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

May 9, 2013
Doug Gurian-Sherman
Former contributor

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.