Union of Concerned Scientists
An Agrifood System for the 21st Century and Beyond
For all the characteristics of a modern, highly technological and efficient agrifood system, we live with the outcome of systems designed with 18th and 19th century worldviews and demands. These largely sanctioned linearity and extraction. Updating these systems for the 21st century and beyond requires refining them with today’s understanding of the biogeomechanics of the planet and of equitable social organization. Systems thinking must be developed and practiced, rather than simply idealized and recommended. We must move from noting that externalities occur to actively internalizing the costs that could be sidestepped when the planet had a population of 1 billion people, colonial outlooks and mercantilist economies. Policy must expand beyond surrendering primacy to the interests of the private sector on the unexamined assumption that this ultimately translates into general public good, and toward more balanced approaches where public and private interests are weighted proportionately. We must redesign agricultural technologies recognizing that the environment is more than a staging area for production, and more a model for regenerative (i.e., “circular”) use of materials and energy. And food technologies should serve the end of preserving and making food more available and nourishing, and less the purpose of supporting marketing of highly processed, high-margin foodstuffs. Shifts such as these will require different accounting, cost/benefit analyses, and concomitant economic models.
University of Florida
Creating convergent systems approaches for transforming food and agricultural systems
Scientific and technological innovations and available natural resources have enabled the U.S. to produce abundant, safe, and affordable food and other agricultural products. However, despite this impressive progress resources are being lost from food and agricultural production and supply chains, which reduce economic benefits and decrease environmental quality. An achievable aspiration is that food and agricultural systems can be transformed to meet future demands for products while providing positive economic, climate, biodiversity, and environmental benefits. Traditional approaches to specific food and agricultural systems problems are inadequate to address multiple societal goals due to tradeoffs and inherent complexities. Convergent systems approaches created by cooperation across disciplines in public and private sectors are essential; circular economy principles inspire development of these approaches. Professional societies, industries, policy makers, foundations, and others are seeking research and development pathways that address multiple productivity, economic, and environmental goals. In this talk, I will summarize why circularity is an ideal concept to address these goals, point out example studies that use these concepts, and discuss emerging collaboration among professional societies for transforming food and agricultural systems using circularity concepts.
Oregon State University
The Limits of Circularity in the Design of Sustainable Agricultural and Food Systems
I use examples from small-scale crop-livestock agricultural systems in the developing world, and from large-scale grain and livestock systems in the industrialized world, to illustrate the limited value of circularity as a guiding principle in the design and implementation of more sustainable agricultural systems. Rather than imposing arbitrary requirements for, e.g., nutrient recycling, the goal for the design of more sustainable systems should be a balancing of economic, environmental and social outcomes associated with agricultural systems, subject to constraints implied by critical thresholds in these three dimensions.
Environmental Policy to Internalize Externalities from Agricultural Systems
Like most industries, agriculture systems generate negative pollution externalities throughout the production and supply chain. In this talk, I provide a brief overview of the extent of water quality pollution emanating from U.S. agricultural production, with its corresponding environmental damages (eutrophication of freshwater systems, hypoxic conditions in fresh and salt waters, nitrates in private wells). I briefly describe the voluntary paradigm that the Clean Water Act adopted for most agricultural pollutants and discuss the inherent economic problems associated with this voluntary, pay-the-polluter approach. Alternative policies that accord with economic efficiency by internalizing the external costs at the point of production are described (taxes, regulations, permit systems, etc). I conclude with suggested research topics to help the US move towards a sustainable production system that shares the costs of externalities and public goods across producers, consumers, and tax payers.