The Wonderful World of Plants, Soil, and Bugs (Or, Why I Love Agroecology)

, senior analyst, Food and Environment | November 18, 2015, 1:58 pm EDT
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I’ve been thinking a lot about plants, soil, and bugs this week, while geeking out with more than 7,000 scientists in Minneapolis. The joint annual meeting of the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America, the Soil Science Society of America, and the Entomology Society of America (whew!) has been a fantastic opportunity to meet and hear from scientists who are looking for new answers to the food, farming, and sustainability challenges our world faces.

Working with nature (not against it)

Take University of Minnesota doctoral student Jim Eckberg, for example. In a study conducted at the university’s Rosemount Research and Outreach Center, Eckberg is investigating how planting native prairie flowers and willow trees near soybean crops might have multiple benefits for farmers and the environment. Eckberg’s USDA-funded research project was looking for biological ways to suppress a troublesome pest called the soybean aphid, but they’re finding other benefits of their unique system integrating deep-rooted native plants and trees into fields that would otherwise just grow soybeans. These benefits include attracting pollinators and other beneficial insects, increasing soybean yields, and providing farmers with an additional useful product—the woody biomass from the fast-growing willows, which grow even faster when planted near soybeans, and which can be sold as a source of bioenergy.

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And then there is the work of Bill Deen at the University of Guelph in Canada. Bill works in a region that, like the Midwestern United States a little to his south, features acre upon acre of farmland growing just two crops—corn and soybeans. He started his presentation by pointing out that this simple two-crop rotation is associated with a lot of problems, including soil depletion, high global warming emissions, and yield instability. His research team is investigating whether more complex cropping systems would be better for farmers, particularly in the face of harsh weather conditions. In a long-term experiment at two research sites in Ontario, they’re comparing the typical corn-soy system with systems that incorporate wheat and a red clover cover crop. Surprisingly, they have found that even just the addition of wheat increases corn and soy yields dramatically. And in hot, dry years—the kind that can devastate farmers’ crops—this “rotation effect” is even greater.

Who will fund MORE agroecology?

These are just two the fascinating presentations I heard this week. And they’re two examples of agroecology—the science of managing lands to boost the health of farms, ranches, and surrounding environments—at work. Increasingly, scientists like Jim Eckberg and Bill Deen are showing that agroecology works, and we’re learning more about its myriad (and sometimes surprising) benefits every day.

But as my colleague, agroecologist Marcia DeLonge, wrote earlier this week, this important field of science is understudied and underfunded. While USDA is certainly funding a lot of great research (including Jim Eckberg’s), Marcia’s new analysis reveals that it’s a pretty small piece of the department’s total research grant portfolio. Only 15 percent of USDA grant funding for agricultural research in 2014 incorporated any element of agroecology. A much smaller fraction goes deep into this science.

Crazy, right? If public agencies like the USDA don’t support more of this important research, who will? Agroecological systems require fewer purchased inputs like pesticides and commercial fertilizers than today’s typical farming systems. So big agribusiness companies have no incentive to promote them, and in fact every reason to deny their superiority to their own industrial model.

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service tells a similar story. In particular, I was struck by the following graph from that report:

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Note that levels of public funding for crop research remained flat between 1979 and 2009, while for-profit research increased dramatically. And combined spending on crop development positively dwarfs research on the environmental, health, and social impacts of our agriculture and food system, which is entirely publicly funded.

So where does this leave farmers who need unbiased answers to challenges like pests, weeds, farm pollution, and sub-par yields? The same place it leaves a lot of scientists at this very meeting…far too beholden to these folks:

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  • Krofter

    The climate summit is happening in Paris as I write this. Given the leading role that modern agriculture in the West plays in global warming, the idea of merely “decreasing inputs” or adding another crop to a destructive, CO2 belching agriculture system, seems inadequate. Agriculture has the potential to sequester massive amounts of CO2 (see erdakroft.com, vimeo.com/channels/erdakroftfarm) but we’ll have to do much more than the baby steps mentioned in this article. We need to think regeneratively – outside the box – rather than trying to work inside a broken box.