|POLICY RECOMMENDATION 1
|Integrate pollution prevention and natural resource conservation into agricultural production
|Harmonize the pollution prevention and natural resource conservation policies of various federal, state, and local agencies to minimize conflicts among the policies that could undermine environmental protection. Link technical and financial assistance to farmers and ranchers to their voluntary implementation of farm- and ranch-specific plans for integrating pollution prevention and natural resource conservation into agricultural production. Renew and refine land retirement program to improve their cost-effectiveness, increase their conservation of natural resources, and enhance their ability to prevent agriculturally related pollution.
Because some federal, state, and local policies and programs relating to agriculture conflict with one another, they may actually undermine efforts to attain national and local environmental objectives and sustainable development goals, as well as inefficiently use public resources. To eliminate this conflict, all levels of government should review these policies and programs and work together to coordinate them. In doing so, they should invite nongovernmental organizations, such as university research institutions and agribusinesses, to help identify policies that potentially hinder farmers and ranchers from protecting natural resources and preventing pollution. Successful collaboration will depend on the forging of strong partnerships among the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Department of Interior, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Axmy Corps of Engineers, state agriculture and environmental protection agencies, farm groups, universities, agribusinesses, producers' organizations, and other entities.
The USDA, in particular, should take several actions to promote environmentally sound agricultural practices. In addition to assessing whether its policies encourage sustainable agriculture and revising or eliminating those policies that do not, it should direct additional technical and financial resources to meeting natural resource and environmental protection goals, strengthen its soil and wetlands conservation efforts, and link participation in its farm programs to farmers' voluntary implementation of integrated farming systems (that is, systems that integrate pollution prevention and natural resource conservation into agricultural production). USDA also should develop projects to demonstrate integrated farming systems on both small- and large-scale farms and direct its research efforts toward promoting environmental protection and conservation of natural resources.
The government has an important role to play in resource conservation efforts relating to land retirement programs, through which agricultural lands are managed for envirorunental benefits by contracts or purchase of easements--with federal, state, or local funds, or some combination of these funds. These programs generate economic and environmental benefits for farmers and society as a whole. The economic benefits include reducing crop surpluses and federal budgetary outlays for crop subsidies. The environmental benefits--which derive from the restoration of wetlands and grasslands--include increased recreational opportunities, improved water quality and carbon sequestration, and the provision of habitat for wild plant and animal species. The Conservation Reserve Program, an existing land retirement program with enrollment at 36.4 million acres, has been credited with generating approximately $8.6 billion in wildlife-related benefits alone.
In the past, federal and state governments have designed many resource conservation programs from the top down, with inadequate local involvement. As a result, community priorities often are not heard or understood. To take these priorities into account in the implementation of conservation programs, the USDA has established state technical committees. These committees--which include federal, state, and local agency representatives--provide an opportunity for stakeholders to establish environmental protection and natural resource conservation goals and criteria for meeting them, as well as an opportunity to develop guidelines for target cost-share payments. The USDA should encourage local environmental, consumer, agricultural, and other groups to contribute input to state committees' implementation of conservation and the environmental programs.
|POLICY RECOMMENDATION 2
|Increase the flexibility for participants in commodity programs to respond to market signals and adopt environmentally sound production practices and systems, thereby increasing profitability and enhancing environmental quality.
|Increase the flexibility for farmers who participate in commodity programs to make their own production decisions in response to market signals so that they can implement profitable production practices and systems that conserve natural resources, enhance environmental quality, and optimize resource use.
One restriction of commodities programs illustrates how these costs arise. "Base acreage" requirements, which specify the minimum number of acres that must be planted in one of the price-supported crops, encourage intensive monoculture. Therefore, the requirements discourage farmers from diversifying their crops in response to market demand and from optimizing their use of resources, which would promote environmental stewardship.
If commodity programs gave participants greater flexibility in their production decisions, farmers would be better able to manage their crops in ways that increase both profitability and environmental protection. Past experience indicates that farmers will take advantage of opportunities to do so. In 1990, Congress passed legislation that allowed farmers who had signed up for a particular commodity program--for example, the wheat program--to plant some of their land in a crop other than that specified by the program. In response, farmers reduced the number of acres under monoculture and diversified their crops. By 1994, approximately 42 percent of the land on which farmers were allowed to grow whatever they chose was planted in crops other than those specified by the commodity program in which the farmers were enrolled.
Congress should continue to enhance the flexibility of commodity programs.
|POLICY RECOMMENDATION 3
|Expand agricultural markets
|Pursue efforts to expand agriculture markets in order to increase demand for agricultural products, returns farmers and ranchers, investments in environmental protection, and conservation of natural resources. Support continued negotiations on international agreements that encourage more open global markets.
Farmers already are highly motivated to control production costs, but they could use the assistance of the federal government in expanding agricultural markets. Working with the private sector, the federal government should explore the feasibility of revolving loans, repayable grants, or matching grants to conduct market research on, demonstrate the acceptability of, and promote the expanded use of agricultural commodities in existing domestic markets; find new uses for these commodities; and encourage the creation of businesses that utilize agricultural commodities as rawmaterials in new products.
The federal government also has a role to play in opening up global agricultural markets to U.S. farmers. As the global population grows and as demand for higher-quality diets increases in developing countries, American farmers must be in a position to compete for additional food-supply business. The government can help them by supporting continued negotiations on international agreements that discourage trade-distoring policies.
|POLICY RECOMMENDATION 4
|Revise the pricing of public natural resources
|Continue to move the pricing of public natural resources and their use toward market pricing, recognizing that there may be circumstances when investments are warranted for the public good.
Policies that result in subsidies for the use of natural resources can undermine sustainability because they can incorrectly signal that supplies of the resources are larger than is actually the case and because they do not reflect the rising demand for environmental values as per capita income increases. As a result, they often have supported overconsumption or low-value uses of natural resources.
To prevent natural resource policies from undermining sustainability, the government should identify and revise, where appropriate, those subsidies that encourage the use of renewable resources at a rate greater than is sustainable over the long term. In addition, in drawing up new contracts for the lease or sale of public natural resources, the government should consider the market prices of the resources and the full costs of making the resources available to the private sector. Finally, the government should recognize rising environmental values by conserving the use of public natural resources.
|POLICY RECOMMENDATION 5
|Keep prime farmlands in agricultural production
|Keep prime farmlands in agricultural production by implementing (at the appropriate levels of government) rational land-use policies such as easement, zoning, taxation, financial incentive, transportation, and land development policies that reduce the encroachment of urban sprawl on prime farmlands and that otherwise seek to preserve the prime land base for U.S. agriculture.
One of these pressures is urban sprawl. More than half of U.S. agricultural production, measured in dollars at the farm gate, comes from counties where the expanding urban fringe threatens prime farmland. Moreover, 30 percent of the nation's agricultural production comes from so-called Metropolitan Statistical Areas, where the human population exceeds 197.7 million, and 26 percent comes from adjacent counties with a population density of at least 25 people per square mile.
Another pressure derives from the fundamental disconnection between the best use of land resources and the best use of certain lands for agricultural production. As a result of this disconnection, the prime cropland is sometimes converted for housing and other uses, leaving less productive land to support future agricultural production, as well as supply certain aesthetic, cultural, and other values.
To prevent the loss of prime agricultural lands to nonagricultural uses, states and localities should make these lands the objects of farmland protection programs.
|POLICY RECOMMENDATION 6
|Invest in rural communities' infrastructure
|Help rural communities to capitalize on the economic benefits of sustainable agriculture by giving priority in rural business development and marketing programs to investments in enterprises associated with the products of sustainable agriculture. In addition, invest in rural communities' infrastructure.
Investments that directly support sustainable agriculture are not, by themselves, sufficient to curtail the exodus of residents from rural communities. To be healthy, rural communities must have at their base a solid infrastructure to support economic development. Therefore, federal and state rural business development programs and marketing programs should make investments in infrastructure that will help revitalize many rural communities--for example, investments in upgrades of bridges and roads and in modernization of medical, communication, and capital-lending systems.
|POLICY RECOMMENDATION 7
|Continue Improvements in Food Safety and Quality
|Assure continued improvements in the safety and quality of U.S. food products. Pursue international harmonization of food standards while maintaining the right of the United States to pursue its own high standards for food safety and quality.
But food safety and quality does not hinge on technological advances alone; it depends significantly on government oversight of the U.S. food complex. To ensure continued improvement in food safety and quality, the USDA should assess grading and testing standards, monitoring mechanisms, and safety standards for their effectiveness in protecting public health. It also should expand programs that educate consumers about safe food-handling practices, strengthen programs that ensure the safety of food for children and other vulnerable subgroups of the population, and increase opportunities for a more varied and healthy diet -- especially for low-income families. Finally, the USDA should encourage the development and use of quick field tests for food safety and quality that can be used to assess compliance with microbial contamination and chemical residue tolerances.
Efforts to enhance food safety cannot be limited to the U.S. food system because the system operates in a global market where the safety standards of some countries are lower than in the United States. Given this reality, the federal government should reinvigorate existing efforts to strengthen food safety programs in foreign food-exporting countries. In addition, as food standards worldwide are harmonized, they should be based on a scientific process that is transparent.
|POLICY RECOMMENDATION 8
|Promote the research needed to support a sustainable U.S. agriculture.
|Develop institutional incentives and funding arrangements to promote research that shows how to integrate agricultural productivity and profitability with environmental stewardship. Where necessary, increase efforts to convey the latest research findings to local farmers and to educate them about the most promising new technologies and management strategies for achieving efficiency.
Looking ahead to the future, the need is for research that helps farmers and ranchers to be good environmental stewards while they are increasing their productivity. In short, a sustainable U.S. agriculture will require research that focuses on integrating productiviy, profitabliliy, and environmental stewardship.
While both publicly funded and privately funded research have greatly enhanced the performance of agricultural producers in the past, two tendencies may diminish the potential contribution of research to the sustainability of U.S. agriculture in the future. First, agricultural research is often narrowly focused. Second, publicly funded research is conducted within the constraints of brief budget cycles.
Agricultural research tends to focus on individual aspects of agricultural production-for example, pest control, soil management techniques, or development of new crop varieties-rather than on whole production systems, including the ecological systems that are the settings for farming and ranching operations. Moreover, agricultural research tends to emphasize the insights of single discoplines rather than combining the expertise of multiple disciplines, including biology, chemisty, ecology, and economics. This narrow focus, which has evolved in response to institutional pressures for specialization, impedes the acquisition of knowledge that would enhance the sustainabilty of U.S. agriculture, particularly where environmental costs and values are concerned. To remedy this problem, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of the Interior) should take the lead in developing a plan to focus agricultural research on multiple aspects of agricultural production from the perspective of multiple disciplines. In doing so, it should seek input from universities, scientific societies, agribusinesses, grower organizations, and other organizations.
Agricultural research programs often operate on an annual budget cycle, requiring researchers to submit grant applicatins each year to continue projects. Because projects often require more than one year's work, they could lose funding before they are completed. To remedy this situation, the USDA should revise grant programs to make provisions for financial commitments of terms longer than one year. Moreover, when administrators of grant programs are deciding which projects merit such commitments, they should give priority to projects that include on-farm demonstrations of promising new tehnologies and management strategies for enhancing the sustainablity of agriculture.
Of cource, research serves little purpose unless it reaches the hands of those in a position to use it. The implication is that agricultural extension agencies should imporve, if necessary, their efforts to convey to local farmers the latest findings of sound, publicly funded agricultural research, In addition, agricultural research institutions that receive public funds should educate agricultural producers, to the extent that they are not already doing so, about the latest tehnological advances and most efficient management practices.
|POLICY RECOMMENDATION 9
|Pursue international harmonization of intellectual property rights
|Pursue international harmonization of intellectual property rights in order provide incentives for the development of new agricultural technologies. Support the objectives of the International Convention on Biological Diversity in order to conserve genetic resources and protect intellectual property rights.
Recent trade agreements, notably NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and those agreements reached during the Uruguay Round of GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), have imposed new guidelines for the protection of intellectual property rights. As these guidelines are implemented and adopted by additional countries, the U.S. government should work to ensure that they maximize benefits for genetic resource conservation and sustainable agriculture. In addition, the U.S. government should help to structure and implement the intellectual property provisions of trade agreements and other international treaties in ways that protect the interests of indigenous peoples whose long-standing knowledge of biodiversity resources has helped fuel innovation and development in multibillion dollar in dustries, including agriculture, but who often have not been compensated for sharing this knowledge.