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Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

How can we help U.S. farmers and ranchers meet growing national and global demand for food, feed, fiber and fuel in an increasingly sustainable manner? That question is at the crux of The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) strategy of “sustainable intensification of agriculture.” Indeed many agribusinesses, agricultural associations, food and beverage companies, retailers, agencies and non-governmental organizations are currently engaged in that strategy, either implicitly or explicitly.

As global population skyrockets to more than 9 billion people, and growing middle classes in developing nations demand more protein in their diets, how do we feed a hungrier world over the next four decades without converting hundreds of millions of acres of natural areas to cropland? This is the greatest challenge of our generation. 

Yet ours is not the first generation to consider such challenges.  Some 40 years ago, Norman Borlaug led the Green Revolution which is credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives. But 15 decades ago, Abraham Lincoln was wrestling with some of the same thorny questions that many of us are tangling with today.

On Sept. 30, 1859, fresh after losing a U.S. Senate race to Stephen Douglas and nearly nine months before he would be nominated as the Republican candidate for President of the United States, Lincoln addressed a group of mostly farmers at the Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee, making a number of astonishingly prescient observations.

Lincoln posited:  “What would be the effect upon the farming interest to push the soil up to something near its full capacity?”  He describes “ ‘thorough cultivation’—putting the soil to the top of its capacity—producing the largest crop possible from a given quantity of ground.”

Lincoln also expounded on population. While he could not have been aware of the intense pressures on natural resources that we will be facing in the next four decades, Lincoln nevertheless observed,  “Population must increase rapidly—more rapidly than in former time—and ere long the most valuable of all arts, will be the art of deriving a comfortable subsistence from the smallest area of soil.” 

TNC is currently partnering with farmers, agribusinesses, agricultural associations and USDA to improve soil health.  Improving soil health is a way to increased yields, profitability and environmental performance simultaneously.  Producing more from current cropland is at the core of our agriculture strategy.  It astounds me that some of what I had considered to be cutting-edge, state-of-the-art discussions have their roots in conversations that took place more than a century-and-a-half ago.  The very same principles underpinning what Lincoln referred to as “thorough cultivation,” we refer to today as “sustainable intensification of agriculture.”

Granted, Lincoln could not have foreseen the advances of precision agriculture and biotechnology that have occurred in the last few decades.  But surprisingly, in that very same speech in 1859, Lincoln theorized about a “steam plow” that would plow better, cheaper and more rapidly than animal labor, and facilitate “thorough cultivation.”  He queried: “Unquestionably, thorough cultivation will require more labor to the acre, but will it require more to the bushel?”  Lincoln was describing a more efficient utilization of labor and natural resources driven by technology, tenets that underlie precision agriculture today.

Lincoln concludes ever optimistically with the following: “Let us hope… that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath us and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.”

We can all find plenty of cause for doom and gloom as we look ahead to the challenges of food security and conservation that will be manifest in the coming decades.  I often reflect on the projections from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization that we will lose 300 million acres of natural areas, primarily grasslands and tropical forests, to cropland in the next four decades.  That point really sinks home as I consider that in TNC’s 60-year history, we and our partners have managed to conserve 120 million acres of natural areas—an area approximately the size of California.   As big as that number is, we stand to lose two-and-a-half Californias in the coming years if we fail to sustainably increase agricultural production on current croplands.

However, I am buoyed by the potential that precision agriculture, biotechnology and improved genetics all hold for increasing agricultural production.  I am also encouraged by the huge yield gaps still present in many parts of the world.  By providing basic access to fertilizer, water and better seeds to farmers in Africa, Asia and parts of Latin America, we can increase production exponentially in many of those areas. 

Abraham Lincoln had lost his job, was defeated for the state legislature, failed in business, and was defeated twice for both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate—all before he gave that speech at the Wisconsin State Fair.  If he still had cause for optimism, then so can we.

Sean McMahon Sean McMahon (
North American Program Director The Nature Conservancy

View more posts by Sean McMahon

2 comments on “Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture”

  1. Shane Stevenson
    Posted Sunday, January 27, 2013 at 2:51:59 PM

    What a great history lesson. Abe Lincoln left this country with a lot of foundational ideas that have strengthened our country. Perhaps his optimism is the most valuable behavior we can attain from his leadership. At the World Food Prize last fall, Carl Ganter said "Innovation means, one hopes optimism, one hopes change." Ever since hearing that statement it has stuck in the back of my mind, I see it everyday in agricultural leadership and become aware of its proof everytime I research agricultural history.

  2. Les Gregor
    Posted Sunday, July 14, 2013 at 2:14:00 PM

    You might look up the internet magazine article: Dec. 20, 2012 and see my subtle contribution in the form of an informative input of a truly unusual US Soil Map. Worth a try Les Gregor

The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.