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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Research Project: INTEGRATED AGRICULTURAL SYSTEMS FOR THE NORTHERN GREAT PLAINS

Location: Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory

Title: Toward a Sustainable Agriculture

Authors
item Hanson, Jonathan
item Hendrickson, John

Submitted to: Book Chapter
Publication Type: Book / Chapter
Publication Acceptance Date: December 12, 2008
Publication Date: April 11, 2009
Citation: Hanson, J.D., Hendrickson, J.R. 2009. Toward a Sustainable Agriculture. Soil and Water Conservation Society Book Chapter. p. 26-36. IN: Farming with Grass: Achieving Sustainable Mixed Agricultural Landscapes. Alan J. Franzluebbers (Ed.) Soil and Water Conservation Society Conference. Oklahoma City, OK. October 2008.

Interpretive Summary: Agriculture has been very successful in meeting the needs of most of the world’s population. Specifically, today’s agriculture feeds a population of six billion people using only 2,000 m2 of land per person. Despite such impressive achievements, there are concerns about the sustainability of modern agriculture. Intensive agriculture impacts the resource base and potentially reduces both its capacity and its sustainability. In the Great Plains, many cropping systems are characterized by a lack of diversity and declines in soil organic carbon. At the same time, beef production in the United States has done an excellent job of developing animals that can convert feed grains into meat acceptable for human consumption (i.e. feedlots), but as a result the industry is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Great changes have occurred within the American agricultural community over the past century. From 1930 to 2002 the workforce employed in agriculture decreased from 22% to 2%, the percentage of agriculture as an apportionment of total gross domestic product decreased from 7.7% to 0.7%, farming dependent non-metro counties in the U.S. decreased and became a minority, and the percentage of farmers working off farm increased from 30% to 93%. Several authors have indicated that animal agriculture will be needed to help feed the world in the post-industrial twenty-first century, and most animals in the future will be raised on grass. In fact, the current industrial food system employed by many food markets in the U.S. is not sustainable. This concern is certainly tenable and it has far reaching implications for sustainable animal-based production in the U.S. Other important considerations to ensure a sustainable animal-based agricultural include global markets, fossil-fuel energy use, and water shortages. Before discussing these impacts, we will first address the issue of sustainability.

Technical Abstract: Future trends in population growth, energy use, climate change, and globalization will challenge agriculturists to develop innovative production systems that are highly productive and environmentally sound. Furthermore, future agricultural production systems must possess an inherent capacity to adapt to change to be sustainable. During the twentieth century, U.S. agriculture underwent vast transformations. Number of farmers decreased, more farmers relied on off-farm income, agriculture’s proportion of the U.S. GDP declined, and a minority of non-metro counties in the U.S. were farming dependent. Because of these transformations, new challenges have emerged in animal agriculture. These challenges include industrialization, globalization, and fossil-fuel energy use. Through a commitment of the U.S. agricultural community, these challenges can be met and U.S. farmers can lead the way toward a sustainable future.

Last Modified: 4/20/2014