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OCR for page 537
Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century A Statement of Task In an update of the report Alternative Agriculture, an NRC committee will study the science and policies that influence the adoption of farming practices and management systems designed to reduce the costs and environmental effects of agricultural production. A set of case studies will be used to examine farming systems that address those concerns and to explore the factors that affect their implementation, economic viability, and success in meeting environmental and other goals of sustainability. Although there are many systems of farming that are directed toward reducing costs and environmental impacts, the study will focus on food and fiber production that systematically pursues: Greater incorporation of natural processes such as nutrient cycles, nitrogen fixation, and pest-predator relationships into the production process; Reduction in the use of off-farm inputs and release of farming byproducts (pollution) with the greatest potential to harm the environment or the health of farmers and consumers; Greater productive use of the biological and genetic potential of plant and animal species; Improvement of the match between cropping patterns and the productive potential and limitations of agricultural lands to ensure long-term sustainability of current production levels and resiliency under projected climate change conditions; and Profitable and efficient production, with emphasis on improved farm management and conservation of soil, water, energy, and biological resources. Drawing on scientific, economic, agriculture, and other literature, the study will: Review the state of scientific and economic knowledge of farming practices and systems of management that meet the criteria above to identify the most promising findings and determine what additional research is needed;
OCR for page 538
Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century Examine the potential for a systems-approach to farming to contribute to national economic, environmental, social, and public health goals and explore how other nations have pursued these goals in the context of agricultural sustainability; Identify and evaluate the factors, including structural changes in agribusiness, changing consumer preferences and market incentives, international trade, environmental impacts, and government programs and policies that influence the adoption of farming practices and systems that contribute to those goals. In addition to gaining information from the literature, the committee will carry out a detailed examination of individual production systems, including several described in the 1989 report. A retrospective look at those farming operations will reveal whether the economic and other intended benefits of the practices and systems in place at that time have met their potential or have otherwise been challenged over the years. Additional case studies that represent unique production systems or incorporate novel practices, including examples from outside of the United States, will also be explored. At the conclusion of its study, the committee will produce a comprehensive report of its findings on the science and policy influences on systems-based agriculture. The report will include: An overview of the current dimensions of U.S. agriculture in both the domestic and world economies; A description of problems in the farm economy and challenges in agricultural production that are driving changes in approaches to farm management in the U.S. and abroad; An update of the 1989 report’s review of the economics of alternative farming systems and of methods used to develop cost and productivity comparisons at different levels of analysis, such as the level of individual components of an enterprise, the level of the whole farm, or regional, national, and international levels; An analysis of progress made in the scientific understanding of systems farming and of the scientific evidence for the contribution of specific practices to the objectives of maintaining yields, conserving soil, and maintaining water quality, among other goals; An evaluation of the transferability of systems and practices to different agricultural settings; Detailed descriptions of the case studies, including general information about the production operation and its physical and capital characteristics, features of the management systems being used, and indicators of productivity, environmental, and financial performance. For case studies described in the 1989 report, the description will include a retrospective review of the past performance and the evolution of decision making by those producers over time. Supported by the findings and conclusions of the study, the committee will recommend research and development needs for advancing a systems approach to farming and suggest ways to strengthen federal policies and programs related to improving agricultural production while reducing its impact on the environment.