A Better Way for Our Food System

November 17, 2015 | 2:30 pm
Liz Carlisle & M. Jahi Chappell

Earlier this year, a new Health Department report cited nitrate pollution as a “growing threat” to Minnesota’s drinking water, pinning the blame on fertilizers used for row crop production. Governor Mark Dayton characterized the water quality issue as a “widespread problem,” calling for anti-pollution legislation and warning that, “bad water threatens our health, our economy, and our future.”

Dayton is right.  But when it comes to problems stemming from the current industrial food system, we need to get beyond cleaning up the mess. At some point, we have to ask: if our food system causes nitrate pollution, climate change, obesity, diabetes, and biodiversity loss—while undermining the very soil quality it depends upon for its own long-term viability—isn’t it time to find a better way?

Red clover and corn. Photo credit Paula R. Westerman

Red clover and corn. Photo: Paula R. Westerman

This “better way” for our food system is the work of a branch of interdisciplinary science called agroecology, which approaches farming as an ecological and social challenge. Agroecologists work with producers to create and maintain farms that rebuild their own soil, capture their own nutrients, and host pollinators and beneficial insects—all of which contributes to providing the farmers with profitable, sustainable livelihoods. Further, by mimicking natural systems, agroecology greatly improves the environmental performance of agriculture, while producing sufficient yields and improving resilience for farmers and farm communities.

If you are wondering why you haven’t heard of such an important branch of science, you’re not alone. Although agroecology offers a promising, proven solution to the problems with our food system, it remains woefully underfunded in comparison to other agricultural research, thus depriving farmers of critical information that could help them solve problems like nitrate pollution.

How badly are we neglecting this promising solution to nitrate pollution and other problems caused by our current food system? At this year’s joint meeting of the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America—which is being held this week in Minneapolis—researchers  (including co-author Carlisle) will discuss the results of a study newly published in Environmental Science and Policy, which quantifies the share of public agricultural research funding that supports sustainable approaches. The findings are sobering.

Oat harvest. Photo credit: David N. Sundberg

Oat harvest. Photo: David N. Sundberg

Although this research analyzed one of the most sustainability-oriented sources of public agricultural research funding—USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture—the study found that just 15% of projects funded in 2014 even considered agroecological practices. To put this in perspective, the total sum for analyzed projects containing any agroecological practices represented just 1.5% of USDA’s full Research, Education, and Extension budget.

What does this mean for Minnesota? Earlier this year, the proposed implementation of 50-foot buffer strips along nearly every waterway in the state led to a “buffer battle” that Dave Orrick at the St. Paul Pioneer Press referred to as “Mark Dayton vs. farmers.” The fight demonstrated why agroecological approaches—that consider both farmer livelihoods and environmental benefits—are needed. For the most part, Minnesotans’ discussion of the proposed buffer regulation has played out as an apparent zero-sum game—pitting pollution control against farmers’ incomes. Yet just across the border, Iowa State agroecology researcher Matt Liebman has found that a holistic approach—diversifying crops and installing modest buffer strips—can lower water pollution from pesticides by a factor of 200, decrease pollution from nitrogen runoff, and also maintain or exceed previous profits and yields. Converting to the systems Liebman and his team have developed is no easy task, but here’s the question: if agroecology can drastically reduce the herbicides and nitrogen in our water while preserving farmers’ yields and profits—shouldn’t agroecology get more than 1.5% of research budgets?

Indeed, we think funding agroecology research is a critical, win-win step toward fixing the food system. As Congress looks ahead to the next Farm Bill and candidates stump for 2016, this is an objective farmers, eaters, and policymakers can all “come to the table” to achieve.