Major changes necessary to sustain US farming’s future

EAST LANSING, Mich. — In order to provide abundant and affordable food, feed, fiber and fuel, U.S. agriculture needs to change its approach, according to research appearing in the current issue of Science magazine.

Sandra Batie, the Elton R. Smith Professor of Food and Agricultural Policy, and Richard Harwood, professor emeritus of crop and soil sciences, at Michigan State University, were part of 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 U.S. and abroad on a more sustainable trajectory that includes improved natural environments and food security for the future.

U.S. farmers continue to provide growing supplies of food and other products, such as fiber and ethanol. But 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. Furthermore, 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 or farm animals, Batie said.

“To improve the sustainability of farming in the U.S. and worldwide, the team recommended that farmers, policymakers and scientists continue current sustainability efforts as well as expand them, addressing whole systems redesign,” said Harwood, who is also an MSU AgBioResearch scientist. “There are many examples of such redesign that address and balance sustainability goals, including the goal of enhancing farming productivity and financial viability.”

The team, which also included researchers from Washington State University, Utah State University and farmers, 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.

While the small-scale changes are important, the researchers stated, 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 focus on individual technological improvements. They include:

  • Employing more organic farming
  • Embracing alternative livestock production (i.e. 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.”

Greater 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 as U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow will hold the first field hearing for the 2012 Farm Bill on May 31 on MSU’s campus. While the bill addresses U.S. policy, the hearing will focus on agriculture, energy, conservation, rural development, research, forestry and nutrition policies that will impact Michigan.

Michigan State University has been working to advance the common good in uncommon ways for more than 150 years. One of the top research universities in the world, MSU focuses its vast resources on creating solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges, while providing life-changing opportunities to a diverse and inclusive academic community through more than 200 programs of study in 17 degree-granting colleges.

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