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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century
riers to improving their ability to contribute to global or local food production, ecosystem integrity, economic viability, and social well-being. Transformation of the agriculture sector will require long-term research, education, outreach, and experimentation by the public and private sectors in partnership with farmers and will not occur overnight.
If U.S. agriculture is to address the challenges outlined in Chapters 1 and 2, both incremental and transformative changes will be necessary. Therefore, the committee proposestwo parallel and overlapping efforts 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 bedirected toward improving the sustainability performance of all farms, irrespective ofsize or farming systems type, through development and implementation of specificsustainability-focused practices, many of which are the focus of ongoing research andwith 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. The transformative approach 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.
Identifying and researching the potential of new forms of production systems that represent a dramatic departure from (rather than incremental improvement of) the dominant systems of present-day American agriculture.
Identifying and researching system characteristics that increase resilience and adaptability in the face of changing conditions.
Adjusting the mix of farming system types and the practices used in them at the landscape level to address major regional problems such as water overdraft and environmental contamination.
INCREMENTAL APPROACH TO IMPROVING U.S. AGRICULTURAL SUSTAINABILITY
The proposed expanded incremental approach would include focused disciplinaryresearch on production, environmental, economic, and social topics, and policies (suchas expanded agricultural conservation and environmental programs) to improve the sustainability performance of mainstream agriculture. For example, large livestock farms in the United States produce the majority of the nation’s meat and dairy products. Similarly, a large portion of corn and soybean are produced on highly mechanized grain farms that specialize in the production of a small number of crops and rely heavily on purchased farm inputs to provide crop nutrients and to manage pest, disease, and weed problems. Most, if not all, farms have adopted some practices for improving sustainability, and some farms, including large farms illustrated in the report’s case studies, are highly integrated, but such methods have not been adapted to all environments, and none of the practices have reached their full potential for adoption. Each of these production systems has fostered high productivity and low costs, but many have led to serious negative social and environmen-