What’s happening to agriculture, and how can we make the most of it? That Big Question took center stage at this week’s Frontiers in the Environment presentation by IonE resident fellow Nick Jordan, a professor in the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences, and Carissa Schively Slotterback, an associate professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Here are seven important things we learned:
1. Agriculture is in a period of transition. Agriculture has traditionally relied heavily on only a few crops, but now it’s undergoing a shift to growing a greater variety of crops for more purposes, including bioproducts and biofuels. Sustainable intensification — expanding the potential of farmland production while reducing negative effects on the environment — may be a good way to take advantage of this opportunity.
2. Continuous living cover is the first step. Continuous living cover involves the use of winter crops or coverings so large fields don’t remain barren during winter. Options include cover crops, green manures, agroforestry and polycultures. These crops can produce multiple benefits, such as being turned into biofuels.
3. Remember the economy. Continuous living cover may sound great, but unless it’s economically competitive it will not succeed. Luckily, new technologies have allowed for an expansion of bioeconomy into new foods, animal feeds and biofuels, and have boosted potential for local markets.
4. Expect new technology. New advances will be necessary to optimize sustainable intensification and utilize its products. Some are already well on their way to development, including the AFEX method (a biomass treatment process developed at Michigan State University) and advances in genome editing. Technology also has played a crucial role through geodesign technologies.
5. We’re already on our way. Through a series of workshops over the course of several months, researchers taught residents of the Seven Mile Creek watershed in south-central Minnesota about sustainable intensification and provided them with tools to apply this knowledge through geodesign. The results were positive.
6. Success involves collaboration. Collaboration played a key role in the workshop process and will be crucial in broader applications of the agricultural transformation. Successful implementation of sustainable intensification will require participation from all relevant stakeholders, including community members, governments, conservation groups and the agricultural industry.
7. Win + win + win + win. These concepts are especially exciting because they can benefit people across the board. Not only can they increase the productive capacity of agriculture and save money, they also have the potential to reduce environmental wrongs while utilizing local knowledge.
Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation here.