These days we hear a lot about what farmers need to do to improve agricultural environmental stewardship. At the same time, we all know that California growers will play a tremendous role in feeding an ever-increasing world population. While the suggestions on what agriculture needs to do to be more “environmentally friendly” are in abundance, most reports fall short in giving California growers the rightful credit for the tremendous job they are now doing in keeping the world fed.

Some people seem to think that farmers need to learn and adopt Best Management Practices (BMPs). This observation seems to miss the fact that BMPs have been routinely practiced in commercial farming for years. Consider the following: A full 90 percent of large commercial California growers are using sophisticated GPS systems to apply pesticides and fertilizers to their crops, thereby cutting down on product waste and off-target spraying, according to Big W Sales representatives in Stockton, who sell modern precision agriculture equipment; farmers are also investing in new automatic section controls and other modern farming equipment as they come online to reduce product waste, save money and protect the environment.

Additionally, BMPs currently practiced by growers focus on the management of inputs to provide economic, environmental and agronomic efficiency in production agriculture. Examples of BMPs include practices for the management of pests, nutrients and waste; vegetative and tillage practices, such as contour farming, cropping and rotational field sequences and windbreaks; and structural practices, such as terraces, grade stabilization and sediment control basins.

There is also a lot of discussion about how farmers should be moved to more organic systems by eliminating inorganic fertilizers and crop protection tools.  I would note that central to the science of agronomy is the topic of increasing crop yields and growing healthy plants that provide high nutritional value. While the debate will continue between organic and inorganic fertilizers one fact is clear: When it comes to feeding a hungry world, inorganic fertilizers are unsurpassed in their ability to provide high levels of nutrients to plants in an efficient and economical manner.

When comparing organic fertilizer sources with low-input conventional farms, the greenhouse gas emissions are about the same. And unlike conventional systems, the majority of organic cropping systems rely heavily on mechanized tillage for weed control, which increases erosion and soil carbon emissions.

And concerning energy expenditure, since the 1940s agricultural productivity has increased dramatically, largely because of the increased usage of energy-intensive mechanization, fertilizers and pesticides. It is true that the vast majority of this energy comes from fossil fuel sources. However, agricultural food systems in the percentage of energy expended in three industrialized states, for example, show that agriculture plays a very small role in overall energy consumption. The United Kingdom in 2005 used 1.9 percent of indirect and direct energy consumption; Sweden in 2000 used 2.5 percent; and the United States in 2002 used a paltry 2 percent. (U.S. figures come from “Energy Use in the U.S. Food System,” USDA Economic Research Service Report No. ERR-94.)

“Sustainability” has become a buzzword whose definition remains as unclear as its proponents’ goals. To some folks, a sustainable farm or ranch must not have an impact on the land, air or water. To others, sustainability has to do with the new technology they prefer over old technology.