We Know How to Fix Farming

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Agriculture Secretary Vilsack made several recent pronouncements prompted by the growing recognition that climate change will make it harder to grow crops. It was a step in the right direction, but it will take a major shift in money and personnel to make needed changes happen.

Vilsack warned that agriculture must become more resilient by developing more diverse farming systems, supported multi-cropping–such as planting two types of crops in an area–planting cover crops between growing seasons, and integrating livestock into cropping systems. He was quoted as saying: “We hope that we will do a better job of improving our communication about the conservation benefits that will come from multi-cropping, and in turn give us yet another tool to deal with a changing agricultural and managing the risk of weather.”

The terrible drought last summer made the impacts of weather much more tangible. Even so, making necessary changes–like moving away from the resource and policy commitments to the crop monocultures that USDA has pursued for decades–will be especially difficult given current budget pressures. But the eventual result of such efforts will be improved environments, farming communities, long-term productivity, and the conservation of scare resources.

A USDA geneticist inspects hairy vetch plants, a cover crop that produces nitrogen for folowing cash crops, improves soil fertility, and reduces soil erosion. USDA Photo by Scott Bauer.

Ironically, high corn prices are leading to increased monoculture (planting corn or soybeans year after year in the same place), exactly the opposite of the more diverse farming that Vilsack wants.

Meanwhile, programs that support more diverse and resilient agroecological farming systems, and that make up only a small fraction of the USDA research budget, are threatened by budget cuts. These include the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) and the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE).

The multi-crop systems that the secretary supports are already known to produce higher yields. But his support of two-crop systems—such as corn-soybeans in the Midwest—when longer rotations of three or more crops are needed to obtain broader benefits, suggests he is still too wedded to unsustainable systems.

More than just productivity

As readers of my blog know, there are many reasons why we need to fix the way we farm, in addition to adaptation to climate change. This also includes a lot more than the issue of productivity that Vilsack emphasizes. For example, about 400 marine dead zones world-wide are caused mainly by nitrogen from inefficient farming, and are impairing important seafood production areas.

All that extra nitrogen, mostly from synthetic fertilizer made from natural gas, is also the major contributor of atmospheric nitrous oxide, a global warming gas about 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

A recent and important paper by Blesh and Drinkwater at Cornell University, based on extensive measurement and modeling in the Mississippi River basin, shows that more diverse farms produce far less excess nitrogen than conventional corn, or corn and soybean farms. These diverse farms use crop rotations that include organic nitrogen-producing legumes, cover crops, and integrated livestock and crop production that recycles nutrients by using manure to fertilize crops.

Diverse farms have lower yield for a variety of reasons that are not well understood, such as recent conversion from monoculture systems (because degraded soil takes time to recover), crops bred to respond to synthetic fertilizers rather than organic sources, lack of research optimizing nutrient response in diverse systems, and predominance of these systems on more marginal land. This means that increased research in these neglected areas is likely to lead to big improvements.

We also have solid long-term, farm-scale research, such as from Iowa State University, showing that diverse farms can be as productive and as profitable as conventional monoculture-based farms. And diverse farms need far less pesticide and fertilizer than simpler farms. They require somewhat more labor, but the farmer keeps more profit per acre because less is going to pay for expensive inputs like fertilizers and pesticides. And non-engineered varieties of the crops, with their less expensive seed, seem to be as productive in these diverse systems as crops grown from engineered seed.

That is usually better for farming communities due to greater multiplier effects (more money circulating locally). It is also better for farmers and farm workers who will be exposed to far fewer pesticides, and consumers who will have fewer pesticide residues on their food.

Secretary Vilsack also noted the possible increase in crop pests that accompany climate change. Diverse systems are more resistant to pest damage, as exemplified by their lower pesticide requirements.

These proposed changes will not make the big companies that dominate farm input markets happy. As with climate change and fossil fuel-based industries, the Monsantos and Bayers of the world will fight to maintain their sales. They will push input-based approaches like herbicide dependent no-till or precision farming that may help in limited ways but will not go far enough, as Blesh and Drinkwater note. And they will continue to push transgenic herbicide-resistant crops that will lead to increased pesticide use.

And we also know that these companies invest heavily in our land grant research establishment and will no doubt want to get the most from their money. As I wrote recently, a report by the President’s Council on Agricultural Science and Technology (PCAST) lauded these “public-private partnerships” with no expressed qualms about the potentially adverse effects on the direction of ag research. Not surprising given the heavy involvement of big companies in that report.

So, it will take effort from those concerned about how we farm to make sure that the secretary follows through, and can stand up to the inevitable pressure to continue with unsustainable agriculture that will increasingly be a threat to the environment and food production. Scientists can play an especially important role in helping the public and policy makers understand that we have real alternatives.

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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  • Brad Wilson

    There is much of great value here. There are also some key misunderstandings. Mainly, it’s using the dominant Farm Bill paradigm, which frames the issues in terms of the “visible” (what everybody sees, shows) farm bill, which is the PRESENCE OF spending on the various titles. That paradigm is too small. The “hidden” farm bill is left out. And it’s the bigger part! That’s market management, which has a huge impact by it’s ABSENCE. The reason why the Farm Bill was invented under Henry Wallace was to manage markets, balance supply and demand, and set a floor under and ceiling over prices. Why? Because farm commodities fail to self correct in deregulated ‘free’ markets (for 60 years prior to the Depression, and into the 21st century. So as Price Floors and supply management were reduced (1953-1995) and eliminated (1996-2013) prices fell, almost always, and to the absolute, rock bottom, lowest price levels in history (1998-2005!). So those cheap prices had a major role in the massive changes in farming, subsidizing CAFOs (but not with government checks,) by 5x as much as the largest co-op in the farm subsidy database, and ditto for Cargill, ADM Kelloggs etc. globally (as we drove down global prices), but much much more! & it was the opposite of OPEC, which raised, not lowered their own profits, and with a smaller export market share. Bottom line, the big solutions aren’t spending, they’re in a return to market management, with adequate price floors for small grains in rotations, supply reductions for corn and soybeans, etc. Good antitrust and fair trade agreements are also cheap parts of the answer. We then need NO farm subsidies, freeing up a lot of money. (Subsidies compensated farmers for only about 1/8 of the $4 trillion in reductions they had (2011 $), running most farmers out of business. Local and organic premium prices also need this foundation (prior to their value added).

    Ok, so what about the claimed impacts of those higher corn prices recently? Not mentioned here, the continued low prices for minor small grains wheat and cotton. So prices were below zero as return on investments 1981-2006, every single year (except 1996, but with unpaid labor), for a sum of 8 crops, including corn, rice and soybeans, and then on to 2011, at least on average, for all but those 3 crops. And we’re the dominant exporter, bigger than OPEC. (oil barrel, $2.16, 1947, corn: ditto!) I see nowhere that UCS has supported such a balanced farm bill, or any evidence that UCS even knows that this issue has existed, (ie. as the biggest farm bill issue of contention over the past 60 years).

    Ok, so basically, what I’m exposing is a hidden Conservation Title in the Farm Bill (Price Floors for minor small grains for crop rotations, huge!) and a Hidden Research Title (stop the massive cheap prices that then stimulate massive research into bad farming systems because of cheap feed for CAFOs, and raw materials for transfats, hfcs, etc. Daryll E Ray of APAC at the U of Tenn has dozens of excellent columns on the topics I raised. Volatility is one of the big problems, from the lack of these policies.

    • Doug Gurian-Sherman

      Brad, you make several good points. And I have been a big fan of Daryll Ray’s for a long time (and cite him in a recent blog post).

      But I think that you are assuming a lot about what we do and do not support! Most of our direct focus is on science issues, and we have more then enough to do in that arena. But we do work on some of the broader issues that you mention, often in coalition with groups like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Many of the changes we support are in line with what you mention, for example, improved and fair insurance for diverse farming systems that have been discriminated against in these markets for years ( ).

      But you also miss our coverage of several of the issues you raise about CAFOs, and the direct and indirect subsidies that have supported them. Please have a look at our report “CAFOs Uncovered” ( ) for a lot of detail on this, including several of the points you raise.

  • Tracey Takeuchi

    Mr. Melton’s points are at the heart of the question(s) that must be addressed. At a recent disease symposium in California there was an interesting component involving energy introduced into systems from raw, uncomposted green materials vs. composted green materials. It was clearly shown that the energy from non-composted materials was greater but that the subsequent explosion of biological activity in the soil resulted in an initial nitrogen draughting until equilibrium among the various guilds was achieved. There remains much controversy still over which introduction was superior–however, one point made that was indisputable is that biodiversity of the food-web components (bacteria, nematodes and etc.) increases dramatically in soils that have organic matter inputs. In both cases time was required for a healthy system to recover from previous uses of chemical inputs only (chemical nitrogen). There remain many unanswered questions surrounding the best management practices of low/no chemical input operations versus routine use of, at present, lower cost chemical inputs. This is clearly stated in the article.

    What does not seem to be in dispute is the increase in labor required for lower chemical input farms. Until and unless we can garner greater support in labor costs, obtain real world market value of products from these systems, and/or increased subsidy for these labor intensive systems it is far less likely to be adopted. Of course, as fuel, water and other input costs increase the balance of cost to value may shift making multiculture systems increasingly financially feasible.

  • Weldon Melton

    Lots of information. I love the part about “yields are lower for unknown reasons on the diverse farms.” “they require somewhat more labor” The hairy vetch in the picture produces nitrogen at a $1.00 a lb. Commercial fertilizer is about $.70 a lb. FArmers also must deal with volunteer seed from the vetch. I am not saying some of what they say is true. I would invite them all to quit their jobs buy some land and equipment and do what they are advocating.

  • Kathryn Howell

    This message needs to be a PSA on every farm community radio and television station, in local newspapers, at feed stores, etc. It’s a basic fact: You can’t fool with Mother Nature without her retaliating. Farmers, forget about the farm giants like Monsanto, please! Go back to the proven methods for stewardship of the land on which our food is raised!

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