Expert Report

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

U.S. farmers are under pressure to satisfy multiple demands, such as to produce more crops, pollute less, fulfill consumer preferences, pay fair wages, and make a living—all with increasingly scarce natural resources such as land and water. To evolve farming systems that meet all of these demands, national agricultural policy, research programs, and food markets need to shift away from emphasizing low costs and high production exclusively and develop a more holistic perspective of how farms provide benefits to society. This report recommends reaching this goal through two parallel efforts: an incremental approach, in which the development of sustainable agricultural techniques will be continued and expanded; and a transformative approach, in which multiple research areas will be brought together to design farming systems that balance the competing demands from the outset.

USDA science agencies recently joined the National Research Council, Farm Foundation, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and Organic Farming Research Foundation in a symposium to discuss implementing the recommendations of the report. Slide presentations and audio recordings are available here.

Key Messages

  • Although market, policy, and other institutional contexts are important drivers of U.S. agriculture, the decisions made by individual farmers about which farming techniques to use are complex. Efforts to promote adoption of farming practices and systems to improve sustainability will require a better understanding of how new approaches address the specific goals and objectives of diverse farm operators.
  • Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa face very different challenges than farmers in the United States, but despite these differences, the concepts of sustainability and broad approaches presented in this report are relevant to farms in sub-Saharan Africa. The committee offers several recommendations for strategic planning that could allow Africa to reduce or avoid many of the difficulties the United States has faced in meeting the sustainability goals by selecting from the suite of successful and promising integrative approaches.
  • On-farm experimentation has inspired much of the innovative practices and approaches for improving sustainability. The report recommends "participatory research," in which farmers work with scientists in development, extension, and outreach processes to identify effective new farming methods and to encourage the adoption of those methods.
  • Over the last two decades, research has led to the development and adoption of many agricultural practices designed to improve various aspects of sustainability. Progress made so far has not been enough to meet all the multiple challenges simultaneously, in part because not all farmers have adopted the best practices identified by researchers, and in part because most research has focused on relatively narrow goals, with less emphasis on understanding how all the components of a farming system relate to each other.
  • Progress on some aspects of sustainability requires moving beyond the field- or farm-level and has to be addressed at the landscape level. For example, managing nutrient runoff from agriculture involves addressing the collective actions of multiple farms in a watershed. New research suggests that the distribution of farm types and activities across whole landscapes could be better designed to achieve improved sustainability on local and regional scales.
  • The incremental approach expands and enhances ongoing efforts to improve sustainability on all farms, irrespective of size or farm type. The goal is to identify and develop farming techniques that can improve specific aspects of sustainability, such as new strategies for water conservation, pest management, and novel marketing approaches for increasing farm income, and to accelerate their adoption.
  • The report's authoring committee defined sustainability not as any particular end state. Rather, it should be evaluated on the basis of progress towards four goals: (1) producing enough to satisfy human needs; (2) enhancing environmental quality and protecting the natural resource base; (3) being profitable; and (4) increasing the quality of life for farmers, farm workers, and society as a whole. Farm systems also must be flexible enough to adapt to natural and economic stresses as they strive towards the four goals.
  • The transformative approach seeks to design farming systems that balance the four goals of sustainability from the outset. These systems might depart significantly from the present-day mainstream of agricultural production in United States, and would require new thinking about farming practices and the natural environment, food markets, and communities in which they are embedded. Multidisciplinary research on aspects of these novel farm systems would be needed to develop a knowledge base to inform future policies and practices.
  • To ensure continuous improvement in sustainability of U.S. agriculture, the committee concluded that two parallel and overlapping approaches are needed to improve the overall performance of farms: the incremental approach, and the transformative approach.
  • With global populations rising rapidly, U.S. agriculture faces the challenge of producing enough food, feed, and fiber to meet increasing demand in conditions of changing climate and scarce natural resources. Innovative policies and new farming approaches based on a strong scientific foundation are needed to tackle the challenge of increasing production while also meeting environmental, economic, and social goals.