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Evaluating strategies for sustainable intensification of US agriculture through the Long-Term Agroecosystem Research network

S. Spiegal, B. T. Bestelmeyer, D. W. Archer, D. J. Augustine, E. H. Boughton, R. K. Boughton, M. A. Cavigelli, P. E. Clark, J. D. Derner, E. W. Duncan, C. J. Hapeman, R. D. Harmel, P. Heilman, M. A. Holly, D. R. Huggins, K. King, P. J. A. Kleinman, M. A. Liebig, M. A. Locke, G. W. McCarty, N. Millar, S. B. Mirsky, T. B. Moorman, F. B. Pierson, J. R. Rigby, G. P. Robertson, J. L. Steiner, T. C. Strickland, H. M. Swain, B. J. Wienhold, J. D. Wulfhorst, M. A. Yost, C. L. Walthall
Environmental research letters 2018 v.13 no.3 pp. 034031
Long-Term Agroecosystem Research Network, agricultural products, cropland, decision making, ecological restoration, ecosystem services, environmental quality, environmental stewardship, input costs, models, outreach, pastures, production technology, rangelands, scientists, society, stakeholders, sustainable agricultural intensification, uncertainty, United States
Sustainable intensification is an emerging model for agriculture designed to reconcile accelerating global demand for agricultural products with long-term environmental stewardship. Defined here as increasing agricultural production while maintaining or improving environmental quality, sustainable intensification hinges upon decision-making by agricultural producers, consumers, and policy-makers. The Long-Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) network was established to inform these decisions. Here we introduce the LTAR Common Experiment, through which scientists and partnering producers in US croplands, rangelands, and pasturelands are conducting 21 independent but coordinated experiments. Each local effort compares the outcomes of a predominant, conventional production system in the region ('business as usual') with a system hypothesized to advance sustainable intensification ('aspirational'). Following the logic of a conceptual model of interactions between agriculture, economics, society, and the environment, we identified commonalities among the 21 experiments in terms of (a) concerns about business-as-usual production, (b) 'aspirational outcomes' motivating research into alternatives, (c) strategies for achieving the outcomes, (d) practices that support the strategies, and (e) relationships between practice outreach and adoption. Network-wide, concerns about business as usual include the costs of inputs, opportunities lost to uniform management approaches, and vulnerability to accelerating environmental changes. Motivated by environmental, economic, and societal outcomes, scientists and partnering producers are investigating 15 practices in aspirational treatments to sustainably intensify agriculture, from crop diversification to ecological restoration. Collectively, the aspirational treatments reveal four general strategies for sustainable intensification: (1) reducing reliance on inputs through ecological intensification, (2) diversifying management to match land and economic potential, (3) building adaptive capacity to accelerating environmental changes, and (4) managing agricultural landscapes for multiple ecosystem services. Key to understanding the potential of these practices and strategies are informational, economic, and social factors—and trade-offs among them—that limit their adoption. LTAR is evaluating several actions for overcoming these barriers, including finding financial mechanisms to make aspirational production systems more profitable, resolving uncertainties about trade-offs, and building collaborative capacity among agricultural producers, stakeholders, and scientists from a broad range of disciplines.