the four goals. As such, agricultural sustainability is a complex, dynamic, and political concept that is inherently subjective in that different groups in society place different emphasis on each of the four goals. Progress toward the four goals will require robust systems that adapt, evolve, and continue to function in the face of stresses and fluctuating conditions, are productive, use resources efficiently, and balance the four goals within enterprises or farms across and at all scales. The pursuit of sustainability is not a matter of defining sustainable or unsustainable agriculture, but rather is about assessing whether choices of farming practices and systems would lead to a more or less sustainable system as measured by the four goals. Improving sustainability will require identification of key metrics and indicators that can measure progress toward goals, together with monitoring and collecting data and using adaptive management.

The committee concluded that if U.S. agricultural production is to meet the challenge of maintaining long-term adequacy of food, fiber, feed, and biofuels under scarce or declining resources and under challenges posed by climate change, and to minimize negative outcomes, agricultural production will have to substantially accelerate progress towards the four sustainability goals. Such acceleration needs to be undergirded by research and policy evolution that are designed to reduce tradeoffs and enhance synergies between the four goals and to manage risks and uncertainties associated with their pursuit.


Science—including biophysical and social sciences—is essential for understanding agricultural sustainability. Science generates the knowledge needed to predict the likely outcomes of different management systems and expands the range of alternatives that can be considered by farmers, policy makers, and consumers.

Although all farms have the potential and responsibility to contribute to different aspects of sustainability, the scale, organization, enterprise diversity, and forms of market integration associated with different farms provide unique opportunities or barriers to improving their ability to contribute to the four goals. Therefore, the committee proposes two parallel and overlapping approaches to ensure continuous improvement in the sustainability performance of U.S. agriculture: incremental and transformative. The incremental approach is an expansion and enhancement of many ongoing efforts that would be directed toward improving the sustainability performance of all farms, irrespective of size or farming systems type, through development and implementation of specific sustainability-focused practices, many of which are the focus of ongoing research and with varying levels of adoption.

The transformative approach aims for major improvement in sustainability performance by approaching 21st century agriculture from a systems perspective that considers a multiplicity of interacting factors. It would involve:

  • Developing collaborative efforts between disciplinary experts and civil society to construct a collective and integrated vision for a future of U.S. agriculture that balances and enhances the four sustainability goals.

  • Encouraging and accelerating the development of new markets and legal frameworks that embody and pursue the collective vision of the sustainable future of U.S. agriculture.

  • Pursuing research and extension that integrate multiple disciplines relevant to all four goals of agricultural sustainability.

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