U.S. farming can become more sustainable, scientists suggest in new report

A report from the National Research Council, released in June 2010, suggests that U.S. farming needs to look beyond its focus on low costs and high production – toward a more holistic approach.

This week, the National Research Council released a 598-page report on keeping our U.S. food supply sustainable in this century.

The report – prepared by a prestigious committee of scientists and sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation – is called “Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century .”

It suggests that U.S. farmers are subject to the same pressures and uncertainties as the rest of us here at the beginning of the 21st century – pressure to produce more, pollute less, fulfill consumer preferences, and make a living – all with increasingly scarce natural resources and the uncertain effects of climate change. This report will be read by policy-makers. It suggests that U.S. agricultural policies and research programs should “look beyond focusing only on low costs and high production” and “adopt a holistic perspective to farming that encompasses multiple end goals.”

The report gives you an idea of the discussion between U.S. scientists and policy-makers, regarding our food supply. For example, it recommended four goals that should be considered simultaneously:

  • Satisfy human food, fiber, and feed requirements, and contribute to biofuels needs
  • Enhance environmental quality and the resource base
  • Maintain the economic viability of agriculture
  • Improve the quality of life for farmers, farm workers, and society as a whole

“Many modern agricultural practices have unintended negative consequences, such as decreased water and air quality, and farmers have to consider these consequences while trying to increase production,” said Julia Kornegay, chair of the committee that wrote the report, and professor and head of the department of horticultural science at North Carolina State University, Raleigh. “If farmers are going to meet future demands, the U.S. agriculture system has to evolve to become sustainable and think broadly — past the bottom line of producing the most possible.”

Farmers in the United States have joined others throughout the world in becoming more efficient producers in the past decades.  That’s good, since our human population has more than doubled since the 1960s.  In 2008, U.S. farm output was 158 percent higher than it was in 1948, and farmers today are producing more food with less energy per unit output than 50 years ago. However, according to the NRC, U.S. agriculture has external costs that are mostly unaccounted for in productivity measurements. For example, water tables have declined markedly in some agricultural areas, and pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilizers and pesticides have infiltrated surface water and rivers, creating oxygen-starved zones in waterways. The agricultural sector also is the largest contributor of two greenhouse gases, nitrous oxide and methane, in the United States.

And there are other concerns.  The treatment of farm animals.  Food safety. Plus farmers’ incomes are not keeping up with rising production costs, primarily due to the higher prices of external inputs such as seeds, fuel, and synthetic fertilizer. More than half of U.S. farm operators work off the farm to supplement their income and to obtain health care and retirement benefit plans, according to the report.

The committee emphasized that achieving a balance of the four goals, and creating systems that can adapt to fluctuating conditions, are hallmarks of greater sustainability.

Deborah Byrd