We Know How to Fix Farming

March 8, 2013
Doug Gurian-Sherman
Former contributor

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.