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President’s Council Report on Agriculture – What About Ecology?

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The new report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) addresses the state of U.S. agriculture research. The report notes that public funding for agricultural research has stagnated, while industry sources have increased greatly to 61 percent of the total—three times the amount from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Why should we care, given our proven ability to produce enough food? And shouldn’t we be happy that industry has stepped up its research funding?

Horticulturist Eric Brennan records data on weed seedling growth between rows of a young cover crop at USDA’s 17-acre certified organic research plot in Salinas, California. Photo by Scott Bauer.

As the report points out, we face several challenges in coming decades that private sources won’t adequately address. Increasing population, increased meat consumption, and climate change will make it harder to produce enough food. Add to that the dependence on scarce non-renewable resources like water and phosphorus, and the tremendous amount of world-changing pollution caused by industrial agriculture, and it is clear that the need for research to help address these problems is bigger than ever. Economic externalities like pollution, long-term projects, and farming systems that focus on agroecology that do not emphasize purchased products, are not effectively addressed by private sector research.

At a time when conservative politicians argue that the private sector is the be-all and end-all of economic productivity, the report puts a welcome focus on the value of public spending on research. For agricultural research in particular, the returns on this investment are about 10 to 1, according to the report. The recommendation for an increase in public funding of $700 million per year is less than is needed, but a welcome beginning. The problem in the past is that very little of that funding has gone to making agriculture ecologically sustainable, so it is critically important that new funds prioritize sustainability.

When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It

Despite valuable points and recommendations, reading the report reminded me of Yogi Berra’s famous quote. As is so often the case, what is omitted is as important as what is included.

It is good that the report emphasizes the need for public funds to support crop research that is not currently supported by big agricultural companies—in other words, crops other than corn, soybeans and other commodity crops. And I was glad to see explicit mention of the need for research on cover crops, which have multiple benefits for sustainability.

But there are huge unmet needs for public research into the big grain crops as well. For example, research adapting those crops to long-term rotations and to be better able to use organic sources of nutrients. As noted in a 2010 survey, about 40 percent of Illinois corn farmers already say they cannot get excellent non-GE corn varieties. So those crops should not be abandoned to research by big seed companies.

The report actually does briefly mention, near the end, that there remains a need to develop traits in major crops that are not developed by companies, but this is not in the summary and therefore will easily be overlooked as not receiving emphasis.

While the report emphasizes the value of competitive grant making, it only mentions in passing that the intramural Agricultural Research Service of USDA, which it criticizes for lack of competitiveness, supports some of the most important long-term research projects in the country. Because of the many variables that influence agriculture over time, long-term research is needed to identify clear trends that respond to research on farming methods. Grants, which are usually of relatively short duration, are often not the best way to fund long-term research. Adequate funding should be dedicated for continuing long-term experiments testing different agricultural systems.

Ecology…Anyone?

Long-term research is especially important for agroecological approaches to farming, already greatly underfunded, which are so important for decreasing pollution, conserving scarce resources, protecting biodiversity, improving soil fertility, and increasing resilience in the face of climate change. For example, typical long crop rotations—a basic practice of agroecological farming—may alternate different crops over a period of four or more years. It is often necessary to go through at least a few cycles to detect optimal benefits of increased soil fertility (which improves water and nutrient holding capacity) and reduced pest numbers, such as weed seeds that may remain viable in the soil for many years.

The possibility of reducing the number of long-term experiments due to the shorter funding cycle of competitive grants is therefore a particular threat to agroecological research.

But that may not bother the authors of the report, because they do not mention agroecology, either explicitly or descriptively.

By contrast, the report lauds genetic approaches for improving agriculture. This is not surprising given the extremely heavy weighting of committee members and expert advisors toward genetics, including four from Monsanto, two from the Danforth Center (begun with assistance from a generous multimillion dollar Monsanto grant, and focusing on crop engineering) and others whose focus is breeding or plant molecular biology.

To the extent that the report is specific about its vision for the direction of agricultural research, it emphasizes technology and purchased-inputs, such as seed, rather than the knowledge-based approach of agroecology.

Also not discussed are the distributive injustices that are largely responsible for the underfed and the structural and political solutions that are fundamental to solving these problems. By ignoring these realities, the report feeds the narrative favored by the big agricultural input companies, that increased production is the answer to food insecurity problems. As noted by a major international report, solving infrastructure challenges (roads, storage), huge food waste problems, reasonable meat consumption, and empowerment of small farmers (especially women) may be more important than increasing production.

So, back to that fork in the road. The lack of emphasis on employing sound ecological principles to farming seems to represent a tacit endorsement of the monoculture and purchased-input-heavy approach to agriculture that is the current default in the United States, and may also represent the political influence of corporate sector money over the research community. As noted in the report, about $800 million/year of private sector research funding is funneled to Land Grant universities. Some great research on agroecology is conducted at Land Grant universities, but it is a small fraction of the total. The direction favored by the report seems to be one of reducing the impact of purchased-input farming rather than encouraging agriculture to follow ecological principles. The glimmer of hope for moving away from monoculture farming is the recommendation that some of the proposed funding increase go to non-Land Grant universities, which may not be as dependent on, and therefore influenced by, corporate funding.

The lack of concern about the leverage that this massive influx of private funds may be having on the integrity and independence of agricultural research in the U.S. is troubling. We already know that it has had a corrosive effect on independent research. We should therefore ask how additional public funding of agricultural research may be shielded from that influence. It is remarkable that while many acknowledge that lobbying money from industry buys political favors, the recipients of such largess in our universities seem to have a blind spot when it comes to similar influence closer to home. It may be instructive to examine the history of the pharmaceutical industry and its influence over academia and safety testing to get a hint of where the food industry is, and is increasingly heading.

So while there is a lot in the report that recommends it, in the end, the de facto vision seems to be one aimed at reinforcing industry’s plan for “improving” agriculture. That is reinforced by one of the recommendations of the authors to set up a standing committee to implement the other recommendations of the report. That committee would include representatives of industry, academia, and farmers, but none from civil society that represents the interests of most citizens.

As anyone who reads my posts knows, we do not believe that the industrial vision of agriculture, even beefed up by additional research, will get us where we need to go. Perhaps there is enough left unsaid in the report for an interpretation that allows for agroecology, but the proposed composition of the oversight committee would likely preclude that direction.

In the end, the report may be an additional indication that if society wants a truly sustainable agriculture, it will have to come from public pressure.

Posted in: Food and Agriculture 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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