Agriculture is held in special regard by many Americans, because farmers,
unlike other groups of producers, have played an integral role in the
nation's development since its earliest days. Agriculture, of course, has
alue beyond that which people attach to it as part of the American
heritage. The food and fiber produced by U.S. agriculture has contributed
very significantly to the nation's economic growth. Agriculture's
importance to the U.S. economy, as well as the special reverence in which
family farms are held, suggest that agriculture's continued vitality is
essential for the nation's future.
Because agriculture is so familiar a part of the American landscape and
its products so abundant in the United States, we take the importance of
its sustainability for granted. Whether agriculture will continue to meet
the needs of present and future generations is not certain, however. It
already faces several significant challenges.
Between 1950 and the early 1990s, the real (infalation-adjusted) prices
of farm commodities dropped, while crop and animal production nearly
doubled. But the production of food and
fiber has had
negative impacts on the environment, including losses of plant and animal
habitat and, as a consequence of runoff from farmers' fields, reductions
in water quality. The costs of sediment damage have been particularly
significant. A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in
1989 estimated the annual costs of this damage to be between $4-5 billion
in the mid-1980s. If these costs were
charged against the farm income account, the performance of the
agricultural sector would not appear as favorable as it now does. One
major challenge for the U.S. agricultural sector, therefore, is to
decrease environmental costs in ways that do not compromose
productivity and profitability.
Another major challenge for the sector is to expand its markets so as to
continue its growth and create greater wealth. To some extent, this
expansion will depend on the design and development of foods with
enhanced nutritional value as well as on the creation of new uses for
agricultural products. But expansion also will depend heavily on global
markets that are free from the influence of trade-distorting policies.
Agricultural research has played a major role in U.S. agriculture's
increases in productivity and profitability. To meet demands for
environmental protection and enhance its global competitiveness, U.S.
agriculture will continue to need long-term, multifaceted, and
interdisciplinary research. The challenge will be to focus on public and
private research, education, and technology development on integrating
profitable agricultural systems and enterprises with stewardship of
Yet another challenge is revitalizing the nation's rural farming
communities. In recent years, the infrastructure of many of these
communities has weakened considerably. Investments in this infrastructure
and in rural enterprises that revolve around agricultural commodities
that are produced in ways that protect and enhance the environment are
needed to rebuild rural communities.
U.S. agriculture must be sustainable if the national goal of sustainable
development is to be achieved. The importance of agriculture to this goal
was recognized in January 1994, when the President's Council on
Sustainable Development formed a scoping Task Force to identify
issues relevant to a sustainable U.S. agriculture and to examine the
best way of incorporating these issues into the council's national action
strategy for achieving sustainable development.
Co-chaired by council members John Adams of the Natural Resources
Defense Council, Rominger, Deputy Secretary at U.S. Department of
Agriculture, and Richard Barth of Ciba-Geigy Corporation, the
seven-member scoping Task Force sought advice from other council
members and outside experts in carrying out this mission. On
April 28, 1994, it held a symposium in Washington, DC, to develop a
shared base of ideas and information for the group's recommendations to
the full council. This meeting featured presentations by six experts
from various disciplines related to agriculture who were asked to
address the following questions:
What are the defining principles of sustainable agriculture?
To what degree has U.S. agriculture met, or failed to meet,
sustainability as measured by its defining principles?
What is the importance of sustainable agriculture to sustainable
development in the United States?
In what ways, if any, might the President's Council on Sustainable
Development address sustainable agriculture?
The experts' responses to the third question confirmed that
agriculture deserves prominence in the national discussion of sustainable
development. On July 22, 1994, the President's Council on Sustainable
Development unanimously voted to create a Task Force to find
constructive ways to address sustainable agriculture issues. The
council chartered the Task Force on Sustainable Agriculture to develop a
vision of agriculture that focuses on sustainable production practices
and systems. The Task Force's mission was to identify and examine
relevant issues and to make recommendations to the council for policy
actions to be implemented by the public and private sectors. These
recommendations were presented to the council for inclusion in its
national sustainable development action strategy, which was forwarded to
President Clinton in February 1996.
To carry out its mission, the Task Force focused first on gathering
information about barriers to and positive examples of sustainable
agricultural-production practices and systems. At public roundtables in
Chicago, Chattanooga, San Francisco, and Washington DC, and during field
trip to farming operations, agricultural research facilities, and
sustainable-farming demonstration sites in western Indiana, Task Force
members sought comment from individuals-including farmers, agricultural
researchers, agricultural development and policy consultants, academics,
natural resource specialists, and agricultural extension personnel-and
from organizations including agribusiness, state and federal agricultural
agencies, and agricultural trade associations. The Task Force also
sought assistance from an advisory panel, which was made up of experts
from agriculturally related disciplines, backgrounds, and sectors.
To complete its mission, the Task Force synthesized the input from
roundtable discussions, field visits, and its advisory panel, as well as
from the April 28, 1994, symposium, into a set of goals and policy
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