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UCS Vision for Healthy Farms in the 21st Century: Agroecology has the Answers

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Agriculture is at a crossroads. While highly productive in the U.S., it is also destructive of the environment, vulnerable to climate change, and highly resource intensive. In short, it is unsustainable. Agriculture is by far the largest human use of scarce fresh water resources and land. It has a huge impact on biodiversity through land use and pesticide applications. And it is a major contributor to climate change and the hundreds of coastal ‘dead zones’ that are harming our oceans, and which are largely the result of fertilizer use.

The nine-year Marsden Farm study—conducted by researchers from the USDA, the University of Minnesota, and Iowa State University—replicated the industrial corn-soy midwestern farming system alongside two multi-crop alternatives. A three-year rotation incorporated another grain plus a red clover cover crop (pictured here), and a four-year rotation added alfalfa, a key livestock feed, into the mix. The more complex systems enhanced yields and profits, controlled weeds, and reduced chemical fertilizer, herbicide, and energy use.

The good news is that we know how to make agriculture work for people and the environment, if we can find the political will.

To help move us forward, UCS is launching its vision for healthy farms, including a briefing paper explaining the changes that are needed in the way we farm, and a web feature that illustrates the components of a healthy farm and farm environment.

Why Now?
The ability to lay out this healthy farm vision has been made possible by the work of many scientists and farmers over the past few decades, dedicated to improving the sustainability of agriculture. That work has resulted in cumulative knowledge that demonstrates that farming based on ecological principles, or agroecology, can be highly productive and can greatly reduce our environmental impact, while improving life for farmers and farming communities.

Our healthy farm vision brief identifies four major changes in farming practices that scientists have shown will allow us to achieve our sustainability goals:

Crop Rotations: Agronomists have worked on developing longer crop rotations (alternating crops from year to year) that greatly reduce the need for pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, recycle nutrients, increase biodiversity, and protect the water and air. They have shown that these can be as productive, or more so, than the monocultures (growing the same crop year after year) of corn and soybeans that now blanket the Midwest. Working with economists, they have shown they can also be as profitable.
A Landscape-Level Approach: Agroecologists have demonstrated the importance of seeing the farm as part of a bigger landscape, where uncultivated areas like woodlots protect streams from pollution and runoff, and provide biodiversity that pollinates our crops and controls pests, resulting in higher productivity and reduced need for pesticides.
Cover Crops: Are grown to protect the soil when cash crops like corn are not growing. Agronomists and weed scientists have shown that they increase soil fertility, provide nutrients to crops, and control pests.
Integrate Livestock and Crops: Manure from livestock contains valuable crop nutrients and enriches the soil. But separating livestock from crops in huge CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) reduces the ability to conserve those nutrients, which instead often pollute the air and water.

All of these practices also increase resilience in the face of climate change. For example, they improve soil fertility, which increases soil water-holding capacity, which improves drought tolerance. Reduced vulnerability to pests means that new pests arising from a shifting climate are less likely to reach epidemic levels.

The reduced need for pesticides means less exposure for farmers, farmworkers, and the rest of us. Reduced dependence on expensive purchased inputs like engineered seed, fertilizers and pesticides from large corporations increases food sovereignty of farmers and consumers.

Biogeochemists and hydrologists have measured the relative impact of agroecological farming on nutrient cycling compared with industrial farming, and found that agroecology provides the best options for reducing the environmental impact of fertilizers.

As time goes on, we face the cumulative effects of pollution from farming and the loss of soil fertility and biodiversity that are critical for crop productivity, unless we act to change direction.

More to Do, and More Opportunities
Farmers do not want to harm the environment, but they are often not willing to change the way they farm without clear demonstrations that agroecological alternatives can work and are economically viable. They need information, demonstrations of success, and incentives to change. Policy at the State and Federal levels can greatly help with this transition in the form of extension services, demonstration projects, transition payments, better insurance policies, conservation stewardship incentives and continuing research.

There is also much to do to make agroecological farming even more efficient and productive. For example, while we have spent decades improving the productivity of crops like corn, there has been virtually no effort to make cover crops more productive, or to fit better into crop rotations. Crop breeders can do more to develop crop varieties that better use organic sources of nutrients, reducing the problems caused by synthetic fertilizers, and that fit better into crop rotations and that contain better pest resistance. We also need more research on optimal rotations for different climates and soils, and more experimentation with, and improvement of, additional rotation crops. And we need farm equipment better adapted to crop rotations.

Congress has an opportunity to facilitate this process by passing a Farm Bill that moves us in the right direction instead of continuing to subsidize more of the same. But entrenched farm interests, such as pesticide, seed and fertilizer companies, are working overtime to continue down a path to nowhere.

Those interested in better food and a better environment, and better lives for farmers and farmworkers, must make their voices heard. The UCS vision for healthy farms will help to support those voices.

Posted in: Food and Agriculture, Global Warming 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.

Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.

  • http://www.veganiculture.blogspot.com Fireweed (D. M. Radmore)

    Crop rotation, cover crops…YES! But why, oh why is there no mention that animal manure is generally NOT necessary to maintain soil fertility on arable land when everything the cow eats can be fed directly to the soil as green manure? The source of the dead zones UCS asked for my help combatting financially today (in an email that led me here to this site) could/should be taken out of the system altogether by employing stock-free agriculture techniques wherever possible. Yes, those water polluting, GHG emitters are NOT necessary, take up way too many resources and land better suited (often) to growing crops that can feed people directly, and yet so many environmental pleas like this one from UCS only seem to perpetuate the myth that without animal products the world as we know it would collapse! It’s as if the behemoth that is ‘animal agribusiness’ today is such an impenetrable fortress that even the most forward thinking world scientists have to speak in hushed tones outside it’s sacred walls. But our world IS already collapsing… under it’s own weight… and surely it’s time to re-evaluate more than where to put the factory farm poop! There isn’t enough land in the US alone even now to put all the cows people are encouraged to eat out on some mythical landscape of rolling green pastures (nor would that be the best use of such vast acreage were it to actually exist). I am usually a fan of UCS, and appreciate the great work this organization does. But there is just nothing sustainable about upholding the meat myth on a finite planet heading rapidly for nine billion human residents (and a frightening number of associated ruminants!) For the life of me I don’t understand why an organization as supposedly progressive as the UCS isn’t proposing a complete rethink around soil fertility. Please visit http://www.veganorganic.net to see what people like Ian Tolhurst have been doing for thirty years to increase biodiversity, build healthy soil, and feed people food that is actually GOOD for them! I have my own blog here at http://www.veganiculture.blogspot.ca promoting vegan organic ag as part of local food politics. Right now locavorism is NOT the panacea so often implied…it seems to be encouraging people to go backwards instead of forwards when it comes to consuming unnecessary animal products! No, people aren’t going to change their eating habits over nite…but even the UN has made clear that reducing animal product consumption is integral to combatting climate change. We have no time to waste getting stock-free growing information out there…UCS, please help. The elephant in the room is a cow.

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/about/staff/staff/doug-gurian-sherman.html Doug Gurian-Sherman

      Thank you for your comment. You are correct that livestock manure is not required to maintain fertile soil or for highly productive agriculture. And in fact, we have concluded that livestock, and ruminants in particular, have substantial impacts on the environment in several reports, for example here: http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/solutions/forest_solutions/solutions-for-deforestation-free-meat.html

      Our analysis of the need for integrating livestock with crop production is a response to the need to sustainably address the use of manure from any livestock that are produced. While we believe that vegetarian and vegan diets are laudable, we also recognize that it is highly unlikely that the human population is going to forego consumption of animal products. From that perspective, we must make livestock production sustainable. If done properly, and without excessive amounts, livestock production can be sustainable, but that is not the case now.

  • Robin Suggs

    This effort is to be applauded. It will however remain incomplete until a truly bio-regionally appropriate,landscape level approach to designing working agricultural systems is incorporated. Here in NC and across most of eastern NA, in what was the Great Eastern Hardwood Forest, this means the inclusion of multistory polycultural systems such as those employed in “true” agroforestry systems (not the USDA/NRCS version) as well as in permacultural design, where much of the basis of agroecology is derived.

    Simply substituting shorter term monocultures with their exotic species and/or redistributing them proportionately across the landscape will be of limited benefit to the ecosystem as a whole. They will however continue to benefit agricultural equipment manufacturers along with others in the agricultural industrial complex and their lobby as monocultures are easy to mechanize in terms of production, polycultures, not so much.

    It would also do us well to remember that the same agricultural industrial complex that is so adept in guiding legislative action resulting in policy, like the Farm Bill, also finances most of the agricultural research at the nation’s land grant universities. I can’t think of a better contemporary working model of “corporatism” (there are other names for it as well I’m afraid), which is another reason why this beast, the behemoth that it is, must be tamed…..

  • http://www.sfa-mn.org Jason Walker

    Doug, thanks for your insightful article. It is comforting to know that the Union of Concerned Scientists endorses much of the work we do at the Sustainable Farming Association. As we conduct on-farm soil health, rotational grazing and cover cropping workshops around Minnesota as part of our GrazeFest series, it’s amazing the response generated from farmers who can see true results from these methods.
    Thanks also for the work UCS is doing to make real policy change. We can make a difference and I do believe the tide is turning, if ever so slowly.

  • Doug Gurian-Sherman

    Susan, Thanks for your comment and support, and for your work. NRCS is often a bright spot at the USDA. We work with USDA on several levels to try to encourage the Agency, through its policies and funding, to support sustainable agriculture. We also work on the Farm Bill. With increasing awareness and concern about food and how we produce it, we are hopeful that we can make real progress, but as you note, there are powerful forces pushing in the opposite direction, and it will take persistence and public pressure to get where we need to go.

  • Susan McLoud

    I applaud the Healthy Farm Vision. Having spent 23 years working for the Natural Resources Conservation Service-USDA, an agency which tries to promote the vision you lay out (within the many constraints of Congress), I am aware that you face an uphill battle for acceptance. Farm lobbies are strong and farming practices and subsidies deeply entrenched. I urge you to at least consider working with the agencies and organizations that have been working towards your goal since the 1930′s, such as NRCS, the SWCDs, and state departments of environmental regulation. Economic incentives have always been important, and the Farm Bill can offer them through these agencies that already have boots on the ground. What has to go are the giant subsidies that bolster industrial corn and soybean production, and indirectly encourage factory meat production. By focusing economic incentives on environmental improvement, not price support, there can be slow but steady progress. Conservation programs that couple financial assistance with technical assistance are widely popular with small and mid-size farms and they do work, but as long as there are massive subsidies for monoculture farming, these programs will not reach the biggest farms. And if the big boys don’t change, we’ll just keep running in circles.

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