wasted is money lost. 3) Farmers are cultivators. They use precise technology to know exactly how much water a plant needs to grow. Too much could mean poor production. 4) Many farmers rely on Mother Nature for water.

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Using GM seeds that are selected for the right environment can actually decrease the amount of pesticides a farmer must use. Let’s take a look at what’s going on in the industry today. One of the most common GM varieties is called Bt seed — it allows a crop to release a protein from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that acts as a natural pesticide to certain insects. Use of pesticides with Bt crops has drastically decreased. Another common GM variety enables a plant to resist the herbicide glyphosate. For example, Roundup® is a common glyphosate product. Roundup® Ready Corn, a GM product, can still grow when Roundup® is applied. For these crops, herbicide use has increased because farmers can apply the herbicide on all of their land. Glyphosate, however, is one of the mildest herbicides. It has toxicity 25 times less than caffeine. The ability to use glyphosate more frequently has enabled farmers to decrease use of more toxic herbicides. In the last 20 years, the use of GM seeds has reduced pesticide spraying by 8.1%. Because of this, the environmental impact associated with pesticide use on biotech crops has decreased by more than 18%.

Learn more with the Food Evolution documentary! 

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Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports indicate that cattle production is not a top contributor to greenhouse gasses. The agriculture industry accounts for 9% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. For comparison, transportation accounts for 28%, and electricity generation accounts for 28% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Advances in the industry helped American farmers and ranchers reduce their carbon footprint. Methane emissions from U.S. beef cattle have declined 34% since 1975.

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Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as a mere calculation. The United States uses more than one-third of its land for pasture. For more than 100 million people in arid regions, grazing livestock is their only source of livelihood. Half of the land area in the U.S. cannot be used for growing crops and is used as grazing land instead. If cattle, sheep and goats were not grazed on this land, it would be of no use for food production.

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U.S. farmers and ranchers are actually producing more with less. For example, total U.S. corn yield (tons per acre) has increased more than 360% since 1950. Globally, this statistic varies drastically with direct correlation to advancements in mechanical and biological technology available.

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In the U.S., an estimated 14.3 million acres of farmland has diminished between 2012-2017. According to the USDA, there was a 1 million acre decline in just one year.  This is caused in part by growing urban areas and by increased technology that allows more food to be grown on less land. Globally, however, total farmland acreage continues to increase as developing nations strive to feed a rapidly growing population. Nations with less technology must use more land to produce the food they need.

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Ultimately, environmental sustainability comes down to the farmer, whether they produce goods organically or conventionally. Good farmers manage erosion, water use, control runoff and work to replenish the nutrients of the soil. There are many factors that affect environmental impact. Let’s look at land use and transportation. An article published in the journal Nature by researchers from Canada’s McGill University and the University of Minnesota found that, on the whole, organic production produces 25% less food on the same land as conventional production. This is an average, however, and some organically produced crops are comparable in productivity to conventionally produced crops. Transporting products also impacts the environment. All goods must be transported from the farm to a retailer, and often many stops in between. An organic or conventional farmer across the country may have a very sustainable farm but transporting their goods to you can have an impact on the environment

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All people have the opportunity to harm or improve wildlife habitat. Farmers and ranchers value wildlife conservation and are working hard to improve habitat, while providing food, fiber and fuel to a growing population. In 2016, farmers, ranchers and other landowners have enrolled almost 24 million acres in the Conservation Reserve Program to protect the environment and provide habitat for wildlife. Since the program started, more than 2 million acres of wetlands have been restored.

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Soil erosion happens naturally, whether or not humans are present. Water, weather and animals impact erosion as well. The Grand Canyon is a great example of natural erosion caused by water! Human activity can increase or decrease soil erosion. Farmers and ranchers know the importance of soil. Topsoil contains important nutrients that allow crops to grow. To prevent erosion, many farmers use conservation practices like planting cover crops in the winter or using conservation tillage practices. Conservation tillage was used on roughly 70% of soybean (2012), 65% of corn (2016), 67% of wheat (2017), and 40% of cotton (2015) acres

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