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.

This study is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.


Sustainability has been described as the ability to meet core societal needs in a way that can be maintained indefinitely without significant negative effects. Accordingly, development of a sustainable agricultural production system requires defining the core societal needs from agriculture, a process that will require a collective vision of what the future characteristics of agriculture should be. Such vision is heavily contested and unresolved in the United States at present. Although developing a widely accepted vision is outside the scope of this study, the committee identified four generally agreed-upon goals (each of which has a set of specific objectives; see Chapter 1) that help define sustainable agriculture:

  • 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.

  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers, farm workers, and society as a whole.

Sustainability is best evaluated not as a particular end state, but rather as a process that moves farming systems along a trajectory toward greater sustainability on each of

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