U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Nebraska


Date of this Version



Published in Soil Management: Building a Stable Base for Agriculture (2011) 13-38. DOI:10.2136/2011soilmanagement.c2


The increasing pressure to provide food security, enhance environmental quality, and address societal problems creates challenges for agriculture and requires we consider how to change our current systems to become more sustainable. Wiebe (2003) stated, “Not only is the contemporary food system inherently unsustainable, increasingly it is damaging the environment.” There have been adverse eff ects in all parts of the world on soils, water, and biodiversity. Poor management of our agricultural systems has contributed to human-induced climate change, and, in turn, human-induced climate change threatens agricultural productivity. In many developed countries, access to quality food is taken for granted, and farmers and farm workers are poorly rewarded for acting as stewards of the Earth’s land area used for agricultural production. There is litt le emphasis on the conservation ethic. More troubling, the environmental degradation caused by intensive agriculture will likely worsen as the global population grows to eight or ten billion in the next three decades.

Modern agriculture is no longer approached as a single issue and is a business that includes far more than just production of food. We have to learn how to pay farmers to not only produce food, animal feed, fiber, and biofuel, but to value the environmental services they impact during crop production. We must consider the environmental issues of biodiversity and water, the economic issues of marketing and trade, and the social concerns of gender and culture. All of this must be done in an economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable manner. We need a fundamental reevaluation of agricultural knowledge, science, and technology transfer to achieve a sustainable global food system. Challenges include giving farmers better access to knowledge, technology, and credit and bringing the necessary information and infrastructure to rural areas.