National Research Council Calls for Sustainable Farming

The National Research Council has issued a report critiquing the fragility, narrow focus and externalized costs of contemporary industrial farming and calling for more sustainable, balanced agriculture. To help achieve a sustainable system that looks beyond the limited goal of commodity production, the committee identified four goals that should be considered simultaneously: satisfy human food, fiber, and feed requirements, and contribute to biofuels needs; protect the natural resource base on which food production depends; maintain the economic viability of agriculture; and improve the quality of life for farmers, farm workers, and society as a whole. Authors note that achieving these goals will require long-term, multidisciplinary research, education, outreach, and experimentation in partnership with farmers. Titled, "Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century," the report’s findings are remarkable both for their consistency with the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Technology and Development (a landmark UN report about which the U.S. has been conspicuously silent), and for the intervention they pose in a public debate about the future of food and farming. Coming from an esteemed institution, and authored by dozens of scientists and industry leaders (including a former undersecretary of agriculture under George W. Bush) the report throws considerable mainstream weight behind the sustainable food and farming movement at a time when industrial ag interests are “fighting back” by attempting to characterize sustainable food and farming advocates as fringe. Carolyn Lochhead of the San Francisco Chronicle notes, “The report squares off against a growing backlash by proponents of industrial agriculture to what they see as a utopian and romanticized vision of pastoral life that would take food production back to the 19th century and starve the world.”

Authors note efficiency gains of the industrial model but place those in the context of costs like agrochemical waterway pollution and agriculture’s contributions to climate change, noting that these—as well as human and animal health harms—are unaccounted for in industrial ag’s preoccupation with productivity. This narrow pursuit of production has also placed industrial ag itself on fragile footing, as the system is susceptible to shocks like oil price spikes and food safety concerns, noted the report’s committee chair Julia Kornegay, who also chairs the horticultural science department at North Carolina State University. Also noted was the price farmers have paid: farmers’ income is not keeping up with rising production costs, primarily due to the higher prices of external inputs such as seeds, fuel, and synthetic fertilizer. 

 

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