Help Prevent the Dismantling of Sustainable Agriculture Science

October 24, 2011
Doug Gurian-Sherman
Former contributor

I just returned from the annual Tri Societies meeting, a four day event where several thousand soil scientists, crops scientists, and agronomists get together to share their latest work.

Why should anyone care about a convocation of science nerds? For one thing, this is science focused on issues like maintaining or improving crop productivity, improving nutrition and food quality, reducing impacts of crops on the environment, responding to climate change and other aspects of science that will be needed to provide an adequate and healthful food supply in coming years, and maintaining our environment.

Citrus Research USDA, photo by Rob Flynn.

Hope and caution

I was struck by the excellent work being done in all the represented fields—although there continues to be too much focus on industrial agriculture compared to sustainability. The three main science disciplines represented at the meeting represent several key aspects of agriculture.

All of these areas are critical to meet the challenges of agriculture going forward, which brings me to some serious warning flags about the state of agricultural science.

One is the growing dependence of academic agricultural scientists on research money from big ag. Emblematic of this was the exhibit hall itself. As you walked into the hall, you were funneled between several smaller vendors smack into a large display by Monsanto, blocking your path and touting all of the positive things the company is purportedly doing, and will do for agriculture and the planet in the future.

Vendors aside, serious money is pouring from large companies like Monsanto into university coffers. At Berkeley, for example, several huge grants have been awarded over the past decade from Syngenta (then Novartis) and BP to support GE research. Similar grants have followed to other research universities, as well as ubiquitous individual grants to research scientists. These funds have replaced public funding that has not kept pace with needs in recent years, due to shortsighted public policies. Industry money has long had a place in agricultural research, but the scale of the current money blitz is really impressive.

Keeping us in the dark

Some in academia welcome these increasing public-private partnerships, but they have a disturbing and chilling side.

Some scientists become beholden to their funding sources, and may be less likely to criticize them. A good example of the trepidation of many academic scientists happened in 2009, when 26 entomologists from leading universities wrote a letter to EPA complaining that they could not get access to GE seeds because they are patented.

Scientists must get permission from the GE companies to use their seeds (and the plants they produce) for research, such as determining how well the GE crops grow and their safety. The entomologists, mostly supportive of GE, complained that the companies’ restrictions on access to GE seed substantially impeded their work—and consequently our understanding of GE crops.

An industry representative, the American Seed Trade Association has claimed the problem has been resolved. We disagree, because the companies are still in the driver’s seat in the absence of needed changes to patent law. ASTA has not revealed its evidence of better access to GE seeds. But if you want anyone to believe you, you have to lay your cards on the table.

Equally troubling, from the perspective of this post, is that all but a few of the scientists requested that EPA not reveal their names. They were concerned about possible repercussions, for example to the funding of their research.

This chilling effect on one of the important ways society gets relatively unbiased information—through the free workings of science—is unhealthy for our democracy. Public funding of research is an antidote to this kind of influence.

Strike two

Some may assume that the big threat from too much industry influence on academic science is fraudulent research. But this not the main concern.

The big problem is the types of research that receive funding—and the types that are excluded or underfunded—which determines what we learn, and don’t learn, from science. These decisions are fundamental to determining the direction of technology and how agriculture is practiced.

There is a lot of room to improve different types of agriculture, from organic to industrial, and those that get the bulk of research dollars acquire a big advantage in increases in efficiency, and thereby become more competitive.

For decades, industrial ag has rolled in research money, with an almost exclusive focus on productivity, at the expense of research for sustainable, ecologically sound agriculture.

Big ag companies are not interested in supporting research to improve most ecologically-based farming practices because they do not profit from it. Sustainable ag science focuses on how to grow food—such as using crop rotations and cover crops to reduce pests and improve soil fertility—rather than on products that companies can patent, and that depend on large capital investments to produce.

So it is all the more important that agroecological research is supported by the public sector, because big ag is not going to do it. Otherwise, agriculture will be pushed inexorably further into the industrial model that, while productive, has caused big environmental and social problems.

Time is short

There has been some real progress in recent Farm Bills to add money for organic and sustainable agriculture research and conservation programs—though still too little. This money should be increased, because public ag research pays dividends, and conservation programs protect the environment. They are needed to provide the kind of food that increasing numbers of consumers want.

UCS’s Food and Agriculture Program is working to preserve sustainability programs in the coming Farm Bill, under serious threat from penny-wise-and–pound-foolish cuts to research and conservation programs. You can contact your congressperson or senator and tell them not to cut these programs.  Also see the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a UCS partner, and its member organizations, for the excellent work they are doing to make sure agriculture moves in directions that are best for all of us.