By Shawn Perich
Sometimes, dear reader, you must take your medicine. Take a deep breath, adjust your reading glasses and bear with me through the paragraphs ahead.
Over the last quarter century, forestry has evolved to ensure the overall sustainability of soil, water, wildlife habitat and other resources. In Minnesota, the evolution was driven by a series of measures that relied upon voluntary acceptance and compliance by trained loggers and foresters. Change began with the introduction of logging best management practices intended to prevent erosion, soil compaction and other ecological damage.
Concerns about escalating timber harvest in the 80s led citizens to petition the state Environmental Quality Board to prepare a Generic Environmental Impact Statement for timber harvesting. The GEIS process resulted in the development of forest management guidelines. Although the guidelines are voluntary, statewide monitoring has shown they are widely applied in the forest. Loggers receive continuing education on all aspects of their profession through the Minnesota Logger Education program.
Forest management evolved again with third party certification, where sustainable practices are verified with independent field audits. The development of forest certification programs was consumer-driven as manufacturers responded to public concerns about destructive logging practices from the Amazon rainforests to the Pacific Northwest. When the nation’s largest magazine publisher announced it would only be purchasing certified paper, the Minnesota DNR decided to certify its forest lands.
There are two independent certification organizations — the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. According to the Minnesota Forest Resources Council website, “More than 4.8 million acres of DNR-administered forestland have earned dual certification under SFI and FSC; more than 1.8 million acres of county forestland are certified under one or both of these programs; and nearly 830,000 acres of private forestland are certified under one or both of these programs.”
For the DNR, certification includes annual, third-party field audits which assess everything from management plans to recent timber harvests. If the auditors find the DNR is not in compliance with an aspect of its certification, the agency receives a corrective action request or CAR from the certification organization. In order to maintain its certification status, the DNR must address the CARs.
Certification hasn’t limited the DNR’s ability to keep a steady supply of timber on the market. Since foresters and loggers were already traveling the path toward sustainable forestry, they did not face a steep learning curve to reach certification compliance. Instead it was the next step in an ongoing process.
If anything, certification provides validation for the good work already occurring in the woods. When forest management meets certification standards, the public has independent assurance that agencies such as the DNR are doing right by the land. By the same token, forest managers such as the DNR are assured the timber they sell has a ready market. And the manufacturers buying the timber can charge a premium price for products made with certified wood.
Ok, dear reader, are you still with me? Here’s where it gets interesting. Some folks who are familiar with forest certification have started asking whether third party certification may be applicable to agriculture as well.
“Farming has no long-term plan for sustainability,” says Michael Osterholm. “I want farming to be around in the future just like I want forestry to be around.”
Osterholm, whose name is no doubt familiar to many Minnesotans as the former state epidemiologist, is now a professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Environmental Health. He also owns a farm in Iowa where he has improved the habitat associated with a trout stream flowing through the property. His background gives him a unique perspective into how modern agricultural practices affect the health of people and the land. And he is concerned about both.
“Many of our streams have become no more than an agricultural sewage system, he says. “We’ve gone back to farming every square inch that we can for a profit motive.”
As an example, Osterholm says one of his Iowa neighbors clear-cut a floodplain forest and then rented the land to a farmer, who planted corn on the site. The corn crop was flooded out the first year during a rainstorm. Although the corn was lost, neither the farmer nor the landowner sustained any loss, because the crop failure was covered by government-subsidized crop insurance.
“There was no downside for anyone,” he says. “Meanwhile tons of soil went downstream to the Mississippi River and, ultimately, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.”
He believes the ethanol industry has brought dramatic changes to farming across the Corn Belt, because the high demand for corn altered land use to favor intensive row-cropping. While today’s young farmers are technologically skilled, he doesn’t believe they’ve been instilled with Aldo Leopold’s famous land ethic. As a result, farmers have gained productivity at the expense of long-term sustainability. Given the diminishing emphasis on conservation in the Farm Bill, Osterholm doesn’t believe conditions will improve without an outside catalyst—such as a certification program.
But how will such a program come to be? Currently the only certified farm products are organic foods, which represent a small slice of the agricultural pie. For forestry, certification was a relatively easy “sell,” because the majority of forest landholders manage hundreds of thousands or even millions of acres of land. In contrast, agriculture is comprised of many, relatively small landowners. Also, it is easier to project a vision of long-term sustainability on a forest, because it takes decades to grow a “crop” of trees. Row crop agriculture is focused on the current year’s harvest. Forestry thus offers a good, but not perfect model for eventual agricultural certification.
Ultimately, says Osterholm, “Certification needs to be tied to whether or not crops can go market. We need to reach a point where farm operations must be certified by a third party in order to sell their crops.”
Organic certification was driven by consumers, as have been recent announcements by major companies to produce foods without genetically modified ingredients or to adopt more humane methods of raising poultry and livestock. Other efforts are underway to link certification with regulatory assurance for farmers. In a future column, we’ll look at the efforts underway in Minnesota to recognize farmers for good land management practices and to develop a certification process that relies on voluntary compliance to improve and protect water quality. Such efforts are why conservationists like Osterholm are hopeful certification will someday result in the widespread use of sustainable land management practices.