Why the Farm Bill Should Invest in Agroecology Research: An Interview with Dr. Selena Ahmed

, senior Washington representative, Food & Environment | September 5, 2018, 5:37 pm EST
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Recently, the 2018 farm bill—the massive federal legislative package that shapes our country’s food and agriculture system—cleared a major hurdle, as both the House and Senate voted to begin negotiations toward a compromise bill. This process is important for many reasons, including how it will impact the US Department of Agriculture’s $3 billion annual investment in research to help the nation’s farmers and eaters alike.

In case your Schoolhouse Rock memories are fuzzy, a quick civics lesson: A bill becomes a law after it is passed by both the House and the Senate and signed by the president. When the House and Senate versions of a bill are not the same, a conference committee—made up of negotiators from both chambers—must meet to hash out their differences. The resulting bill then returns to both chambers of Congress for a final vote before heading to the president’s desk for signature. In the case of the farm bill, negotiators have some serious work to do to bridge the yawning gap between major components of the two bills, including nutrition and conservation provisions. Yet while these differences have generated bigger headlines, agriculture research is quietly one of the most important parts of the farm bill.

That’s because the USDA’s investment in science-based research—again, nearly $3 billion every year—helps to keep farmers and ranchers viable and profitable amidst a whole host of challenges, from changing patterns of pests to extreme weather to the economic uncertainty created by the president’s volatile trade policy. Publicly-funded agricultural research is crucial to advancing the sort of farming systems that can benefit both growers and the public, for example by improving soil health, diversifying our food supply, and reducing water pollution while maintaining farmers’ profits.  Research suggests that a field of science known as agroecology can be particularly effective at uncovering such solutions. Yet our investment in public agricultural research overall has been declining —both in comparison to funding from private industry, and to other global powers like China—and  investment in agroecology research is particularly insufficient.

Since the farm bill is the major legislative vehicle for supporting public agricultural research—and for transforming our food system more broadly—the agricultural research community has been outspoken in demanding a substantive increase in research funding. Last October, more than 60 organizations, including UCS, called on Congress to double total USDA food and agricultural research, education, and extension funding by the time the next farm bill comes up for reauthorization in 2023. And earlier this summer, a group of researchers from across the country traveled to Washington, D.C. to make a case for agroecology and interdisciplinary food systems science.

One of those researchers was Selena Ahmed, Assistant Professor of Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems at Montana State University. While in D.C., Dr. Ahmed met with seven senators and representatives who serve on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, which are responsible for drafting the next farm bill and funding USDA research programs. I recently caught up with Dr. Ahmed to hear more about why the U.S. should invest in interdisciplinary, systems-based food and farm research, and how her message was received by Congress.


 

What are some of the objectives of your research program?

The overall goal of the research program that I lead through the Food and Health Lab at Montana State University is to strengthen sustainability and design innovations in the food system towards supporting local, national, and global food security for all. In my research program, I approach food security as equitable access to healthy, affordable, and desirable food that strengthens the capacity of individuals and communities to serve the challenges and needs of our nation and our world. My research has three key objectives. First, on the agriculture side of food systems, is to identify and design innovations that strengthen the resilience of farms and farmers to support environmental and human wellbeing. Second, on the consumption side of food systems, is to identify and design innovations that enhance access to high-quality and affordable food for healthy communities. Lastly, as a faculty member of Sustainable Food Systems at one of our nation’s land-grant institutions, I seek to build the capacity of future food system leaders to effectively address complex food system challenges towards supporting long-term local, national, and global food security.

How does your research and outreach work impact communities—in Montana, and across the country (and world)?

It is my hope that my work impacts communities in Montana, nationally, and globally through generating evidence to identify food system innovations, developing plans, and informing policies that support food security as well as environmental and human wellbeing. I lead and collaborate on multiple federally-funded projects as part of achieving this goal. This work is providing research evidence towards developing plans and policies to support farms, farmers, and communities.

For example, I have two funded projects through the National Science Foundation that are examining the effects of environmental and management factors on crop quality and farmer livelihoods as well as identifying agricultural innovations to build the resilience of farms and farmers to climate and market risk. This work is being conducted locally to support farmers and communities in Montana and regionally in the Upper Missouri River Basin, as well as in countries globally where many of our food supply chains start and those countries that have agricultural innovations that we can learn from in the United States. This research has generated evidence on multiple agroecological innovations that can be applied to reduce vulnerability to droughts and extreme weather events in order to more effectively feed our communities. These innovations include multiple agricultural solutions including diversified agriculture such as agroforestry, precision agriculture, tree planting, and management of soil organic matter and soil carbon sequestration through organic agriculture, manure management, mulching, and cover crops. I have generated data that agricultural diversification at the landscape, species, and genetic levels not only supports the environment, it can also result in crops with higher quality based on phytochemical and sensory profiles that are associated with higher price premiums and livelihoods for farmers as well as higher health attributes for human consumers.

On the consumption side of the food system, I have been engaging in a series of community-based projects in rural and tribal communities of Montana to generate research evidence to identity and design food system innovations that can enhance access to high-quality food. The goal of this work is to mitigate food insecurity, diet-related chronic disease, and health disparities through projects with community partners on the Flathead Reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Through a funding mechanism of the National Institutes of Health, our team has been taking a food systems approach to strengthen access of participants of nutrition assistance programs such as the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (also known as the Commodities Program) to fresh, healthy, local food. We see this food systems approach being ‘win-win’ for local communities by enhancing food security and human health while supporting local farms and strengthening the local economy.

Why were you motivated to come to DC to talk about agroecology research?

I thought it was a critical time to visit DC to discuss agroecology and food systems research with Congress in session working on the Farm Bill. I wanted to provide whatever input I could while also wanting to learn more about food policy in the United States and the varied perspectives of the Congressional offices regarding the Farm Bill. As a scientist, I believe it is our duty to share findings of our research to a broad audience including to policy makers in order for our research findings to be operationalizable and have far-reaching impacts. I do what I do to positively transition food systems to sustainability and a critical part of this work is engagement with community partners, industry stakeholders, policy makers, and advocacy groups.  I am extremely grateful for the federal funding that has supported my research program and I was honored for the opportunity to share the relevance of this work with Congressional offices.

What was your experience talking with Congressional offices? 

I very much benefited from the opportunity to share the relevance of my research program with Congressional offices while learning more about the varied priorities of these offices in respect to the Farm Bill. Overall, I found the members of the Congressional offices receptive in hearing about agroecology and food systems research as well as its relevance for communities and the nation. Multiple representatives from these offices noted that they appreciated learning about the work that is supported by federal funds. I also found the experience valuable in better understanding policy in the United States. Some of the Congressional representatives noted some of the policy opportunities and challenges in response to the recommendations offered based on our experiences. These perspectives were extremely insightful and I found this experience to be something I would like to continue to be involved in.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Ensuring food security is critical for a strong nation and a healthy planet. An agroecology and local food systems approach is crucial for ensuring food security while strengthening local economies and their capacity to serve the challenges and needs of our nation and our world. There are key attributes of specific federal research funding mechanisms that I believe result in the most successful outcomes for communities and the nation. One key attribute of funding mechanisms is their long-term nature. Agricultural and environmental processes are long-term and I have found that grant mechanisms that are also relatively long-term (4-5 years in length) allow for greater monitoring of long-term processes as well as greater impact. In addition, successful community-based work is dependent on developing relationships that can also be a long-term process; thus, grant mechanisms that are relatively long-term also allow for greater development of relationships with communities towards greater positive impact. Lastly, I wanted to highlight the importance of interdisciplinary and international research. Solutions for food system challenges we face in the United States may be found in the agricultural fields and communities of other nations. It is my hope such Congressional visits can serve to increase federal funding for agroecology and food systems research.


 

As luck would have it, Dr. Ahmed’s meetings with Congress were perfectly timed to make an impact. Just as she was heading back to Montana, the Senate Agriculture Committee released its draft farm bill, which was eventually approved by the full Senate on June 28. The Senate version of the bill makes important strides to protect and ramp up investment in agricultural research that supports agroecology. The Organic Agriculture Research Extension Initiative got a boost from $20 million to $50 million annually. A matching requirement for federal funding was eliminated, leveling the playing field for research institutions with fewer financial resources—including historically black and tribal colleges and universities. And the USDA’s Office of the Chief Scientist (which plays an influential role, as evidenced by last year’s fight to defeat the nomination of Sam Clovis) was empowered with increased funding to improve staffing, increase coordination between federal research agencies, and expand oversight and scientific integrity.

The Senate bill was a welcome contrast to the House bill, passed earlier, which does not substantively improve the landscape for public agriculture research.

As negotiators in the House and Senate reconcile their two opposing bills, researchers like Dr. Ahmed will have to keep up the pressure, urging their members of Congress to adopt the Senate’s research title to prioritize strong investment in food and agriculture research. In the meantime, you can add your name to the petition calling on Congress to prioritize proven, science-based policies and programs in the farm bill. It’s what the agricultural research community wants, and it’s what we all need to build a world-class food system that makes affordable, healthy, and sustainably grown food available to everyone.

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