Growers are unmatched in producing ever greater quantities of food at the lower costs, but a new report from The National Academies’ National Research Council says that isn’t enough anymore.

The 598-page report, “Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century ,” concludes that U.S. agricultural policies and research programs should lead the way to a holistic approach to farming that includes multiple goals.

Though farm output in 2008 was 158% higher than in 1948 and the average percent of disposable income spent on food by U.S. consumers has declined from 21% in 1950 to 9.4% in 2004, the cost to the environment was been felt in declining water tables, runoff pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers and large emissions of nitrous oxide and methane greenhouse gases.

“Many modern agricultural practices have unintended negative consequences, such as decreased water and air quality, and farmers have to consider these consequences while trying to increase production,” said Julia Kornegay, chair of the committee that wrote the report, and professor and head of the department of horticultural science at North Carolina State University, Raleigh.

“If farmers are going to meet future demands, the U.S. agriculture system has to evolve to become sustainable and think broadly — past the bottom line of producing the most possible,” Kornegay said.

The report noted that much of U.S. specialty crop agriculture is under pressure from development and scarce water resources.

“An American Farmland Trust study (2002) estimates that 86% of U.S. fruits and vegetables are produced in areas influenced by rapid urban development pressures,” the report said. “While the farms in those areas might benefit from close access to large population centers, they are competing for land and water with urban and industrial uses.”

The committee responsible for the report included 15 members with expertise in food production and agribusiness, including two growers.

The report said four goals should be considered in creating a more sustainable future for agriculture:

  • The ability to satisfy food, fiber and feed requirements and contribute to biofuels needs;
  • Enhance environmental quality and the resource base;
  • Maintain the economic viability of agriculture; and
  • Improve the quality life for growers, farmworkers and society.

Both incremental and transformational change can help agriculture evolve, the report said. Incremental changes include the use of pest-resistant plant varieties, conservation tillage, integrated pest management and the use of crop diversity in growing regions. An example of transformational change, the report said, is changing the way livestock is raised to address social concerns.