The USDA and state universities need to work closely together on such research and increase their study of the economics and social effects of such practices, the authors recommend.
Most current research, the report claims, is conducted to address a particular problem — how to rid soybean fields of a particular weed, or how to increase tomato production while using less water — and two-thirds of public agricultural research spending is focused on such study.
The report's authors also call for a broader, integrated approach to research that's more open-ended and pulls in a variety of disciplines.
In particular, the authors want the USDA, National Science Foundation, public universities and farmer-led groups to set up a research initiative focused on the effects farming has on land and watersheds.
Consumers, the report says, have helped create some such markets by their relatively newfound interest in how their food is grown or raised, and the pressure they place on retailers.
"Those emerging markets can motivate farmers to transition to farming systems that balance and meet multiple sustainability goals," the authors write.
The University of Illinois' Schnitkey noted that production-oriented research can help alleviate environmental concerns. Finding ways to increase the amount of food grown on a given acre, for instance, can reduce the need to cultivate more land.
The report also says public policies have had only a mixed effect on agricultural sustainability. The USDA should spend more on its own study of the effects of current public policies such as farm subsidies and policy ideas in the bureaucratic pipeline, the report recommends.
The report's authors also looked at U.S. agriculture's experience to gauge its relevance to farming in other regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. They call for a similar "systems" approach to research aimed at helping the developing world rather than production-focused research.
Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press.