U.S. farmers and ranchers have the capability to meet the world’s growing need for food, fiber and energy by 2050 while protecting and improving environmental health, according to a new report. But achieving that vision will require a new, collaborative approach toward land management.

The report, titled “Developing a New Vision for United States Agriculture, Forestry, and Conservation,” comes from the Solutions from the Land initiative, which “brings together a broad range of stakeholders to explore the development of integrated sustainable solutions to the challenges of climate change, food security, economic development, and biodiversity conservation.”  The initiative is funded by Farm Foundation and The Nature Conservancy.

The report lays out the challenges involved in sustainably increasing food production while using less land, water and other resources, and offers short- and long-term recommendations for overcoming those challenges.

Challenges listed in the report include:

  • Loss of working lands, with 11 million acres of U.S. cropland, 12 million acres of pasture and rangeland and 16 million acres of forestland converted to development between 1982 and 2007.
  • Conflicting policies and inadequate rewards for ecosystem services.
  • Declining investments in research and innovation, and inadequate dissemination and use of existing research.
  • The changing climate and potential negative impacts on livestock and crop production.
  • Managing risk, market volatility, and multiple demands, as globalization and the growing link between energy prices and agricultural commodity prices lead to greater market volatility.

The report’s authors say the policies and practices of the past will not meet these challenges, and American agriculture, forestry, and conservation interests need to collaborate and shift land use toward practices that achieve multiple goals. They propose these steps:

  1. Implement landscape-scale solutions and partnerships. This would involve setting regional objectives for land management and building coalitions of land managers, regulators, scientists, and civil society to develop policies that meet economic, social, and environmental objectives.
  2. Harmonize policy frameworks to eliminate conflicting regulations and redundant paperwork, while advancing the use of ecosystem service markets and sustainable supply chains.
  3. Reward stewardship of ecosystem services. The report says new markets for ecosystem services have the potential to substitute for conservation payments, but are rarely structured to adequately provide returns comparable to traditional production.
  4. Energize and coordinate research. A designated research council or overarching organization should set a research agenda that integrates agricultural, forest, and conservation goals. Research should be focused on real-life applications and decision makers, with improved methods for transforming research findings into on-the-ground results.
  5. Transform and modernize information networks. The authors say this requires moving away from a provider-centric information system, in which research results are communicated outward in the hopes of finding an audience, to a user-centric system where information is readily available to users when they want it. This would require better monitoring systems for regional-level systems such as air quality, water quality, and biodiversity, with new “meta-metrics” serving as broad indicators of sustainability.

The authors say their recommendations provide pathways to change, but will require further development, vetting, and broadening. Solutions from the Land invites interested stakeholders to join in the dialogue and collaborate on specific activities such as creating a centralized inventory of land-management projects or identifying polices and regulations that work at cross purposes and restrict progress.

The full report is available online.