Food and agricultural producers everywhere balance growing and changing demand for food with the constraints and opportunities of the physical and economic environments in which they operate. Innovators around the world—in operations ranging from large-scale transgenic grain production in the Great Plains to organic dairy production in New England, to agro-ecological systems in West Africa—have found ways to minimize water use, build soil, enhance habitat, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and minimize reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides while building profitable operations. This has resulted in greater diversity both within and across individual farm operations.
Consumers are also driving the diversification of production systems. Globally, rising incomes increase demand for more meat and fresh produce. In the United States, more consumers are seeking food that is certified organic and “sustainably grown,” locally produced, and less processed, among other demands. Many of these products are increasingly available at farmers’ markets, local stores, and even large retailers, who source them from both smaller, local producers and multinational corporations. Food with such attributes is the fastest growing U.S. food sector.
A growing body of research recognizes that fostering diverse systems will enable agricultural producers to successfully meet changing market and environmental conditionsover the long term. Additional research is needed to understand the effects of various types of diversity (germplasm, crops, livestock breeds, farming practices, business models) at a range of scales (individual farm, landscape, region, or nation). More science is also needed on such issues as long-term productivity; conservation of soil, land, water, and habitat; and capacity to adapt to changing climate and ecological conditions. Policymakers must carefully consider how best to appropriate government resources and research efforts among crops and production systems. In addition, policymakers will confront different perspectives about whether changes are needed to ensure diverse systems coexist and thrive alongside one another, such as organic crops adjacent to crops from transgenic seeds, for example.