Good Agricultural Practice in the United States: Conservation and Climate


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Keywords: Good agricultural practice, conservation compliance, conservation incentives, land retirement, working land, sustainable agriculture, US agricultural policy, climate change and agriculture

Abstract: Agriculture depends on the environment for production of food and fibre, yet agricultural activities may emit harmful pollutants. US law and policy encourage sustainable agriculture. Good agricultural practices, especially those that protect the environment and foster conservation, play a significant role in sustainability. US law imposes relatively few environmental requirements on producers, but offers numerous financial and other incentives for good agricultural practices. Policy discussions about the environmental effects of agricultural production often address two significant issues: the balance between mandatory and voluntary measures to protect the environment and the potential role of agriculture in mitigating climate change and sequestering carbon.


Agriculture depends on the environment for its very existence, yet the production of food and fibre often causes harmful environmental externalities. Agricultural activities can result in degradation of water quality; emission of air pollutants, including greenhouse gases; loss of soil quality or fertility; and loss of biodiversity in agricultural landscapes.' Good agricultural practices can help to avoid environmental damage, conserve productive agricultural land and protect vulnerable ecosystems for future generations. Environmental and other laws mandate some good practices; producers adopt other practices voluntarily, often induced by financial and other incentives. Good agricultural practices can help to ensure sustainability, a current focus of agricultural policy, both in the United States (US) and in the European Union (EU).

The US National Research Council (NRC) recently identified four goals of sustainability:

  • Satisfy human food, feed, and fibre needs, and contribute to biofuel needs.
  • Enhance environmental quality and the resource base.
  • Sustain the economic vitality of agriculture.
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers, farm workers, and society as a whole.2

The NRC concluded that 'if U.S. agricultural production is to meet the challenge of maintaining long-term adequacy of food, fiber, feed, and biofuels under scarce or declining resources and under challenges posed by climate change and to minimize negative outcomes, agricultural production will have to substantially accelerate progress toward the four sustainability goals'.3

Both markets and federal agricultural law and policy can encourage sustainable agriculture. For example, market demand from consumers or requirements from large food retailers can trigger sustainable practices.4 Agricultural policy, however, has not always fostered sustainability. Instead, some policies (e.g., commodity support) have encouraged practices (e.g., monoculture) that are less sustainable.5 In contrast, conservation programmes have encouraged 'adoption of particular farming practices, but they are voluntary programmes, often with a small proportion of farms participating'.6 The NRC Committee made recommendations, including 'expanded agricultural conservation and environmental programmes', to lead US agriculture to sustainability.7

Similarly the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) focused on sustainability in its latest Strategic Plan. USDA's goal of conservation will ensure that private working lands and national forests are 'conserved, restored, and made more resilient to climate change, while enhancing our water resources'.8 Objectives designed to meet this goal will restore and conserve agricultural and forest land, protect water resources, help to mitigate and adapt to climate change, and reduce risk from fire. For agricultural lands, 'USDA will work with private landowners and managers to restore vegetative cover, rehabilitate streams and other water bodies, transition marginal or highly erosive lands to sustainable production levels, and apply conservation measure to enhance and maintain the quality of soil, water, and related natural resources'.9 The USDA also plans to help fanners 'to maintain working lands and preserve open space. This work includes developing ecosystem markets and making strategic investments to purchase land or conservation easements'.10 To achieve these objectives, the USDA is likely to rely on conservation programmes in the 2008 Farm Bill11 and other legislation.

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