CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — American farmers are producing more food than ever, but agricultural research is too focused on increasing production and needs to do better at considering consequences such as water and air pollution, according to a report issued Tuesday by a federal advisory group.
The National Academies' National Research Council report found that farmers are being asked to produce more and more food to sustain the world's population, but with little focus beyond how many bushels of grain or pounds of vegetables or meat they can generate.
"If farmers are going to meet future demands, the U.S. agriculture system has to evolve to become sustainable and think broadly — past the bottom line of producing the most possible," said Julia Kornegay, who chairs the Washington-based council's committee that wrote the report and heads the department of horticultural science at North Carolina State University.
The report broadly recommends that agriculture focus more study on the effects of popular farming practices that can improve sustainability, while integrating research from a broad range of disciplines and spending more on that broader study.
One agricultural economist, however, said he worries that shifting resources or focus away from production could create problems.
"We're still looking at a situation where we have population growth, so we've got to meet those needs," said Gary Schnitkey, a professor at the University of Illinois. "I think there's too little research on agricultural productivity. We've got to keep increasing output from these acres."
Tuesday's report is a follow-up to the council's 1989 study, "Alternative Agriculture." The council advises the federal government on science and engineering.
The new report praises U.S. farmers for producing 158 percent more food now than they did 50 years ago, and it acknowledges what it calls "a remarkable emergence" of innovations that support sustainable agriculture, defined as practices that both satisfy the need for food and biofuel crops while also protecting the environment and improving farming's economic viability.
But the report also says agriculture is nowhere near where it needs to be to meet those goals.
The report recommends tightly focused research aimed at improving agriculture's sustainability — the study, for example, of practices such as reduced tillage, planting cover crops and diversifying crops on individual farms. All are practices that many farmers use to varying degrees, but the report suggests more research to study the effectiveness and consequences of these practices is needed.