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Help Prevent the Dismantling of Sustainable Agriculture Science

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I just returned from the annual Tri Societies meeting, a four day event where several thousand soil scientists, crops scientists, and agronomists get together to share their latest work.

Why should anyone care about a convocation of science nerds? For one thing, this is science focused on issues like maintaining or improving crop productivity, improving nutrition and food quality, reducing impacts of crops on the environment, responding to climate change and other aspects of science that will be needed to provide an adequate and healthful food supply in coming years, and maintaining our environment.

Citrus Research USDA, photo by Rob Flynn.

Hope and caution

I was struck by the excellent work being done in all the represented fields—although there continues to be too much focus on industrial agriculture compared to sustainability. The three main science disciplines represented at the meeting represent several key aspects of agriculture.

All of these areas are critical to meet the challenges of agriculture going forward, which brings me to some serious warning flags about the state of agricultural science.

One is the growing dependence of academic agricultural scientists on research money from big ag. Emblematic of this was the exhibit hall itself. As you walked into the hall, you were funneled between several smaller vendors smack into a large display by Monsanto, blocking your path and touting all of the positive things the company is purportedly doing, and will do for agriculture and the planet in the future.

Vendors aside, serious money is pouring from large companies like Monsanto into university coffers. At Berkeley, for example, several huge grants have been awarded over the past decade from Syngenta (then Novartis) and BP to support GE research. Similar grants have followed to other research universities, as well as ubiquitous individual grants to research scientists. These funds have replaced public funding that has not kept pace with needs in recent years, due to shortsighted public policies. Industry money has long had a place in agricultural research, but the scale of the current money blitz is really impressive.

Keeping us in the dark

Some in academia welcome these increasing public-private partnerships, but they have a disturbing and chilling side.

Some scientists become beholden to their funding sources, and may be less likely to criticize them. A good example of the trepidation of many academic scientists happened in 2009, when 26 entomologists from leading universities wrote a letter to EPA complaining that they could not get access to GE seeds because they are patented.

Scientists must get permission from the GE companies to use their seeds (and the plants they produce) for research, such as determining how well the GE crops grow and their safety. The entomologists, mostly supportive of GE, complained that the companies’ restrictions on access to GE seed substantially impeded their work—and consequently our understanding of GE crops.

An industry representative, the American Seed Trade Association has claimed the problem has been resolved. We disagree, because the companies are still in the driver’s seat in the absence of needed changes to patent law. ASTA has not revealed its evidence of better access to GE seeds. But if you want anyone to believe you, you have to lay your cards on the table.

Equally troubling, from the perspective of this post, is that all but a few of the scientists requested that EPA not reveal their names. They were concerned about possible repercussions, for example to the funding of their research.

This chilling effect on one of the important ways society gets relatively unbiased information—through the free workings of science—is unhealthy for our democracy. Public funding of research is an antidote to this kind of influence.

Strike two

Some may assume that the big threat from too much industry influence on academic science is fraudulent research. But this not the main concern.

The big problem is the types of research that receive funding—and the types that are excluded or underfunded—which determines what we learn, and don’t learn, from science. These decisions are fundamental to determining the direction of technology and how agriculture is practiced.

There is a lot of room to improve different types of agriculture, from organic to industrial, and those that get the bulk of research dollars acquire a big advantage in increases in efficiency, and thereby become more competitive.

For decades, industrial ag has rolled in research money, with an almost exclusive focus on productivity, at the expense of research for sustainable, ecologically sound agriculture.

Big ag companies are not interested in supporting research to improve most ecologically-based farming practices because they do not profit from it. Sustainable ag science focuses on how to grow food—such as using crop rotations and cover crops to reduce pests and improve soil fertility—rather than on products that companies can patent, and that depend on large capital investments to produce.

So it is all the more important that agroecological research is supported by the public sector, because big ag is not going to do it. Otherwise, agriculture will be pushed inexorably further into the industrial model that, while productive, has caused big environmental and social problems.

Time is short

There has been some real progress in recent Farm Bills to add money for organic and sustainable agriculture research and conservation programs—though still too little. This money should be increased, because public ag research pays dividends, and conservation programs protect the environment. They are needed to provide the kind of food that increasing numbers of consumers want.

UCS’s Food and Agriculture Program is working to preserve sustainability programs in the coming Farm Bill, under serious threat from penny-wise-and–pound-foolish cuts to research and conservation programs. You can contact your congressperson or senator and tell them not to cut these programs.  Also see the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a UCS partner, and its member organizations, for the excellent work they are doing to make sure agriculture moves in directions that are best for all of us.

Posted in: Food and Agriculture, Scientific Integrity Tags: , , ,

About the author: Doug Gurian-Sherman is a widely-cited expert on biotechnology and sustainable agriculture. He holds a Ph.D. in plant pathology. See Doug's full bio.

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  • djcrosmun

    the old way isnt necessarily wrong. besides, there are plenty of non toxic products available to boost production without poisoning the planet.
    altering the dna of plants was also not necessary and probably isnt now and no one knows the future effects.

  • Yew

    The diligence of the agroecology program achieves a mindfull quality
    to productivity the complainants are disadvantaged to challange.
    And the genuine benefit will embrace them and theirs in due time.
    * * *
    by Sarah Laskow

    26 Jul 2011 11:07 AM

    One-third of the Chesapeake Bay is a dead zone this year. The Washington Post reports:

    Especially heavy flows of tainted water from the Susquehanna River brought as much nutrient pollution into the bay by May as normally comes in an entire average year, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources researcher said. As a result, “in Maryland we saw the worst June” ever for nutrient pollution, said Bruce Michael, director of the DNR’s resource assessment service.

    The dead zone could grow to be the largest ever. The way it works is that farm runoff leads to a bumper crop of bay algae, which love the stuff. They grow quickly, die quickly and “decompose into a black glop that sucks oxygen out of deeper waters.” No oxygen means dead fish, dead oysters, and dead crabs.

    Fixing the situation will require billions of dollars and a win against powerful farm lobbies that don’t want to bear the cost of their nasty farming practices. So mid-Atlantic residents should probably just get their local seafood fix while the getting is still kind of good; who knows how much longer we have until the Chesapeake Bay becomes the Chesapeake Expanse of Black Glop?

  • Michael

    The 30-year Rodale institute study http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/06/organic-agriculture-benefits_n_998214.html
    shows exactly why we need research on low input and organic agriculture: It works better than agriculture controlled by corporations, and it will be what we use to feed our 9 billion selves before the end of the century. The agriculture that has driven farmers into bankruptcy (high input costs) depleted, poisoned, and eroded the soil, while creating acid in our waterways, and produces diminishing crop yields will not keep feeding our growing population so cheaply, or even at higher prices. And it will continue to take a toll on Mother Nature, until the soil and water systems give out.

    Research, like the Rodale Institute study, proves to farmers that it is time to question the Big Ag sales pitch, that it is worth the trouble to back away from the factory farm model that is giving us less than what small farmers and poor people with access to land and gardens can accomplish all around the world, using methods that will keep feeding our growing population without damaging the land and water and air that are the only re-source for our food.

    And developing new ways to grow more food with low inputs will give my kids and yours from weathering the massive food disruptions of the 21st century. So you’d better hope that someone keeps funding the research, unless you trust corporations to save us from their stockholders, and from ourselves.

  • Rex

    So, when did UCS find time to invent Ecology from scratch? Thousands of generations of farmers have interfaced with ecology but they called it Mother Nature. You guys haven’t invented anything new except the fancy term agroecology and a growing industry of “alternative farming researchers” who feed off the public teat through programs like OREI and SARE. A sad modern day hoax.

  • Doug Gurian-Sherman

    I should also say that programs like OREI and SARE provide many of the same kinds of benefits in terms of improving the efficiency and impact of organic farming that more general ecologically based research provides. The budgets for OREI and SARE are tiny compared to the subsides of research for industrial agriculture.

    While modern organic farming can encompass a wide range of practices, it is capable of high productivity. As with my last comment, to equate modern organic farming with farming centuries ago just shows that Allison is more interested in casting factually incorrect aspersions, or is simply uninformed.

  • Doug Gurian-Sherman

    Allison repeats some common misconceptions about agroecologically based farming. First, she mistakenly equates the science of ecology, which is a discipline of thousands of academic scientists, with organic farming. This is a red herring used by many supporters of the status quo, to try to equate ecologically based farming with farming as it was done centuries ago. This is simply not the case.

    Farming research and systems that use ecological principles to reduce environmental impacts are not synonymous with organic farming, although organic is one system that incorporates some ecological principles, such as cycling nutrients. Low external input systems, as are studied at Iowa State University and elsewhere, are not organic farming, but use a science based, sophisticated research program to improve environmental impacts while maintaining or increasing productivity and economic efficiency compared to current US commodity crop agriculture.

    Allison also completely ignores the main reasons that we have to change the way we currently practice agriculture–which is the huge environmental impact of agriculture as currently practiced, including being the main contributor to many dead zones in coastal waters and accounting for 70 percent or more of our fresh water use. Scientists of all stripes and disciplines recognize that these and other threats must be addressed.

    So, in fact, it is Allison that is living in the past. Unless we adopt ecologically sound farming practices that make better use of scarce resources like fresh water, fossil fuels,and phosphorus, we will not be able to continue to produce enough food in the future.

  • Allison

    Seriously, how much scientific research is necessary to re-invent the (wooden) wheel, to turn the agricultural clock back to the dark ages? Modern agriculture evolved to address challenges with primitive farming…and has been remarkably successful (in just a few weeks we will be feeding some 7 billion people worldwide!). That has required scientific research and clever demonstration plots and so forth…and it wil require ongoing funding and research from the experts in agriculture, from entrepreneurs with skin in the game.

    We should discontinue all public funding of backward-looking farming “studies”. It will be enough for retro enthusiasts to study history texts and sponsor their own nifty Renaissance Faire farm re-enactments. Little farm & garden programs like SARE and USDA Certified Organic are a collossal waste of public resources squandered to subsidize elitism and food snobbery in America.

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