Making a Place at the Table for Farmers in the Future of Sustainable Agriculture

Interest in how our food is grown has been rekindled in recent
years, with particular focus on sustainable agriculture. But what
exactly is sustainable agriculture? Recently, everyone from certifiers like the Food Alliance, to resource groups like the National Center for Appropriate Technology, to producer groups like the California Farm Bureau Federation, to multi-stakeholder efforts like the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture
have been clamoring for authority on the matter, framing up widely
varying definitions and criteria to steer the national dialogue.

Last week, the National Research Council (NRC) upped the ante with the publication of Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems for the 21st Century. The report will surely be an important milestone on the path toward agricultural sustainability. This 570-page tome, an update of the 1989 NRC report Alternative Agriculture,
set out to investigate the sustainability of various agricultural
production systems. It aims to distill principles of practice that can
underlie agricultural production across geographies and scales, with a
particular focus on applying practices-drawn from the U.S.
experience-in less developed countries, specifically sub-Saharan
Africa. The report also illustrates sustainable practices by showcasing
a range of case study farms, many of them a review of studies conducted
for the 1989 report.

The NRC report sidesteps the debate about what sustainable agriculture is
by arguing that the "pursuit of sustainability is not a matter of
defining sustainable or unsustainable agriculture, but rather is about
assessing whether choices of farming practices and systems would lead
to a more or less sustainable system as measured by the four goals." It
argues the "inherently subjective" nature of characterizing sustainable
agriculture and underscores the degree to which different groups
emphasize different goals of sustainable agricultural systems, which
the NRC frames as:

  • Satisfying human food, fiber, and feed requirements, and contributing to biofuels needs;
  • Enhancing environmental quality and the resource base;
  • Maintaining the economic viability of agriculture; and
  • Improving the quality of life for farmers, farm workers, and society as a whole.

The bottom line conclusion of the study? In order to meet society's
long-term needs for food, fiber, and fuel, and minimize externalities,
"agricultural production will have to substantially accelerate progress
towards the four sustainability goals" outlined above.

The authors stress the need to pursue two approaches simultaneously:
incremental and transformative change. In other words, we should
support positive baby steps toward one or more of the goals across all
farming types and scales, while at the same time striving to
re-envision a model farm landscape, as well as a policy framework that
will facilitate its realization.

Where do farmers fit?

So just what will it take for our production systems to make this
shift? The NRC strongly emphasizes that scientific knowledge is the
necessary foundation to progress toward sustainability, stating that
"[s]cience generates the knowledge needed to predict the likely
outcomes of different management systems and expands the range of
alternatives that can be considered by farmers, policy makers, and
consumers." Science is undeniably important to the development and
refinement of sustainability practices and policies. But where do
farmers fit?

The NRC report makes surprisingly little reference to farmers'
knowledge in the American context, but it does recommend that the USDA
and other research support agencies "encourage researchers to include
farmer-participatory research or farmer-managed trials as a component
of their research." But is this kind of partnership really about
placing farmers' knowledge on a level playing field with that of
scientists? The stated objective of this farmer involvement is to
"enhance information exchange and enhance farmers' adoption of new
practices and approaches," a formulation that emphasizes a flow of
information from scientists to farmers, not the other way around.

Farmers can not only offer new innovations and advances in farming
practices, but importantly, an understanding of what approaches have
worked and not worked over decades and even generations of diligent
trial-and-error on a given piece of land. Yet many farmers are not
inclined or encouraged to document their experience in formal academic
format that has come to be the respected standard for knowledge among

Many analyses, including the bulk of the NRC report, take a
literature-based approach, which typically (and often inadvertently)
ignore or downplay farmers' experience and knowledge. One byproduct is
that decision-makers in our society tend to overlook farmers as
experts, and they get subjugated in broader decision-making processes.
It may be that sustainability cannot be achieved until farmers are
understood as agricultural experts in their own right and broader
solutions truly integrate practitioners and their knowledge systems.

The NRC report correctly acknowledges that the loss of local
agricultural knowledge is a key barrier to sustainability in farming
systems. True sustainability will require a recognition and acceptance
of a diversity of agricultural knowledge systems. As core actors in
any kind of agriculture, farmers must be placed at the center of
proposed change models, in coalition with representatives from
throughout the model supply chains and food systems that foster healthy
food systems more broadly.

As Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems for the 21st Century
indicates, different people-agricultural producers included-emphasize
different aspects of sustainability. True sustainability requires all
four goals to be met. It is to farmers like the ones profiled in the
report, especially those who have scored high on all four
sustainability goals, that we should look to in order to move U.S.
farming to greater sustainability. Not only do farmers like these offer
up valuable practices, but they hold important value systems and
worldviews that are essential underpinnings for agricultural policy, as
well as society as a whole.

What would it look like to truly place farmers like these at the
center of agricultural policy and production systems for the 21st
Century? How can we build collaborative decision-making models that
better integrate farmers and communities into policy decision-making?

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