May 6, 2011

Policy Overhaul Needed For Sustainable Agriculture

A group of prominent scientists, economists and farmers is urging the federal government to shift its agriculture policies in order to accelerate the development of farm practices that are more economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable.

Such changes are needed to continue to provide abundant and affordable food, the scientists wrote in the journal Science

Current agriculture policies focus on the production of a few crops and a minority of farmers, and fail to address farming's contribution to global warming, biodiversity loss, natural resource degradation, and public health problems, the scientists said.

"We have the technology and the science right now to grow food in sustainable ways, but we lack the policies and markets to make it happen," said John Reganold, a Washington State University soil scientist and lead author of the paper.

Beginning in the late 1980s, Reganold pioneered several widely cited comparisons showing organic farming systems were more earth-friendly than conventional systems while producing more nutritious food.

Reganold's co-authors include more than a dozen other leading soil, plant, and animal scientists, economists, sociologists, agroecologists and farmers.

The report is an extension of several national efforts to address concerns about farming's impact on the environment, including a 1989 National Research Council report that called for greater research and education in the areas of sustainable farming.

The scientists are particularly critical of the Farm Bill, which is slated for renewal next year.  While only one-third of farmers receive payments under the bill, it has a significant influence on production while "distorting market incentives and making our food system overly dependent on a few grain crops mainly used for animal feed and highly processed food, with deleterious effects on the environment and human health," the scientists said.

Environmental impacts include overdrawn aquifers, eroded soil and polluted water, said Reganold.

Meanwhile, agricultural research and the field of "agroecology," which adapts the principles of nature to farming systems, are finding new ways to grow abundant and affordable food while protecting the environment, helping farm finances, and contributing to the well-being of farmers, farm workers and rural communities, he added.

Consumers are increasingly seeking organic and alternatively grown foods at grocery stores, farmer's markets, food coops, Community Supported Agriculture networks, and large outlets like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods.

The mounting environmental impacts of agriculture call for a transformation that can be accelerated by shifting federal support to research, policies and markets that support more benign alternative farming systems, the scientists said.

"We need to move more quickly," Reganold said.

"Why are we supporting big, mainstream agriculture that's not necessarily protecting or benefiting the environment? Why don't we support innovative farming systems of all sizes that produce food sustainably?"


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