USDA science agencies recently joined the National Research Council, Farm Foundation, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and Organic Farming Research Foundation in a symposium to discuss implementing the recommendations of the National Research Council report, “Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century.”
This report is one of several over the past two decades to address the changing face of agriculture and concerns about how to help production become more economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable. What makes this report different – and this juncture in time so pivotal — is that we now have good scientific data and case studies about sustainable agricultural practices, explained Julia Kornegay, chair of the committee that wrote the report. In her welcome on behalf of USDA, Deputy Under Secretary Ann Bartuska observed that the report’s definition of sustainability is consistent with the approach being taken at USDA that emphasizes systems thinking and an inclusive, participatory approach that unites scientists and implementers.
Participants and speakers at the forum spanned the spectrum from local farmer Ron Rosmann to ClifBar executive Elysa Hammond to Syngenta’s Mike Johnson, illustrating just how broad the conversation about sustainability has become for many people in agriculture. Rosmann described changes in agriculture and on his own farm, and predicted that the big changes of the future will be driven by consumers and their interest in health. Ricardo Salvador of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation challenged the agricultural community to emulate Wayne Gretsky’s ability to prepare for “where the puck will be, not where it is now.”
Hammond shared the story of Clif Bar’s transformation to a business model based on sustainability; Johnson described industry’s role in technological innovation and discussed the importance of setting direction in terms of results rather than specific practices.
Perhaps the best capsule summary of the national conversation came from Margaret Krome of Michael Fields Ag Institute, who reflected back on Kornegay’s early comments about incorporating sustainability across the sector and not “ghettoizing” sustainability. “It’s not an interest group,” she concluded.
The day concluded with a lively open discussion. Slide presentations and audio recordings are available here.