THE BLOG
09/11/2014 04:03 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

Economy or Environment? We Need Both.

Above my workbench, a "Corn Bell" proudly sits. A trophy in the shape of a bell, it was presented to my grandpa at the Putnam County Fair in 1941 for producing more bushels per acre than any other farmer in the county. Literally, a golden corn cob with wings, it was presented by Dekalb, one of the world's largest corn seed providers still today. Sweet marketing, for sure, and that bell will be passed down for generations in our family.

Grandpa was proud of that bell, because it acknowledged that the way he managed his soil was productive. He worked hard; he took care of his land; and it took care of him. I remember as a kid walking the fields with him in the hazy summer evenings, as he showed me how things worked. He often said, "No man has the right to take more from the land than the land itself can withstand." That balanced approach made sense to me when I was six, and it still makes sense to me today.

That corn bell and those words, taken together, tell of a man who saw things as working right when stewardship and commerce were integrated; when the environment and the economy had balance. I wonder what he would make of the imbalance between those things now. As I grew up and went out into the wide, wide world, the conventional wisdom held that the economy and the environment were viewed as separate things -- almost at war with each other -- with one winning at the expense of the other.

The focus of American agriculture has for decades been on maximizing yields rather than the downstream implications. A typical bushel per acre yield nowadays is three or four times that of my grandpa's winning year, made possible by chemistry. But that comes at a cost: the timing and amount of fertilizer required to deliver big yields contribute directly and heavily to water quality issues across the country.

Because society likes cheap food, we have prioritized maximized yields and in so doing, we have created runoff so supercharged with excess fertilizers and pesticides in such volume that they overwhelm the capacity of our freshwater ecosystems to naturally break it down. The resulting algae blooms often happen away from public view, but occasionally these can happen near people and even force cities like Toledo, Ohio, off their own drinking water for days. We need to re-design the relationship we have built between the economy and the environment. Rather than maximizing one over the other, we need to optimize both for greatest benefit. Events like those in Ohio remind us how critical it is to find balance between the yield and its impacts.

Farming is a respected way of life, and deeply revered in the American mind. But we have to do it right rather than continuing to do it the way we always have because it's familiar. "Right to Farm" bills in states like Missouri allow agricultural producers to continue farming practices that impact water problems and cause algae blooms downstream. What comes with the right to farm is the responsibility to farm right. And there are new efforts underway to create the balance we need. New approaches and technologies -- like precision agriculture -- can ensure we better steward our lands and our waters without breaking the bank.

All humans need to eat, but we're going to need to eat forever. We can't do that if we foul the very waters that make plants grow. So the issue we must solve is how to feed our world without destroying our planet. We can do that -- but it's not by doing it how we're doing it right now.

In the end, we will need to blend the simple truths of the past with realities of today to regain our balance.