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.[1] 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.[2] 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 natural resources.

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 recommendations.

Chapter 1: Goals | Table of Contents