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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Matt C. Smith

National Program Leader

Agricultural and Industrial Byproducts
Natural Resources and Sustainable Agricultural Systems
GWCC-BLTSVL, Room 4-2274 
BELTSVILLE, MD, 20705-5148
Phone: (301) 504-4613
Fax: (301) 504-6231



Message from Matt Smith

Sustainable Issues 

There has been increasing interest in sustainable agricultural systems in 2010 - within the USDA as well as from outside groups.  Of particular interest was the June release of a new report on sustainable agricultural systems by the National Research Council. Activities of interest within USDA include the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF2) initiative; the revitalization of the Organic Working Group (OWG), the Council on Sustainable Development (SDCouncil).  And a key activity by many players including USDA, universities, local governments, and private entities revolves around the subject of local and regional food systems.


The National Research Council of the National Academies issued a new report entitled Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century.  From a brief summary of the report:

The report’s authoring committee defined sustainability not as any particular end state, but rather as progress towards four goals: (1) producing enough to satisfy human needs; (2) enhancing environmental quality and protecting the natural resource base; (3) being profitable; and (4) increasing the quality of life for farmers, farm workers, and society as a whole. Farm systems also must be flexible enough to adapt to natural and economic stresses as they strive towards the four goals.  With global populations rising rapidly, U.S. agriculture faces the challenge of producing enough food, feed, and fiber to meet increasing demand in conditions of changing climate and scarce natural resources. Innovative policies and new farming approaches based on a strong scientific foundation

are needed to tackle the challenge of increasing production while also meeting environmental, economic, and social goals.


One very interesting aspect of the report is that the authors attempted to follow up with farms that were studied in the 1989 National Research Council report titled Alternative Agriculture.  They were able to follow up with owners/operators of 10 of the original 14 farms from 1989.  Of those 10, eight were still in business in 2010.  The commonalities between the operations are enlightening as are their perceived threats to continued operation.  Those threats include rising land values due to development pressure and water availability.


Following the release of the report the USDA, along with the National Resources Council and several advocacy groups cosponsored a symposium to discuss the report’s findings.  Participants included farmers, university faculty, private corporations and government agencies.  The symposium is well-summarized in this blog post by Jill Auburn of the USDA Office of the Chief Scientist.  Detailed information from the symposium, including slides and audio of presentations can be found here.


A key initiative within USDA is Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF2).  Kevin Hackett, NPL for Biological Control, Stephanie Ritchie from the National Agricultural Library, and I participate in KYF2 on behalf of ARS.  KYF2 meetings are very interesting because they include representatives from nearly every mission area and agency within USDA.  Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan often attends the meetings.  KYF2 is a “USDA-wide effort to create new economic opportunities by better connecting consumers with local producers. It is also the start of a national conversation about the importance of understanding where your food comes from and how it gets to your plate.”  It is interesting to see how focused the Deputy Secretary is on breaking down real and perceived barriers within USDA in order to further the KFY2 initiative.


The Department has recently sought to reinvigorate and focus efforts related to organic agriculture.  In April I served on a task force that compiled and summarized all activities related to organic agriculture across the USDA.  The product was a report of more than 100 pages submitted to Deputy Secretary Merrigan on the 30th of April.  In June, Mark Lipson was hired as an advisor on Organic and Sustainable Agriculture Policy in the Office of the Secretary.  Mark was previously the Senior Policy Advisor for the Organic Farming Research Foundation.  Mark has reconstituted the Departmental Organic Working Group (OWG) and I represent ARS in that group.  I am looking forward to increased support for organic activities throughout the USDA.


Did you know that the USDA has a Council on Sustainable Development?  They do, and I have recently assumed the role of ARS representative to this group.  The Council is operated out of the USDA Office of the Chief Economist.  A description of the council’s purpose from the link above: “The USDA Council on Sustainable Development facilitates interagency work on the economic, environmental and social sustainability of food, fiber, agricultural, forest and range systems by providing a Departmental platform to discuss vital issues, set priorities and share best practices.”  I will write more about the Council’s activities at a later date.


Sustainable local and regional food systems is a topic generating increasing interest across a range of government, academic, and private agencies and groups.  Obviously local and regional food systems are an important consideration to the KYF2 activities.  An increasingly common subtopic is “urban agriculture.”  The National Agricultural Library even has a web page devoted to it as part of their Alternative Farming Systems Information Center.  Another subtopic is the mapping of “foodsheds.” An example of the interest in local and regional food systems is the project on a “Rural-Urban Connections Strategy” being developed by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments.  I believe that we will be seeing increased emphasis on regional approaches across the USDA.  Keep your eyes and ears open.


As you can see, there is a lot of activity within USDA and elsewhere related to sustainability issues.  I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on any of the areas discussed above.  I am particularly interested in how you think ARS can/should participate in these efforts.

Last Modified: 11/9/2011
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