Scientists Say “Yes” to Investment in Sustainable Agriculture

August 11, 2014 | 4:02 pm
Ricardo Salvador
Director, Food & Environment Program

Suspense. In early July, UCS launched a statement from 36 leading agricultural scientists 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. These three dozen science heavyweights outlined the benefits of the modern science of agroecology, and called for greater investment of public resources in our nation’s long term interest. But would other experts join them?

They have. For each initial signer of the statement, another 7 have signed on—for over 250 signatories to date. It is still early in this campaign to impress upon public administrators the urgency of thinking differently about our agricultural systems, but the enthusiastic response to date is revealing. As expected, the majority of respondents have been university researchers. But a number of interesting patterns have emerged:

  • Signers include several scientists from state and federal government agencies, including Drs. Kim Steinmann (California Department of Pesticide Regulation) and Diana Kearns (Oregon Department of Agriculture). Their responsibilities have presumably sensitized them to the importance of innovating different approaches for dealing with the problems generated by industrial agricultural practices.
  • It is also significant that scientists working in the private sector understand that agroecology is the future of successful business models in agriculture. Drs. Jason Bradford of Farmland LP and Laurel Standley of Clear Current LLC join a handful of farmers with doctoral degrees in signing our statement.
  • A number of scientist colleagues at other non-governmental organizations (Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy, Pesticide Action Network, Food First! and the Center for Food Safety) have also signed on. And though our focus has been domestic, 20 statement signers are international scientists from Latin America, Europe, Africa and Australia.

Satellite image of the Main Cropping System Experiment at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station at Michigan State University. Photo credit: SPOT Image

University researchers uncover agroecology’s advantages

Importantly, scientists at the nation’s leading agricultural universities are demonstrating the effectiveness of agroecological research to address the pressing questions and problems of industrial agriculture. A couple of specific examples:

  • Utah State University’s Dr. Jennifer MacAdam alerted us to preliminary results from her research into feeding beef cattle on birdsfoot trefoil (a deep-rooted, leguminous pasture and forage crop) rather than grain as the last step before slaughter. Carcass evaluations show that beef produced this way is leaner and healthier, and (interestingly) taste tests found that people preferred the trefoil-finished beef to grassfed, and liked the trefoil-finished as well as grain-finished beef for tenderness and juiciness. Cattle are major agricultural contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, so Dr. MacAdam and Canadian colleagues are now conducting life-cycle assessments to determine the climate impact of beef produced with a nitrogen-fixing legume instead of grain.
  • Dr. Sara Parr Syswerda wrote to inform us about a methodical assessment she conducted at Michigan State University’s W.K. Kellogg Biological Station to learn about the benefits of various kinds of land use in the region—from heavily managed grain production (corn, soybean, and wheat) to a stand of native deciduous forest basically left alone. She learned that an agroecologically-based system featuring legumes offered the best balance among grain production “ecosystem services” such as species diversity, soil quality and water-holding capacity, nitrate conservation and greenhouse gas mitigation. This suggests that diversified biological systems are best for delivering multiple benefits.

We plan to feature in this space more examples of the research that will be necessary to design the agroecological systems of the future, and in some cases we’ll have researchers author guest blogs to describe their work.

Scientists can help farmers reap sustainable agriculture’s benefits

Ultimately, we will need broad support to make the case to government decision makers that more public investment should be devoted to agroecological research. We had many students and practitioners volunteer their support for our efforts, and we plan to leverage this collective enthusiasm and commitment in various ways in the coming months. To start, this week UCS is taking part in the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Sacramento, California. We will be collaborating with partners from the University of California-Davis (check out our jointly-authored commentary in the Sacramento Bee this morning) and others to explore and secure a role for the assembled ecologists in this effort to bend the curve of this nation’s (and the globe’s) agricultural future—through publicly-funded science for public benefit.