Now What? Scientists Call for a Better Way to Invest in the Future of Agriculture

, , Director, Food & Environment | July 2, 2014, 5:23 pm EDT
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Iowa State University, April 2005. I stood at the front of the classroom, a veteran of 25 years of teaching at one of the nation’s front-line agricultural institutions, and I was trying hard not to show my disbelief. The young man who had just spoken was a superstar student and, like most agriculture students in Iowa, came from a farm. He’d just heard a team of fellow students report on the grass-fed beef system of the Argentine pampas, and his first reaction was to ask: “Cattle can really eat grass?” I had to simultaneously process how to handle the educational situation while absorbing the fact that this college senior was weeks from graduating with a degree in agronomy and our curriculum had clearly failed him.

Researchers examine fields at the long-term Marsden Farm experiment at Iowa State University.

Researchers examine fields at the long-term Marsden Farm experiment at Iowa State University. Photo: Laura Miller, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

The farm my student came from, like a large proportion of those in Iowa, was a “grain farm,” which meant that his family was dedicated to producing corn and “beans” exclusively. In Iowa, this means wall-to-wall corn/soy, as far as the eye can see. In the world that many of my students knew, there were farmers who produced grain, and then there were other farmers who used that grain to “feed” (raise and finish livestock). And that world extended for hundreds of miles in all directions from our fine university, from which a student could graduate so specialized in crop production—not even that, more truthfully in corn/soy production—that the basics of ruminant digestion were utterly dispensable. It was like being a virtuoso musician who can only play one song, if you can imagine.

Nearly a decade later, I’m in Washington, DC, where I lead the food and agriculture team at the Union of Concerned Scientists. We’re working to raise awareness—at agricultural universities, among farmers, and in the halls of Congress—that there is a better model for the future of American farming. It’s based on the emerging science of “agroecology,” and cutting edge research is showing that it can be just as productive as the dominant industrial model while avoiding a lot of the problems that come with it. And today, UCS is launching a statement from leading experts calling for greater public investments to refine agroecological systems and practices and to help farmers adopt them.

Industrial Agriculture—A System Gone Awry

As long as agriculture has been practiced, cattle have ingested grasses and other roughage, making it useful to humans by converting it into meat and manure. This connected one part of a cycle to another. Output became input, and for thousands of years farmers have managed that cycle and many others like it (the nitrogen cycle, the carbon cycle, the water cycle, to name a few) in a complex system that, at its best, perpetuated itself. But 50 or so years ago, something changed.

The typical farm today has been industrialized and linearized (literally, “straightened out”), in pursuit of enhancing human control. The connections between components that produce and those that regenerate are deliberately broken. The multiplicity of organisms has purposefully been impoverished in vast monocrops—stands of a single plant. Farm fields where only one species at a time grows are actual biological deserts, great simplifications, as defined by their lack of diversity and ecological functionality.

The conceit of these “modern” systems is that they are highly productive because they supplement naturally occurring resources with manufactured products. To boost depleted soils: synthetic fertilizers. Instead of a population of beneficial insects: synthetic insecticides. Instead of fully populated ecological niches: synthetic herbicides. This is a tidy and linear industrial model in the sense that, like a factory, it consists of assembling external inputs into a product that is then exported. The farm is the assembly line. Replenishment is purchased.

But a problem with industrializing agricultural production in this way (specializing, capitalizing, and automating it) is that for all the effort and wishful thinking expended, farms aren’t factories that just happen to be outdoors. And control over them is imperfect. Rain, temperature and duration of the season cannot be controlled. The living parts aren’t static cogs, instead they actively interact with their changing environment. Soil microflora and fauna that would otherwise work hard to thrive (and in so doing generate and maintain soil fertility), simply feed off the easy fertilizer nutrients doused on the farm field, becoming a wasted resource. Insects and weeds that are exposed year upon year to the same control tactics adapt and survive.

And this last has led to an agricultural crisis that cannot be overstated. The latest simplifying technological approach to large scale monocrops—herbicide- and insect-resistant biotech crops—at first succeeded in hooking and “de-skilling” farmers, making them completely reliant on a time-saving boon that in turn enabled holding large acreages. But this system is now failing (ask any farmer in the Midwest and South right now), as predicted, due to the accelerated evolution of both weeds and insects to resist the chemical potions that, according to pesticide manuals, should kill them.

So thorough was the uptake of biotech agriculture in big row-crop land that there appears to be no “Plan B.” The term of art among researchers and the agricultural extension agents and consultants who are the front line of advice to farmers is that “we’ve run out of modes of action.” This technical concept reflects the poverty of imagination to which industrial ag is prone, because it refers to the biochemical mechanism of a synthetic pesticide, the way it kills its target, meaning that alternatives to ag chemicals are by default outside of consideration.

The Promise of Agroecology

But there is in fact a better way. And we must invest in it. The industrialized agricultural system in place today is in fact the result of public investment, and of a concerted vision, a century and a half in the making. This national effort solved for productivity and scale, critical limitants in the mid-nineteenth century. The system of the future must solve for the critical externalities of the present system: environmental degradation and the health consequences of a junk food diet.

In brief, this means designing systems based on the understanding that nature is capital to be conserved, invested and grown, and not to be extracted and degraded. When it comes to natural resources, industrial agriculture–with its focus on inputs, throughput and saleable exports—is like mining. The agriculture of the future must be like a well-managed endowment, generating usable interest—our food—while maintaining seed capital and equity—our soil, clean water and air. Such systems will be resilient by design, featuring multiple components, thereby multiple products, and will have the built-in capacity to withstand uncontrollable environmental challenges. If the components of the system are chosen for both their ecological function and their utility—as healthful foods or sustainable biofuel feedstocks—such systems can be both land-sparing and highly productive. And this vision of sophisticated, multifunctional agricultural systems is not theoretical; it is strongly supported by the science of the matter.

Take a recent study conducted in the heart of Iowa by Adam Davis and colleagues. They have clearly demonstrated, at scale and over a decade, that a sophisticated system of crop rotations and cultural and biological methods can be as productive and profitable as the conventional methods of the area. Nor is theirs the only model. Scientists such as Lisa Schulte Moore at Iowa State and Nick Jordan at the University of Minnesota are showing how corn and bean production can be made sustainable by acting on the fundamental premise that the most resilient, productive and sustainable agricultural systems must be designed on ecological principles. Their designs therefore work with natural mechanisms instead of expending effort in fruitlessly attempting to deny and dominate them. In place of monocrops, there is diversity. In place of reliance on purchased inputs, there is a focus on understanding and managing biology and the relationships among organisms and their ecological niches.

The name for this science is agroecology, and there is global recognition that it is the way forward in solving the apparent conundrum of producing abundantly while conserving and building the resources upon which humanity depends. In a recent systematic review of the scientific literature, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, concluded that agroecological approaches are the best suited to confront the multiple dimensions, from productivity to sustainability and equity, of a resilient global agriculture for the future. This followed on similar conclusions reached by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, a comprehensive, multilateral examination of public and private agriculture strategies.

New Investments are Needed for a Sustainable Farm Future

In the United States, we have invested in developing a vast and powerful infrastructure for agricultural research, so successful in generating the knowledge that has resulted in food abundance that the average citizen has no awareness that the system exists. It consists of agricultural colleges, experiment stations and public education systems (“extension”) in each state, working in tandem with a federal agricultural research system.

Historically, these systems have been publicly funded, via a formula that factored the original population they were intended to serve: rural citizens and farmers. As the knowledge and technologies created through this public investment resulted in fewer farmers, and as the research of these institutions became more expensive, formula funding has decreased and private sector funding for them has increased. This has influenced the research agenda of these public institutions, and unsurprisingly the result has been greater focus on manufactured inputs that industry can produce and sell to farmers.

One way to interpret this is as the culmination of a successful research and development cycle, where initially unpromising and high risk ideas are developed by public investment, and then successfully spun off to the private sector as profitable businesses that benefit the public. Everyone wins.

But this interpretation breaks down because what we actually have in industrial agriculture is the capture of the public’s agricultural research apparatus, increasingly for private gain, at the expense of the nation’s long-term interests and wellbeing. There is little percentage in all-out production now at the expense of denuding our environment and our capacity to provide a secure and healthful food supply for the long term. And this is exactly where the short-sighted business plans of agricultural industry are leading us. As Jeremy Grantham, one of the world’s foremost capitalists, puts it: “Capitalism is singularly unsuited to deal with the long-term.”

This is why, as much as ever, there is a role and a need for the nation’s public research agenda to focus and invest in the public interest. The agroecological systems of the future will not rely as much as today’s industrialized system on expensive, purchased inputs, to everyone’s great benefit, farmer and non-farmer alike.

A wise Iowa farmer once told me: “We used to leverage someone else’s money to farm, and now we also leverage someone else’s knowledge to farm.” This was someone who, to all eyes, was the paragon of agricultural success in Iowa, producing corn and beans on thousands of acres, and he was referring to the traditional practice of purchasing seed, chemicals and machinery on loans that would be paid off at harvest time, and how over time there was less and less need for farmers to know any biology or actual agricultural science for that matter, but just to know enough to buy “the right package of technology.”

Agroecology will reward farmers for their knowledge and agricultural management skill, but the body of science that will fuel and support this new era of agriculture is therefore not attractive to the private sector. A proper role of government is to invest in those areas in the public interest where the private sector has no incentive to go. There surely is no area of public interest greater than assuring the nation’s food supply for the long term.

Therefore, we are calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Congress, and the nation’s agricultural universities to shift their focus and research priorities toward a redefinition of the nation’s agricultural vision, oriented toward the modern science of agroecology and in our nation’s long term interest. To demonstrate the validity and support for this idea and new direction to federal policymakers and agricultural universities, today we are launching a scientist and expert sign-on statement, with initial endorsement from 36 of our nation’s foremost scientists and experts in sustainable agriculture. The statement is on our website, and we’re asking qualified scientists and experts to join in supporting and demanding the best use of our nation’s agricultural research dollars, in the highest spirit of what constitutes the most responsible and democratic use of the public’s tax dollars.

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  • Alfred Grand

    Congratulation to the article! I am an organic farmer from Austria, Central Europe. Crop rotation, green manure and cover crops, the use of compost, compost tea and vermicompost, even mulching are used here in agriculture. Here in Austria 20% of the agricultural land is cultivated organic and the more difficult the weather condition (drought, cold and wet etc.) is, the better the organic crop compared to the conventional. Sometimes and with some crops (like soybean) often, it is better then conventional. But even the college, which are cultivating their fields conventional, had raised their organic content in the soil, due to a green manure program, supported by the EU and the Austrian government.
    bw Fred!

  • Christian Carrillo

    A 18 year old entrepreneur has a startup for vertical farms in La planning to use AgTech innovations. indiegogo campaign coming soon.

  • Only a University Professor can be so out of touch with the practical business of farming that he could come up with such rubbish. (Apologies if that is a bit strong, but you reveal a terrible state of affairs in your own University, and in the agriculture you see around you. I don’t imagine that this is common throughout the world, so to most farmers your solution must also seem rather odd!)

    When was it ever thought that short rotation farming was a good idea? It is an unfortunate necessity when “Globalisers” allow rotational crops to be imported at lower cost, making them uneconomic in your own country, and when banks treat “farming as a business just like any other” and impose short term restrictions and high interests on farm businesses that cannot – while being properly run – pay them.

    Having forced farmers into short rotations it was inevitable that weeds, pests and diseases would build up, and soil nutrients would fall, resulting in chemical dependency.

    And why does normal farming with longer crop rotations mixed with livestock need a new name? Surely “farming” is good enough. At College, 40 years ago we were told in no uncertain terms that as farmers our job was to sympathetically manage our local ecosystem so as to produce the food required by our customers.

    Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” had taught us all that overdependence on chemicals was not a good idea. But at the same time we were taught that judicious use of herbicides could save a lot of fuel burned in mechanical weed control, and that the reduction in cultivations could improve soil conditions (and soil ecology) for the growing crop. Weed control in arable crops was as much a matter of getting drainage, pH, soil fertility, rotation and sowing dates right, as chemical or mechanical intervention.
    In grassland weeds were controlled by correct rotational grazing.

    The best fertilizers were unrefined farmyard manures, or minerals like basic slag, as, although they could provide the basic nutrients, they also improved soil physical conditions and provided micro-nutrients. After that soil fertility could be topped up to the levels expected to be needed by the crop by adding relatively small doses of chemical fertilizers.

    As modern (post Silent Spring) insecticides and fungicides became available they could be used in targetted programmes, only after critical levels of infection had been observed. But , hopefully, rotations would reduce the need for these chemicals.

    And now, the Universities are going to reintroduce this system – known for 200 years and studied and taught in the UK ever since, under a grand new name! Who knows, after the bungled introduction of new breeding techniques, the Univeristies might even manage to make ordinary farming sound scary!

    • Huw, thanks for your comment. You’re right that the farming practices and systems UCS is recommending are not entirely new, and they are bolstered by the latest agroecological evidence. And while we wish it weren’t necessary to advocate for them, here in the United States they are being implemented by a small minority of farmers, taught by only a few university programs, and supported by a tiny fraction of total public agricultural research dollars. That’s why we’re asking scientists and researchers who understand the value of these systems to join us in calling for much greater investment in them. In the months ahead, we’ll be using this statement in discussions with policymakers, and this blog will feature stories about statement signers and their research. Stay tuned.

  • Thanks for this great article! The first paragraph really made me laugh, I’m not a farmer but if there was a question to ask, it would rather be “What else do cows eat other than grass?” This student’s question is a little frightening…

  • Chas.

    Finally, a rational discussion from an expert who has seen the old ways, and is a leader toward sustainability.