5 Steps to Understanding Our New Study on the Need for More Public Funds for Agroecology

, agroecologist | November 16, 2015, 2:32 pm EDT
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In a new study, my colleagues Liz Carlisle and Albie Miles and I took on the challenge of finding the answer to a (surprisingly) unanswered question: how much federal money is invested for agroecology research? You can get the technical details in the journal article (or an overview in our fact sheet and website), but here I’d like to walk you through some other pieces of the story: what inspired this project, why we did what we did, how our results should (and shouldn’t!) be interpreted, and what we hope comes next.

Step 1. Discovering the unanswered question

This project began over a year ago, as the need for more research (and more funding) in the field of agroecology was becoming more evident. This case was strengthened as over 300 scientists added their names to a statement in support of more public funding for agroecology. Increasingly, we were eager to start sharing the word that more funds were needed. But we had a problem: no one knew how much public research funding there was in the first place.

Step 2. Starting from scratch…with a hefty 824 reports

When our search for an estimate of funding for agroecology was unsuccessful, we realized we would have to develop our own estimate, and that this would be an intensive undertaking. Where would we start? At the very least, we wanted to learn where agroecological concepts were finding their way into research.

Fortunately, the USDA had a handy tool available—their competitive external research grants (grants available to researchers outside of the USDA for “research, extension, and education”) are posted to a public database that includes both proposal text and grant amounts! Bingo. Since we hoped to establish a baseline, we searched only for projects starting in 2014, leading to 824 individual reports that represented $294 million. To keep our analysis focused, we retrieved three key fields: Objectives, Approach, and Non-Technical Summary.

Step 3: The hunt for agroecology: Beyond a word search

Now that we had our dataset, what was next? Since there were no predefined key words for agroecology in this database, we couldn’t do a basic word search. And since many practices found in agroecological systems (e.g., composting, cover cropping) are also used in more biologically diverse but generally conventional systems, we couldn’t rely on a list of common practices. We could have read each project and simply judged whether it counted as agroecology, but that would have been too subjective. We needed to strike a balance to be as objective as possible, while distinguishing agroecological projects.

Luckily, Professor Stephen Gliessman had developed a helpful framework that we could use to guide our analysis. In his description of the transition to sustainable agriculture, Gliessman proposes 5 “levels” of practices: those that (1) increase efficiency, (2) replace damaging inputs with better alternatives, (3) redesign the system based on ecological principles (what we call agroecology in our study), (4) re-establish the connection between producers and consumers, and (5) build on all levels to develop an equitable global food system. This structure provided what we needed to methodically sift through the 824 projects and find agroecology.

Step 4. The nitty gritty

If you’re really interested in the nitty gritty, check out the paper! But, here’s the short of it. Building from Gliessman’s framework, we developed a library of practices and concepts (“components”) that fell under the umbrella of each level. Since we didn’t want to miss any agroecology, we designed our analysis to err on the side of overcounting rather than undercounting. For consistency, one coder (me) read all the projects. To get a sense for possible variability, a second coder read a random subset (10%). We used content analysis software to track all components identified within projects.

Step 5: And? No matter how you slice it, agroecology is underfunded

When we finally crunched the numbers, we found that agroecology was underrepresented any way we looked at it. Our results showed that:

  • Less than 15% of funding went to projects incorporating at least one component of agroecology. Note that including one component did not indicate that all funds went to agroecology (the component could have just been a small piece of a project). Thus, this is not an estimate of total funding for agroecology, but rather a marker for work touching on agroecology.*
  • Less than 10% of funding “emphasized” agroecology. To crudely estimate which “level” of sustainable agriculture each project emphasized, we averaged the levels of all components found in each project. Since it is unlikely that all funding in projects with an average of “Level 3” would have been geared toward agroecology, this should be regarded as an upper bar.
  • Less than 4% of funding could be considered “transformative agroecology”. These projects contained both farm-scale agroecological practices (Level 3) as well as some socioeconomic component directed at strengthening a connection between producers and consumers (Level 4).
  • Less than 3% of funding went to key agroecological topics. When we looked individually, several components received very little funding. For example, less than 3% of funds included a diversified farming system component and less than 2% included biodiversity.
  • The need for a bigger pie: For perspective, we are talking about a tiny sliver of the USDA budget, and only a small fraction of the budget designated to their Research Education & Economics Mission Area. For example, the funds we identified that incorporated agroecology represented less than 2% of this REE budget.** So, the pie for research funding doesn’t just need to be sliced differently—it needs to be bigger.

The chicken and the egg and the road ahead

When we talk about the need for more funds for agroecology, we are often asked about demand—from farmers, from researchers, from the public, and more. Likewise, when we talk about the need for more research that includes agroecology, we are frequently reminded that there is too little funding available. It’s true—there is need both for more funding and more demand. They each need to come “first”.

Let’s face it. The one-size-fits-all agriculture that dominates today is a productive achievement resulting from a great deal of investment, but there are major environmental and societal consequences that do not seem to be going away. Although research on more complex, systems-based practices may be costly and time-consuming in the short-term, existing research indicates that the rewards could be substantial.

In the end, our new study just offers a glimpse into a complex funding landscape, and we hope it’s just the beginning of a bigger discussion. But one message is clear—there’s plenty of room to place a stronger bet on agroecology.



* Q. If less than 15% of funds included agroecology, does that mean more that 85% of funds went to industrial agriculture? No, it’s much more complicated than that. What this really means is that 85% of projects did not include any explicit element of agroecology. However, these 85% of projects still included research focusing on things like improving efficiency, compost production, conservation tillage, general environmental or agriculture course development, and other unrelated programs. Many of these projects could be considered to be advancing sustainable agriculture, but they did not meet our criteria to be considered agroecology. The key here is that aspects of agroecology could be infused into more publicly funded projects, and 15% is not enough.

** Q. If less than 2% of the REE budget supported agroecological research, does that mean more than 98% of the REE budget supported industrial agriculture research? No, it’s much more complicated than that. See the footnote above. But, it’s also really important to note that there are other pockets of funding within the REE Mission Area that could be supporting agroecology research in various ways. For one thing, recall that we were limited to analyzing the grants awarded for research external to the USDA, because these grants were reported with the detail we needed in the public database. Most notably, research happening within the Agricultural Research Service (ARS, the agency responsible for conducting USDA’s in-house research) was not included in our analysis. In addition, the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, responsible for the external grants that we analyzed, also has other ways of supporting sustainable agriculture not included in our study. For example, by funding agroecology and food system professors at land-grant universities (through the Hatch Act). We use the REE budget to put these numbers in perspective because other studies have used the REE budget as a benchmark in the past. But the take-away point here is that the fraction of the analyzed funds that go to external agroecology research is from a relatively small funding pot within an agency with a fairly large budget, emphasizing the need for more funds for this important research area.


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