Major changes necessary to sustain the future of U.S. farming, says AgBioResearch scientist

To provide abundant and affordable food, feed, fiber and fuel, U.S. agriculture needs to change its approach, according to research appearing in the May 6 issue of Science magazine.

May 23, 2011

FenceTo provide abundant and affordable food, feed, fiber and fuel, U.S. agriculture needs to change its approach, according to research appearing in the May 6 issue of Science magazine.

AgBioResearch scientist Sandra Batie and MSU colleague Richard Harwood, professor emeritus of crop and soil sciences, were among a team of scientists and farmers who wrote a report published by the National Research Council. The report, which was expanded as a policy forum in Science, identifies policy and practice reforms that could place agriculture in the United States and abroad on a more sustainable trajectory that includes improved natural environments and food security for the future.

The report stated that, although farmers in the United States continue to provide growing supplies of food and other products, such as fiber and ethanol, these efforts have been accompanied by the unintended consequences of greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, natural resource degradation and public health problems.

 “Agricultural efforts also are vulnerable to resource scarcity, climate change and market vulnerability,” added Batie, who is the Elton R. Smith professor of food and agricultural policy. “Further, society continues to ask that agriculture better address not only these sustainability issues and challenges but also issues involving the welfare of rural communities, farm workers and farm animals.

To improve the sustainability of farming in the United States and worldwide, the team recommended that farmers, policymakers and scientists continue to expand current sustainability efforts to address whole-systems redesign.

“There are many examples of such redesign that address and balance sustainability goals, including the goal of enhancing farming productivity and financial viability,” Batie said.

The team, which also included farmers and researchers from Washington State University and Utah State University, is recommending both incremental and transformative changes. Incremental changes include adopting two-year crop rotations and employing precision agriculture practices using geospatial technologies that track field variation, classically bred or genetically engineered crops, and reduced- or no-tillage practices.

Though the small-scale changes are important, the researchers stated that they are not enough to address larger sustainability concerns that could impair farming’s future. These changes come from a whole-system redesign approach rather than individual technological improvements. They include:

  • Employing more organic farming.
  • Embracing alternative livestock production (e.g., grass-fed/low-confinement animals).
  • Incorporating mixed crop and livestock systems.
  • Developing perennial grains.

“These approaches integrate the critical components of production, environmental and socioeconomic objectives,” Harwood said. “They also reflect greater awareness of ecosystem services and capitalize on complementary farm enterprises, such as crop and livestock production.”

Scientific validation could speed adoption of these successful examples of improved systems now in use by thousands of farmers, he added.

The recommendations come at a pivotal time because U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow held the first field hearing for the 2012 Farm Bill on May 31 on the MSU campus. Although the bill addresses U.S. policy, the hearing focused on agriculture, energy, conservation, rural development, research, forestry and nutrition policies that will affect Michigan.

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