constantly adapting farming or food systems to meet clearly articulated and desired outcomes in a robust and resource-efficient manner that also reflects social responsibility.


With the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the National Research Council convened a committee to study the science and policies that influence the adoption of farming practices and management systems designed to reduce the costs and unintended consequences of agricultural production. (See Box 1-1 for the statement of task.) To address the statement of task, the committee solicited input from many experts in academia and federal agencies in a series of open meetings and workshops, in addition to drawing on members’ expertise. Two sets of case studies were used to examine farming systems that address those concerns and to explore the factors that affect their implementation, economic viability, and success in meeting environmental and other goals of sustainability.

This report reviews the state of knowledge on farming practices, technologies, and management systems that have the potential to improve the environmental, social, and economic sustainability of agriculture and discusses the tradeoffs and risks that might present themselves if more farms were to adopt those practices, technologies, and systems. The report also identifies knowledge gaps in improving agricultural sustainability and makes recommendations for future actions aimed at improving agricultural sustainability.

BOX 1-1

Statement of Task

The National Research Council Committee on Twenty-First Century Systems Agriculture was tasked to:

  1. Provide an overview of the current state of U.S. agriculture in the domestic and world economies, and describe major challenges to farmers and problems in agricultural production related to the environmental, social, and economic sustainability of agriculture.

  2. Review the state of knowledge on farming practices and management systems that can increase the environmental, social, and economic sustainability of agriculture.

  3. Identify factors that influence the adoption of farming practices and systems that contribute to the goals of increasing agricultural sustainability.

  4. Provide an update to the 1989 report’s methodology to compare the productivity and economics of different systems and practices at levels of increasing complexity (from the level of individual components in a farm, to a whole farm, to a regional level).

  5. Describe and analyze several case studies (including some from the 1989 report) that illustrate farming practices and management systems that pursue greater agricultural sustainability. Include general information about the operation, features of the management systems being used, and indicators of productivity, environmental, and financial performance. For case studies from the 1989 report, include a retrospective review of the past performance and the evolution of decision making by those producers over time.

  6. Recommend research and development needs for advancing a systems approach to farming in the United States, and suggest ways to strengthen federal policies and programs related to improving agricultural production.

  7. Evaluate the transferability of principles underlying farming systems and practices that could improve sustainability of different agricultural settings, and develop supportable conclusions and recommendations to improve the sustainability of agriculture under different natural, economic, and policy conditions in different regional or national settings.

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