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, 2011 edition of the journal Science, co-authored by a
horticultural scientist from North Carolina State Univ.
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