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SDSU Extension’s Role in Transformational Agriculture

BROOKINGS, S.D. - November 23, 2018, the U.S. Government released the Fourth National Climate Assessment report, from the Government’s Global Change Research Program.

The report, prepared with the support and approval of 13 federal agencies and with input from hundreds of governmental and non-governmental experts, provides a comprehensive look at future climate impact on the United States.

According to these findings, extreme weather and climate-related events are expected, concurrent with changes in average climate conditions that will damage infrastructure, ecosystems and community’s social systems.

These changes will aggravate existing challenges to prosperity such as aging and deteriorating infrastructure, fragile ecosystems and socioeconomic inequality.

Those communities whose sustainability is already at risk today (e.g. low-income/limited resources areas) will find further difficulties in coping with extreme weather and climate-related events. A further conclusion is that adaptation actions for these vulnerable populations can help bring a more equitable future within and across communities.

Extreme heat events, together with higher persistent average temperatures, drought, wildfire on rangelands and heavy rainfall episodes will challenge agricultural production in the country.

This will also include challenges to livestock production, crop yields/quality, will hamper economic vitality of rural communities, food security, and price stability.

Adaptation strategies are currently available to deal with the adverse impacts of climate, including altering production, modifying inputs, using new technologies, and adjusting management strategies.

However, the government report stated “…these strategies have limits under severe climate change impacts and would require sufficient long- and short-term investment in changing practices...”

Based on our current knowledge, we can conclude that for agriculture to be sustainable in the future, there is a need for food production systems that are profitable, socially equitable and environmentally neutral.

Societal and environmental pressures increasingly threaten the balance of this triad. In his 1798 book “An essay on the principle of population,” Thomas Malthus described how excessive population growth would inevitably stagnate due to food supply shortages and starvation.

Although extreme poverty and shortages of food production worldwide suggest the current relevance of this theory, some modern scientists disagree.

Their argument is technological advances in agricultural, will increase the supply of food and resources, and protect the world from such a fate.

The first obvious drawback to the latter contention, is that world population grows exponentially, whereas food production is more linear.

While the increased standard of living of this century has led some to describe it as “the most prosperous and peaceful,” this apparent calm and prosperity coexists with troubling warning signs.

First, prosperity has led to a faster increase in the need for additional resources, which curtails any advances obtained through technology. And, the high climate variability which challenges agricultural production, makes predictions of future food availability difficult.

SDSU Extension is here to help

During the 2018 SDSU Extension Fall Conference, the Agriculture and Natural Resources team discussed how to enhance agricultural resilience in South Dakota.

After a lively discussion, the group agreed that in order for agriculture to exhibit increased resiliency, it would have to exhibit one or more of the following characteristics:

  1. Be persistent
  2. Be adaptable
  3. Be transformative

The group agreed that some of these characteristics happening now could even hamper future progress towards more resilient systems.

Your Agriculture and Natural Resources team concluded that there are several examples of persistence. Consider the current situation with depressed crop prices or challenges, like weed and pest control, disease outbreaks, and climate variability.

Helping farmers with subsidies is short term and can hamper the ability of enhanced resiliency by changes in agricultural practices.

Consider also, the frequent blizzards and droughts facing crop and livestock producers.

South Dakota’s agriculture producers have grit. They are persistent. But, these are not positive steps toward improved resiliency.

The same is true of other factors associated with the environment, such as the loss of pollinators, chemical drift and the appearance of new invasive species and/or diseases.

While persistence is almost akin to resistance, adaptability is something else all together.

Adaptability is adjusting the farm by changing management practices to cope with new paradigms. An example of adaptability would be planting more drought-resistant crops.

To be effective, adaptability needs to occur in a timely fashion (e.g. adjusting to droughts by changing crop varieties or cattle stocking rates.)

And, changes need to happen without affecting the well-being of the farm or ranch family.

Eventually, the discussion evolved into what the team considers the epitome of resilience - an agricultural system that is transformative.

A transformative agriculture system is a new approach which bolsters new realities. No-till farming practices are a good example of transformative agriculture. Transformative practices are those that go beyond increases in production or efficiency of current agricultural practices. No-till challenges the concept of more bushels per acre can only be achieved through additional inputs.

Transformative agriculture adjusts practices to boost productivity while at the same time addressing the agriculture/environment interface holistically.

Short-term efficiencies and optimization do not necessarily result in long-term sustainable systems. In fact, these can have the opposite result.

Agricultural systems of the future need to look for dynamic, flexible systems of production that anticipate to challenges.

Through research-based best management practices, SDSU Extension focuses on innovative solutions which address the environment-agriculture continuum and focus on innovative and diversified practices that pave the way for a future of transformational agriculture.