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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century (2010)

Chapter: 6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices

« Previous: 5 Examples of Farming System Types for Improving Sustainability
Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

6
Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices

All individual farms, whether large or small, can contribute both positively and negatively to sustainability goals in various degrees. As discussed in Chapter 1, the committee views sustainability as a process that moves farming systems along a trajectory toward meeting societal-defined goals, as opposed to any particular end state. The determination of which sustainability goals are worth pursuing or the appropriate balance between gains along different dimensions of sustainability (for example, economic viability, ecosystem functioning, social responsibility, and food characteristics) is quintessentially a social choice. Depending on what is viewed as an adequate or optimal outcome, the necessary changes might range from incremental adjustments to existing farming practices to fundamental changes in the underlying structure, organization, and management of farming enterprises.

Earlier chapters discussed a wide range of farming practices and systems and reviewed scientific evidence for how they affect various indicators of sustainability. The earlier chapters, however, did not discuss the factors that influence farmer adoption of any of those practices or systems. Addressing the challenges outlined in Chapter 2 and meeting societal expectations for greater sustainability will depend on the ability and willingness of American farmers to adopt appropriate farming practices and systems.

This chapter analyzes some of the factors that influence farmers’ ability and willingness to change production practices or to convert to new farming systems that move their farms along the sustainability trajectory. All farmers make decisions in a complex environment in which broad contextual factors, such as markets, public policies (including regulation), and social institutions, create opportunities and barriers to change. The first part of this chapter explores how trends in the ownership and diversity of markets increase or decrease the latitude with which farmers can make production decisions that allow them to move further along a sustainability trajectory.

For some farmers, production decisions are further shaped by incentives inherent in federal and state policies, including trade policies, federal Farm Bill programs, national energy policy, and regulations that address animal welfare or environmental impacts of

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

farming. Many public policies influence farmers’ management choices, and the influences they have on farmers’ choices frequently depend on the farm type. For example, federal farm commodity, domestic food aid, and nutrition programs (which make up the bulk of national government expenditures under the Farm Bill) have considerable influence on industrial, larger commercial farms, while agrienvironmental, niche-market development, and land use policies (often implemented at the local level) tend to be more important to the viability of smaller farms (such as those with annual sales below $250,000). Policy influences are summarized in the second section of this chapter.

The third section provides an overview of public and private knowledge institutions that play a role in fostering a change in farmer behavior and decision making by generating new knowledge and innovations and disseminating them among farmers. Those institutions include not only national and state research and extension services, but also private institutions ranging from large agribusiness research and development divisions to farmer-based learning and networking groups.

All three major types of institutional contexts—markets, policies, and knowledge institutions—are shaped by larger societal forces that have particular goals and objectives. In agriculture, different stakeholder groups and social movement organizations are constantly working to shape the structure and behavior of public and private institutions. The fourth section of this chapter uses some of the key groups and organizations to illustrate how they work to shape the viability and movement of farms along a sustainability trajectory.

Two farmers facing similar contextual factors do not always respond in the same way to the incentives and disincentives created by markets, policies, and new knowledge. Decisions by individual farmers to pursue (or not to pursue) different farming practices and systems depend also on what sort of land or other resource endowments they have available; their existing farming approaches, knowledge, and skills; and their goals and motivations, including personal ethics, religious beliefs, or world view. The last part of this chapter examines evidence linking different characteristics of farmers with a willingness or likelihood to change production systems.

In the face of many different drivers and constraints, the large corn producer in the Midwest, the Southwestern cotton grower, the rancher in the Mountain states, the Southern part-time vegetable grower, the Northeastern dairy farmer, and the peri-urban hobby farmer face distinctly different challenges in their efforts to operate viable enterprises that preserve the natural resource base and produce all the additional benefits desired by society. Figure 6-1 presents a simplified illustration of the various types of influences on farmers, including broad contextual factors surrounding the agricultural system, the mediating role of local assets and farmer values, and the emerging trends that could facilitate movement along the sustainability trajectory or make it more challenging in the future than at present.

AGRICULTURAL MARKETS AS CONTEXTUAL FACTORS

Concentration in the Agrifood System

Farmers participate in agricultural markets as buyers and sellers. As buyers, they seek high-performing, competitively priced production inputs (for example, seeds, livestock, fertilizer, pesticides, fuel, and machinery). As sellers, some—those with less differentiated products—tend to compete mainly by lowering the cost of their production; thus, they are participants in a low-cost supply chain. Others—those with more differentiated products—tend to compete mainly by producing the most consumer-valued attributes of their product

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×
FIGURE 6-1 Drivers and constraints that could affect farmers’ behaviors.

FIGURE 6-1 Drivers and constraints that could affect farmers’ behaviors.

per dollar cost of production; thus, they are participants in value supply chains. Some sellers seek out markets that provide the best prices for their production, some ascertain what type of crop will be the most valuable for the given year, some pursue marketing strategies that reduce their marketing risks, and some produce crops supported by the Farm Bill. The pricing, ownership structure, and direction of markets for farm inputs and products influence farmer production decisions.

Markets for Farm Inputs

Over the last few decades, the degree of concentration of ownership and control among the major firms that supply farm inputs to U.S. farmers has steadily increased (Heffernan, 1999; Hendrickson and Heffernan, 2007). An example of that trend is the consolidation of the U.S. seed industry during the 1990s, when many small independent seed companies were acquired by or entered into joint ventures with major international corporations, including pharmaceutical and chemical firms like Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Dupont, and Aventis (Fernandez-Cornejo, 2004). As a result of the mergers, the top four U.S. commercial seed companies supply two-thirds of the corn seeds, half of soybean seeds, and almost 90 percent of cotton seeds in the United States. Consolidation among major chemical companies, farm cooperatives, and seed companies has produced similar concentration of market power among sellers of chemicals, fertilizers, and other key farm inputs (Heffernan et al., 1999). Consolidation of ownership in input markets could result in increased prices paid by farmers for inputs and a reduction in the variety and sources of available inputs. For example, the market concentration of genetically engineered (GE) hybrid corn seed has led to significant increase in seed price (Shi et al., 2008). Triple-stacked varieties with genes for corn borer and rootworm resistance and for herbicide tolerance added $39.50 (about 40

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

percent) to the price per bag of seeds on average compared to non-GE varieties seed in 2007. The consolidation of market power among the suppliers of farm inputs and the purchasers and processors of raw agricultural commodities has been linked to a diminishing farmer-share of the consumer food dollar (Gardner, 2002). Farmers might decide to increase their reliance on on-farm inputs to insulate their farms from rising input costs, but that relationship is difficult to document. Some farms discussed in Chapter 7 mention rising input costs as a contributing factor to their decisions to change their farming practices (for example, Brookview Farm and Thompson Farm).

Markets for Products

Rapid consolidation is apparent among firms that purchase and process major agricultural commodities. In the grain sector, for example, the top three or four companies control 60 percent of terminal grain handling facilities, over 80 percent of all corn exports, and two-thirds of soybean exports (Hendrickson et al., 2001). In the meat-packing sector, the largest four buyers control 84 percent of the beef market, 66 percent of the pork market, and 59 percent of the poultry market (Hendrickson and Heffernan, 2007).

Concurrently, market power in the food manufacturing, wholesaling, and retailing sectors has consolidated. For instance, the largest 10 U.S.-based food manufacturers control over half of the sales of food and beverages in the nation (Lyson and Raymer, 2000). The largest 50 food distributors (for example, Sysco, US Foodservice, SUPERVALU, and McLane Company) control more than half of the total food distribution market (Hoovers, 2008). Sysco Corporation alone controls 28 percent of the broadline (or nonspecialized) food service market (which represents half of U.S. food service distribution sales). The top four food service companies accounted for 27 percent of all wholesale food sales in 2001 (Harris et al., 2002). Although those firms used to be major suppliers of food to independent grocery stores, the consolidation in the retail grocery sector has led to the development of integrated internal sourcing and distribution networks controlled by grocery chains.

Recent mergers and acquisitions in the food manufacturing and distribution industries are thought to reflect a response to pressure from an increasingly consolidated food-retailing sector. Recent data suggest that the share of total retail-food sales in the largest five U.S. grocery store chains increased from 24 percent in 1997 to almost 50 percent in 2006 (Hendrickson and Heffernan, 2007). In the 100 largest U.S. cities, four firms controlled an average of more than 72 percent of the local grocery store market (Kaufman, 2000). As recently as 1998, independent retailers and smaller grocery store chains accounted for just 16 percent of the U.S. food retail market (Stanton, 1999).

A consequence of the trends summarized above is that most farmers are facing increasingly consolidated and vertically integrated output markets for their agricultural commodities. Decisions to use farming practices that might promote various aspects of sustainability are likely to be conditioned by the unique market opportunities and constraints presented by the increasingly large system.

Growth in scale and vertical integration could contribute to greater efficiencies, economies of scale, and lower transaction costs throughout the agrifood system, which could potentially benefit consumers, but the degree of concentration and consolidation among agribusinesses might create monopolistic or monopsonistic conditions and correspondingly anti-competitive behavior (Sexton, 2000; Barkema and Novack, 2001; Fulton and Giannakas, 2001). The shift in market power from the farm to output and food-retailing sectors is also likely to shift decision-making power and authority away from the farm operator. An example is the increased use of production and marketing contracts between farmers and commodity marketers and food processors in the United States.

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

Although more than half of U.S. sales of farm products still occur in open commodity markets, the share of total U.S. farm sales sold through contracts has risen from 11 percent in 1969 to 41 percent in 2005 (MacDonald and Korb, 2008). Contracting of farm products in 2005 was particularly prevalent in certain commodity sectors, such as poultry (94 percent of production), hogs (76 percent), dairy (59 percent), vegetables (54 percent), and fruits and nuts (64 percent).

Contracts provide farmers with some level of certainty in the price they will receive in the market, quantities to be sold, or attributes of the product that are most valuable to the end consumer, and, in some cases, remove some of the marketing risks (USDA-ERS, 1996; Kunkel et al., 2009). Two common types of products contracts are marketing contracts and production contracts. Marketing contracts are written agreements between farmers and contractors that specify the price and outlet for the commodity before the commodity is produced. Typically, production and management decisions are left to the farmer. However, some marketing contracts can specify quality requirements (USDA-ERS, 1996) that can create pressures on producers to deliver standardized products and varieties to meet specified standards. Those contractual terms can force farmers to use production practices to meet quality or cosmetic requirements that might not be suited to local ecological conditions. Hence, they might create disincentives for the use of some farming practices that could enhance sustainability (Busch and Bingen, 2005; Bingen and Busch, 2007).

Production contracts usually specify the production inputs to be supplied by contractors, the quantity and quality of products, and how the farmers are compensated (USDA-ERS, 1996; Kunkel et al., 2009). Because production contracts shift the locus of control from farmers to contractors, farmers who produce under contract often cannot adopt innovative practices that might promote various aspects of sustainability in addition to productivity in their farming systems unless the contracts specify the practices.

On the other hand, retailers are interested in meeting the demands of their consumers. As consumers become more demanding about how their food is produced, some retailers have begun to require different production practices from their suppliers. Such shifts in retailer demands can create conditions where contractors might require their producers to use particular types of practices that improve multiple aspects of sustainability. Consumer demand as a driver of improving agricultural sustainability is discussed in the next section.

Emerging Markets

Changes in Consumer Preferences

Studies and surveys suggest that consumers’ preference for foods that are perceived to be grown using “sustainable practices” and that are considered to be natural or healthy is increasing, and the demand is having an impact on agricultural markets. U.S. food consumers are increasingly requesting foods that are pesticide free, hormone free, fair traded, eco-friendly, locally grown, cruelty free, and otherwise associated with “ethical” approaches to production (Bell, 2004; Pollan, 2006; Packaged Facts, 2007). A nationwide study published in 2007 found that consumer awareness and acceptance and practices that relate to sustainability has been shifting (The Hartman Group, 2008). The study estimated that U.S. retail sales of grocery products that include some form of ethical claim reached nearly $33 billion in 2006, an increase of more than 17 percent from 2005. That amounts to roughly 6 percent of the $550 billion spent by U.S. households in grocery stores annually (Food Marketing Institute, 2009).

Most consumers want foods that they perceive to be safe, nutritious, tasty, and environmentally friendly (Food Marketing Institute, 2008; Lusk and Briggeman, 2009). Some

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

consumers believe that organic products taste better (The Hartman Group, 2008). Some are increasingly interested in foods that are grown locally, because freshness and support to local producers are important to them (Allen, 2004). However, what consumers think they are getting out of “natural” and “organic” foods might not always correspond to the reality of what they are consuming (Demeritt, 2006; see also discussion on nutritional quality in Chapter 4). Nonetheless, retail establishments have taken notice of consumers’ interest, because those consumers are willing to pay a premium to get these types of products.

When directed toward issues of health, environmental quality, and food quality, the growing power of consumers within the U.S. food system can become a force for driving farming systems toward increasing sustainability (Allen, 2004). Farmers, particularly those who are engaged in direct sales or value supply chains, tend to adjust their production practices in response to consumers’ demand. Moreover, the consolidation of the agrifood industry presents a situation where changes in the purchasing behavior of a few large institutional actors toward purchases of food with value traits can have major influences on farmers’ production practices (Sligh and Christman, 2003; Dimitri and Oberholtzer, 2008).

Sustainability Initiatives

Driven by changes in consumer preference, the last decade has seen a great upsurge of interest in the idea of sustainability among numerous influential food-marketing companies, including large multinational retailers (such as Wal-Mart and Costco), large supermarkets (such as Safeway and Kroger), expansive restaurant chains (such as Starbucks and McDonald’s), and very large food processors, distributors, and food service providers (such as Unilever, Nestle, Tyson, Sysco, and Sodexho). Sustainability initiatives are well developed in Europe (Fulponi, 2006). Box 6-1 describes a recent global food industry initiative to coordinate the efforts to improve sustainability. Several retailers have developed sustainability standards or “green” guidelines, and some retailers require their food suppliers to use the standards or guidelines to meet the sustainability goals that each retailer considers important. Several industry groups and trade associations also have established guidelines or standards to encourage the use of practices that can improve sustainability among their suppliers and vendors. Although some skeptics criticize those efforts and question the overall sustainability of such mega-corporations, the initiatives have an important impact in the food system because they drive changes toward increasing sustainability in the supply chain by affecting purchasing decisions, food processing and transport systems, and agricultural production practices at the farm level (Doane, 2005; Aragón-Correa and Rubio-López, 2007).

Organic Food Markets

Organic price premiums have been documented as early as the 1970s (Greene, 2001). Access to price premiums is important to the economic viability of organic production because production costs tend to be higher than in conventional production (McBride and Greene, 2007, 2008). Although organic food markets began as a niche market found mainly in health-food stores and local food cooperatives, organic foods and beverages have become increasingly mainstream. Consumer demand for organic products has grown rapidly during the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century (Dimitri and Oberholtzer, 2008). Organic sales account for approximately 3 percent of total U.S. food sales (USDA-ERS, 2009b), and the market has maintained a growth rate of about 20 percent per year in retail sales since 1990, as shown in Figure 6-2 (The Hartman Group, 2008). By comparison,

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

BOX 6-1

The Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform

According to its website, “the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform is an organization created by the food industry to communicate and to actively support the development of sustainable agriculture. SAI Platform supports agricultural practices and agricultural production systems that preserve the future availability of current resources and enhance their efficiency” (SAI Platform, 2009). It attempts to address the three aspects of sustainability—economic, social, and environmental—and to involve all stakeholders of the food chain. Many global food industry companies, such as Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Fonterra, McDonald’s, Nestle, Sara Lee, and Kraft Foods, are included in the initiative.

Among the industries’ sustainability initiatives, Wal-Mart’s is one of the most widely publicized (see http://walmartstores.com/sustainability/). With nearly 4,000 stores in the United States and more than 2,200 stores internationally, the company wields tremendous economic power in the retail system. In addition to improving energy efficiency, increasing energy conservation, and reducing wastes, the company has been expanding its purchases of organic products. Wal-Mart has become the largest seller of organic milk and the largest buyer of organic cotton in the world (Gunther, 2006). Wal-Mart also started the Heritage Agriculture Program to encourage farms within a day’s drive of one of Wal-Mart’s warehouses to grow crops and supply them to its local stores (Kummer, 2010).

Analysts have criticized the company by pointing out its continued weaknesses in employee policies, contribution to structural inequities, price reductions that are potentially unfair to organic producers, and other inadequacies (Tocco and Anderson, 2007). However, it is working with nonprofit environmental groups and other advisors and suppliers to establish metrics and standards for sustainability attributes, and to encourage changes broadly in the supply chain. Because of the scale of the company, Wal-Mart’s initiative has great influence on hundreds of food suppliers, among other types of suppliers, who are being asked to use production and processing processes that meet the company’s sustainability goals (Vandenbergh, 2007).

the conventional food market has grown at a rate of only 4 to 5 percent annually over the same period. The organic sector certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the fastest-growing segment of food sales in North America. As USDA-certified organic foods become popular, an increasing number of mainstream retail establishments carry them (Sligh and Christman, 2003). In 2008, the U.S. organic food industry was estimated to have generated almost $21 billion in consumer sales, and more than two-thirds of U.S.

FIGURE 6-2 Growth in U.S. retail sales of certified organic food products. Reprinted with permission from Nutrition Business Journal.

FIGURE 6-2 Growth in U.S. retail sales of certified organic food products. Reprinted with permission from Nutrition Business Journal.

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

consumers bought organic products at least occasionally (Dimitri and Oberholtzer, 2009; Greene et al., 2009; The Hartman Group, 2008). The demand in organic products and the maintenance of a price premium contribute to motivating some farmers to transition to organic production.

Although the acreage for organic production doubled in the United States between 1997 and 2005, consumer demand outpaces supply. Consumer demand seems to play a small role in driving an increase in organic production as the overall adoption rate of organic agriculture is still low—about 0.5 percent of U.S. cropland and pastureland was certified organic in 2005 (Greene et al., 2009). Other factors affect farmers’ decision to transition to organic production. As mentioned earlier, organic production costs more than conventional production, and farmers are likely to have lower economic returns in the first few years of transition as a result of lower yields and inability to access organic premiums until the transition is completed. Although organic food markets are frequently supply constrained, few organic food handlers have worked to assist farmers to make the transition toward organic production (Dimitri and Oberholtzer, 2008).

Direct-Sales Markets

Direct-sales markets have the potential to enhance the feasibility of using farming approaches for improving sustainability and motivating farmers to use them. The various direct-sales markets provide important new opportunities for farms that use practices and farming systems that can meet the demands of those new consumers. As discussed in Chapter 4, direct marketing allows farmers to capture a larger share of the end consumer ’s food dollar. Farmers, in particular small or mid-sized farms that make most of their sales as direct sales, can afford to use practices that enhance environmental and social sustainability that are not necessarily the lowest cost and still make a profit. However, in many cases, direct-sales farmers have to take on responsibilities, such as doing their own marketing, in addition to producing the products.

Many farms have been able to tap into increasing consumer interest in local sources of foods and public perceptions that food transported long distances not only adds to the atmospheric carbon burden, but also tastes less fresh than local foods. In addition, an increasing number of consumers seem to want to develop a closer connection to the farms that produce their food. That interest provides impetus to the development of localized food markets that allow farmers to bypass mainstream distribution channels and market their products directly to consumers at the local and regional levels (Allen, 2004; Hinrichs and Lyson, 2007). Some farmers who are unable to compete in, or are locked out of, distant markets have been able to build a thriving local business (Allen and Hinrichs, 2007). Direct sales are proportionally more common in small and mid-sized operations (firms with sales under $250,000, which generated 57 percent of all U.S. direct sales according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture) than on larger farms (USDA-NASS, 2009).

Farm production sold directly to consumers has grown rapidly since 1980 and tripled between 1992 and 2007. In 2007, about 6 percent of all U.S. farms engaged in direct marketing to consumers, generating more than $1.2 billion in gross receipts (USDA-ERS, 2009a). Direct sales occur primarily through farmers’ markets, followed in importance by Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Growth in traditional direct marketing in roadside stands and in U-pick operations has been more modest than farmers’ markets and CSAs. The amount of locally produced foods sold directly to consumers is expected to grow over the next decade and a half, but at a slower rate than the growth rates from 2005 to 2008. Meanwhile, local sourcing of food supplies by institutions such as restaurants, schools,

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

universities, and especially grocery stores and chains is likely to be an important source of growth for direct sales in the next 15 years.

Farmers’ Markets and Farm Stands

Between 1980 and 2007, the number of farmers’ markets nationally nearly quadrupled from an estimated 1,200 to 4,385 (USDA-AMS, 2008a), and they generated total vendor sales of more than $1 billion in 2005 (Ragland and Tropp, 2009). Sales at farmers’ markets grew between 2.5 to 5 percent annually from 1996 to 2006 (Cobb, 2008; Ragland and Tropp, 2009). Farmers attribute the sudden increase in demand to families concerned about food safety of distantly produced or imported foods, their need for a greater sense of “community,” and their desire to talk to a person growing their food (Hinrichs, 2000; Lamine, 2005; Smithers et al., 2008). The direct connection between farmers and consumers allows farmers to adjust their production practices in response to consumer demand. Although the rate at which new farmers’ markets are formed is expected to slow, the number in America could reach 6,000 by 2015, with some 65,000–180,000 small farmers and vendors generating gross revenues approaching $1.5 billion. Although the projected revenue represents only a small percentage (1.5 to 2 percent) of the gross revenue of the U.S. food system from retail and from hotels, restaurants, and institutions, farmers’ markets and farm stands represent a marketing channel that can support the use of practices for improving sustainability in many small and mid-sized farms. Farmers’ markets will continue to be community based, run by farmer or community volunteers, and open seasonally in public spaces.

Community Supported Agriculture

Two CSA projects in the United States emerged in New England in 1986. By 2009, an estimated 2,877 CSAs operated in all 50 states (Table 6-1; Local Harvest, 2009). Data from the 2007 Census of Agriculture included a question on CSAs for the first time, and the results suggest that there could be as many as 12,000 farms that describe themselves as participating in a CSA (USDA-NASS, 2009). Assuming an average of 50 subscribers each (Lass et al., 2003), the CSAs listed on the Local Harvest website (Table 6-1) are estimated to supply almost 150,000 U.S. households with various vegetables and other produce during the growing season.

The original idea of CSA was to reestablish a sense of connection to the land for urban dwellers and to foster a strong sense of community with a social justice goal to provide

TABLE 6-1 Estimated Number of CSA Farms by State as Measured by USDA and Local Harvest (LH) Website

USDA LH

USDA LH

USDA LH

USDA LH

USDA LH

AK

6

9

HI

3

13

ME

32

65

NJ

16

46

SD

8

44

AL

7

20

IA

39

70

MI

40

141

NM

16

20

TN

56

17

AR

4

18

ID

16

41

MN

35

99

NV

1

15

TX

75

24

AZ

9

24

IL

20

93

MO

18

62

NY

101

209

UT

15

2

CA

81

179

IN

12

53

MS

2

4

OH

31

110

VA

86

32

CO

27

71

KS

8

34

MT

3

17

OK

4

15

VT

89

36

CT

22

44

KY

15

50

NC

26

95

OR

45

120

WA

152

60

DE

4

7

LA

3

9

ND

2

8

PA

69

161

WI

148

71

FL

15

42

MA

60

113

NE

5

15

RI

10

16

WV

16

9

GA

5

57

MD

36

67

NH

21

54

SC

4

24

WY

11

4

SOURCE: Local Harvest (2009); USDA-NASS (2009).

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

food security for disadvantaged groups (Allen et al., 2006). Some CSAs also are involved in farmland preservation, and they offer insurance against unexpected disruptions of the food supply line. Another aim of CSA was to enlist support from urban consumers for local agriculture that emphasizes various aspects of sustainability. A key concept of early CSA organizers was to assert local control over a food system that was growing increasingly consolidated and to offer small farmers a fair return for their products. Although CSAs currently only serve a small proportion of the U.S. consumer food market, the CSA model offers an alternative approach to mainstream marketing channels for producers and consumers in some regions.

Farm to Institutions

One of the most rapidly growing forms of direct marketing consists of direct sales from farmers to institutions, particularly schools, hospitals, and government agencies. Farm-to-school programs are emerging all over the United States. As of October 2009, farm-to-school programs had been established in a total of 42 states and are estimated to serve approximately 8,943 schools in 2,065 school districts (Occidental College, 2009).

The other types of direct marketing institutional arrangements for food service—for hospitals and other institutions—are more difficult to monitor and measure than farm-to-school programs, partly because the other types have been established at such a rapid pace in recent years. Several hospitals throughout the country are developing “farm-to-hospital” linkages that bring fresh, healthful food to medical facilities and offer new markets for local farmers. For example, in Billings, Montana, the Community Food Campaign urged a local hospital, Billings Deaconess Clinic, to procure food locally. The clinic amended the contract with its food provider and now procures locally raised turkey. Sutter Maternity and Surgery Center in Santa Cruz, California, buys almost 20 percent of its produce from trainee farmers working on the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) farm in nearby Salinas. Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, holds a weekly farmers’ market in an area between its clinic and hospital. The establishment of farmers’ markets at several Kaiser Permanente Hospitals in California has sparked discussions about the need for a company-wide food policy to bring fresh food to patients, visitors, and surrounding communities. These few examples show how health care facilities and hospitals around the United States are creating new opportunities for food procurement and provision that can potentially improve environmental sustainability (by decreasing the distance of food delivery), economic sustainability of farms (via new market opportunity), and social sustainability (by providing access to fresh food). Linking local farms and hospitals has the potential to improve the freshness, quality, and nutritional value of hospital food while opening new institutional markets to small farmers (Beery and Markley, 2007).

Several government agencies at federal, state, and local levels have established new marketing arrangements that enable direct marketing with farmers. Employees have initiated many of those initiatives (for example, USDA cafeterias in Washington, D.C., and the California Environmental Protection Agency’s food service in Sacramento).

Grades, Standards, and Certification Labels

Marketing tools such as grades and standards, certifications, labels, and branding can create niches of profitability for farmers whose products meet specific requirements related to the nature of their products or the way in which they were produced. In many instances, standards reflect characteristics that make farm commodities and food products easier to

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

handle, process, and transport. In other cases, standards are designed to maintain a consistent level of quality, the cosmetic appearance of fresh food products, or the safety of food products at the retail level.

Grades and Standards

Standards are the measures by which products, processes, and producers are judged, whereas grades are the categories used to implement the standards (Busch and Bingen, 2006). Grades and standards can define what is to be traded on the market, establish agreed-upon production processes, fix levels of consistent product quality, and make possible the location of exportable production around the world by ensuring compatible products and processes (Busch and Bingen, 2006). For example, U.S. federal law allows growers and handlers of many fruit, vegetable, and specialty crop products to develop formal marketing orders as standards and grades to coordinate production, processing, and marketing of specific commodities. Marketing orders are often used to raise money for production research, marketing research and development, and advertising. In addition, they can be used by industry actors to create binding rules (enforced by USDA) regarding allowable production, packaging, and handling practices designed to ensure consistency, quality, safety, and cosmetic appearance of food products (USDA-AMS, 2008b). USDA also provides standardized grading, certification, and inspection services as a service to commodity sectors that voluntarily want those services as part of their marketing strategies. However, the need for global harmonization of standards and local adaptability of farming systems to meet such standards remains unresolved (Vogl et al., 2005).

Although marketing grades and standards theoretically create similar expectations for all producers and can communicate to consumers about the attributes of the products, they can affect the ability of producers to use certain production practices. For many fruits and vegetables, grades and standards might inhibit the use of practices that can improve environmental sustainability if they affect the ability of the product to meet the grade and standard that leads to the highest price. For example, increasingly strict defect action levels (DALs), established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration partly to enhance safety from microbial contamination (sometimes by mandating the production practices to be followed), have been linked to increased pesticide use in many commodity sectors (Hart and Pimentel, 2002), although Lichtenberg (1997) found an opposite effect on apple production. Mandatory behaviors and financial assessments under marketing order rules could disadvantage some producers and handlers of organic products because they might not benefit from generic commodity research, supply control, and marketing efforts supported by those orders (Carman et al., 2004). Similarly, standards established for farm worker protection might encourage the replacement of hand harvesting with mechanical harvesting and reduce employment opportunities for farm workers (Friedland et al., 1981).

Aside from governmental rules, privately developed systems of grades and standards designed to ensure safety, quality, and appearance have increasing influence on the way that food is produced in the United States (Henson and Reardon, 2005; Hatanaka et al., 2006). Private standards systems and third-party certification are increasingly replacing “hard regulation” (that is, traditional regulatory) approaches to governing international trade (Hatanaka et al., 2005; Ponte and Gibbon, 2005; Higgins and Hallström, 2007). Global coalitions of private firms that set harmonized standards for food have been emerging. They facilitate coordination of production and distribution (Nadvi and Waltring, 2003) and protect the firms’ reputation for consistent quality and safety (Fulponi, 2006). Harmonized

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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standards also can secure competitive advantages for the coalition of firms and exclude access to firms and producers not in the coalition, and thereby serve as a private governance tool in the food system (Fulponi, 2006).

Sustainable Agriculture Standards, Certification, and Eco-label Programs

A market trend that favors improving agricultural sustainability has emerged, as discussed in the earlier section on emerging markets. Standards and certification programs specifically designed for marketing “sustainably produced” foods in the United States and internationally are intended to establish measurable criteria or guidelines for food producers and distributors, provide verification to the public, and support claims about sustainability and environmental sensitivity. Many different types of organizations, including nongovernmental organizations, trade associations, food industry groups, cooperatives, regional organizations, and some university departments, are involved in establishing and administering these kinds of certification and standard-setting programs. Through such programs, the groups are attempting to verify producers’ and distributors’ efforts to reduce environmental impacts, while also gaining market opportunities to meet rapidly growing demand for “green” products. Although certification and eco-label programs are considered voluntary, an increasing number of food processors, retailers, and distributors require producers who sell to them meet these “sustainability standards.” The programs are therefore becoming important forces that drive change in practices by producers, in many cases making it possible for large-scale production systems to provide the now standardized products (Vogl et al., 2005). Certification also offers producers additional benefits, such as greater marketplace recognition, and might facilitate greater information exchange among participating farmers (Klonsky and Tourte, 1998).

Organic agriculture certification is probably the most well-known and well-established food standard related to environmental concerns in the United States and around the world. As of 2002, organic production standards in the United States have been regulated by federal law, and they are administered and enforced by the USDA National Organic Program—NOP (7 C.F.R. Part 205). By law, any product labeled “organic” is required to be produced and certified according to certain standards, including eliminating synthetic pesticides and fertilizers (USDA-AMS, 2008b). The creation of USDA Organic Certification codified a set of practices that emerged from an agroecological approach to production that emphasizes the use of naturally occurring tools for controlling pest, pathogens, and weeds, and the elimination of synthetic inputs. The certification program was created to regulate competition and provide uniform information to consumers.

USDA organic certification standards provide consistency, but the extent to which they should include criteria beyond environmental or health goals, and the specific practices allowed on organically certified farms, have been the subject of much debate and controversy. Although the original Organic Foods Production Act was passed by Congress in 1990, it took 12 years to develop and promulgate formal rules to implement the USDA organic certification label. The resulting program focuses on health and environmental issues, but generally does not address labor, social, economic, or community welfare goals that are important objectives of many proponents of organic farming systems (Guthman, 2004; Fürst et al., 2005; Bittman, 2009).

Partly in reaction to limitations in the formal USDA organic certification standards, programs that have developed alternative or more broadly construed “sustainability” standards for agricultural practices have grown rapidly. Some of these programs include traceability and tracking of the origin of products, or require the analysis of the complete

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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lifecycle environmental impact in the supply chain of each product. Many have evolved into developing “eco-labels,” which are logos or seals that identify products or companies that meet certain environmentally preferable standards or criteria. Eco-labels are generally intended to enable people to identify, buy, and sell products and services that are considered environmentally sensitive (Big Room Inc., 2009). More than 100 different eco-label programs have been identified for food or agriculture products worldwide, excluding private labels developed by individual companies (Big Room Inc., 2009). Other groups have developed standards that address nonenvironmental goals, such as fair trade, fair labor, and livestock production practices perceived as more humane (Brown and Getz, 2008; Food Alliance, 2009). Table 6-2 illustrates some of the eco-labels and sustainability certification programs in the food and agriculture sector.

The labeling programs have different levels of quality control and different processes for verification. Typically, companies apply to an organization for the right to use its ecolabel on their products. The applicant pays an initial fee and undergoes some kind of inspection or audit. If it successfully meets the standard, it pays a fee to use the label, and in most cases, it is required to have a regular audit to ensure continual adherence to the standards. Although the eco-label would allow producers to access a niche-market and could enhance marketplace recognition of their products, the fees for certification and the paperwork could deter producers from using the label.

The increase in the use of various eco-labels and environmental certification programs in the food sector has created some confusion among consumers and has created challenges for producers who are often being asked to fulfill several distinct standards by different buyers. As a result, eco-labels and certification programs might not be as effective in motivating producers to adopt certain practices for improving sustainability to seek certification as they could be. Some consumer advocacy organizations and government agencies are also concerned about the lack of oversight, consistency, and quality control of such programs. Consequently, some organizations (including Scientific Certification Systems and ANSI, Keystone Center, and USDA) have initiated efforts to develop national sustainable agriculture standards, which are intended to be similar to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification program in the forest sector, to create score cards, or to monitor different certification and eco-labeling programs.

Marketing Institutions for Mid-Sized Commercial Farmers: Branding

Branding is a method for defining a product as unique and building customer loyalty. By establishing a proprietary brand that consumers associate with desirable qualities, producers can “create” a market for themselves. Marketing studies find that the brand represents a set of values; therefore, the brand gives the consumer confidence in the product (see also the section on low-confinement hog systems in Chapter 5). Branding can provide opportunities to reward farmers for using certain socially desired production practices. However, how branded products actually differ from nonbranded products is not always clear, particularly when without governmental or private sector standards against which brands can be held accountable. Efforts to develop individual farm brands—such as grass-fed or natural beef—can be time consuming and difficult for producers, and rewards depend on the ability to develop regional or national markets for their branded products (Gwin, 2009). Branding can also be undermined by the rise of private-label products in many grocery chains. Efforts to develop private-label organic products, for example, are thought to be reducing demand for some branded organic companies’ products (Hills, 2008).

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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TABLE 6-2 Examples of Sustainable Agriculture Standards and Eco-Label Programs

Program/Initiative

Commodity or Food Sector

Sustainability Scope

Geographic Coverage

Participants

Better Sugarcane Initiative

Sugar

Broad

Global

Companies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), unions

California Sustainable Winegrowing Program

Winegrapes

Broad

California

Winegrowers

Common Code for the Coffee Community

Coffee

Broad

Global

Companies, NGOs, unions

Demeter—Biodynamic

All

Ecosystems, biodiversity, spiritual

Global

Not available

Eurep GAP Protocols

Horticultural crops, coffee newly added

Mainly environmental, some social

Global

Companies

Food Alliance

All

Mainly environmental, some social

United States

Companies, university, stakeholders

Fish Friendly Farming

Winegrapes and other crops

Environmental, focused on water

California, Oregon

NGOs, companies, government

Global Environmental Management Initiative

Many food products (and other commodities)

Environmental

Global

Companies (mainly multinational corporations)

Good Agricultural Practices Standard (GAP)

All

Safe handling, environmental, some social

United States

Companies, government

Humane Dairy Checklist

Dairy animals

All

Global

Companies

ICCO Sustainable Cocoa Program

Cocoa

Mainly social

Global

Companies, NGOs, government

IISD/UNCTAD Sustainable Commodities Initiative

Selected commodities, including coffee

All

Global

 

International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM)

Organic certification for all agriculture products

Mainly environmental

Global

Companies, NGOs, unions, farmers

Keystone Center

All

Broad (still in process in 2009)

United States and beyond

Multiple stakeholder, mainly companies

Marine Stewardship Council

Wild and caught seafood/fish

Mainly environmental

Mostly temperate waters

Companies, NGOs

Protected Harvest (Healthy Grown)

Potatoes, winegrapes, and developing others

Mainly environmental

North America

Companies, NGOs

Rainforest Alliance Standards for Sustainable Agriculture

Coffee, bananas, and others

Broad

Global

Companies, NGOs

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

Program/Initiative

Commodity or Food Sector

Sustainability Scope

Geographic Coverage

Participants

SAI 8000

All

Social

Global

Companies

SAI Platform

Selected crops, including peas, potatoes, and coffee

Broad

Global

Companies

Salmon Safe

Several crops

Environmental, focused on water quality and fish protection

Western United States, mainly Oregon

Companies, NGOs

Bird-Friendly Certification

Coffee

Environmental

Global

Farmers, NGOs, for example, Smithsonian, Rainforest Alliance, others

Social Accountability in Sustainable Agriculture (SASA)

All

Broad

Global

Research program comparing standards of 4 schemes of the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling Alliance

Emerging Markets for Ecosystem Services

Some agricultural practices can provide beneficial ecosystem services (see detailed discussion in Chapter 3)—for example, regulation functions such as water quality and nutrient cycling, pollination, and habitat for wildlife and beneficial species; supporting services, such as soil fertility, soil structure and carbon, and carbon sequestration; and aesthetic and cultural services, such as open space and cultural heritage (Heal and Small, 2002; Swinton et al., 2007).

When managed sustainably, agricultural ecosystems have the potential to deliver diverse ecosystem services and to mitigate past ecosystem disservices (Swinton et al., 2007). For example, Boody et al. (2005) examined the impacts of a range of practices, such as cover crops, riparian buffer strips, conservation tillage, crop rotation, and other increases of vegetative cover, and they noted that “environmental and economic benefits can be attained through [these] changes in agricultural land management without increasing public costs. The magnitude of these benefits depends on the magnitude of changes in agricultural practice. Environmental benefits include improved water quality, healthier fish, increased carbon sequestration, and decreased greenhouse gas emissions, while economic benefits include social capital formation, greater farm profitability, and avoided costs” (Boody et al., 2005, p. 27). The quantity and quality of services that are produced by agriculture in a given location generally depend on the joint actions of many farmers and other resource users.

Many ecosystem services are appreciated by society and can be interpreted as capital assets (Heal and Small, 2002). However, ecosystem services can be indirect, underappreciated, and, in general, undervalued. Because of the lack of markets for ecosystem services, farmers cannot add to their revenues when supplying these services (Swinton et al., 2007). For example, pollination services, which have recently become threatened by honeybee colony collapse disorder, contribute to fruit, nut, and vegetable production worth $75 billion in 2007 (USDA, 2007). Since farm producers typically receive no economic payments for

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

possible ecosystem services (for example, pollination) and other social benefits provided by their farming operations, they have little incentive to adopt management practices that provide ecosystem services if the practices incur additional costs.

Because of the missing markets for valued ecosystem services, there has been an argument for and experimentation with public provision of such market signals by providing ecosystem service markets. The underlying assumption for providing ecosystem markets is that paying for ecosystem results will encourage innovation and achieve cost-efficiencies in providing services (Shabman and Stephenson, 2007). However, others argue that such a provision is sometimes tantamount to paying farmers not to pollute or harm public resources (Box 6-2).

Payment for Environmental Services: Beneficiary Pays

Although practical applications with ecosystem markets are limited, emerging experiences demonstrate promise and value to farmers who are using conservation practices. For example, to compensate for a lack of markets for ecosystem services, some have proposed using a payment for environmental services (PES) approach in which the beneficiaries of an ecosystem service pay for the provision of that service. The PES approach can be contrasted with the so-called “green payments,” where the general taxpayer subsidizes farmers for desired outcomes or for adoption of desired agricultural practices. The green payments are usually discussed as replacing or augmenting Farm Bill commodity subsidy payments, which are discussed later in this chapter. In PES approaches, the beneficiaries might be a private industry (for example, a private water treatment facility), but the beneficiaries are often represented by some agency or institution. For example, Bohlen and his colleagues (2009) reported on developing a PES pilot program in the northern Everglades of Florida, where beneficiaries (in this case, Florida state agencies) compensate ranchers for providing

BOX 6-2

Public Attitudes Toward Private Land Management

Public attitudes toward private land management have undergone a long evolution in U.S. history. For much of U.S. history, the role for public programs in agriculture was to enhance the productivity of croplands. Thus, taxpayers subsidized public projects to provide the agriculture sector with low-cost energy, irrigation water, and transportation and to enhance farmers’ incomes. That “progressive conservation” attitude has been challenged by a rise in environmental attitudes that has meant the redesign of some public programs. For example, farmers might have received taxpayer funds and technical assistance to drain and fill wetlands at one time; now they might receive funds to protect wetlands. Most environmentally focused programs for agriculture operate on the premise that farmers do not want to harm public resources but need information, financial support, and technical assistance if they are to avoid doing so (Batie et al., 1986).

Because of that history, disputes about whether farmers should be paid for positive environmental outcomes or penalized for environmental damages occur frequently. The ultimate choice is a political one, but with few exceptions, such as the Endangered Species Act, policy makers have favored voluntary, incentive-based approaches to obtain public benefits from agriculture. Thus, payment for the provision of positive ecosystem services is generally viewed as the appropriate public response—a viewpoint that reflects a belief that farmers have the property rights to pollute or harm ecosystem services, but will be stewards if provided compensation. A contrasting viewpoint is one in which farmers should be regulated and penalized if they harm public resources.

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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water storage and nutrient reduction on their private lands. The authors noted, however, such a program has many challenges, including identifying a buyer of the services and identifying the services themselves. Insufficient understanding of the underlying ecology and environmental services made it difficult to quantify the services. The Everglades PES program also had challenges associated with stakeholders, including potential buyers (market, state, and civil society organizations) and sellers (primarily the growers or corporations that manage land) of those services, agreeing on credible, yet practical approaches to quantify the services provided.

Studies show that establishing a successful PES is a complex undertaking that requires not only scientific understanding, but also consideration of social, economic, political, institutional, and power relationships (Perrot-Maitre, 2006). For PES programs to work, buyers want documentation and assurance that they are getting what they paid for and that sellers (that is, farmers and ranchers) are getting a fair price for what they produce. The parties involved would have to agree on a baseline from which to measure ecosystem improvements. There also needs to be a satisfactory funding stream and a method to keep costs of negotiating contracts between buyers and sellers and other programmatic costs, such as monitoring outcomes, manageably low. The latter can be complicated by existing policies, regulatory issues, and multiple stakeholders. Beyond such challenges is the need to build trust, sometimes through building an intermediary institution that is locally based and sympathetic to the farmers’ situations (Perrot-Maitre, 2006).

Despite the complexities, successful examples of experiments of paying farmers for ecological services exist in the United States and abroad. Two such examples are the Colorado River Basin Salinity Program, where farmers bid to provide low-cost salinity reduction in return irrigation flows and are paid by federal and state agencies, and the New York City Catskills–Delaware Project, where New York City paid farmers to protect the water quality of an important reservoir for the ultimate beneficiaries, the citizens of New York (Box 6-3).

In some cases, beneficiaries of ecosystem services are so diffuse it is difficult to construct a beneficiary payment for services program other than via payments by taxpayers. For example, biodiversity in agriculture provides ecosystem services and is gaining increasing attention by economic analysts and biologists. Agricultural biodiversity exists at several levels (from genes to species and ecosystems, as noted in Chapter 3); likewise, the value of biodiversity can be defined in several ways, including the utilitarian value (direct use) of components of biodiversity, such as medicinal values from particular species; functional value that biodiversity provides to support life and protect ecological integrity; serendepic or “option” value, which is the potential future value from particular species or genes for future generations; and intrinsic value, which refers to cultural or aesthetic benefits (Swift et al., 2004). The functional values from agrobiodiversity services include formation of soil organic matter, nutrient cycling, useful watershed functions (for example, trapping sediment and mitigating runoff), and mitigation of pests and diseases that can have measurable economic benefits.

Most of the existing biodiversity payment mechanisms focus on natural habitat, such as forests, conservation easements, or protected areas, rather than biodiversity functions provided by agriculture. The programs face challenges partly because many biodiversity benefits are difficult to identify as units for transactions. There are debates on the appropriate valuation methods and controversy over the use of conservation funds on agricultural lands (FAO, 2009). At the time of writing this report, few producers in the United States had received any form of direct compensation or marketing opportunities for biodiversity ecosystem services from their conservation practices on farms.

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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BOX 6-3

The Colorado River Basin Salinity Program and The New York City Catskills–Delaware Project

The salinity in the Colorado River is regulated as a result of the Clean Water Act, other federal legislation, and international treaties. Designed in part to ensure low salinity water for Mexico’s portion of the Colorado River, the Colorado River Basin Salinity Program has evolved considerably over time. One of its main concerns has been salinity in return irrigation flows (Adler and Straube, 2000). In 1995, Congress provided for an open competitive basin-wide salinity program under which any party—public, private, or partnerships—could bid to receive funding for salinity control projects. The bidding process was voluntary because parties, including farmers, can determine for themselves whether they wish to bid and the nature of the project they are proposing (Batie, 2001). Program officials selected those bids for controlling salinity on the basis of their ability to control the most salt per taxpayer dollar and the probability of success. Four years into the program, selected projects reduced salinity at prices ranging from $11–$36/ton of control, less than half the previous pre-bidding costs (Adler and Straube, 2000), although the prices involved have risen as the low-cost projects are implemented and additional control is needed (in part because the Colorado flow has diminished). Significant salinity control resulted from implementing measures on private agricultural lands (U.S. Department of Interior, 2009) that were responsible for about 37 percent of the salinity problem (U.S. Department of Interior, 2005). The program has undergone some changes since 1995—now the Bureau of Reclamation’s Basin States Program and USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) provide cost-share funds and assistance to landowners who install salinity control measures, such as lining on-farm canals, level of land, installing drip irrigation systems, and creating on-farm water control structures (U.S. Department of Interior, 2005).

New York City, in 1997, developed a memorandum of agreement to protect the city’s drinking water supply for its 9 million citizens. The agreement outlined protection strategies that would allow the city to obtain a waiver of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Surface Water Treatment Rule for its Catskills–Delaware supply system. Embedded in the agreement was a voluntary program designed to standardize, improve, and fund environmental practices among the watershed’s farmers (Batie, 2001). A unique feature of that aspect of the program was the close connection with scientists from Cornell University who had studied the hydrology, phosphorus transport, and economics in the watershed. The partnership of the City of New York and Cornell University allowed farmers to develop whole-farm plans for the protection of the watershed’s water quality, guided by research findings. One scientific finding, for example, was that 85 percent of the dissolved phosphorus, total phosphorus, and manure loadings occurred during snowmelt and rainfall events from January to March. From those findings, manure or management plans could be designed cognizant of the temporal nature of the loadings (NRC, 1999, 2000a,b). Focusing on whole-farm plans to protect the watershed saved New York City about 80 percent over the building of a billion-dollar treatment plant.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and other organizations are developing tools and protocols for valuing biodiversity functions and other ecosystem services in agricultural contexts. Such evaluations could encourage development of PES programs. In addition, EPA has begun to support research projects that aim to “establish ecosystem service standards, indicators, and measurement protocols that support environmental accounting systems and markets” and to “create institutional capacity for investments in natural capital that provides sustainable flows of ecosystems services” (EPA, 2008, p. 1). Moreover, ecosystem services have generated considerable attention by decision makers and scientists in the public and private sectors. However, additional policy-relevant research, which requires collaboration among many disciplines (including ecology, economics, sociology, law, decision science, and the agriculture sciences) and with stakeholders is needed before robust markets for ecosystem services can be developed.

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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Cap-and-Trade

Cap-and-trade and offset trading markets that trade allowances to pollute among various users are frequently discussed as a potentially cost-effective way to reach environmental goals related to air and water quality. The agricultural sector often is assumed to be a potential major supplier of allowances in a trading market and, thus, is assumed to be able to obtain revenues for protecting ecosystem services. Fundamentally, the cap-and-trade versions of markets work with a cap—set by a regulatory agency—on the maximum amount of a potential pollutant allowable in a watershed, region, or airshed. To work well, cap-and-trade programs require each emitter or discharger of the potential pollutant to have a permitted allowance to cover its emissions or discharges. However, the emitter or discharger can sell excess, unused allowances to others without the need of permission from a regulator. The advantages of such a system are that they reward reductions of pollution, stimulate innovation, allow for expansion of an industry without increases in pollutant levels, and can be cost-effective in achieving environmental objectives if the administrative and enforcement costs are not excessive. Much of the discretion on how much to emit or discharge lies with the emitter or discharger. The perceived success of such a tradable market system for the reduction of sulfur dioxide (SO2) by U.S. energy producers has heightened interest in expanding that type of market into the agricultural sector.

Offsets or Conservation Credit Trading

A variation of the cap-and-trade program design is that of offsets or conservation credit trading. These programs are designed to give more flexibility to regulators when administering conventional permitting programs. Individual emitters or dischargers can create and sell credits when they reduce emissions or discharges below a benchmark that is measured and verified by a regulatory agency. The agency must approve credit purchases and sales. Credits are created when existing dischargers or emitters permanently reduce discharges or emissions below a baseline—usually defined by some rate determined by available technology—after the agency verifies the reduction (Shabman et al., 2002).

Because the agriculture sector—with the exception of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)—is subject to few emission or discharge regulations, most experiments with trading markets in agriculture tend to be offset credit sales. For example, the Tualatin River Oregon Trading Project used agricultural offsets to mitigate adverse impacts on stream habitat. Clean Water Services (CWS), a sewerage and storm water agency in Oregon’s Tualatin River watershed, was faced with high costs of meeting regulatory discharge requirements for temperature. Low stream temperatures were viewed as necessary to protect salmon. Because of the high costs involved with other temperature-control methods, the regulators allowed CWS to purchase agricultural offsets. The offsets involved farmers planting riparian buffers to increase stream shading and thereby reduce stream temperatures. CWS was able to leverage and augment funds from the USDA Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), which pays incentives to farmers to install conservation practices including riparian buffers on sensitive lands.

Although the offsets were only a part of the CWS plan to reduce water temperatures, they illustrate the use of agricultural offsets to meet permit regulatory requirements. Furthermore, such experiments also highlight the challenges of designing the programs. Policy questions that required answers in the Tualatin case include: How does shading translate into impacts on water temperature and salmon survival? How should that temperature equivalence then transfer into the permitted requirements for CWS? How will temperature

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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be monitored over what time and space and attributed to the offset credits? How will the longevity and maintenance of the shading be enforced and by whom? Who will bear the costs? What is the recourse back to the landowner or to CWS if temperature reductions and or salmon survival are not adequate?

Programs such as the Tualatin River Project have added to the interest in nutrient water quality offset trading as a way of achieving pollutant control requirements stemming from the Clean Water Act. When agriculture nutrient trading is involved, the programs are sometimes referred to as point–nonpoint trading. Yet, despite various successes, the potential of nutrient-trading programs to generate revenues for agricultural nonpoint sources remains problematic. Despite more than 10 years of state and federal promotion of point–nonpoint trading, demonstration projects, and research, the total volume and value of offsets involving regulated point sources’ discharges and nonregulated agricultural nonpoint sources has been minimal (Stephenson et al., 2009).

Limitations on such trading can be illustrated by a study of a recent Commonwealth of Virginia program. It is one of the largest nutrient-trading programs in the United States in which a cap has been placed on nutrients from point sources that drain into the Chesapeake Bay, but trading of nutrient credits by point sources with nonpoint sources has been allowed. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality approved a number of best management agricultural practices that were eligible to generate nutrient credits as offsets, including no-till, reduction in nitrogen application rates, and planting of early cover crops. However, a study by Stephenson et al. (2009) concluded that, given the costs and uncertainties involved with the approved agricultural offset options, point sources are unlikely to use them. Therefore, the program as designed will not likely motivate changes in farming practices.

Carbon sequestration is another valuable ecosystem service that has gained attention in the agriculture sector, as new carbon marketing trading schemes can potentially provide farmers with financial opportunities. Given the escalating public concern about climate change and the emergence of markets to trade carbon credits globally, agricultural producers in some regions have opportunities to participate in carbon markets and to gain carbon credits or offsets when they use practices that sequester large amounts of carbon.

In the United States, the Chicago Climate Exchange operates a voluntary market for carbon trading (Evergreen Funding Consultants, 2009). The National Farmers Union (NFU) has established a Carbon Credit Program “that allows agricultural producers and landowners to earn income by storing carbon in their soil through no-till crop production, conversion of cropland to grass, sustainable management of native rangelands and tree plantings on previously non-forested or degraded land” (NFU, 2009). The capture of methane (CH4) from anaerobic manure digester systems can also earn carbon credits. NFU has earned approval from the Chicago Climate Exchange to aggregate carbon offsets (carbon credits) and sell them on behalf of producers. The NFU Carbon Credit Program earned more than $8 million for producers in its first two years of operation (NFU, 2009).

To date, however, few farmers are engaged in supplying actual carbon credits, perhaps because such programs are in an early stage of development and perhaps because the same types of questions need to be answered and challenges met as with water quality offset trading. Trading carbon credits (such as offsets) from agriculture has generated controversy; interpretations differ about the appropriate methods for measuring and valuing carbon in the context of farming systems. All the design issues raised in the Everglades and Tualatin projects, such as the establishment of appropriate baselines, the additivity of the carbon sequestration effort to the reduction of greenhouse gases, the permanence of such changes, and who bears the costs of enforcement or failure to meet environmental

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

objectives, are important in the cost-effective design of the carbon sequestration trading and offset markets.

Nevertheless, the carbon-trading programs are garnering interest. Several proposed federal climate bills include cap-and-trade or offset approaches that will limit carbon emissions and increase the value of carbon credits. Passage of those bills could lead to the development of additional market or trading opportunities for farmers who are using “carbon-friendly” practices (AFT, 2009). The increasing attention to carbon sequestration might encourage management practices that increase carbon sequestration, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and have other benefits for producers and have positive social impacts. For example, conservation tillage, cover crops, habitat buffers, or other vegetative cover can be profitable for farmers and are useful to increase carbon storage and other ecosystem services (Kolk, 2008).

Role of Valuation of Ecosystem Services

In part because of the increasing interest in providing “markets” for ecosystem services, interest in providing monetary values of ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, water quality, soil carbon, and wildlife habitat is growing. Valuations can emerge from market trading when willing buyers and sellers of offset credits come to agreements on prices. Valuations can also be estimated using nonmarket valuation techniques, such as contingent valuation, hedonic valuation, and cost-based or factor-income approaches (Swinton et al., 2007). Nonmarket valuation techniques require distinctive accounting methods and policies and integration of ecology into agricultural economics (Heal and Small, 2002). Although valuation of ecosystem services is a relatively new field of economics, methods and knowledge for estimating the value of ecosystem services and for identifying cost-effective policy designs to create incentives for agriculture producers to provide them are developing rapidly (Casey et al., 1999).

PUBLIC POLICY AS A CONTEXTUAL FACTOR

A large number of public policies and programs influence farmer decision making: production credits, environmental regulations, liability rules, tax incentives, transportation policies, antitrust legislation, credit availability, intellectual property rights, disaster payments, education and research, crop insurance policies, international and domestic trading rules, and private contracts. They include incentive programs to address environmental goals (such as improving air, water, or grazing lands quality), they might involve public investment in infrastructure (for example, road, sewer, or fiber optic locations), or they might be macroeconomic policies (for example, tax or labor policies) (Batie, 2001).

So extensive and complicated are the numbers of programs and policies that affect farming that it is nearly impossible for policy analysts, economists, and others to predict all their direct and indirect impacts. In addition, only after some period of time will sufficient data and information become available to know how the policies have affected farmer behavior and the collective result of that behavior. This section focuses on some policies and programs with particular relevance to sustainable farming practices and systems.

The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008

The Farm Bill, established in 1936 and reenacted every four to five years by the U.S. Congress, provides the legal framework for taxpayer support of the agricultural and rural

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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economy, including the promotion of conservation and provision of nutritional assistance to needy families. Each Farm Bill has its own name; the 2008 bill is called The Food, Conservation and Energy Act. The Farm Bill is a major influence on many, but not all, producers’ choice of crops and land management decisions. About 26 percent of farms, representing 53 percent of all farmland (Figure 6-3), receive Farm Bill commodity payments; an additional 10 percent of all farms and 8 percent of farmland also receive conservation payments without participating in commodity payments (Claassen et al., 2007a). Major provisions of the Farm Bill are the commodity support programs, the crop insurance and disaster programs, conservation programs, and nutritional assistance programs.

Commodity Support Programs

Some provisions of the Farm Bill subsidize the cost of producing commodity crops such as cotton, rice, corn, wheat, and soybean and the cost of producing dairy products, peanuts, and sugar. These Farm Bill crops and products can be grown using a variety of practices and systems, including organic production practices. None of the Farm Bill commodity payments go to nondairy livestock, fruits, and vegetables. Current commodity support programs include direct payments to farmers based on the historical number of acres planted of a particular commodity, and others are tied to target prices that trigger payments. In 2003–2006, the Farm Bill provided more than $63.4 billion in farm subsidies to recipients (not all of whom were commodity producers) (Environmental Working Group, 2009). Commodity payments provide strong incentives to plant program crops or produce dairy products and to maximize yields.

Partly because of a perception that such subsidies might put nonsubsidized fruits and vegetables at a price disadvantage relative to Farm Bill crops, some argue that a portion of Farm Bill payments should be directed toward fruits and vegetable production. In other words, they suggest that “full planting flexibility” be given to existing Farm Bill participants so that these farmers could plant fruits and vegetables instead of traditional Farm Bill crops. However, there is little evidence that “full planting flexibility” would result in sig-

FIGURE 6-3 Commodity payments are large relative to conservation payments; overlap is modest.

FIGURE 6-3 Commodity payments are large relative to conservation payments; overlap is modest.

DATA SOURCE: 2001–2003 Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS).

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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nificant increases in the production of fruits and vegetables (Fumasi et al., 2006; Thornsbury et al., 2007). Direct subsidies to existing fruit and vegetable growers, however, would likely result in an expansion of such production and a lowering of market prices.

Much of the value of commodity payments tends to be capitalized into the price of fixed assets such as land, so that if program payments were to decline, so would farmland prices. High farmland prices can raise the cost of producing crops and dairy products, but farmland can also serve as collateral for loans if a farmer owns the land. However, higher-priced farmland can serve as a barrier to entry for new farmers. Even if new farmers are able to purchase land, they might find the high costs of land make it harder for them to be the low-cost producer.

The commodity support programs in Farm Bills have been criticized for encouraging farming practices that move away from sustainability. Unless effectively inhibited by environmental regulation or other requirements, the commodity programs encourage farmers to convert lands—sometimes marginal lands—to agricultural uses and to use intensive production practices to produce commodity crops. Intensive production practices could lead to farmers using excess inputs (for example, pesticides and fertilizers), neglecting conservation practices, and modifying the hydrology of the landscape extensively (for example, via destruction of wetlands, drainage, or irrigation). The result can be loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity and substantial leaking of dissolved salts, pathogens, and various soil and farm nutrients from the farm that impair the functional integrity of ecosystems (NRC, 1993a; Claassen et al., 2001; Lubowski et al., 2006).

Other criticisms are that the commodity support programs of the Farm Bill accelerate the loss of mid-sized farms and the consolidation of agricultural lands under fewer operators and thereby can undermine the economic viability of rural communities. Because the commodity support programs have resulted in more lands dedicated to feed grains such as corn and soybean than would otherwise be the case, the Farm Bill has also been accused of being a major force in producing a food supply inconsistent with USDA’s dietary health guidelines (Hamm and Bellows, 2003). Abundant and low-cost feed grains have reduced the costs of confined animal feeding, which some critics claim has led to factory-like practices for the production of animal products (Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 2008).

On the other hand, it is difficult to know how much of the land use changes and management would have been the same without the commodity support programs. The Farm Bill might have only accelerated underlying forces toward consolidation, certain crops, and neglect of off-farm costs such as water pollution (Dimitri et al., 2005). Outcomes associated with farm policy deregulation in other countries provide some insights into the U.S. Farm Bill’s influences on sustainability outcomes, although each country’s situation has its own contextual factors that can influence the outcomes. Box 6-4 summarizes some findings of deregulation studies.

The 2008 Farm Bill deviates from earlier Farm Bills in that it provides financial support to farmers to convert to organic production. The 2008 Farm Bill mandates a five-fold increase in research funds for organic production with two research priorities: assessing conservation and environmental outcomes of organic practices and developing new and improved seed varieties for use in organic production systems. It also includes other provisions that might encourage farmers to adopt organic production or other conservation practices, including technical assistance on organic conservation practices and priority given to qualified beginning and socially disadvantaged producers, owners, or tenants who use the loans to convert to organic or other production systems that could improve sustainability (Green, 2009).

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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BOX 6-4

Other Countries’ Experiences with Farm Policy Deregulation

Declining Canadian subsidies of agriculture did not result in diversification of wheat crops in Saskatchewan, Canada. Rather, wheat plantings and a continued reliance on specialized production seem to have expanded (Bradshaw, 2004). In contrast, in southwestern British Columbia, there was a loss of the local fruit and processing industry, forcing diversification away from the production of processed fruits and vegetables, but not in fresh crops (Fraser, 2006). Those studies suggest that the impact of farm policies on crop and livestock specialization cannot be generalized, because responses to deregulation appeared to have been context and locality specific.

Farm policy deregulation in New Zealand and Australia has been followed by fewer but larger farms, increased productivity from adoption of new technologies and improved management practices, and diversification of farm businesses and increased off-farm income (Harris and Rae, 2004; Anderson et al., 2007). Real prices of farmland in New Zealand have recovered from the deregulation shock (Lattimore, 2006; Anderson et al., 2007). Overall, the economic and environmental effects of the New Zealand deregulation appear to be positive (Vitalis, 2007).

Elimination of subsidies in Australia and New Zealand included nonagricultural subsidies, and agricultural subsidies in those countries were smaller than agricultural subsidies in the United States or the European Union. In New Zealand, after deregulation, agriculture’s share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased from 7 percent in the late 1980s to 9 percent in the early 2000s (Anderson et al., 2007). The increase in share might be an explanation for why farmland prices rebounded after substantial declines in the mid-1980s.

Crop Insurance and Disaster Payments

Federal crop insurance programs subsidize the cost of private insurance purchased by farmers in the event of crop failure and enable them to be eligible for disaster assistance. Many banks require farmers to buy crop insurance as a precondition for a loan. Crop insurance subsidies are calculated as a percentage of the total premium (Westcott and Young, 2000). The total premiums depend on the risks of loss associated with each crop on each acre of land, and therefore vary across crops and farms. As a result, the premium subsidies are higher for coverage for production of riskier crops and for production on riskier lands. The premium structure potentially encourages farmers to engage in risky practices and to keep some low-productivity land and some environmentally sensitive lands, such as those with highly erodible soils, in production (Westcott and Young, 2000). A higher proportion of low-quality land than the national average for cultivated cropland is subject to such subsidized payments (Lubowski et al., 2006). Models of crop insurance effects on production decisions suggest that resulting land use effects (such as shifting extensive land from hay and pasture to corn production) increase total chemical use (Wu, 1999).

Crop insurance can be a disincentive for farmers to diversify their production enterprises. One of the reasons that some farmers diversify their production enterprises is to reduce income variation (Donoghue et al., 2009). Lowering the risk of income variation in specialized production systems by crop insurance coverage might motivate farmers to use those systems because of their ease of management and potentially lower production costs relative to diversified systems. The Federal Crop Insurance Reform Act of 1994 raised insurance subsidies for farmers substantially. An analysis of data from the 1992 to 1997 Census of Agriculture and the records of crop insurance adoption from USDA’s Risk Management Agency suggest that farmers increased specialization in response to increases in subsidized crop insurance coverage (Donoghue et al., 2009). The increase in crop insurance

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

might have removed any need for farmers to diversify their production enterprises, which can be a key strategy in improving environmental and economic sustainability and community well-being (Chapters 3, 4, and 5) and an important element for increasing system resilience and adaptability (Walker and Salt, 2006; Naylor, 2008). Strong arguments were made that public policy needs to recouple agriculture with its environmental resource base and to not encourage production systems that are incompatible with resource constraints (Naylor, 2008).

However, not all insurance policies discourage diversification of commodities. The Adjusted Gross Revenue Lite (AGR-Lite) is a federally subsidized, whole-farm revenue insurance policy. AGR-Lite provides higher levels of coverage to farms that have multiple commodities and makes loss payments when the eligible AGR-Lite gross income of the current year is less than the approved AGR-Lite income. AGR-Lite could protect organic production and agricultural production for direct sales (USDA-RMS, 2008).

Organic producers are vulnerable to the same weather risks as other farmers, but also face a number of unique production risks (such as contamination from genetically modified crops on neighboring farms) and potentially greater income losses (associated with higher organic-product premiums in the marketplace). As a result, their participation in traditional crop insurance programs has been relatively low (Hanson et al., 2004).

Conservation Programs

One response to the criticisms of the commodity programs has been the enactment of voluntary conservation programs within the Farm Bill (Claassen and Ribaudo, 2006). Conservation programs include land retirement programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP); working lands or technical assistance programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) or the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP; formerly Conservation Security Program); and programs that make receipt of Farm Bill commodity payments contingent on the reduction of soil erosion losses below a tolerance level (for example, the cross-compliance program).

The Conservation Reserve Program is a voluntary program through which agricultural landowners can receive annual rental payments and cost-share assistance to establish multiyear, resource-conserving covers on eligible farmland (USDA-FSA, 2009). CRP is limited mostly to cropland. In 1997, USDA started the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), a federal-state partnership that targets farmland for retirement in specific geographic areas to further local conservation goals (Lambert et al., 2006). Budget limitations do not allow all crop farmers to enroll in CRP and CREP; nonetheless, those programs contribute to motivating some farmers to improve environmental sustainability by retiring land from agricultural production (Figure 6-4). In general, the retired lands tend to be those vulnerable to soil erosion, but they do not have higher potential nutrient runoff and leaching to water than other cropland areas (Lubowski et al., 2006). CRP retirements are not necessarily permanent because most CRP contracts are for 10 to 15 years. Some researchers argue that CRP can improve its environmental cost-effectiveness by increasing the use of science-based models to establish links between spatial and dynamic processes of land retirement to actual environmental benefits achieved by land retirement (Claassen et al., 2007b; Khanna and Ando, 2009).

EQIP is a voluntary conservation program that provides technical and financial assistance to help participants install or implement conservation practices on eligible agricultural lands (USDA-NRCS, 2009b). The EQIP program and its predecessors (such as the USDA Agricultural Conservation Program and Hydrologic Unit Program) have been

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×
FIGURE 6-4 Distribution of acreage enrolled in CRP or CREP and contracts by major conservation practice as of November 2001.

FIGURE 6-4 Distribution of acreage enrolled in CRP or CREP and contracts by major conservation practice as of November 2001.

NOTE: CRP payments were estimated on the basis of rental and cost-share payments distributed to participants between 1997 and 2001.

FIGURE SOURCE: Lambert et al. (2006).

DATA SOURCE: Barbarika (2001).

linked to significant improvements in soil erosion, water quality, and other environmental indictors (Schnepf and Cox, 2006).

Most EQIP funds have gone to livestock producers (Lambert et al., 2006) and are intended to help those operations reduce agricultural impacts on water and air quality and improve wildlife habitat. EQIP’s funding has increased substantially over the years, and it is widely supported by the farm community (Canada and Zinn, 2005). However, the program has been criticized by some for favoring CAFOs because it prioritizes activities that CAFOs are more likely to be required to pursue to comply with the Clean Water Act. For example, approved activities include improving waste storage facilities, developing comprehensive nutrient management plans, and transporting manure to be applied to crops at environmentally and agronomically sound rates (Gurian-Sherman, 2008). The focus of the program on providing cost-sharing for specific approved best management practices (BMPs) might encourage incremental efforts to reduce pollution from existing farming systems at the expense of encouraging the use of different farming systems that might generate fewer pollution risks and thus improve long-term environmental sustainability.

The 2009 Farm Bill includes an Environmental Quality Incentives Program Organic Initiative. The initiative has about $50 million per year and is designed to assist farmers and ranchers in converting to organic production, to organic farmers and ranchers in expanding existing organic production, and to organic farmers and ranchers in improving environmental performance.

The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is a voluntary, working-land program that provides technical and financial assistance to farmers to maintain conservation prac-

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

tices and to adopt additional conservation practices (USDA-NRCS, 2009a). Payments for addressing priority environmental concerns are made over the life of the contract. CSP gives priority to farmers who have already demonstrated that they are “good stewards.” One justification for the program is the belief that prioritization will motivate the farmers who are not already using conservation practices to do so. However, focusing the program on existing “good stewards” could mean that farmland that would yield the most environmental benefits from the program might be excluded (Feng et al., 2004). On the other hand, CSP can be considered an experiment to design a “green payments” program in which farmers are paid for adoption of conservation practices and not for commodity production (Horan et al., 1999; Batie and Horan, 2002).

Although conservation programs have always been intertwined with commodity programs and although the amount of spending on conservation programs is steadily increasing with each Farm Bill, commodity programs have always been dominant (Dobbs, 2008; Doering, 2008). The dominance of commodity programs is reflected in many of the conservation dollars being spread widely to support farmers’ incomes, rather than being tightly focused on where agrienvironmental problems would most benefit from program attention (Cox, 2007; Batie, 2009). However, CRP has developed environmental indices to identify and focus on lands associated with potential environmental benefits. Targeting CRP through the use of an environmental benefits index has resulted in a substantial increase in overall program benefits when compared to the earlier, less targeted version of the program (Claassen et al., 2003; Cattaneo et al., 2006).

Despite the growing importance of conservation programs as the major source of funding for environmental management on private lands (Cox, 2007) and despite the improvements made in agrienvironmental performance as a result of those programs (Claassen et al., 2004; Gagnon, 2004), the programs are criticized as potential barriers to implementing more practices and systems to improve sustainability. Criticisms that have been leveled at the conservation programs include that they are duplicative and uncoordinated, do not focus on the most serious agrienvironmental problems, penalize some crops used in diverse rotations, do little to promote vegetable and fruit production, and have inadequate environmental performance measures, requirements, and enforcement. Other criticisms involve the impermanence of changes; use of perverse incentives that reward past polluters; inadequate cost sharing for information-intensive system management practices, technical assistance, or more broad landscape coverage; and inappropriate support of out-of-date practices that are ill-suited for environmental management. There is also concern that the conservation programs focus too narrowly on Midwest croplands and land retirement programs and do not have an environmental unit of interest such as watersheds, instead of individual farm fields (Arha et al., 2007; Cox, 2007).

Nutritional Assistance Programs

In Fiscal Year (FY) 2008, about 64 percent of the funding appropriated to USDA was spent on domestic food and nutritional assistance to children and needy families (Oliveira, 2009). The USDA food assistance programs provided $60.7 billion in FY 2008, 11 percent more than in the prior fiscal year (Oliveira, 2009). Those programs include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and payments to the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program, which provide funds to families with very young children to purchase more food, and to the school lunch and breakfast programs. Included in the nutritional programs are initiatives that could provide opportunities for small and local farmers. For example, the recently expanded WIC and Electronic Banking Transaction pro-

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

grams help lower-income families increase their access to fresh foods. The 2008 Farm Bill set aside 10 percent of available grant money for new Electronic Banking Transaction projects at farmers’ markets. Because all SNAP benefits are provided through such electronic systems, the technology is essential to open up farmers’ markets to SNAP consumers. The WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) provides voucher coupons to WIC mothers and children to exchange for fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets and roadside stands. In 2008, 16,016 farmers, 3,367 farmers’ markets, and 2,398 roadside stands were authorized to accept FMNP coupons. Coupons redeemed through the FMNP generated more than $20 million in revenue to farmers (USDA-FNS, 2009). The program, particularly if expanded, could provide incentives for additional farmers (those who directly produce for the end-consumer) to become involved in farmers’ markets and, presumably, contribute to community well-being.

Trade Policies

Many U.S. farmers’ planting and production decisions are heavily influenced by trade and trade policies. Indeed, with the productivity of U.S. agriculture growing faster than domestic demand for food and fiber, U.S. farmers rely increasingly on export markets to sustain prices and incomes. Imports also influence markets prices. For example, importing fresh fruits and vegetables can stabilize year-round supplies and dampen fluctuations in prices for domestic products, but they pose a competitive challenge to U.S. producers. Volumes, prices, and content of trade are influenced by many factors, including exchange rates and such governmental policies as domestic commodity payments, export subsidies, or import rules and tariffs.

Multilateral trade organizations play an increasingly important role in shaping domestic trade policies. The largest and most influential is the World Trade Organization (WTO). The United States is a member of WTO, whose objective is to reduce barriers to agricultural market access in trading countries, phase out export subsidies, and reduce trade-distorting agricultural income support programs, such as direct commodity subsidies. Disputes between member nations over trade policies and domestic agricultural support can be addressed by WTO (USDA-ERS, 2009d).

WTO rulings on trade and domestic support policies can have important influences on farmers’ production choices. For example, recent WTO trade dispute rulings against U.S. support of domestic cotton could have a variety of impacts on U.S. farmers’ production decisions. On one hand, if the United States complies with the WTO ruling against its domestic cotton programs (it has not yet done so), the resulting modifications in the cotton programs could reduce profitability of production. At the same time, U.S. compliance with the WTO cotton ruling would likely require a change in U.S. domestic cotton subsidies that would eliminate the existing prohibition on the planting of fruits and vegetables on cotton program acreage. In either case, such a result demonstrates the effect of trade and domestic support policies (both the existing policies and potential changes in policies) on decisions of U.S. producers.

In addition to global trade agreements such as those managed by WTO, many regional trade agreements (RTAs) affect trade patterns around the world (Burfisher and Jones, 1998). The United States participates in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Unlike WTO, which is multilateral and seeks to reduce trade barriers among all its members, RTAs seek to reduce trade barriers only among the few signatories of the agreement. For example, NAFTA is a comprehensive trade-liberalizing agreement among Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Its

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

purpose is to progressively eliminate tariff and quota barriers to agricultural trade, facilitate science-based sanitary and phytosanitary standards, and increase cross-border cooperation on issues associated with agricultural labor and the environment among the three member nations (USDA-ERS, 2009e).

Because global and regional trade agreements often limit the independence of individual countries’ farm and environmental programs, there are concerns that they could hamper an individual country’s ability to support agricultural sustainability attributes (Tothova, 2009). Trade agreements often include some trade-legal mechanisms for countries to protect desired landscapes, reduce emissions of greenhouses gases, dictate certain production practices (such as the use of pesticides, growth hormones, genetically engineered crops, or cruelty-free animal care), or demand certain labor working conditions (such as fair trade). However, because many disputes involve disagreements about acceptable risks for food safety or appropriate ethics for fair and humane production practices, no clear line of demarcation ascertains when such trade protection is a legitimate tool to accomplish a country’s desired sustainability outcomes or desire for self-sufficiency in times of food shortages versus when it is a means of protecting domestic producers from international trade competition. If it is the latter, then such protection could violate international trade agreements. Some recent WTO trade disputes between the United States and the European Union about hormones in meat or the planting of genetically engineered crops indicate the difficulty of determining the line of demarcation between achieving domestic policy objectives and protecting domestic producers in such complex issues that involve the attributes of goods or production methods. As a result, legitimate concerns have arisen that sustainability attributes might be omitted or impaired in the pursuit of more liberalized trade (Batie and Schwiekhardt, 2009; Tothova, 2009) or that the imposition of sustainability requirements in traded products (for example, nongenetically engineered) attributes could limit U.S. farmers’ ability to profitably supply commodities that have those attributes. Indeed, the failure of the 2009 Doha WTO trade rounds to reach a resolution as to how to manage countries’ domestic sustainability objectives in the context of liberalized trade emphasizes the complexity of these issues. WTO might have to reconsider its policies to provide a balance between the objectives of each country’s domestic sustainability and trade liberalization (Batie and Schweikhardt, 2009).

Energy Policy

The Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 was enacted to “to move the United States toward greater energy independence and security, to increase the production of clean renewable fuels, to protect consumers, to increase the efficiency of products, buildings, and vehicles, to promote research on and deploy greenhouse gas capture and storage options, and to improve the energy performance of the Federal Government, and for other purposes.” EISA was signed into law on December 19, 2007, and took effect in January 1, 2009. A subtitle within the bill, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), is designed to promote the production and consumption of biofuels by requiring minimum annual levels of renewable fuels in U.S. transportation fuels. Previously, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 had established a national renewable fuel standard that mandated an increased use of renewable fuels from 4 billion gallons per year in 2006 to 7.5 billion gallons per year in 2012. EISA amended that standard to set forth a phase-in for renewable fuel volumes beginning with 9 billion gallons in 2008 and ending at 36 billion gallons in 2022. The 2007 EISA requires 10.5 billion gallons of conventional ethanol to be used in 2009, 12 billion gallons in 2010, and continual increases until a maximum of 15 billion gallons in 2015 through 2022.

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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The bill also requires cellulosic biofuels to be used starting in 2010, rising dramatically from 100 million gallons in 2010 to 16 billion gallons in 2022 (Table 6-3).

To facilitate market penetration of biofuels, the federal government has adopted several policies that subsidize biofuels production. Specifically, the USDA Commodity Credit Corporation’s (CCC) Bioenergy Program, announced in 2000, has made cash payments to commercial bioenergy (ethanol and biodiesel) producers in the United States who increase their bioenergy production from eligible commodities. The program was aimed to expand markets for agricultural commodities and to promote the use of biofuels (USDA-FSA, 2000; USDA, 2000). The American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 provided a $0.51 tax credit per gallon of ethanol blended to companies that blend ethanol and a $0.50–$1.00 per gallon tax credit, depending on the feedstock, to biodiesel producers.

The impact of those policies on American agricultural practices has been profound. As discussed in Chapter 2, the corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel industries emerged rapidly and contributed to shifts in the acreages planted to those crops. Whether and how cellulosic biofuels consumption mandates will influence farmers’ choice of crops or management systems are yet to be seen. In each case, new biofuel policies and market opportunities will

TABLE 6-3 Mandated Consumption Targets for Various Biofuels Under the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA)

Year

(In billions of gallons)

Conventional Biofuela

Advanced Biofuelb

Cellulosic Biofuelc

Biomass-based Dieseld

Total RFS

2008

9.0

9.000

2009

10.5

0.600

0.500

11.100

2010

12.0

0.950

0.100

0.650

12.950

2011

12.6

1.350

0.250

0.800

13.950

2012

13.2

2.000

0.500

1.000

15.200

2013

13.8

2.750

1.000

e

16.550

2014

14.4

3.750

1.750

e

18.150

2015

15.0

5.500

3.000

e

20.500

2016

15.0

7.250

4.250

e

22.250

2017

15.0

9.000

5.500

e

24.000

2018

15.0

11.000

7.000

e

26.000

2019

15.0

13.000

8.500

e

28.000

2020

15.0

15.000

10.500

e

30.000

2021

15.0

18.000

13.500

e

33.000

2022

15.0

21.000

16.000

e

36.000

aConventional biofuel means renewable fuel that is ethanol derived from corn starch.

bAdvanced biofuel means renewable fuel, other than ethanol derived from corn starch, that has lifecycle greenhouse-gas emissions, as determined by the administrator, after notice and opportunity for comment, that are at least 50 percent less than baseline lifecycle greenhouse-gas emissions.

cCellulosic biofuel means renewable fuel derived from any cellulose, hemicellulose, or lignin that is derived from renewable biomass and that has lifecycle greenhouse-gas emissions, as determined by the administrator, that are at least 60 percent less than the baseline lifecycle greenhouse-gas emissions.

dBiomass-based diesel means renewable fuel that is biodiesel and that has lifecycle greenhouse-gas emissions, as determined by the administrator, after notice and opportunity for comment, that are at least 50 percent less than the baseline lifecycle greenhouse-gas emissions.

eAt least 1.000 (specific amount to be determined by the administrator).

SOURCE: EPA (2009a).

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

provide complex new incentives and disincentives for producers to use farming practices described in Chapter 3 (for example, crop rotations, cover crops, reduced tillage, and integrated pest management), which will affect the sustainability performance of the U.S. farm sector. Science-informed policy is important if the positive social and environmental attributes of biofuel production are to be achieved (Robertson et al., 2008). Research is needed to design standardized metrics and approaches and to develop decision-support tools to identify and quantify environmental, food versus fuel, water use, or other potential sustainability tradeoffs for biofuel production (Williams et al., 2009). Otherwise, the effect of biofuel production on resilience of the food production system and environmental quality is uncertain (Naylor, 2008).

Environmental Regulation

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a number of laws and programs that could affect agricultural producers. (Similarly, many states have their own regulations.) A description of the major federal laws and programs that could affect farmers and their requirements are listed on EPA’s website (EPA, 2007). This section uses a few of those regulations to illustrate their potential influence on farmers’ adoption of various farming practices and systems and their effect on improving sustainability in U.S. agriculture. Other federal agencies also administer regulations that affect farmers’ decisions. The Department of the Interior, for example, administers the Endangered Species Act, and the Food and Drug Administration provides food safety guidelines and administers food safety requirements.

Clean Air Act

The Federal Clean Air Act established the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for criteria pollutants: carbon monoxide (CO), particulate matter (PM), lead (Pb), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and ozone (O3). It also regulates 188 hazardous air pollutants. The law aims to control “major sources” of emissions that exceed the specified thresholds. Although agricultural production is not exempt from the statute, most farms do not exceed the specified thresholds (Copeland, 2009). Among the six criteria air pollutants, two (PM and NO2) are emitted by animal feeding operations (AFOs). Volatile organic compounds are also emitted by livestock production facilities. Large AFOs that exceed the emissions thresholds are regulated by the Clean Air Act and are required to apply for permits. In addition to the Clean Air Act, some livestock operations are subject to reporting requirements under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, the Superfund law) and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) if large quantities of certain hazardous substances are released into the environment, including ambient air. The Clean Air Act, CERCLA, and EPCRA might motivate owners and operators of large operations to adopt technologies or practices that reduce the emissions of criteria pollutants and hazardous pollutants so that they do not exceed the thresholds of emissions to be considered “major sources,” but the acts only apply to a small percentage of farm operations.

Clean Water Act

The objective of the Clean Water Act is to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters by addressing point and nonpoint pollution sources, providing assistance to publicly owned treatment works to improve wastewater

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

treatment, and maintaining the integrity of wetlands” (EPA, 2007). The statute distinguishes between point source and nonpoint source pollution. CAFOs are considered a point source of pollution. Under EPA’s revised regulations in 2003, AFOs that meet a specific regulatory threshold number of animals (see EPA, 2002, for the threshold number of animals) are defined as CAFOs for purposes of permit requirements and discharge allowances. CAFOs are required to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit and are subject to effluent limitations on pollutant discharges. An unpermitted CAFO has an option to certify to the permitting authority that the CAFO does not discharge or propose to discharge and thus avoid the necessity of a permit. Other animal feeding operations are not required by the Clean Water Act to obtain a NPDES permit; however, they might be regulated by state programs. As a result, only about 15,500 of the largest animal feeding operations that confine cattle, dairy cows, swine, sheep, chickens, laying hens, and turkeys, or about 6.5 percent of all animal confinement facilities in the United States, are required to obtain NPDES permits under the Clean Water Act (Copeland, 2009). The Clean Water Act contributes to preventing those 6.5 percent of CAFOs from unpermitted discharges into water bodies, but does not necessarily encourage them to improve in environmental sustainability. Studies suggest that the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act regulations, along with state regulations, encouraged a shift in production of hogs from the Southeast to the Midwest during the late 1990s to the mid 2000s. The regional shifts were in response to regulations that require reducing waste and odor from large manure lagoons and reducing land applications of manure (Key et al., 2009).

Most other agricultural activities are considered nonpoint sources of pollution, which are generally governed by state water quality planning provisions of the act. Section 319 of the Clean Water Act was enacted to guide states in conducting nonpoint source assessments and in developing and implementing nonpoint source management programs, but there are no federal regulatory requirements. The states have a wide array of enforceable mechanisms for controlling nonpoint source pollution, some of which pertain to agriculture. Some states prohibit the discharge of pollutants or waste without a permit and have enforceable laws for the control of erosion of sediments, but agricultural enterprises are often exempt from those laws (Environmental Law Institute, 1997). Most state plans rely primarily on voluntary programs to promote the adoption of practices for reducing nonpoint source pollution (Feather and Cooper, 1995). Such voluntary programs as education and technical assistance seem to be most effective in encouraging adoption if the practices involve only small, inexpensive changes in the farming operation and are profitable to the farmer. Incentive payments or cost-sharing can encourage adoption of best management practices, but the adoption rates vary across practices and geographic areas (Feather and Cooper, 1995).

In addition to regulating discharges, the Clean Water Act provides funding to states, territories, and Indian tribes to support a wide variety of activities aimed at reducing nonpoint pollution under Section 319(h). For example, Indiana uses some of its Section 319(h) funds in an agricultural cost-share program that encourages the implementation of BMPs.

Food Quality Protection Act

Many regulations are designed to ensure food safety, most of which affect processes beyond the farm gate. One exception is the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) of 1996, which can affect on-farm practices. Signed into law on August 3, 1996, FQPA amended the two major pesticides law at that time—the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

Act and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act1—to establish a consistent, protective regulatory scheme for both fresh and processed foods (EPA, 2009b). FQPA is a major change in U.S. pesticide policy because it requires a single, health-based standard for all pesticides in all foods. Under FQPA, all exposures to pesticides (including exposure to pesticide residues through food and water and such nonoccupational exposures as lawn and garden treatments) are added together to determine aggregate risk. Cumulative risks also are considered. EPA is also required to review pesticide registrations and allowable tolerances on food products. In doing so, EPA is to provide special protections from pesticide residues for infants, children, and other susceptible consumers.

FQPA requires that regulatory action be taken before uncertainty about possible environmental or health damages is scientifically resolved. That is, FQPA uses a “reasonable certainty of no harm” as the general safety standard (EPA, 2010). That approach is sometimes referred to as implementing the “precautionary principle,” which rejects the assertion that absence of evidence of harm necessarily equates with safe food. As such, FQPA represents a major break with earlier legislation in that it is a reversal of the burden of proof for pesticide safety (Swinton and Batie, 2001). FQPA requires an explicit determination that pesticide tolerances are safe, particularly to infants and children, and the absence of evidence of harm is not adequate to meet the requirements of FQPA. Conceptually, the use of the precautionary principle could reframe the policy question from “how much of a pesticide is safe?” to “are there alternative agricultural systems that do not require pesticides to be productive?” (NRC, 2009).

FQPA also provides for quick review of reduced-risk pesticides to enable them to reach the market sooner to replace older, potentially riskier chemicals and to provide information to farmers on crop protection alternatives. In addition, FQPA requires EPA to reevaluate pesticide registrations and tolerances every 15 years and to include endocrine disruption potential in their reevaluations. Farmers would have to adopt reduced-risk pesticides or biological control methods as a result of FQPA (Wheeler, 2002). However, EPA is lagging in its implementation of FQPA and has been sued for failure to pull pesticides considered by some to be particularly dangerous (Fortrin, 2009). Some refer to the EPA process of risk assessment as being “bogged down” as EPA struggles to keep up with demands for hazard and dose-response information. Major risk assessments of some chemicals take as long as 10 years (NRC, 2009).

To comply with FQPA, some processors specify in their contracts with farmers which pesticides and fungicides to avoid and the length of post-harvest intervals. As EPA continues to implement FQPA and as more is learned, adjustments in how farmers could apply pesticides and which pesticides will be available are likely. Some farmers might be more likely to adopt pest management approaches other than synthetic pesticides as some of the synthetics become unavailable.

Food Safety Guidelines and Standards

Since the 1990s, researchers, agencies, and agriculture industries have worked toward developing food safety guidelines to minimize the risk of food contamination. Those guidelines are frequently embedded in marketing agreements. For example, more than 99 percent

1

Under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, EPA registers pesticides for use in the United States and prescribes labeling and other regulatory requirements to prevent unreasonable adverse effects on human health or the environment. Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, EPA establishes tolerances (maximum legally permissible levels) for pesticide residues in food (EPA, 2009b).

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

of the leafy greens produced in California come from growers who have agreed to adhere to best management practices detailed in the Commodity Specific Food Safety Guidelines for the Production and Harvest of Lettuce and Leafy Greens (California Leafy Green Handler Marketing Board, 2007). In addition, many retailers who handle or sell leafy green produce have developed their own safety requirements (Beretti and Stuart, 2008). Many retailers require certain approved agricultural practices as part of a hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) management approach. HACCP is a management system in which food safety is addressed through the analysis and control of biological, chemical, and physical hazards from raw material production, procurement, and handling to manufacturing, distribution, and consumption of the finished product. The principles of HACCP have been universally accepted by government agencies, trade associations, and the food industry around the world. Sometimes, on-farm food safety audits to ensure that farmers are following food safety principles have resulted in buyers, auditors, or others discouraging or eliminating noncrop vegetation, water bodies, and wildlife in and around the fields. Some California growers, for example, are encouraged to or are actively removing conservation practices in response to food safety audits (Beretti and Stuart, 2008). A 2007 survey of 600 California row crop operations found that 21 percent of the leafy green growers have actively removed one or more conservation practices because of food safety concerns. Conservation practices removed include ponds and reservoirs, irrigation reuse systems, and noncrop vegetation such as grassed waterways or trees and shrubs. Many growers felt they were pressured into making those changes in their management practices, and they felt the changes would have adverse effects on the environment (Beretti and Stuart, 2008).

Endangered Species Act

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) provides a program for the conservation of threatened and endangered plants and animals and the habitat in which they are found. Any private landowner, such as a farmer, who might incidentally harm such plants and animals is required to obtain an incidental take permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service to be protected from ESA violation. To obtain a permit, the applicant needs to develop an approved habitat conservation plan (HCP) designed to offset any harmful effects of the proposed activity (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2009).

Farmers who are farming land on which threatened or endangered plants and animals might reside could find their farming choices constrained. In addition, as Box 6-5 illustrates, conflicts arise over water use for protection of endangered animals.

Water Use Policies

As discussed in Chapter 2, water availability is a growing concern, particularly in the U.S. West and Southwest, because of increasing demand driven by population growth and by the specter of climate change diminishing future supplies. The availability of water and the price of water influence the choices made by farmers who rely on irrigation in times of drought. Availability and pricing are affected by water law and by biophysical supplies. Under U.S. law, water is deemed “personal property.” A water right is a right to use a certain quantity of water at a certain place each year as long as the water right holder follows the law and the prescribed conditions of the water right (Peck, 2007), which could include attention to negative impacts on other uses and users. The federal government manages one-third of the nation’s land and associated water resources. Aside from water resources in federally managed lands and lands of Indian Tribes, water rights are mostly regulated

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

BOX 6-5

The Endangered Species Act and Water Allocations

Farmers’ choices are heavily influenced by their ability to access water with certainty over time. Certainty in water access can be compromised when various other policies interact with water law doctrine and agreements. Some policies have goals other than protection of farmer incomes, such as protection of habitat. Cases related to the Klamath River Basin and the Delta smelt in the San Francisco Bay delta illustrate some of the potential conflicts.

The Klamath Project in California was authorized by the U.S. Congress in early 1905 to supply farmers with irrigation water and farmland. The project involved the construction of storage and distribution systems, and extensive drainage of lakes and wetlands around Tule Lake and Lower Klamath Lake so that agriculture could displace natural aquatic habitats (USBR, 2000). Farmland from the Klamath Project was to be sold to people (mostly veterans) by the federal government in parcels of up to 80 acres, but not the water rights. Irrigators, however, were promised use of sufficient water each year. During the early 1900s, farmers and ranchers removed riparian vegetation and valley forests along the lower Klamath River and its tributaries (CDFG, 1934). The extensive modifications of the Klamath Basin led to changes in the basin’s biota and led to particular concern in the abundance and distribution of fish species (NRC, 2008). Now, the Endangered Species Act requires that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) make assessments of the effects of Klamath Project operations on fishes listed as threatened or endangered and consult about their assessments with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for Lost River and shortnose suckers in Klamath Lake and with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for coho salmon in the lower Klamath River. As a result of consultations in 2001, USBR was required to allot more water to the lake and to the river than had been planned, leaving less water for agriculture than had previously been allocated. The restrictive water allocation and the fact that 2001 was a dry year led to hardship for farmers in the Klamath Basin (NRC, 2008).

In 1993, a coalition of conservation groups successfully brought lawsuits against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to force the agency to protect California’s Delta smelt as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act and as an important part of the food chain for fisheries such as salmon. That decision meant that enough water had to be left in the San Francisco Bay Delta water systems to protect the smelt’s habitat. Thus, when the current severe drought in this region meant that junior water appropriators were unable to obtain enough water for irrigation, the possible provision of more water to fill their water claims was blocked because of the legal requirement to protect the Delta smelt (The Wall Street Journal, 2009). The decision to protect the Delta smelt rather than pump more water remains highly controversial and contested.

at the state level. Special water districts are tasked to supply water to communities below the state level (Leshy, 2009). Water rights and disputes over them have profound effects on water availability for agriculture. As illustrated in this section through a few examples, water rights regulations could affect agricultural production’s movement along the sustainability trajectory.

Surface Water

Most surface water law in the western regions of the United States began as “prior appropriation” water law doctrine—sometimes referred to as “first in time, first in right.” With this doctrine, the first individual(s) to claim water in a waterway for beneficial use has the first priority to the water, and a water right not exercised for a period of years is relinquished (Howitt and Hansen, 2005). For example, Utah has a “use it or lose it” law related to water rights, and its intent is to discourage efforts to speculate in or monopolize the resource (Utah Division of Water Rights, 2009). Such a relinquishment provision dis-

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

courages conservation and leasing of water. Therefore, some states (such as Texas) have modified their water rights to allow water rights holders to retain for future use the rights to water conserved through efficiency (Texas Center for Policy Studies, 1995). Some western states’ laws allow leasing of water rights to others for a period of time and for a price. Water banks that function to manage water supplies to meet demands facilitate trade of water as a commodity between willing buyers and sellers, but without relinquishing existing water right entitlements and without injury to other water rights holders or the public interest (Pratt, 1994).

Because the water laws were first formulated in the late 19th century—when most senior claims on water were filed and when water transfers between users were not envisioned—reallocation of rights to use water have frequently been difficult, costly, and time consuming, or legally blocked. Although many western states have made the selling and transferring of water rights possible on a short- or long-term basis since then, many obstacles remain, including high costs and negative impacts on third parties and on endangered species (Howitt and Hansen, 2005). (See Box 6-5.) Although flexible transferability is highly advantageous for managing water on a statewide basis during drought or in supplying rapidly growing population centers, there is concern that the higher value of water for urban and industrial use will funnel substantial water from agriculture and cause permanent productivity losses (WTW, 2002). That concern is particularly strong because some sales of water from agricultural to urban uses have netted millions of dollars for the selling farmer (see, for example, Nidever, 2009).

Ground Water

California’s ground water is largely unregulated (NSTC and BLM, 2001). With the exception of ground water that is classified as return flow or adjudicated basins subject to monitoring by a court-appointed Water Master, overlying landowners in California are allowed to make reasonable use of ground water without obtaining permission or approval and can continue to extract water irrespective of the condition of the aquifer (Cooley et al., 2009). In the absence of ground water monitoring and oversight, aquifers in California have been seriously overdrafted. A new study from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that the volume of ground water in California’s Central Valley aquifer has declined by 60 million acre feet since 1961, with water table declines as much as 400 feet in certain regions (Faunt, 2009).

In contrast to California, Arizona’s State Legislature passed a Groundwater Management Code that created “Active Management Areas” to respond to severe overdraft. The code restructured water rights, prohibited irrigation of new agricultural lands in Active Management Areas, created a comprehensive system of conservation targets updated every decade, developed a program that requires developers to demonstrate a 100-year assured water supply for new growth, and required ground water users to meter wells and report on annual water withdrawal and use (Cooley et al., 2009).

Other important disincentives against water conservation are the underpricing and subsidies of water for agricultural use and the absence of a tiered increase in cost as the volume of water consumed increases. The low cost of water to farmers encourages the use of high-water-consumption irrigation practices, such as flood or furrow application. Low water cost discourages adaptation of capital-intensive, but highly efficient technology, such as drip irrigation.

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×
Conjunctive Use

Conjunctive use of ground and surface water acknowledges the inherent hydrological interconnections between these apparently different sources of supply. At its simplest, conjunctive use entails the reliance on surface water during times of average or above average precipitation and runoff. During drought periods or other times when surface water availability is constrained, use shifts to ground water, which tends to be buffered to some extent from the variability to which surface water is subject. One suggestion is to manage ground water as a reservoir for use during periods of surface water shortfall and recharge it during periods of normal or above normal availability of surface water. Sophisticated schemes of conjunctive use employ managed recharge whereby excess surface waters are captured and transformed into ground water. Managed recharge can be accomplished simply through the use of surface spreading or through direct injection, which generally requires significant investment in facilities (Jury and Vaux, 2007). Economic-engineering models have been developed to optimize the California water supply system, and these models suggest that water transfers and exchanges and conjunctive use could contribute to improved water use performance (Draper et al., 2003; Jenkins et al., 2004).

Animal Welfare Regulations

Several states have passed legislation, termed animal welfare legislation, which mandates certain practices to follow for livestock production. Maine and California, for example, have statutes that require any enclosures or tethers confining specified farm animals allow the animals to fully extend their limbs or wings, lie down, stand up, and turn around for the majority of the day. Specified animals include calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens, and pregnant pigs. Exceptions are made for transportation, fairs, rodeos, research, and veterinary purposes (Swanson, 2009). The new statutes reflect a growing public interest in the treatment of animals, and many producer associations are responding with their own codes of ethical treatment (Swanson, 2009). Because those statutes, which include fines and imprisonment penalties for noncompliance, are now law, other states will likely add similar legislation; some producers will have to change management of their livestock and poultry.

KNOWLEDGE INSTITUTIONS AS CONTEXTUAL FACTORS

Research and experimentation, whether by scientists or farmers, contribute to the development of specific agricultural tools and approaches that help farmers address various sustainability objectives. Previous chapters provided numerous examples of farming practices designed to improve sustainability, most of which have been shaped by public and private sector scientific research and development activities. Moreover, understanding the effects of different types of farming practices or systems on productivity, the environment, and economic and social outcomes is informed by both formal scientific studies and years of farmers’ experiences with those approaches. Options that farmers have and their decisions to use a particular practice or type of production system are thus shaped by the availability of appropriate technologies or techniques, and by their understanding of the impacts of the practices on their farm, the environment, their community, and the nation as a whole. Importantly, the breadth of possible agricultural sustainability research topics greatly exceeds the time and resources available to scientists and farmers. As a result,

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

choices about the organization and focus of agricultural research activities can drive and constrain movement along the sustainability trajectory.

Publicly Funded Agricultural Research and Extension

Many of the changes over the past century in agricultural sector productivity, farmer quality of life, livestock animal health, and environmental performance associated with U.S. agriculture have been shaped by public sector investments in agricultural research, education, and extension programs at the state and federal level (NRC, 2002). Numerous studies have shown that investments in public agricultural research have demonstrated consistent economic rates of return of $10 in social benefits for every $1 invested (Fuglie and Heisey, 2007).

The large public investment in agricultural research and extension has long been justified based on the social benefits—in terms of improved factor productivity and a sustained supply of inexpensive and high-quality food—associated with technical gains in farming practices and growing labor efficiency in the farm sector. Examples of public welfare benefits include the often-cited high rates of return on public research investments (Huffman and Evenson, 2006). Publicly funded scientific research has been viewed as necessary because of inherent problems in the economic incentives of private sector inventors, who might find it impossible to capture the benefits of new innovations through market mechanisms because of insecure intellectual property rights (Fuglie et al., 2000).

Land-Grant Universities

Most publicly funded research and extension takes place at the state level, where a network of Land-Grant Universities (LGUs) and State Agricultural Experiment Stations (SAES) spends over $3.3 billion annually on agricultural research, education, and extension programs (Holt, 2007). The federal vision for the LGUs began with the 1862 Morrill Act, which gave states parcels of public land (“land grants”) to sell to raise revenues to create public universities in every state in the Union. The Morrill Act gave LGUs their teaching responsibilities and was expanded with the 1887 Hatch Act to create SAES, which use a mix of state and federal funds to support the research activities of LGU scientists working on rural, food, and agricultural research topics. In 1914, the Smith-Lever Act provided additional funds to support the development of agricultural extension systems designed to extend new scientific knowledge, technologies, and management ideas to farmers and others in rural America. The tripartite LGU mission of teaching, research, and extension is a uniquely American invention designed to democratize institutions of higher learning, apply the principles of science to solve applied problems in agriculture and industry, and ensure that the benefits of research are made widely available to people throughout society (McDowell, 2001).

U.S. Department of Agriculture

In addition to the SAES system, USDA conducts a large proportion of publicly funded agricultural research and extension. Specifically, the USDA Research, Education and Economics (REE) mission area includes three major agencies that carry out important agricultural scientific research at the federal level. The largest is the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), which maintains a network of regional research stations organized into eight geographic areas. Research within the ARS system currently occurs within 19 national

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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program areas within 4 broader areas: animal production and protection; crop production and protection; nutrition and food safety and quality; and natural resources and sustainable agriculture (Knipling and C.E. Rexroad, 2007). The other major REE agencies are the Economic Research Service (ERS), the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA; formerly known as Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service).

Distribution of Federal Funds for Agricultural Research

In discussions about improving the sustainability of U.S. agriculture, one of the most commonly suggested policy levers is the use of publicly funded research programs to bolster innovation and overcome obstacles to innovative agricultural practices and farming systems. The distribution of public agricultural research and development (R&D) funding from different sources is highlighted in Figure 6-5, which illustrates the importance of public agricultural research funding in three different ways. At the top of the figure, the entire federal research and development budget is disaggregated to highlight the importance of expenditures on research channeled through USDA. In 2005, USDA managed roughly 2 percent of total federal R&D. The middle of Figure 6-5 disaggregates the total amount of public spending on agricultural research from all sources in 2005. USDA research spending

FIGURE 6-5 Estimated importance of publicly funded agricultural research in the United States, by major funding source, 2005.

FIGURE 6-5 Estimated importance of publicly funded agricultural research in the United States, by major funding source, 2005.

DATA SOURCE: Pollak (2009), and Schimmelpfennig and Heisey (2009).

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

makes up just over 40 percent of the total public agricultural science portfolio, and roughly two-thirds of the USDA budget is committed to in-house spending through the ARS, ERS, and NASS, with an additional $668 million sent to state-level agricultural researchers (primarily at LGUs) through various programs administered by USDA-NIFA. Other important public sources of agricultural research funds include state appropriations ($1.3 billion, or roughly 27 percent of the national total), funding of state-level research by other non-USDA federal agencies (15 percent), and private industry funding of state-level research (15 percent). For example, California’s SAES spent more than $276 million in 2005 alone, an amount that exceeds the entire USDA competitive research grants budget (Holt, 2007).

The bottom of Figure 6-5 illustrates the distribution of USDA funds that are provided to state-level agricultural researchers and institutions. Although the original Hatch Act established a formula for the distribution of federal funds to each LGU based on rural populations and farm numbers, “formula funds” are currently one-third of the total USDA support of the SAES system. The most important source of funding for the SAES are appropriations from state legislatures, some portion of which is required to match any federal formula funds received. State appropriations contribute roughly 40 percent of the total SAES expenditures (Holt, 2007).

A second major mechanism for distributing USDA funds is through national peer-reviewed competitive research grant programs, renamed Agriculture and Food Research Institute (AFRI; formerly the National Research Initiative) in 2008. NIFA administers this program (Jacobs-Young et al., 2007). The USDA Competitive Grants Program began in response to a National Research Council report (NRC, 1972) that criticized the quality of agricultural research in the United States and the traditional formula funding approach to allocating resources. The original USDA Competitive Grants Program was created in 1977 and received $15 million in congressional appropriations in its first year. In 1989, another NRC report (NRC, 1989b) and a report by the U.S. Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment (U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment, 1990) recommended expanding and refocusing the USDA Competitive Grants Program with a funding level of at least $500 million per year. Congress created the new National Research Initiative (NRI) in 1990, but has never appropriated more than $190 million for the program, which is well below the maximum level authorized in the founding legislation.

In 2008, USDA reorganized its research programs under the umbrella of AFRI, modeled after the successful National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH). Expenditures by the AFRI program areas in FY 2009 are listed in Table 6-4. Overall, AFRI allocated 57 percent of grant funds to plant and animal productivity research; 17.6 percent to food safety; 17.2 percent to renewable energy, natural resources, and the environment; 2.8 percent to agricultural systems; and 5 percent to agricultural economics and rural communities. Much of AFRI’s research focuses on process-level science and component interactions in applied agricultural systems, so it is positioned between the basic research of NSF programs and the applied research done through farmer collaboration. Most AFRI research is integrated among biological and natural resource-based disciplines, but a small part has significant economic or social science integration at the systems level. In some program areas, research is integrated through the mandatory inclusion of educational and extension outreach activities to disseminate results of applied research projects.

Other sources of USDA funding for the SAES system include special grants (typically legislative earmarks for specific research programs in particular states) and cooperative research agreements between CSREES (or other USDA agencies) and state research institutions. In most years, those projects have received federal research allocations that have exceeded the size of competitive granting programs.

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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TABLE 6-4 USDA-AFRI Competitive Grants Funding by Program, 2009 Request for Applications

Program Category/Name

Million $

Integrateda

ALL PROGRAMS COMBINED:

189,050

$64,200

Plant Health and Production and Plant Products

73,450

 

Arthropod and Nematode Biology and Management

12,500

no

Plant Biology

12,250

no

Microbial Genomics

11,000

no

Applied Plant Genomics CAPb

10,000

yes

Microbial Biology: Microbial Associations with Plants

7,400

no

Plant Genome, Genetics, and Breeding

6,500

no

Plant Breeding and Education

6,500

yes

Plant Biosecurity

4,300

yes

Protection of Managed Bees CAP

3,000

yes

Animal Health and Production and Animal Products

35,000

 

Animal Genome, Genetics, and Breeding

11,000

no

Animal Health and Well-Being

11,000

no

Animal Growth and Nutrient Utilization

4,500

no

Animal Reproduction

4,500

no

Integrated Solutions for Animal Agriculture

4,000

yes

Food Safety, Nutrition, and Health

33,300

 

Food Safety and Epidemiology

11,200

mixed

Human Nutrition and Obesity

11,000

yes

Improving Food Quality and Value

6,500

no

Bioactive Food Components for Optimal Health

4,600

no

Renewable Energy, Natural Resources, and Environment

32,500

 

Air Quality

5,000

yes

Biology of Weedy and Invasive Species in Agroecosystems

4,600

yes

Managed Ecosystems

4,500

yes

Global and Climate Change

4,500

no

Enhancing Ecosystem Services from Agricultural Lands

4,500

no

Water and Watersheds

4,300

no

Soil Processes

4,100

no

Sustainable Agroecosystems Science Long-Term Agroecosystem Program

1,000

yes

Agriculture Systems and Technology

5,400

 

Biobased Products and Bioenergy Production Research

5,400

no

Agriculture Economics and Rural Communities

9,400

 

Agricultural Prosperity for Small and Medium-Sized Farms

4,800

yes

Agribusiness Markets and Trade

4,600

no

aIntegrated projects require major efforts in at least two of three areas: research, outreach, education.

bCAP = Coordinated Agricultural Project.

Broadening Review of Public Competitive Grant Programs

The issue of balancing competitive and non-peer-reviewed (formula funding) mechanisms for allocating federal research dollars to agriculture has been discussed in some research and policy literature (Huffman and Evenson, 2006; Schimmelpfennig and Heisey, 2009). Most observers argue that a competitive peer-reviewed allocation process would

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

more closely approximate the process used in most other federal agencies (for example, NIH and NSF) and would be more likely to generate high-quality basic science research, to encourage scientists to address national priorities, and to create greater incentives for the publication and dissemination of scientific research findings (NRC, 2000c, 2003).The proportion of total SAES funding delivered through competitive grant processes has increased significantly in the past 25 years (Schimmelpfennig and Heisey, 2009). Supporters of the formula funding system highlight the need for states to be able to set their research agendas to respond to regional agricultural problems and sustain locally adapted crop and livestock management systems (Huffman and Evenson, 2006). If formula funds are eliminated or drastically reduced, LGU research and extension faculty would spend a greater proportion of their state-funded time writing proposals for federal grants (Huffman et al., 2006). As a result, they will likely spend an increased proportion of time conducting research funded by grants based on federal priorities and a decreased proportion of their time addressing state-level research needs. Some experimental stations could lose matching state funds that are tied to the amount of federal formula funds received. At present, formula and state funding allow scientists from different disciplines to undertake projects that require sustained multiyear efforts to reach research objectives. In some states, a significant reduction in formula funds might erode their overall capacity to undertake agricultural research and result in the closure of outlying research facilities and research farms (Huffman et al., 2006). However, programs supported by formula funds need to be reviewed periodically to ensure that they are productive and responsive to the state’s agricultural research needs.

In one study, Rubenstein et al. (2003) confirmed that competitive grants are more likely to support basic research among SAES institutions, but also tend to award federal grants to a smaller number of high-status state research universities than formula funding. Overall, they did not observe much change in the substantive focus of federally funded agricultural research. Rather, they conclude, “competitive funding seems even more focused on production cost reduction [research objectives] than [is] formula funding” (Rubenstein et al., 2003; p. 359). Similarly, a recent ERS report suggested that shifts toward competitive funding did not have much effect on the overall amount of basic research conducted in the SAES and that most public agricultural research funds (both basic and applied) are still spent on farm commodity research, with relatively small fractions devoted to issues of natural resource and environmental topics, family and community research, and investigation of markets, economics, and policy topics (Schimmelpfennig and Heisey, 2009).

Private Sector Agricultural Research

Under pure free market conditions, economists would expect private sector research to underinvest in research because the private sector would be unable to capture the full economic returns from its investments. As a result, for much of its history, the U.S. public agricultural research and extension community has viewed its role as increasing the viability and competitiveness of farmers and private sector agricultural and food companies (Kloppenburg, 1988). Private sector spending on agricultural research, however, has increased substantially and now makes up more than half of total expenditures in the United States (Figure 6-6).

Several factors have encouraged the rapid rise of private agricultural research in recent decades (Caswell and Day-Rubenstein, 2006). First, a series of important legislative and legal changes in U.S. and international patent law in the 1970s allowed the patenting of biological inventions, including new agricultural crop varieties and genetically engineered crops and livestock. This expanded protection of intellectual property rights enabled pri-

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×
FIGURE 6-6 Real public and private agricultural research and development expenditures in the United States since 1970.

FIGURE 6-6 Real public and private agricultural research and development expenditures in the United States since 1970.

SOURCE: Schimmelpfennig and Heisey (2009).

vate firms to capture a greater share of the benefits of their research efforts than they used to. Second, the dramatic growth in molecular biology and genetics and genomics created a new set of tools well suited to developing proprietary agricultural products.

Private agricultural research can be expected to focus nearly exclusively on near-market R&D and on topics likely to create products that can be sold in the marketplace—for example, developing new chemical technologies, breeding and genetic engineering of certain crops, and developing agricultural equipment for large-scale farms (Reilly and Schimmelpfennig, 2000; Heisey et al., 2005). It is unreasonable to expect investor-owned firms to spend scarce research dollars unless they are able to control benefits from their innovations (Alston et al., 2000). Because of those potential incentives, private sector research focuses primarily on productivity and production efficiency. However, some of the private sector research certainly contributes to other sustainability goals. For example, irrigation technologies developed mostly by the private sector contributes to improving water use efficiency and reducing runoff from overirrigation or precision agriculture technologies contribute to improving efficiencies of water, nutrient, or pesticide use.

In a study of the history of plant breeding, Kloppenburg (1988) suggested that the development of hybrid corn seed was particularly well suited to private sector research because farmers who use hybrid seeds have to buy their seedstock from private seed companies every year (as opposed to open-pollinated varieties that could be saved for replanting). Although the commercialization of new agricultural technologies is essential to rewarding private sector investment, concern is growing about the increasing dominance of a few seed companies and their control over new genetic engineering (GE) crops and technologies. The concerns include seed company patents and control on genes, DNA fragments, and GE technologies. They also include seed companies’ ability to block independent research on GE crop performance and environmental impacts, when such research has the potential to provide useful information on how to best grow those crops and give timely alerts to potential drawbacks. A similar pattern has been observed in the development of hybrid poultry varieties, which poultry processors and integrators almost universally now required (Fuglie et al., 2000). Green et al. (2007) suggested that the private sector has shown great capacity to sustain gains in livestock productivity, but that gains in produc-

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

tion efficiencies have generated side effects on animal well-being and longevity in modern production environments.

Division of Labor Between Public and Private Agricultural Research

Incentives for public agencies and private firms to fund agricultural research are different (Spielman and von Grebmer, 2004). Public agencies typically are mandated to fund research topics of wide social significance with outcomes that have public goods characteristics (for example, nonexcludability and nonrivalry). The research is likely to require longer time horizons to yield results or to cater to end users with limited purchasing power or market access. Private firms are expected to conduct research that could increase a company’s profits and hence the likelihood to engage in research that will potentially result in marketable products.

The differences in incentives for research between the two sectors and the rise of privately funded research are associated with an increasing division of labor between public and private sector agricultural institutions (Dahlberg, 1985). The public sector has been increasingly responsible for conducting basic research and is less engaged in applied research that can produce innovations or products that farmers can directly use (Reilly and Schimmelpfennig, 2000; Caswell and Day-Rubenstein, 2006). The growing division of labor has also led to increased calls for a redirection of public agricultural research away from productivity-increasing or other commodity-focused topics, toward areas of research that can generate public benefits but are unlikely to receive attention from the private sector (Huffman and Evenson, 2006). Examples of such research include environmental and natural resource conservation, food safety and nutrition, poverty reduction, research on public policy impacts, and research targeting small, disadvantaged, or underserved groups of farmers or consumers (Fuglie, 2000; NRC, 2003). Spielman and von Grebmer (2004) saw opportunities for increasing interactions between public and private sector agricultural institutions despite the difference in incentives and growing division of labor in research. For example, the large biotechnology companies have patented products and processes that can advance the public research agenda, and the public institutions have plant genetic resources (for example, germplasm collection) and access to local knowledge resources that could be useful to private firms. However, the authors concluded that “public-private partnerships are significantly constrained by insufficient accounting of the actual and hidden costs of partnership; persistent negative perceptions across sectors; undue competition over financial and intellectual resources; and a lack of working models from which to draw lessons and experiences” (Spielman and von Grebner, 2004, p. 38).

Expanding Beyond Productivity Research

Efforts to reform and refocus public agricultural research programs typically highlight research priorities that would enhance the sustainability performance of most U.S. farms by addressing sustainability goals in addition to productivity and production efficiency (see Box 6-6 and Dahlberg, 1985; Sauer, 1990; Duram and Larson, 2001). Some of the most intense efforts have been within the area of agricultural conservation and environmental issues. A growing number of integrated disciplinary and interdisciplinary research projects have been devoted to improving the understanding of the environmental impacts of typical farming practices and assessing the effectiveness of conservation practices designed to minimize these impacts. The proportion of research spending on productivity and traditional commodity-focused research relative to total USDA research spending declined

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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BOX 6-6

National Research Council and Other Reports Call for Reform of the U.S. Public Agricultural Research, Education, and Extension System

The National Research Council (NRC) has facilitated a number of studies of the U.S. agricultural research system (see list below). Those reports have consistently called for increased funding for competitive agricultural research programs. They have also called for greater attention to emerging issues in food safety, health and nutrition, protection of environmental and natural resources, and rural community well-being (to complement conventional research goals designed to increase the productivity and competitiveness of the U.S. farm sector). Similar reports by agricultural foundations, policy researchers, and advocacy groups have echoed these concerns (Rockefeller Foundation, 1982). For example, in the book Agricultural Research Policy, Vernon Ruttan argued that:

society should insist that agricultural science embrace a broader agenda that includes a concern for the effects of agricultural technology on health and safety of agricultural producers, a concern for the nutrition and health of consumers, a concern for the impact of agricultural practices on the aesthetic qualities of both natural and artificial environments, and a concern for the quality of life in rural communities. (Ruttan, 1982, pp. 350–351)

More than 10 years later, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology published a report entitled Challenges Confronting Agricultural Research at Land Grant Universities (CAST, 1994). The report targets four areas as research priorities for the SAES: the environment, sustainable production systems, economies of rural communities, and consumer interests (for example, food safety and quality). Although many examples of tangible changes in the structure and administration of CSREES competitive grant programs exist, recent reports and criticisms of the public agricultural science system suggest that fundamental problems still remain (NRC, 2003; Huffman and Evenson, 2006; Robertson et al., 2008).

Selected NRC reports on the U.S. agricultural research system, and their dates of publication beginning with the most recent, are as follows:

  • 2009: Transforming Agricultural Education for a Changing World

  • 2008: Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing Research at NIOSH

  • 2003: Frontiers in Agricultural Research: Food, Health, Environment and Communities

  • 2002: Publicly Funded Agricultural Research and the Changing Structure of U.S. Agriculture

  • 2000: NRI: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber and Natural Resources Research

  • 1999: Sowing the Seeds of Change: Informing Public Policy in the Economic Research Service of USDA

  • 1996: Colleges of Agriculture at the Land Grant Universities: Public Service and Public Policy

  • 1995: Colleges of Agriculture at the Land Grant Universities: A Profile

  • 1994: Investing in the NRI: An Update of the Competitive Grants Program of the USDA

  • 1989: Investing in Research: A Proposal to Strengthen the Agricultural, Food and Environmental System

from 1986 to 1997, whereas the relative proportion of spending on research on water, air, soil, forests, wildlife, sustainable resources management, disease control, and community impacts increased (NRC, 2002).

Nevertheless, a large proportion of public agricultural research (both within USDA and throughout the SAES system) remains focused on improving productivity and production efficiency systems (Caswell and Day-Rubenstein, 2006). An increasing number of specific federal and state agricultural research, education, and extension programs are explicitly designed to support agricultural systems that focus on more than one or two goals of sus-

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

tainability. In this section, the committee uses some programs and institutions as examples to illustrate how they support agriculture that balances multiple sustainability goals.

Federal Sustainable Agriculture Research Programs

Several government programs have gained increases in funding to support innovative approaches in alternative or “systems” agriculture in the United States since 1989. The funding available through the federal government has been dedicated to research, education, extension, and technology transfer projects.

One growing category of public funding involves “integrated” or systems science funding within the major USDA competitive grant programs. For example, many NIFA research programs2 listed in Table 6-4 include language encouraging an interdisciplinary or systems approach, and some are explicitly designed to improve understanding of agroecological processes at the landscape or watershed scale. In addition, other federal agencies are investing in agrienvironmental research—for example, the EPA water quality research program, Pesticide Environmental Stewardship Program, and Sustainable Agriculture Partnerships Grants (regional). Meanwhile, NSF has funded basic research into plant genomics on economically important crops and has supported development of a university and industry collaborative center to study integrated pest management, and a number of agriculture and food-oriented research projects.

However, observers of the projects funded through past grant cycles have commented that long-term, systems-oriented research is still largely lacking among the projects funded by USDA and other federal agencies (Robertson et al., 2008). Moreover, as noted above, competitive grant programs represent only a small percentage of the total public agricultural research portfolio. Unless research agendas within USDA-ARS, USDA-ERS, and the larger SAES system incorporate similar language and priorities, long-term, systems-oriented research will unlikely constitute a substantial portion of the public research portfolio.

The difficulty in reshaping conventional agricultural scientific institutions has led to support for the creation of new programs and funding streams specifically aimed at ecological and sustainable agriculture (Batie and Taylor, 1994). A program that addresses not only agricultural productivity but also other sustainability goals in the United States is the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program within USDA-NIFA. Since its inception in 1988, SARE has provided grants for farmer research and education projects, supported farmer learning networks and alternative market development efforts, and sustained professional development programs designed to provide opportunities for training extension specialists and researchers within the SAES system. Most SARE programs require a university partner to strengthen research input and to include SARE experience and results in the classroom. The program increased in funding from $4 million in 1988 to almost $19 million in 2009, an increase of more than 160 percent even after controlling for inflation (Figure 6-7). An administrative council in each USDA region governs SARE. The council is coordinated through a central office and administered through a contract with one of the LGUs in the region. Each region has a technical committee that oversees the awarding of grants in each research category. The administrative councils and technical committees have representation from farmers, agri-industry, and educational institutions. The SARE program is often cited as an example of how federal funding can effectively and efficiently achieve results in the adoption of sustainable farming practices (Allen, 2004). It has been

2

The five priority areas of NIFA in 2010 are global food security and hunger, climate change, sustainable energy, childhood obesity, and food safety.

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×
FIGURE 6-7 USDA funding for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, 1988–2009.

FIGURE 6-7 USDA funding for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, 1988–2009.

DATA SOURCE: USDA-NIFA.

praised for its strong reliance on participatory approaches to agricultural research and training. Participatory approaches to research are discussed in more detail below.

State and Civil Society Support for Sustainable Agriculture

Every state supports its own agricultural experiment station and associated extension service. As mentioned above, the total for state support for experiment station maintenance and research was $1.3 billion in 2005. Funding normally goes through the state land-grant university and is matched by federal money in several ways. In Michigan, for instance, the budget from state appropriations has been around $80 million each year, which funds some 80 percent of the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station annual base budget and supports 15 experiment stations and about 3,000 associated workers (Michigan State University Board of Trustees, 2009). The work encompasses activities of some 300 scientists in six colleges at Michigan State University: Agriculture and Natural Resources, Communication Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Natural Science, Social Science, and Veterinary Medicine. The $80 million is leveraged at an average rate of 2.3 from federal, foundation, industry, and other funding sources. The programs might be reduced because of the budgetary problems as a result of the economic downturn in 2008–2009.

In addition to a department of agriculture, most states have departments of natural resources and the environment that provide services, regulatory activity, and education to agriculture. The Michigan Department of Agriculture is the primary agency for interaction with the Great Lakes Commission (established in 1955) to protect and manage the Great Lakes watersheds. Nearly every Michigan county, for instance, falls within the mandate of the commission, which opens several avenues of funding for agricultural research and

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

extension to protect and manage surface and ground water through agriculture. Most agencies that focus on agriculture in Michigan have influence through direct farmer support, policy, and regulatory activity. In Michigan, as in most states, many applied research programs are shared and supported among these agencies. Agricultural “service centers” throughout the state provide “one-stop shopping” of state and federal agencies programs for farmers and the public. On-farm research and other programs, such as SARE, are usually supported through state-funded infrastructure. Identifying and quantifying agricultural research that focuses on multiple sustainability goals in the complex mix of activities in the state-sponsored programs is difficult. Many states have specific programs for improving sustainability with identified budgets, but they capture only a small portion of the relevant work. Most agricultural research funded at the state and regional levels from state or regional collaborative publicly-funded programs is targeted toward applied research and technology development for production efficiency and for environmental protection or remediation. Coordinating all on-farm and farmer-involved agriculture research for improving sustainability within the states with the existing network of agencies and programs would be important to avoid redundancy and ensure efficiency.

University Sustainable Agriculture Programs

Many land-grant universities and other colleges and university departments have established programs to support agricultural research that focus on more than one goal of sustainability. An increasing amount (and percentage) of funding in university agriculture colleges has been dedicated to systems approaches to agriculture. USDA’s Alternative Farming Systems Information Center of the National Agricultural Library compiles a list of educational and training opportunities in sustainable agriculture (Thompson, 2009). Most colleges and universities have some research programs on agricultural sustainability. A few of those programs are noted in Table 6-5 as examples.

Beyond designated “sustainable agriculture” programs, a much larger percentage of publicly funded research is directly or indirectly oriented to improve the sustainability of farming systems in the United States. A study of publicly funded agricultural research suggests that roughly 21 percent of funds were directed toward natural resources and environmental topics, up from 17 percent in 1998 (Caswell and Day-Rubenstein, 2007). Although comparable data for the 1980s are not readily available, it has been suggested that the state-funded and federally funded research portfolio at most LGUs has expanded from focusing on the sustainability goal of improving output and reducing production costs to encompassing a wider range of goals including environmental impacts, social and economic well-being, food safety, and animal welfare (NRC, 2002). Calls for increasing the “sustainability” share of the portfolio remain strong (Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, 2005; Robertson et al., 2008). At the same time, the broader shift toward privately funded research in the overall agricultural research system is less likely to embrace those topics (NRC, 2002).

Cooperative Extension

The Cooperative Extension System (CES) is a partnership of LGUs with federal, state, and local governments to enable the delivery of educational programs and information at the local level. As of 2009, there were about 2,900 extension offices in the United States. NIFA defines six national priorities for CES: 4-H youth development, agriculture, leadership development, natural resources, family and consumer sciences, and community and

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

TABLE 6-5 Examples of Agriculture Programs in Universities Aimed at Improving Sustainability

University Sustainable Agriculture Program/Dept

Year Formed

Budget ($)

Staff (FTE)

Number of Affiliated Faculty

1st Year

2007

University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Program (SAREP)

1987

775,000

574,000

6

10

North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS)

1994

0

120,000a

21

37

Washington State University Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources

1992b

40,000c

340,000

12

>100

University of Maine Sustainable Agriculture (SAG) Program

1988

N/Ad

N/Ad

4.5

8–10

Colorado State University Interdisciplinary Program in Organic Agriculture

2005

0

2,500

1.25

9

Clemson University

2000

10,000e

40,000

1

Unknown

aAmount listed does not include funding provided by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for infrastructure and operation of the field facility.

bThe center was legislatively mandated in 1991 and became operational in 1992.

cAmount listed does not include salaries of part-time director and part-time administrative staff.

dBudget for sustainable agricultural program is not separated from the departmental budget.

eAmount listed does not include director ’s salary.

economic development (USDA-NIFA, 2009). In addition, CES is developing a nationally coordinated Internet information system called eXtension to provide up-to-date and specialized information and educational programs on a wide range of topics (eXtension, 2010).

In 1999, the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities (1999) published Returning to Our Roots: The Engaged Institution and urged land-grant universities to expand their mission beyond outreach and service to full engagement with their communities. In 2002, the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP) of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities published the report The Extension System: A Vision for the 21st Century (2002). It outlined a vision for CES to address contemporary issues and to respond to changing societal needs. Later, ECOP (2010) published a list of strategic opportunities for extension in the report Strategic Opportunities for Cooperative Extension. The strategic opportunities listed include:

  • Sustain profitable plant and animal production systems.

  • Prepare youth, families, and individuals for success in the global workforce and all aspects of life.

  • Create pathways to energy independence.

  • Ensure an abundant and safe food supply for all.

  • Assist in effective decision making regarding environmental stewardship.

  • Assist communities in becoming sustainable and resilient to the uncertainties of economics, weather, health, and security.

  • Help families, youth, and individuals to become physically, mentally and emotionally healthy.

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

This list broadly encompasses the four goals for sustainability described in Chapter 1 of this report.

Some observers charge that extension has experienced “mission creep” and should return to a focus on agriculture, while others argue that extension should serve a broad national purpose (Hefferan, 2004; McDowell, 2004). The traditional extension model is based on the “extension expert” who provides research and educational information to solve local problems. Although this model has clear benefits, it does not facilitate regionally based collaborative approaches to problem-solving or catalyze local stakeholders to develop their capacity to solve socially shared problems (Sandmann and Vandenberg, 1995; Pigg and Bradshaw, 2003).

A catalytic model shifts the role of extension from a leader expert to a coordinator and facilitator. The Food System Economic Partnership (FSEP) program, which combines effort from five county administrations in southeast Michigan, farm organization leaders, food industry heads, community groups, food system and economic development experts, and resource providers, is an example of the new model. FSEP’s mission is to improve the viability of the agricultural sector in the region; provide economic revitalization opportunities for urban areas; improve consumer understanding of what is produced, processed and marketed in the region; and improve farmers’ understanding of consumer needs. Lyson (2004) describes such initiatives as “civic agriculture,” which can provide new market opportunities for producers and can enhance the social and human capital of the community in which it is embedded. When value chains are shortened to bring producers and consumers closer together, social and environmental values can be more fully articulated and monitored.

As CES expands beyond its traditional mandate, federal funding for extension through the Smith-Lever Act has decreased by $68 million over the past two decades (Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, 2009). Moreover, cost-sharing in the costs of extension programs by state and local governments has also declined in many cases. The funding decrease resulted in the elimination of some county and regional extension positions and reduced face-to-face services that extension programs had offered in the past. Some states are replacing county programs with in-state regional centers. Regionalization of extension programs could lower costs compared to individualized state programs (Laband and Lentz, 2004).

Some universities are shifting their extension resources toward sustainable agriculture and the green economy and away from traditional production agriculture to increase their competitiveness for funding. With half of all current farmers in the United States likely to retire in the next decade, extension programs will be critical in providing educational and networking opportunities for new farmers and for developing networks of information and resources needed to move U.S. agriculture toward greater levels of sustainability.

Farmer Participation and Innovation in Research and Development

Although an increasing proportion of public agricultural research focuses on enhancing the sustainability performance of modern framing practices, many cutting-edge or more broadly systemic alternative farming systems in the United States have been developed by farmers and continue to benefit from farmer innovation and experimentation (Kloppenburg, 1991; Hassanein, 1999). The heavy reliance on participatory research methods and farmer innovation is partly explained by the slow growth of publicly funded research on many emerging farming systems. It also demonstrates that research on complex systems dynamics can benefit enormously by taking place within the context of actual working farms. Recognition of the importance of farmer and knowledge innovation is reflected

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

by the fact that many programs on agricultural sustainability include active participation of farmers and local communities in the R&D process of new practices (Wortmann et al., 2005). The USDA Alternative Farming Systems Information Center lists 91 U.S. organizations devoted to sustainable agriculture. Most are civil society organizations, including farmer-organized groups, regional and national civil society centers, and associations. Many organizations either support or conduct farm-based research. The Practical Farmers of Iowa, for instance, has been sponsoring and organizing on-farm research in Iowa for more than 20 years (Box 6-7).

Participatory approaches typically involve local farmers in agenda-setting, rely on farmers as critical players of innovation and development of new agricultural systems, and often include technical advisors and scientific researchers (Pretty et al., 1995; Farrington and Martin, 1998; International Institute for Environment and Development, 2005). When farmers are engaged as partners with scientists in innovation, development, extension, and outreach processes, technology adaptation and adoption have often been more effective and sustained over time than if farmers were not engaged. Such participatory farmer-centered approaches contrast with the “technology transfer” strategy, which tends to be “top-down” and “one-way” (from scientists or research centers to farmers) and is not always well suited

BOX 6-7

Examples of Organizations That Promote Farmer Participation in Research

Practical Farmers of Iowa


Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) is a nonprofit, educational organization that began in 1985 and now has more than 700 members in Iowa and neighboring states. PFI’s mission is “to research, develop and promote profitable, ecologically sound and community-enhancing approaches to agriculture.” PFI members are engaged in what they describe as a “movement to farm in ways that are both profitable and respectful of the natural environment.” PFI supports research and information-sharing through its Farming Systems Program and On-Farm Research projects, and through resources available in a newsletter and website. Recognizing that farmers learn best from other farmers, PFI helps farmers connect with peers through Field Days, conferences, and a web-based listserve. PFI also works closely with researchers and extension professionals from Iowa State University to address a diversity of issues, trials, and practices that are generally tied to sustainable farming themes. The members have completed more than 600 replicated on-farm experiments since 1987. (See PFI’s website at www.practicalfarmers.org for more information.)


California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance


The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA), launched in 2002, encourages practices that are sensitive to the environment, responsive to societal needs and interests, and economically feasible to implement. CSWA includes a sustainable wine program (SWP) that establishes voluntary standards of practices in all aspects of grape and wine production to promote sustainability. SWP facilitates peer-to-peer education about those practices through workshops, reporting, and other activities. In addition, it developed a comprehensive self-assessment workbook, the California Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices Self-Assessment Workbook for the California Wine Community, to guide growers and vintners in their efforts to improve sustainability of their systems. As of late 2008, CSWA involved more than 1500 growers and vintners who had completed a comprehensive self-assessment evaluation, and CSWA educational seminars have reached more than 5,000 growers, vintners, and vineyard or winery managers. The combination of SWP self-assessment and educational activities is designed to enable a cycle of continuous improvement for increasing sustainability, and to continually engage growers and vintners actively in the learning process. (See SWP’s website at www.sustainablewinegrowing.org for more information.)

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

for problem-solving, particularly in complex and variable environments (Farrington and Martin, 1998).

Examples of successful participatory agriculture programs in the United States, in addition to the Practical Farmers of Iowa, include the Biologically Integrated Farming Systems program in California, the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, and Wisconsin potato farmers (see Box 6-7). In Agroecology in Action (Warner, 2006), Warner documents 32 case studies that illustrate the effectiveness of farmer–researcher partnerships in catalyzing changes toward increasing sustainability in agriculture. In Europe, participatory learning programs and methodologies have been developed systematically in agriculture programs (Wageningen International, 2009).

Many organizations that have participatory agriculture programs provide a grassroots public education and awareness function. They often focus on upcoming public policy and program formulation. Few, if any, do direct lobbying, as most are nonprofit. Collectively these educational and service organizations provide a sizeable infrastructure and momentum to drive sustainable agriculture and to guide public policy. They have websites, and most provide electronic access to their research reports and to other sustainable agriculture literature and information. They form an important link to agricultural development and are a driver of agriculture toward sustainability.

Structuring Systems Research for Improving Agricultural Sustainability

Agricultural research is largely organized by discipline. The disciplinary research has raised awareness of the importance of environmental, economic, and social sustainability, in addition to increasing productivity, in agriculture. That research also led to incremental improvements in improving sustainability, particularly in environmental sustainability. Much more research on economic sustainability and community well-being is needed to complement the existing research on productivity and environmental sustainability. Yet, Chapters 3 to 5 in this report show the importance of interconnections and functional relationships between different components of the farming system.

The slow movement of public scientists toward more holistic and agroecological approaches to agricultural science and technology has been explored by several recent studies (Morgan and Murdoch, 2000; Vanloqueren and Baret, 2008). Aside from the influence of formal research program funding priorities, long-term cultural and cognitive routines of agricultural scientists generate assumptions about the current and future importance of different kinds of agricultural systems and influence their views of the viability of alternative approaches to scientific research (Blattel-Mink and Kaslenholz, 2005). Moreover, institutional and disciplinary reward mechanisms, publication opportunities, and increasingly specialized skill sets mitigate against the likelihood that young agricultural scientists will be successful pursuing careers using interdisciplinary, holistic, or alternative technological approaches (Lattuca, 2001; NRC, 2005). Efforts to overcome these institutional barriers include incentive grants, new interdisciplinary units, and new modes of faculty hiring and evaluation (Creso, 2008).

Several applied research programs in major land-grant and other universities and centers (such as the Leopold Center in Iowa, the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in Wisconsin, and The North Central Regional Center for Rural Development at Iowa State University) have “research platforms” that provide infrastructure, partner research linkages, and access to databases that encourage and support interdisciplinary research beyond traditional biological integration to economics and social sciences. By facilitating coordination and providing access to databases, such platforms offer short- to intermediate-term

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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options for scientists from a range of disciplines to add to ongoing systems research activities. To maintain and sustain those activities, the platforms (centers) require reasonably long-term funding for supporting systems research and for providing matching funds for certain grants. Those established institutions and the platforms they support have built linkages with civil society groups and programs, and they give rapid and easy access to the complex agricultural public and civil infrastructure necessary for systems-scale and landscape-scale studies.

STAKEHOLDERS AND SOCIAL MOVEMENTS

The development and evolution of markets, policies, and knowledge institutions in U.S. agriculture are shaped by a wide range of stakeholders (including civil society actors) and social movements. The diverse arrangement of civil society actors—including farmer organizations, farm commodity groups, food industry and environmental interest groups, global corporations, public health advocates, immigration and labor activists, civil rights groups, and others—also influence consumer, public, and farmer attitudes and perceptions of the sustainability of current food production practices, as well as the behaviors of key actors throughout the agrifood system. Collectively, these efforts appear to comprise a broad and important social movement that is influencing markets and farmers’ choices in significant ways. The social movement includes a diverse and growing collection of people participating to achieve some desired social change and social, political, and economic agricultural reforms (Thompson, 2010).

In terms of public policy, sustainability continues to be a particularly contested concept, with dramatically different interpretations advocated by mainstream industrial farmers and their representatives and by alternative or ecological agricultural stakeholders. Different stakeholders have their preferences of which aspects of sustainability are the most important or of which indicators of system performance should guide public policies. For example, there is much dissension about which indicators are most appropriate for measuring farm viability, ecological impacts, and animal welfare (Thompson, 2010). Questions include: Do economic indicators need to include affordability for low-income consumers? Should public subsidies be included when evaluating economic sustainability? Do measures of the costs of production need to be adjusted for off-farm impacts associated with farming activities? Do changes in disease risk to animals that are outdoors need to be factored into animal welfare norms? Ultimately, the answers to those questions determine whose values are going to count in the development of indicators and norms. Different agricultural stakeholders lobby in favor of public policies that reflect their particular beliefs and interests, seek to create markets or influence the purchasing decisions of the general public, and support public investments in the R&D that support the types of agricultural production systems that they believe are most desirable.

A Brief History of Agricultural Stakeholders and Social Movements

For much of the middle 20th century, a small number of interest groups and stakeholders were deeply involved in public policy discussions about American agriculture. Since the establishment of the major U.S. farm commodity programs in the 1930s, the “conventional” stakeholders included farmers, commodity groups, and agribusinesses, and the focus of most debates on agricultural policy related to the levels and types of government subsidies and protections of different commodity sectors from market downturns (Browne, 1988). Until recently, many mainstream farm producers and producer organizations have op-

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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posed the movement for sustainability (Thompson, 2010). Although there are many exceptions to such opposition nowadays, the organizations and interest groups that participate in conventional agricultural politics remain strong and numerous. They focus on working with mainstream agrifood actors to maximize food output, increase the competitiveness of U.S. farm products in international trade, keep food prices down, and provide protections for the incomes of farmers, processors, and distributors. In other words, those groups tend to ascribe to and lobby for the more industrial philosophy of agriculture outlined in Box 1-7 (Chapter 1).

Since the 1970s, increasing awareness of unintended environmental, health, and food security problems have led some environmental and consumer groups to become engaged in farm and food policy debates. Their efforts have focused on creating new government programs (such as expanded food assistance and nutrition programs) or regulations (such as the Clean Water Act) to address specific problems associated with modern agricultural production systems. For the most part, their efforts led to parallel policies and programs that created new incentives (or disincentives) for farmers without confronting core elements of agricultural commodity or research policies and programs, or promoting dramatic changes in the organization or practices of farming enterprises.

More recently, a qualitative change has occurred in the size, sophistication, and organization of groups seeking to promote a fundamental transformation of the U.S. farm and food system. Some of the most effective efforts have been led by nonprofit organizations, including farmer-based groups and community organizations, and broader coalitions and national nonprofit organizations. (See the detailed discussion of the “Good Food Movement” in Box 6-8.) Hundreds of these organizations and groups have sprouted up in all parts of the United States and in other countries. Books and films on food and food production practices, many of which promote the agrarian philosophy discussed in Box 1-7 (Chapter 1), have gained broad public audiences. Producer associations and commodity groups are recognizing that they have to address environmental, community, and social and animal welfare issues that were not widely recognized concerns in the past. In general, these groups help to spread information, education, and technical support regarding practices that can achieve multiple sustainability goals, and some groups also promote policy and institutional changes to support improvement in agricultural sustainability. (See Box 6-7 regarding the Practical Farmers of Iowa and the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, as examples.)

Many organizations have worked to create new marketing opportunities, such as farmers’ market associations and nonprofit sustainable certification programs, or to promote changes in public food-buying and eating habits. There are more than 200 “Slow Food” local chapters in the United States. Chefs and educators also have formed influential organizations, such as the Chefs Collaborative, an organization that has contributed to increased demand for foods produced in ways that balance various sustainability goals. In some situations, organic farmers have formed local or state organizations tied to their particular concerns or educational needs, such as the Hawaii Organic Farmers Association, Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and Northeast Organic Farming Association. Some organizations have emerged to address special interests of minority or immigrant communities, such as the Hmong Farmers Association in Washington State, the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) for Latino farm workers and farmers in central California (ALBA, 2009), and Growing Power, a nonprofit organization in Milwaukee that supports people from diverse backgrounds through community food systems, providing high-quality, safe, healthful, and affordable food to all in the community, and directly benefits inner city youth (Growing Power, Inc., 2009).

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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BOX 6-8

The Good Food Movement

Recently, a coalition of diverse social movements has grown in size and significance around the so-called Good Food Movement (see Figure 6-8, Flora 2009). These groups are distinctive in that they are increasingly raising broad challenges to the dominant, conventional agrifood system in the United States. The new social movements that make up the Good Food Movement are often based on an identity that transcends economic interests. They are attempting to transition the conventional agriculture sector toward agrifood systems that have several key attributes: green, healthy, fair, affordable, and local (W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 2009). Principles of sustainability included in this movement reflect strong interests in community well-being, ecosystem health, and economic security. The diagram below shows the array of social movement organizations (SMOs) associated with the Good Food Movement and their areas of overlap. A helpful way to understand the diverse drivers that bring different groups to the Good Food Movement is the Multiple Capitals Framework, which is an analytical tool for organizing and explaining land-based social movements (Flora and Flora, 2008). The growth and development of the Good Food Movement is likely to shape future public discussions about agriculture and food markets, policies, and research agendas.

The social movements seem to be gaining strength and influence as represented by the response of retailers and others to market opportunities that reflect the Good Food Movement’s desired agricultural attributes. As such, social movements like this one could provide new market opportunities for farmers and influence farmers’ production decisions.

SOURCE: C. Flora (2009).

The growth and connections among such organizations have increased through the use of the Internet and networking via web-based technology. As a result of Internet connections, producers, consumers, and others logically have far greater opportunities to acquire information about a range of practices and issues related to the food they produce and consume, and to exchange ideas and concerns. At the same time, other social networking has

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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continued to be important in many areas, especially for producers who are attracted to workshops and meetings, farmers’ markets, and other activities where they can talk and observe. For example, Communities of Practice that link local food movements provide ways for producers, consumers, and activists to come together to improve their good food practices. The Alternative Farming Systems Information Center lists many associations and nonprofit organizations in the United States (outside of universities and colleges) that have state-level training and education opportunities in sustainable agriculture (USDA-NAL, 2009).

Although the majority of those nonprofit groups are local or regionally oriented, some of them have formed into broader initiatives or coalitions at the state and national levels. They provide support and information to farmers and consumers. Some groups engage in advocacy related to sustainable agriculture. Some well-known organizations that have had influential roles at the national level in recent years include the American Farmland Trust, ATTRA—National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, Organic Farming Research Foundation, Organic Center, Henry Wallace Center, and Heifer International (Morgan, 2010). The SARE program and its regional offices also play a major role by supporting the work of local farmers, groups, and organizations.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), formed from a merger of two national policy groups linked to a network of local and regional groups, is an important national-level policy group. NSAC’s vision of agriculture is one where “a safe, nutritious, ample, and affordable food supply is produced by a legion of family farmers who make a decent living pursuing their trade, while protecting the environment, and contributing to the strength and stability of their communities” (NSAC, 2009). Members include 73 environmental, rural development, faith-based, research (including university centers), and social justice organizations, and producer organizations. NSAC activities include gathering input from farmers and ranchers and from grassroots organizations that work directly with them, developing policy through participatory issue committees, providing direct representation in Washington, D.C., on behalf of its membership, and strengthening the capacity of member groups to promote citizen engagement in the policy process.

The combined efforts of these coalitions and other allies have focused on influencing the content of the Farm Bill, annual legislative budget allocations, and agency policy decisions. For example, NSCA successfully advocated to increase funds to the SARE program of USDA, and it proposed and defended provisions for funding farmland conservation programs and organic research in the recent Farm Bills. In addition, dozens of private foundations have increased support to sustainable and organic farming organizations in recent years. (See a partial list of resources at USDA-NAL, 2007).

DIVERSITY OF FARMER RESPONSES TO CONTEXTS

Market, policy, and institutional contexts are important drivers of the overall trajectory of U.S. agriculture, but how individual farmers respond to the incentives and disincentives created by those contexts differs widely. The diversity of farmers, farm types, and farming practices in the United States is testimony to the fact that past market, policy, and knowledge conditions have not dictated the detailed paths that farmers have pursued.

To encourage movement toward an increasingly sustainable farm sector, knowing the reasons why farmers have not universally adopted practices and systems that can maximize societal sustainability goals and objectives would be helpful (Rodriguez et al., 2009). Some farmers might be relatively satisfied with their current farming practices and do not think the reasons are strong enough to change their behaviors. The benefits of some practices might accrue off-farm, but the farmer must bear the costs. Some farmers might be

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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reluctant to change their practices, even if they want to, because they lack the basic information to decide whether and how to change, or receive conflicting advice from government agencies, land-grant universities, agribusinesses, and financial lenders. Others might perceive changes in their farming practices to be too complex, the perceived additional operating costs might be viewed as too high, or the return on investment might seem either too risky or too lengthy for their planning horizon (NRC, 1993b). Some farmers might find that financial institutional managers, landlords, or business partners are resistant to their ideas for innovation or change (NRC, 1993b).

The sections below discuss research on factors that influence farmers’ decisions to adopt new practices or systems designed to improve the sustainability impacts associated with their farming activities. Important influences on farmer behavior include the opportunities and challenges posed by variability in local biophysical conditions, local farm and non-farm economic conditions, and each individual farm’s existing stock of physical assets. They also reflect differences in the skills, goals, and values of individual farmers (and their families). However, past research does not necessarily predict future outcomes. Ongoing public debates, emerging market opportunities, new programs and policies, and innovations in farming practices and systems are likely to continue to affect farmer perceptions, goals, and behaviors.

Local Conditions and Farm Sustainability

The performance of any new farming practice or system is mediated by the diverse biophysical resource conditions found in different regions of the United States. Important biophysical resources include soil quality, topography, climate, and water availability. Farms in areas with longer growing seasons and more moderate winters, for example, are able to cultivate particular kinds of crops that do not thrive in harsher climates, but also experience distinctive patterns of weeds, pests, and disease problems. Landscapes with greater variability in soils or topographic features might be particularly well suited to diversified farming systems that take advantage of diverse local biophysical niches. Flat homogenous production conditions might enable larger-scale specialized operations. Biophysical resource differences suggest that the specific tillage practices, crop rotations, and pest and disease management strategies appropriate for a particular region (for example, the Corn Belt) might differ from those for another region (for example, the humid Southeast or arid West). Thus, farming practices and system redesigns for improving sustainability often need to be tailored for micro climates and soil conditions; few practices and system redesigns will be appropriate for all situations.

Options for increasing the sustainability of U.S. farms are also shaped by the regional availability of a supportive agribusiness infrastructure and markets for particular farm products. Traditional vegetable production or dairy farming areas, for example, tend to have a critical mass of input suppliers, agribusiness professionals, and marketing and processing facilities that can easily handle those particular commodities. Similarly, farms located in remote areas are less likely to have opportunities to take advantage of emerging urban-oriented value-trait food markets. The lack of an appropriate agricultural infrastructure can constrain the ability of farmers to adopt new commodities or marketing approaches on local farms. Efforts to increase sustainable farming systems would need to focus as much on infrastructure and market development as on production techniques or practices.

At the farm level, historic investments in buildings and equipment suited to the production of particular commodities can present obstacles to the rapid retooling or restructuring of the farm production process (Barham et al., 1998; Clark, 2008). In particular, U.S.

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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commercial farms have become much larger in scale and increasingly specialized (Gardner, 2002; MacDonald, 2007). One of the most striking specialization trends has been the increasing separation of crop and livestock production (Powell and Unger, 1998; Russelle et al., 2007). Specialized crop farms have typically expanded in scale through the use of highly specialized machinery. Specialized livestock farms have usually made significant investments in buildings and equipment to support modern production processes (Boetel et al., 2007). Gollehon et al. (2001) documented a 40 percent decline in available land for recycling livestock waste through cropping enterprises on U.S. farms between 1982–1997, which can generate structural problems for the effective recycling of livestock nutrients through local crops (Kellogg et al., 2000; Naylor et al., 2005; Ribadau and Gallehon, 2006). Efforts to encourage greater diversification in crop enterprises, or to reintroduce integrated crop–livestock enterprises, could be complicated by commitments to modern specialized production systems and the current geographic separation of crops and livestock in many parts of the United States. Conversely, regions that have maintained highly diversified or integrated production systems might be well positioned to take advantage of many types of farming practices for improving sustainability (Singer et al., 2007; Prokopy et al., 2008).

The impact of government programs and policies on local farmer behavior can be expected to vary across regions. Farm commodity programs have the largest influence in communities where local farmers have the ability and propensity to cultivate program crops. The relative competitiveness of bids to enroll lands in CRP depends on the comparable erodibility of lands across regions and other environmental factors, and on the levels of productivity and opportunity costs associated with expected economic returns from locally dominant farming activities.

Farm and Farmer Characteristics and the Use of Sustainable Agricultural Practices

The characteristics of farms and farmers most likely to adopt new farming practices have been researched extensively (Rogers, 2003). A major subset of that research focuses specifically on the adoption of agricultural conservation practices (Prokopy et al., 2008) or the use of organic or other farming techniques to improve sustainability. The literature suggests that farmer demographic characteristics, knowledge and skills, and goals and values are weakly correlated with the likelihood of using agricultural practices to improve sustainability. Empirical studies have been able to explain only a small percentage of variation in adoption of those farming practices (Napier et al., 2000; Fuglie and Kascak, 2001). However, some patterns and lessons learned shed light on the ways that farm and farmer characteristics are likely to influence the ability or propensity of individual farms to increase their use of sustainable practices or approaches.

Farm Characteristics

Most researchers assume that economic factors—including costs, benefits, economies of scale, uncertainty, and policy incentives and disincentives—influence the attractiveness of different types of farming production practices and overall trajectories of technological and structural change in agriculture (Chavas, 1997, 2001; Halloran and Archer, 2008). That assumption holds true for most practices designed to enhance the sustainability performance of U.S. agriculture (Rodriguez et al., 2009). However, the relative economic costs and benefits of any given farming practice can differ across farm types and regions and are influenced by a wide range of farm characteristics, including scale, enterprise diversity, land tenure, indebtedness, and sunk costs associated with previous investments (Hall and Leveen, 1978; Hallam, 1993; Barham et al., 1998; Marra et al., 2004).

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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Simple, widely generalizable conclusions cannot be drawn about the relationship between farm size and the use of different sustainable agricultural practices. In their detailed review of 55 empirical studies of the adoption of agricultural conservation BMPs, Prokopy et al. (2008) found weak evidence that larger farms (with greater capital investments and land resources) and farms with more diverse cropping or livestock systems were somewhat more likely to be using most types of BMPs than smaller and less diverse farms. Lambert et al. (2007) analyzed data from the large-scale USDA Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) to assess the characteristics of U.S. corn, soybean, and cotton farms using conservation-compatible practices. They found that farm scale and reliance on farm income do not appear to be related to the use of standard conservation-compatible practices (such as conservation tillage or crop rotations), but residential or lifestyle farms and lower-sales-volume farms were significantly less likely to use decision-aids (such as soil tests and pest scouting) or management-intensive practices (such as integrated pest management or variable rate application). Participation in land retirement programs (such as CRP) was more common on smaller or noncommercial farms than on larger ones. Use of practices that are compatible with ongoing farming operations (such as grass waterways, riparian buffers, and filter or contour strips) was positively related to farm size, despite the fact that relatively few farms that use those practices received any government conservation program payments. They concluded that the larger the farm, or the more dependent on farm income is the household, the more receptive the farm operator will likely be to use practices that potentially reduce costs or increase yields. Conversely, smaller and less commercially oriented farms might be most likely to adopt conservation practices that are the least complex or demanding, and are less sensitive to the effects of those practices on their business’ bottom line.

Similar studies of farmers using a package of production practices to improve sustainability in the Midwest and Great Plains found that the farmers tended to have lower levels of capital investment and smaller acreages (Bird et al., 1995). However, the association between farm scale and use of farming practices for improving sustainability depended on the nature of the practice; larger farms were somewhat more likely to use reduced agrichemical input strategies, while smaller and more diverse farms were more likely to adopt integrated, holistic practices. In a study of Montana farms, Saltiel et al. (1994) found that larger specialized farms (particularly crop or grain farms) are more likely to use management-intensive techniques to increase the sustainability of their farms, whereas a larger proportion of smaller diversified crop–livestock operations prefer low-input practices that do not require as much information or management effort (particularly land retirement, fallowed or perennial crop rotations, and use of manure as a fertilizer source).

Implications for the Adoption of Farming Systems for Improving Sustainability

Some authors link long-term trends in size structure and spatial organization of agricultural enterprises, in particular the growth in the average size, capital investment, and degree of specialization among U.S. commercial farms, to potentially negative environmental outcomes (Strange, 1988; Buttel, 2006). For example, the growth of larger-scale, more specialized farming systems has been associated with a general trend in the latter half of the 20th century toward greater use of continuous monocropping instead of crop rotations, or the production of more intensive crops (corn and soybean) in place of less intensive crops (hay and pasture). Monocropping and growing intensive crops have been associated with increased rates of soil erosion, heightened vulnerability to pest damage, and potentially higher rates of chemical application (NRC, 1989a).

Similarly, large specialized livestock facilities tend to put more emphasis on productivity of the animals and purchase more of their livestock feed from off the farm than small

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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livestock farms. The tendency for specialized livestock operations to purchase a higher percentage of their livestock feed requirements has led to growing farm-, watershed-, and regional-level imbalances in the supply of nutrients in livestock manure relative to the crop nutrient requirements in fields surrounding livestock operations (Kellogg et al., 2000; Ribadau and Gallehon, 2006).

Atwood and Hallam (1993) noted several reasons to believe that larger and more specialized farms might exhibit structural tendencies that can both increase and decrease environmental performance. Specifically, larger specialized farm operations tend to use their land base more intensively, resulting in greater use of chemical inputs and energy consumption per acre. More specialized cropping or livestock operations have created more homogeneity in crop or livestock species composition, creating the potential for wide spread outbreaks of pests or diseases, increasing resistance to pesticides, and decreasing biodiversity (Butler et al., 2007). As noted above, the concentration of livestock onto large operations generates structural problems for the recycling of livestock nutrients through local crops (Naylor et al., 2005). The increasing concentration of livestock on single production units requires the use of large manure storage facilities, which can become potential point sources for ground water pollution or accidental release of manure into surface waters. The storage facilities reduce chronic discharges of manure into waterways but increase the risk of catastrophic acute discharges if a storage unit is overtopped or fails.

Conversely, there is evidence that larger and more specialized farms can offer some structural environmental advantages when compared to smaller, more diversified operations. First, the overall input use might be higher on larger farms, but resource use per unit of output might be lower given higher levels of productivity than smaller or more diversified farms (Capper et al., 2009). Second, larger farms are more likely to adopt many recommended conservation BMPs than smaller farms—particularly those that involve decision-aids such as soil testing and integrative pest management or those that are management intensive (Lambert et al., 2006). Third, the large scale of many commercial farms is typically associated with heightened division of labor, higher levels of human capital, and greater use of computerized information resources and hired consultants. Those traits enable larger farms to devote more time to managing their environmental resources. Similarly, economies of scale for many environmental BMPs make them more economically attractive to farms at the upper end of the size spectrum. Fourth, larger livestock farms are often subject to stricter regulatory oversight from state and federal environmental agencies than smaller livestock farms.

As discussed in previous chapters, sustainability involves balancing goals that go beyond merely improving environmental performance. Rather, to be sustainable over the long term, farming systems have to address and balance critical productivity, environmental, economic, and social goals. While systematic research that includes all these topics is rare, it has been suggested that some small and medium-sized farms with diversified operations might be more likely to orient their production systems toward enhancing local food security and access, animal welfare, and community acceptability (Lyson, 2002; Lyson et al., 2008). Nonetheless, the studies cited above demonstrate the lack of clear correlation between farm size and use of practices for improving sustainability. Ultimately, all farms irrespective of size have opportunities to move agriculture along the sustainability trajectory.

In terms of farming strategies discussed in Chapters 3 and 4 of this report, two distinct approaches toward improving the sustainability of U.S. farming will be needed. First, given the growing dominance of large specialized crop or livestock farms, farming strategies and incentives could be developed to increase resource use efficiencies, develop resilience to

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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environmental changes, and produce environmental benefits on these types of large farms. Expanded use of technological innovations (such as minimal tillage, low-input or organic methods, precision farming, and new environmentally friendly genetic varieties) will be critical components to improve the sustainability of large-scale specialized agriculture. Although early advocates of “alternative” agriculture (such as organic farming) suggested that large farms were not as likely to adopt those systems, recent trends suggest that practices such as organic farming and conservation can be attractive to the largest farming enterprises (Guthman, 2004). The sheer scale of the large farm sector in the United States suggests that adoption of farming systems for improving sustainability by those farms could have a dramatic influence on the speed and extent of growth in these types of farming systems.

At the same time, structural constraints could be a disincentive for operators of large specialized farms to pursue systemic changes in their farming approaches. Those changes include increasing diversification (which will be more labor intensive and management intensive), developing integrated cropping and livestock systems, and using farming systems that rely more on natural processes and less on purchased chemical inputs for fertility and pest management. The success of some of these changes might depend in part on high levels of local knowledge and hands-on management skill; hence, they might be more suitable for the resources and approaches of smaller, more diversified farms. Efforts to sustain and expand the small-sized and medium-sized farming sector might be important to enable the spread of these farming systems.

Farmer Knowledge, Skills, and Perceptions

Individual farmers develop a wealth of knowledge and skills from their farming experiences (and from their formal education and training) that can both enable and constrain their ability to use farming practices and systems to improve sustainability (Bell, 2004). For example, Morgan and Murdoch (2000) noted that conventional farms, which rely on intensive use of external farm inputs, tend to obtain much of their information on how to produce crops and livestock from input suppliers and university experts who provide standardized knowledge to farmers (with the goal of reducing production costs). Because the knowledge is standardized, the local knowledge of the farmer is less important or valued. On the other hand, Morgan and Murdoch (2000) also noted that the detailed local knowledge of farmers can be important in the operation of highly diversified agroecological-oriented farm systems. Because these farms rely heavily on natural systems and on-farm resources to manage fertility, pests, and diseases, farmers are forced to pay closer attention to the wider social and ecological impacts of their farming decisions; indeed these farmers often report that they need to “forget much of the knowledge they have acquired with intensive production” (Morgan and Murdoch, 2000). Researchers have found that loss of local farming knowledge is one of the key barriers to converting farming systems toward greater sustainability (Padel, 2001). Adjusting a farming system to improve multiple aspects of sustainability is a continuous process that requires ongoing experimentation and learning. The role of outside experts (from agribusinesses and universities) is diminished if they provide standardized knowledge, although they could facilitate experimentation and learning.

In their review of the literature, Prokopy et al. (2008) found that the age of a farmer and years of farmer experience are negatively correlated to their likelihood to adopt conservation BMPs. Data from USDA suggest that organic operations have a higher proportion of female operators compared to the entire agriculture sector. The average age and years of farming experience of operators are lower in organic operations compared to all farms

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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in the United States (USDA-ERS, 2009c). Those trends suggest that farmers with more marginal positions in farming social networks (for example, women and youth) might be more likely to break away from tradition and to experiment with nonconventional farming practices and systems.

Meanwhile, social context can also affect the use of farming practices and systems to improve sustainability. Farmers in regions where many neighbors practice similar or the same farming techniques that can improve sustainability are more likely to have access to information, examples, and peer support that would facilitate their ability to adopt similar practices. Farmers with better connections to local social and institutional networks are more likely to adopt conservation BMPs successfully (Nowak, 1987, 1992; Van Es and Notier, 1988). Farmer learning networks have been critical components of the development and spread of innovative farming practices such as management-intensive rotational grazing (Hassanein, 1999).

Farmer Values, Goals, and Perceptions

Farmers are motivated by diverse personal goals and values that affect their decisions to use new production or marketing practices or strategies. As discussed in Chapter 4, some goals reflect economic objectives—for example, achieving an acceptable level of financial return, ensuring the ability of the farm household to meet consumption needs and plan for the future, and balancing economic risks and rewards. Other goals reflect important noneconomic objectives of farmers and farm households, such as effects of farming practices on the enjoyment and safety of farm-work tasks, the ability to involve children in farming activities, and other quality-of-life considerations. Farmers can be motivated by values that subordinate personal or family goals to those of a wider community, society, or the environment. Examples include consideration of the effects of farming practices on neighbors or a local community, a desire to provide quality food or fiber to consumers, and a stewardship or conservation ethic.

Much published research explores the relationship between farmer values, goals, and perceptions and their decisions to use conservation practices, organic farming techniques, and other approaches to improving the sustainability of their operations. In general, economic considerations tend to play an important role, but they are not the only factors used by farmers to evaluate new agricultural innovations (Loftus and Kraft, 2003; Nowak and Cabot, 2004; Lamine and Bellon, 2009). Practical noneconomic considerations, such as a desire to limit time and energy spent farming, have been linked to the adoption of farming practices that can improve sustainability (Lobley and Potter, 1998; Leeuwis, 2004; Nowak and Cabot, 2004).

Many have argued that farmers who adopt unconventional farming practices or systems have different values or are motivated by broader noneconomic objectives than conventional farmers (Lund et al., 2002; Lockie and Halpin, 2005; Ahnstrom et al., 2009; Greiner et al., 2009). Empirical evidence is inconsistent. In their comprehensive review of studies, Prokopy et al. (2008) found that pro-environmental attitudes were only weakly related to BMP use, although they noted that positive associations were more common than negative relationships. Participation in voluntary farm environmental planning programs has been shown to be influenced most by stewardship and other nonfinancial motivations, whereas rigid regulatory contexts generate pragmatic types of decision making (Plummer et al., 2007; Atari et al., 2009). Early studies indicated that philosophical or moral considerations were important to first-generation organic farmers, while farmers who have recently transitioned their farms to organic are motivated by the price premiums and other economic

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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advantages available from organic markets (Best, 2005; Lockie and Halpin, 2005; Lamine and Bellon, 2009).

Farmer actions are also shaped by perceptions of the objective realities of their political, economic, and natural contexts, which can vary from individual to individual, even within the same location (Bieling and Plieninger, 2003; Burton, 2004; Ahnstrom et al., 2009). Heightened awareness about environmental impacts associated with farming practices, for example, can increase use of conservation BMPs (Prokopy et al., 2008).

The local sociocultural context of farming can influence the willingness of farmers to experiment and use nontraditional farming practices. For example, peer pressure to conform to dominant ideas of what “real farmers” would do can hinder the spread of farming practices that push the envelope of those definitions (Bell, 2004; Leeuwis, 2004; Rodriguez et al., 2009). However, Flora (1995) found that in communities accepting of innovation in general, farmers were more likely to adopt practices for improving sustainability.

Although many farmers share common goals, values, or motivations, most scholars recognize that distinct subgroups of farmers emphasize different priorities and thus pursue different technological or management strategies (Vanclay and Lawrence, 1994; van der Ploeg, 2003; Bell, 2004). For some farmers, differences in their choices of farming practices are related to their moral convictions about what constitutes “good farming”; for others, practical considerations dominate (Schoon and Grotenhuis, 2000). Differences in attitudes and values exist within subgroups of farmers (such as those using conservation practices or organic farming techniques). Padel (2001) emphasized that economic and noneconomic motivations are not mutually exclusive. Farmers are also not isolated individuals who make decisions entirely on the basis of innate preferences or characteristics. Their goals and motivations are best viewed as dynamic states shaped by their relationships to key actors across a range of social contexts (for example, interactions with other farmers, friends, neighbors, extension workers, and regulators) (Leeuwis, 2004). Complex combinations of different individual motivations are reflected in complex management styles that respond to similar pressures and incentives in unique ways (Nowak and Cabot, 2004).

SUMMARY

The decisions of farmers to use particular farming practices and their ability to move forward along the sustainability trajectory are influenced by many external forces, such as markets, public policies, available science, technology, knowledge and skills, and the farmers’ own values, resources, and land tenure arrangements. The market, policy, and knowledge structure are in turn influenced by 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. A discussion of the sustainability of U.S. agricultural practices and farming systems is incomplete without discussion of some of the driving forces for improving sustainability and trends. Understanding the drivers and the trends can direct policy attention to where changes can be made to influence farmers’ decisions to effectively address the challenges identified in Chapter 2. Key points from this chapter are summarized below.

Markets

  • Increasing concentration of ownership and control in the U.S. agricultural sector can, through influences on costs, prices, and contractual arrangements, reduce farmers’ flexibility in selecting farming practices. American farmers’ decisions about planting,

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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input use, investments, and marketing are heavily influenced by the prevailing prices of and access to farm commodity markets.

  • Increasing interest by consumers in various types of “value-trait” foods, including organic, natural, free-range, hormone-free, local, direct, or family-farm raised foods, has increased incentives for producers to use production practices that can serve those markets.

  • Sustainability initiatives by major food retailers can contribute to moving more farmers toward practices and systems that can improve sustainability, as defined by the retailers. As the supply of some types of value-trait foods catches up to demand, there are concerns that price premiums received by producers would diminish, and therefore would reduce incentives to use associated farm practices.

  • Access to local niche and direct-sales markets has allowed many small and medium-sized farm to find economically viable options to conventional commodity outlets and to use farming practices that could improve sustainability. Despite rapid growth, direct sales to consumers are less than 1 percent of total U.S. farm sales.

  • Marketing tools such as certification, grades and standards, and branding can create niches of profitability for farmers whose produce meets specific requirements. Those tools have mixed effects on driving farmers to improve sustainability. Federal involvement in the creation and enforcement of standards for organic food labels has contributed to rapid growth in the sector, but the federal standard is narrowly focused on environmental and health issues. An increasing number of “sustainability” labels and certifications have broader definitions than the federal organic standard. They might identify food products produced in ways that address labor, community, or animal welfare concerns. However, the proliferation of sustainability labels and certifications has created some confusion among both producers and consumers and has led to calls for harmonization of standards across states and nations. Disputes over the stringency of certification or labeling requirements affect the types of practices that farmers will be allowed to use when producing for these markets.

  • Interest has increased in public and private programs designed to create markets for ecosystem services to compensate farmers who use ecologically beneficial practices. Examples include payment for environmental services, cap-and-trade, and offset trading markets. To date, those programs have been experimental and have produced only modest success in changing producer behaviors.

Public Policies

  • Major federal commodity and crop insurance programs have been linked to a decrease in the diversity of cropping systems, increases in the use of external farm inputs, and the extensive hydrologic modification of landscapes in the United States. Insurance programs encourage more acres to be planted to major commodity crops and on marginal or risky agricultural landscapes, and can disadvantage producers of commodities not covered by these programs.

  • Although conservation programs have encouraged use of a range of best management practices, the voluntary nature of the programs and a lack of targeting in implementation have limited their impacts on air and water quality. Federal conservation programs have focused the use of cost-sharing to reduce the financial expenses associated with particular farm practices. However, minimal standards for qualifying for cost-sharing dollars and decisions about which types of practices are eligible for support have failed

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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to create effective incentives to use some important types of farming practices for improving sustainability, such as complex long-term crop rotations, information-intensive or management-intensive farming systems, and alternative livestock systems.

  • One possible policy response to reach more sustainability objectives would be to redirect and redesign the Farm Bill programs so that they cost-effectively pursue such goals as controlling nonpoint pollution via landscape management, sequestering carbon on agricultural lands, providing habitats for wildlife, reducing pesticide use, and enhancing farmers’ knowledge and skills on available practices and approaches to achieving various sustainability objectives.

  • Traditionally, federal nutritional assistance—which represents a large proportion of the Farm Bill budget—had little impact on markets for foods produced in more sustainable ways. In the last few years, an increasing portion of the food assistance and school lunch program budget has been designed to encourage consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and to be available for purchase of foods directly from local farmers. The changes could influence the adoption of farming practices for improving sustainability, but any effects have yet to be documented.

  • To date, many environmental regulations have exempted agricultural operations, but recent changes to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Food Quality and Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and food safety guidelines have had important impacts on farmers’ use of agrichemicals, conservation practices, and management of livestock wastes. Some of those impacts on farmers’ behavior could lead to unintended consequences, such as accelerating structural change toward larger farms and tradeoffs among different environmental objectives (for example, landscape biodiversity, water quality, greenhouse-gas emissions, and food safety).

  • U.S. agricultural markets are influenced by trade and trade policies. The most influential trade policy is that of WTO. Some recent WTO trade dispute resolutions have raised legitimate concerns as to whether certain sustainability attributes might be omitted or impaired by the pursuit of trade liberalization. Emerging debates over federal and state legislation addressing farm labor working conditions and farm animal welfare could become important drivers of farm practices and changes in the organization of farming systems in the United States.

Knowledge Institutions

  • As of 2009, the U.S. public research system spends almost $5 billion per year on agricultural research and development. Although roughly a third of public research spending is devoted to examining environmental, natural resource, social, and economic aspects of farming practices, the other two-thirds is focused on improving the productivity and efficiency of conventional farming systems. A relatively small portion of public dollars has been devoted to the investigation of complex farming systems and long-term agricultural research.

  • Cooperative extension has expanded its mandate beyond traditional agriculture to provide outreach and services to address a broad set of communities and their needs, despite declining funding from federal, state, and local governments. The regionalization of extension programs was proposed as one way to reduce costs. Extension would function as a catalytic coordinator and facilitator and work with a broad constituency to improve the viability of the agricultural sector in a region. A nationally coordinated eXtension Internet system is being developed to provide timely and specialized infor-

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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mation and educational programs to the public. The role and mission of cooperative extension to provide education and networking opportunities for farmers is critical to moving agriculture toward improved sustainability.

  • Privately funded industry research in the United States has surpassed the public sector in spending to develop new farm practices and technologies. Research on the impact of farming practices and systems on various indicators of sustainability is much less common in the private sector, because such research is unlikely to lead to the development of marketable products or otherwise generate financial returns on private research and investments.

  • A small but increasing amount of public research dollars is invested in programs devoted specifically to research on sustainable farming systems. The effects of those programs on the development and adoption of new farming practices or systems is not well documented.

  • Much of the technical and managerial innovation in improving agricultural sustainability has occurred through farmer innovation and experimentation. Recognition of the wealth of farmer knowledge about farming practices and systems for improving sustainability has led to increased public support for farmer-to-farmer mentoring programs and farmer learning networks.

  • Opportunities for collaboration between public agricultural scientists and farmer innovators are still relatively rare but offer a potentially important model for future research and development efforts.

Stakeholders and Social Movements

Agricultural markets, policies, and knowledge institutions are shaped by the relative influence and power of various stakeholders and interest groups in the United States. Public awareness of issues of sustainability will depend, in part, on the organization and efforts of individuals and groups that are dissatisfied with the current agrifood system. The number of groups and organizations that are working to support innovative farmers, develop new markets, and expand public programs designed to move agriculture toward sustainable agriculture has been increasing. However, their efforts and successes are constrained by the needs and goals of conventional agrifood system stakeholders, who have traditionally dominated public discussions of farming issues. Changes in markets, policies, and research institutions to encourage sustainable agriculture will depend on finding areas of common ground or negotiated compromises among various stakeholders.

Diversity of Farmer Responses

  • 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 those contexts can be quite diverse. Local biophysical resources, proximity to markets, and existing investments in land, equipment, and buildings all affect the adoption of farming practices to improve the sustainability of U.S. agriculture.

  • Farm business attributes (such as scale and land tenure arrangements), farm household characteristics (including age, formal education, and lifecycle stage), and farmer values and beliefs can affect the ability and desire of individual farmers to use many of the practices mentioned in Chapters 3, 4, and 5 of this report.

Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
×

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Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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Suggested Citation: "6 Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices." National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12832.
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In the last 20 years, there has been a remarkable emergence of innovations and technological advances that are generating promising changes and opportunities for sustainable agriculture, yet at the same time the agricultural sector worldwide faces numerous daunting challenges. Not only is the agricultural sector expected to produce adequate food, fiber, and feed, and contribute to biofuels to meet the needs of a rising global population, it is expected to do so under increasingly scarce natural resources and climate change. Growing awareness of the unintended impacts associated with some agricultural production practices has led to heightened societal expectations for improved environmental, community, labor, and animal welfare standards in agriculture.

Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century assesses the scientific evidence for the strengths and weaknesses of different production, marketing, and policy approaches for improving and reducing the costs and unintended consequences of agricultural production. It discusses the principles underlying farming systems and practices that could improve the sustainability. It also explores how those lessons learned could be applied to agriculture in different regional and international settings, with an emphasis on sub-Saharan Africa. By focusing on a systems approach to improving the sustainability of U.S. agriculture, this book can have a profound impact on the development and implementation of sustainable farming systems. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century serves as a valuable resource for policy makers, farmers, experts in food production and agribusiness, and federal regulatory agencies.

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