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Study: To Be Sustainable, U.S. Agriculture Needs Transformational Push

Improving the sustainability of U.S. agriculture requires broad, transformational shifts in market structure, policy incentives and the type and availability of scientific knowledge, asserts a “Policy Forum” paper in the May 6 edition of the journal Science, co-authored by a horticultural scientist from North Carolina State University.

The paper, written by members of a National Research Council committee charged with assessing the landscape of American agriculture, states that U.S. agriculture is at a crossroads. Farms must provide abundant and affordable food, feed, fiber and fuel, yet their economic viability is threatened by numerous factors, including – but not limited to – dwindling resources, climate change and market volatility.

“With the multiple constraints we face, we can’t rely solely on incremental changes to existing farming systems to improve the sustainability and productivity of U.S. agriculture,” says Dr. Julia Kornegay, a professor of horticultural science at NC State who chaired the NRC committee. “To increase agriculture resilience and productivity with less water, fertilizer and pesticides, we need to look at agriculture as an agroecosystem at both the farm and landscape level, and maximize the use of natural resources like soil fertility and organic matter to provide better water-holding capacity, nutrients, and disease management.”

The paper stems from a 2010 report conducted by the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council,  titled Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. That report defines sustainable agriculture as a system that can satisfy human food, feed, and fiber needs, and contribute to biofuel needs; enhance environmental quality and the resource base; sustain the economic viability of agriculture; and enhance the quality of life for farmers, farm workers, and society as a whole.

The report takes a comprehensive look at the challenges faced by U.S. agriculture – including population growth, water and land scarcities, cost of energy and fertilizers, and other factors – and examines some existing, innovative, sustainable farming systems that, if scaled up, could help steer agriculture onto the path of sustainability.

“Our study looked at a number of farms across the U.S. that have successfully implemented a wide variety of sustainable farming practices. In fact, much of the innovation in sustainable agriculture systems is coming from farmers,” Kornegay says. “Why aren’t these systems and practices more widely adopted? What are the barriers to sustainable agriculture?”

Increased complexity in how farms are managed, and the availability of information about how a sustainable farming system works, are important considerations, she adds. Which is why change must come both from the top – farm policy – and from the bottom – individual farmers themselves.

“We’re not saying that every farm needs to become an organic farm,” she says. “Instead, we need to provide incentives to farmers in the next Farm Bill for the adoption of sustainable practices. Public land-grant universities, like NC State, also need greater support from all sectors (federal, state, farmer associations and the public) in their efforts to increase sustainable agriculture research and extension programs to help farmers adopt and successfully manage more complex agriculture practices. We can’t rely on the private sector for leadership in this area as its focus is on making incremental changes to existing production systems. We don’t have a lot of time to waste. World population is increasing rapidly, as are the many constraints we face.”

– kulikowski –