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 decision-makers.

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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