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New Tool Allows Farmers to Determine Their Sustainability

November 9, 2009

The Keystone Alliance, a coalition of agriculture, food production, research, and environmental groups, have made available a newly developed sustainability calculator.  This calculator takes a number of inputs from farmers and then, using existing data, computes quantitative indice numbers which farmers may then use to compare to state and national averages.  The program, available online at www.fieldtomarket.org gathers farm specific data such as tillage practices, irrigation rates, field productivity, and amendment application regime.  The program also asks for more generalized local area conditions regarding rainfall intensity and wind erosion potential.  The result is a rough calculation of sustainability in five categories: land use, soil loss, water use, energy use, and climate impact.

The tool is easy to use, if simply because it depends upon rather broad generalizations from farmer input as well as from the background calculations required to produce the final indice scores.  Entirely missing from the Fieldprint Calculator are tools measuring impact on biodiversity, soil organic content, and water quality.  Additionally, indice measurements on other non-environmental issues should also be considered such as social responsibility and local economic impact.  Admittedly, the Fieldprint Calculator is in early stages of development.  From all indications, the Keystone Alliance will eventually broaden the tool to include additional sustainability measurements. 

Two bigger questions loom over the entire Fieldprint Calculator and the efforts of the Keystone Alliance.  First, how much of an impact may this effort truly yield?  So a voluntary program is established.  Now what?  Will government or corporate policies or procedures get amended in light of the new data to truly implement and affect more sustainability? Second, if the current indirect land use change debate teaches us anything, it is that incomplete analysis can cause significant uncertainty.  Any truly impactful program will require richer, more accurate data that can also be verified, recorded, and assigned to crops as they proceed through the food production and distribution supply chain.  Doing so will require a considerable amount of information and procedural development, but would also provide much of the data and certainty required to truly effect change.

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