Key Drivers of Change: Markets and Federal and Local Policies

Other than available science, knowledge, and skills, the decisions of farmers to use particular farming practices and their ability to move toward more sustainable farming systems are influenced by many external forces, such as markets, public policies, and their own values, resources, and land tenure arrangements. These structural constraints are in turn influenced by the historic efforts of broad social movements and organized interest groups that have different perspectives about how agriculture should be organized and how food should be produced and distributed.

With the growing popularity for a range of “environmentally friendly” products or of those that address a particular social concern (for example, animal welfare), consumer demand has opened up new markets for farmers to sell their value-trait markets products. Similarly, sustainability initiatives by large food retailers also have opened up new markets for food products that are produced using certain practices or farming system types for improving sustainability. These emerging markets can motivate farmers to transition to sustainable farming systems that balance and meet multiple sustainability goals. Tools for marketing (for example, certification and branding) products that are produced using particular farming practices and systems that increase sustainability can enhance the value of those farm products, and thereby can contribute to not only environmental and social sustainability, but also to economic sustainability of the farm. However, the lack of appropriate input suppliers, agribusiness professionals, marketing, and processing facilities can constrain the adoption of sustainable practices for agricultural production.

The impact of public policies aimed at moving agriculture along the sustainability trajectory has been mixed. Some scholars attribute a decrease in the diversity of cropping systems, increases in the use of external farm inputs, and extensive hydrologic modification of landscapes in part to commodity support payments because these payments provide a strong incentive for farmers to focus on planting program crops by monocropping, and to maximize yields per dollar of cost (that is, to focus on only two of the four sustainability goals). Risk management policies can affect sustainability initiatives because some crop insurance products carry substantial subsidized premium structures that can potentially encourage farmers to grow monocrops, which could increase the vulnerability of highly erodible soils and reduce system resilience. Conservation programs are a mechanism for encouraging adoption of particular farming practices, but they are voluntary programs, often with a small proportion of farms participating.

Although market, policy, and institutional contexts are important drivers of the trajectory of U.S. agriculture, the response of individual farmers to the incentives and disincentives created by market conditions and policy contexts can be diverse. Efforts to promote widespread adoption of different farming practices and systems for improving sustainability will require an understanding of how variability among individual, household, farm, and regional-level characteristics affect farmers’ response to incentives and disincentives. The scientific research to date is inadequate to assess the full impacts of current and proposed policy frameworks.

RECOMMENDATION: Because of the critical importance of macro-structural or institutional drivers of farmer behavior, the U.S. Department of Agriculture should increase investment in empirical studies of the ways that current and proposed market structures, policies, and knowledge institutions provide opportunities or barriers to expanding the use of farming practices and systems that improve various sustainability goals so that the department can implement

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