In a report we are releasing today, Growing Economies: Connecting Local Farmers and Large-Scale Buyers to Create Jobs and Revitalize America’s Heartland, our Senior Economist Kranti Mulik explains how this can be done. As befits an economist, Dr. Mulik sees this as a matter of simple supply and demand. Even as midsize family farms in Iowa (and across America) are disappearing, increasing demand for fresh, sustainably grown, local foods can open new opportunities for farmers and rural communities.
This represents a huge opportunity for homegrown business and livelihood, but one that so far is being missed. Our analysis reveals that innovative public policies that provide incentives to diversified midsize farms and connect them with large food buyers—including supermarkets, restaurants, hospitals, and school districts— could help bring back these farms and create tens of thousands of jobs. This could help reverse the demise of that backbone of Iowan (and American) rural life, the midsize family farm.
These conclusions emerged from an examination of three recent Iowa State University surveys of farmers, food-buying institutions, and regional food coordinators. The objective of the surveys was to determine the potential economic impact if Iowa farmers could supply more of the foods the state’s institutional food buyers want to buy. The analysis revealed that:
The question is not why Iowans should care, nor why the politicians who say they care about what Iowans care about should care. It turns out that the majority of Iowans themselves do care greatly, both as farmers and eaters. Our polling, based in part on focus groups conducted in Des Moines, shows that the nation’s citizens want policies that make healthy foods more affordable, and that they are concerned about the disconnect between our government’s dietary recommendations and the actual policies we enact.
Further, the majority of modern Iowans are urban, and (as elsewhere in the nation) there is a growing culture in the state around farmers markets, local sourcing and healthy food (among other things, this has resulted in the Des Moines Farmers Market becoming the number 2 such market in the nation—behind Pike Place Farmers Market in Seattle. During a recent visit to Des Moines with my colleague Mark Bittman, we met farmers and local food advocates for whom it was a badge of creativity and resourcefulness that they were increasingly restoring local food value chains given Iowa’s abundant resources and within the constraints of its seasons.
All of which leads to the question: why should it be a major “discovery” that Iowa’s existing resources and know-how can match supply and demand for healthy food, to the benefit of Iowa’s farmers, eaters and associated businesses?
Like me, Dr. Mulik—our report’s lead author—also spent time working in Iowa, as an analyst for Iowa State University’s Center for Agricultural Research and Development. The experience left her as one of our team’s most ardent advocates for the farmer perspective in our analysis and advocacy. The reasons that Iowans export most of the state’s bounty and import most of their food are not “market outcomes.” They have to do with a history of piecemeal policies that over time have largely emphasized productivism and corporate profit over the interests and wellbeing of people.
We should rework our nation’s food and agriculture policy system to emphasize the goals of improved public health, an enhanced environment, and renewed rural economies. These are the things all Americans can agree are worth the investment of our public dollars. Policies that return midsize farms to the land and connect them with markets will move us closer to those goals. In this political season, presidential candidates should seize the opportunity to improve the nation’s food and farm system for the benefit of us all, and to give Iowans (and all of us) actual lasting solutions.]]>
Today UCS is releasing a short video that will walk you through some of these food system problems and ask you to join our call for the next President to take the lead in solving them.
The good news is that these features of the system can be addressed—with vision and leadership—because we can name them and we know what would be better:
Americans can be justifiably proud of the bedrock value that “nothing is ever good enough,” and that we can always figure out how to make things better. While the current food system produces abundantly for those of us who can afford it, it contributes toward creating an unhealthy environment, one that features artificially cheap “choices” (Which greasy burger? Which greasy pizza? Which sugary soft drink?) that make us and keeps us sick. And the system as currently practiced, promoted and subsidized exploits both people and nature. We are a better people and nation than that. Agricultural, nutrition and health science exist to make things better. And we all want things to get better.
Cross-partisan polling tells us that Americans understand that there is a food system, that the current system benefits some of us but makes most of us sick, that while healthful food is abundant it is price out of range for many of us, that government policies play a heavy role in making things this way, and—most importantly—that an overwhelming majority of people across the political spectrum would vote for a president who prioritizes improving the food system.
The common thread among all the issues requiring attention to improve the food system is that they are matters of policy. Congress is responsible for producing the closest thing we have to a farm and food policy, the quinquennial “Farm Bill,” and that is the policy that has largely given us the problematic system we have. To shift things, we will need executive leadership to inspire, define and implement a new way of doing things that better befits Americans and reflects the current state of scientific and health knowledge.
There is political tailwind to support the first presidential candidate to realize that by fixing food many other high priority issues can also be fixed.
For this reason, we are collaborating with Food Policy Action and the HEAL Food Alliance on the Plate of the Union initiative to urge all presidential candidates to include better food policy in their political platforms. Join us, for farmers, farm workers, thriving “good food” businesses, healthy families, a cleaner environment, and a flourishing nation of which we can all be proud.
None of this will be possible unless we fix food first.]]>
¿Y cómo se puede lograr el cambio?
Un valor fundamental estadounidense es que nada jamás está lo suficientemente bien, puesto que todo siempre se puede mejorar. Mientras que el sistema alimentario rinde de manera abundante para quienes contamos con los recursos para pagar, a la misma vez crea un ambiente nocivo, donde las opciones son baratas pero de manera artificial. De tal forma podemos “escoger” de entre muchas hamburguesas grasientas, diversos tipos de pizza grasienta, y cualquier cantidad de refrescos azucarados. Todo esto nos daña y resultamos enfermos a la larga. Ensayado, sufragado e impulsado de esta manera, este sistema explota tanto al ser humano como a la naturaleza. Con toda seguridad, todos añoramos mejorar este percance. No cabe duda que somos capaces, individualmente y colectivamente, de lograr algo mucho mejor. Y los conocimientos de las ciencias agrícolas, nutritivas y de la salud nos respaldan.
En base a las encuestas no partidarias, sabemos que el público estadounidense comprende que existe un sistema alimentario, que tal sistema nos perjudica a la mayoría, que mientras existe mucha oferta de alimento saludable, el tal es demasiado caro para muchos, que las políticas gubernamentales determinan muchas de estas características—e importantemente—que una gran mayoría, representantes todo el espectro político, elegirían a un Presidente quien priorizara la superación del sistema alimentario.
Nuestras normas políticas enlazan a todos estos temas. El Congreso de la Nación emite cada quinquenio lo que más se aproxima a un reglamento agroalimentario nacional, el llamado “Farm Bill,” el cual es responsable del sistema imperfecto con el cual contamos en la actualidad. Para lograr un giro, necesitaremos liderazgo de parte del próximo mandatario nacional, quien deberá inspirar, definir e implementar una manera nueva de obrar, para mayor beneficio de todos, y en concordancia con los conocimientos actuales de la ciencia.
El primero candidato presidencial quien caiga en cuenta de los muchos beneficios que podrá generar el atender el estado del sistema alimentario contará como resultado con gran apoyo electoral.
Es por esto que nos hemos aliado con Food Policy Action y la HEAL Food Alliance para manejar una iniciativa sobre El Alimento Nacional, para urgirles a los candidatos presidenciales que incorporen mejores normas alimentarias en sus plataformas políticas. Únase, en solidaridad con los agricultores, trabajadores agrícolas, negocios de alimento saludable, familias sanas, un entorno sano, y una país próspero que nos enorgullecerá a todos.
De no mejorar primero al sistema alimentario, ningunas de estas cosas serán posibles.]]>
Most of this technological improvement accelerated with the introduction of corn hybrids in the 1930s, a scientific project by then half a century in the making. Mechanization followed, as did fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides, each investment in additional technology justified by the productive response of corn, the featured crop around which Midwestern agriculture specialized. Today the wave of technological development continues, with the adoption of packages of bespoke biotech seeds and herbicides, computerized field mapping, self-guided equipment and variable rate applicators that take their electronic directions from those maps coordinated with satellite positioning systems, and drones that facilitate field scouting. Add to this climate models that assess the risks and rewards of investment on the basis of meteorological records combined with weather forecasts and crop prices. Whereas agricultural extension agents worked over a decade to persuade farmers of the 1930s to adopt hybrid seeds, today’s industrial farmers know that it can be costly, if not inimical to their survival, to delay adopting new tech. At the core of this industrial system—by now an intertwined global network of equipment, seed and chemical purveyors, technical advisors, farm managers, chemical applicators, grain traders and processors—is the corn crop, steadily and dependably gaining 2 bushels per acre per year of productivity, with no sign of exhausting its productive potential.
In fact, that yield potential is still at least 3 times greater than the current national yield average, as attested by the 503.8 bushel per acre world record yield attained last year in Valdosta, GA by farmer Randy Dowdy. There is only one other crop plant that can compare: sugarcane—like corn, a giant grass plant. But—unlike corn, which has been made most productive in the globe’s temperate zones—sugarcane is a perennial thereby restricted to tropical and subtropical zones. I wanted to know the secrets of corn’s productivity when I went to graduate school at Iowa State University 35 years ago to study with the renowned researcher Brent Pearce. Dr. Pearce was leading an interesting field of research wherein physiologists would specify to breeders what traits they should select to improve crop performance. He and a colleague, Jim Mock, had published the specification of an ideal corn plant to optimize yield, an “ideotype” in the parlance of crop physiologists (agricultural scientists specialized in understanding how crops—communities of individual plants, as opposed to individual plants—function.) If you drive through the Corn Belt today, you will see that ideotype realized, 40 decades later, and flourishing across the landscape.
The agronomic objective for any crop is to bathe it in light, top to bottom, because it is light energy—through photosynthesis—that drives crop productivity. Because the energy content of sunlight is so high relative to the amount leaves can use to drive photosynthesis (even though corn is unusually adept at this too) it isn’t very productive to intercept most light at the top of a crop canopy and shade the remainder. The modern corn plant is 10 feet tall, with up to 20 leaves when fully grown. That height enables an architecture that separates leaves vertically, at successive levels in a deep canopy. Those leaves display nearly a square yard of area per plant. To intercept as much light as possible per unit of land area, up to 40,000 of these tall, slim plants are crammed onto an acre. This is how a typical corn stand can display about 6.5 acres of leaf area on a single acre of land. You would think this crowding would result in competition, shading and diminished productivity. After all, each additional plant on an acre signifies fewer resources—water and soil nutrients—for all individual plants in the stand, in effect creating drought and soil infertility. Having selected for maize plants that can tolerate these conditions, breeders have forged burly, hardy plants that are drought resistant and efficient users of nutrients. The whole crop stand is crowned by a small tassel, or male flower, which is so prolific in producing pollen that Mock and Pearce accurately predicted it could be shrunk considerably, thereby shading the crop stand less than the giant tassels of the past—while still adequately pollinating the crop.
These improvements have collectively added up to a devastatingly productive crop, which establishes earlier and grows faster than its predecessors. When I arrived in Iowa in August 1980, there was a folksy saying to track progress of the corn crop, which even then was becoming dated. The crop was supposed to be on schedule if it reached “knee high by the fourth of July.” Today’s turbocharged corn crop is more like shoulder high, 5 feet, by the fourth of July. In fact Midwestern farmers, and those of us who are madly in love with the crop, know that in the coming two weeks we will see one of the most amazing displays of its might. In this period of time it will double its height, and unfurl about 8 new leaves beyond the 12 already on display.
This is possible because, like all grasses, corn is modular. Each module, stacked upon another and called a phytomer, features an internode, a branch bud and a leaf. When the young corn plant is manufactured, the genetic program that directs the process specifies: make node, make branch, make leaf, make internode, rotate 180 degrees, repeat 20 times. This all happens very early, and is complete by the time that five leaves are displayed. The miniature parts of the entire vegetative structure are all in place in that young seedling. You’d hardly notice the corn crop at that stage in what would look like a still empty field as you whizzed by it in your car. Thereafter, all internodes elongate simultaneously, limited only by the amount of sunlight, carbon dioxide, water and nutrients the plant can invest in the process. The more it grows, the more leaf and root tissue it develops, the faster the process occurs. And now, in early July, we’ll see explosive growth, because 20 internodes are expanding simultaneously, culminating with flowering—the emergence of male and female flowers, tassels and silks, respectively—around mid-July.
I’ll pick up this story again around that time, in a couple of weeks, and periodically through harvest time. But amid all this talk of productivity I should insert my sobering destination. During my final phases of study at Iowa State I encountered a technical difficulty. I was programming everything I knew about corn to create a simulation to predict yield. I was relying on data from the venerable Don Duvick, long-term vice-president of hybrid development at Pioneer Hi-Bred International. The numbers I needed were quite arcane, and no one had followed up on exacting research Dr. Duvick had conducted for his doctoral research in the 1950s, wherein he determined the patterns of cell division in corn kernels. As it happened, he had made an error in the way he reported his results, and this error threw my calculations. We were only 30 miles apart from each other, yet I was a lowly graduate student and he a member of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the eminences of our field, and I didn’t have the courage to contact him. When I met him a few years later, I realized I should have just phoned the gracious gentleman, and I would have spared myself many weeks of frustration. He was, incidentally, tickled that after 30 years I had been the first and only person to catch a technical error in his dissertation that he had become aware of too late, and which he’d long forgotten. But this is where initially accepting his erroneous figures led me: corn kernels theoretically would grow exponentially, without bound. As one of my professors told me when he reviewed my model: “Corn will take over the world!”
And, actually, this is where we are. We have produced enough corn. And we cannot afford to ignore that fact and to rethink the Midwest’s corn production system. In tandem with the many benefits I’ve alluded here, many serious problems attend the overproduction of this crop. In itself, the crop is noble, the crop is historical; it is economically significant and life-giving, but it is also at the core of the most significant issues we must resolve in agriculture as well as as a society. These problems, it turns out, are the problems of industrialization: labor exploitation, economic inequality, extraction, pollution, overconsumption and the inertia that flows from needing to preserve and protect investment in infrastructure.
This production season, about 8 million acres of corn have not been planted due to weather. This might signify lower supply at season’s end and thereby higher prices for those corn farmers who were able to plant on time. But there is too much corn. There are many other overproducing corn belts around the planet, and weather and growing conditions there have been good thus far, leading instead to the prospect of lower prices, potentially below the cost of production. In the U.S., if that happens, we will take care of these corn farmers through government programs, keeping them in business to again attempt to overproduce a crop whose major purpose is to find a purpose (in the Midwest, the problem of what to do with all that corn is euphemistically referred to as the endless quest to “develop new markets.”)
As I continue to trace the continuing progress of the corn crop this production season, I’ll explore what it means to advocate for less corn production but not necessarily fewer farmers. The guide star in pursuit of these questions should be: “What do we need to do?” And not how to continue doing what we know to do so well, whether needed or not.]]>
The question is not whether to establish national policies to shape the contours of the food system. The question is what food system we want. This nation already invests $100 billion tax dollars annually to support production, insurance and marketing of grain and oil crops, and to fund the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—a program that testifies to this nation’s failure to prevent hunger.
As Mark Bittman incisively noted at this conference, the problem of hunger is not one of food production, but of economic inequality and lack of democracy. That is, a number of policies such as trade liberalization, regressive taxation and outdated minimum wage laws result in displacement of people, labor exploitation and poverty, the latter of which is the root cause of hunger in advanced economies. It is beyond irony, and should be a national shame, that the nation that sloganeers about “feeding the world” cannot prevent hunger—1 of every 6 Americans is food insecure—and instead expends billions in “social safety net programs.” This is wasteful of both human and financial capital. We need more coherent policies.
In the simplest terms, our public policies should support the public good—such as creating jobs and healthful food—and not subsidize the bad: environmental degradation, chronic disease and hunger. Instead of expending tax dollars to support production of commodities that undergird the junk food diet, we should use public resources to support farmers who produce food in accordance with the official dietary recommendations of the Institute of Medicine and Department of Agriculture (USDA.) These call for a primarily plant-based diet. It only stands to reason that we should invest in regional market infrastructure and in support of farmers who produce the healthy fruits and vegetables that science recommends we eat for long, healthful and productive lives. UCS economic analysis demonstrates that this would require $90 million tax dollars annually—compared with the current $5 billion annual subsidies of commodity crops—and would result in net gain of 189,000 new jobs in local food systems and $9.5 billion in economic activity due to sales of healthy food. In fact, our economic analysis further demonstrates that if Americans did nothing more radical than eat the daily portions of fruits and vegetables recommended by the USDA, 127,000 lives and $17 billion dollars could be saved.
At present, people who wish to eat better are stymied. The freshest, most healthful, least processed food is more expensive than the ubiquitous, highly processed and heavily advertised food, which is not a market result. The myriad policies governing disparate parts of our agricultural and food systems require coordination and integration for the greatest effectiveness and fiscal responsibility possible. For this reason, we have called for a National Policy for Food, Health and Wellbeing.
Our government expends billions of dollars to prop up our agricultural and food system. Shouldn’t we do this in a way that preserves the environment, produces healthful food, and provides the broadest economic opportunity for farmers and workers? Join Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Olivier De Schutter and me in calling upon President Obama to issue an executive order to establish a National Policy for Food, Health and Wellbeing by taking action here.]]>
Nice dream, right? The good news is that this is not a romantic vision of a future beyond reach. It is here—now—beginning to take off on farms across Iowa. Even better news is that this is the result of applying science to the apparent conundrum of practicing agriculture with the benefits of natural ecological processes.
And here is the key idea: it is not about agriculture vs. nature, it is about agriculture in balance with nature, practiced in a way that is best for all people involved. That simple idea is the future of agriculture, and it is the science of agroecology, implemented brilliantly by a creative interdisciplinary team of scientists at Iowa State University, who have pooled their multiple expertise to apply this science in partnership with farmers.
And this is what they’ve come up with: whereas monocrop agriculture in the Midwest is usually associated with high productivity at the cost of erosion, nutrient runoff, water quality and biodiversity, the native prairies that agricultural system replaced throughout Iowa did exactly the reverse on all those counts. Prairies built up some of the planet’s deepest and most fertile soils, filtered water and sustained plant and animal biodiversity. Why not combine the two systems to obtain the benefits of both?
The scientific questions are plenty, but some at the top of the list are: Will it work? And if so, how much land would it take out of agricultural production to embed functional prairies? These are just the kind of tangible questions that science has the capacity to address.
The answers these researchers have obtained are just as concrete as the questions, and astounding. First, it works—and how. The technology, named “STRIPS” (Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips) reduces the major pollutants of Midwestern row crop agriculture: sediment loss by 95%, phosphorus loss by 90%, and nitrogen loss by 84%. And, it increases biodiversity (including critically important pollinators) by four times.
At what opportunity cost? It turns out that these gaudy results can be attained by strategic placement of prairie vegetation on no more than 10% of row crop land. The researchers have developed language to describe the high payoff rate from this agroecological technique, calling it “disproportionate benefits.” For a small investment in native vegetation, huge ecological benefits are reaped to enable the practice of productive, multifunctional, environmentally sound and profitable agriculture.
And farmers love it. And so do (take a deep breath and read): the Iowa Soybean Association, the Iowa Corn Growers, the Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Nature Conservancy, the National Fish and Wildlife Conservation Agency, the Iowa Tallgrass Prairie Center and the state’s Conservation Districts. Groups like the Iowa Environmental Council and Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources are lined up on this one with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and the federal Farm Services Agency.
To see what all the excitement is about, have a look at this video, produced by one of the project’s many sponsors, Iowa’s venerable Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. In it you’ll see the STRIPS lead researchers, Drs. Lisa Schulte, Matt Helmers, and Matt Liebman, together with farmers and others from these various organizations expressing their thoughts about the STRIPS project.
An agricultural system that is bountiful in many dimensions, based on the modern science of agroecology, is exactly what the publicly supported Land Grant agricultural universities should be developing, teaching and promoting. Researchers developing brilliant scientific innovations for farmers, rewarding management know-how instead of a single-minded focus on expensive inputs, should be receiving the strongest support and funding from their administrators and government funding agencies. For this reason, we have issued a call, signed by nearly 300 of the nation’s leading agricultural, ecological and social scientists, for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to invest more of its research budget for practical knowledge that will pay off in more sustainable agriculture dreams becoming reality. If they do that with our public dollars, we will all truly benefit.]]>
Following approval last month from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) for the matching resistant transgenic crops, the door is open for the package of seeds and herbicide to be marketed for the upcoming production season as the Enlist Weed Control System. Herbicide and seed are designed to work with one another. They are both manufactured by the same company, Dow AgroSciences. Predictably, the company’s president is jubilant: “Our company is uniquely positioned to answer the need for new, innovative weed control technology.”
Reads like a standard business story: new product for a big market. But the actual news is that this technological approach to weed control only makes the problem it intends to address worse, and the herbicide and seed industry appear not to get it. They can only think of more of the same in response. Imagine trying to return a vacuum cleaner that blows rather than sucks dust, only to be offered a newer model of vacuum that blows rather than sucks dust. The obtuseness and myopia illustrate the piquant insight of Upton Sinclair’s observation that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
But it isn’t merely funny or ironic. There is a major crisis in farm country of runaway, uncontrollable and economically-damaging weeds that would not exist if herbicide-resistant approaches had not been introduced. The threat to farming is such that the National Academy of Sciences and the Weed Science Society have called special summits to explore alternatives, and the USDA (yes, the same agency that approves the use of these crops) has funded a project to investigate how to persuade farmers and the industry that there is a broader and more effective spectrum of weed control strategies than herbicide resistance.
But here is the real question: how long will we continue to abide a regulatory system that is intended to protect the public interest, yet perpetually bends to the interests of industry at the expense of that public interest, and in the face of established science?
In this case, the public interest is a healthful food supply that protects natural resources and does not foul the environment (and do not overlook that the public is not asking corn/soy farmers for favors in this respect. The public directly guarantees the income of corn/soy farmers and covers their risk through an intricate gold-plated system of federal subsidies.) And this is the science on weed control with herbicides: weeds are living and adaptable organisms. Exposing them consistently to intensive applications of the same herbicide is exactly how you would generate resistance if that is what you intended to do.
Therefore, every college agricultural curriculum teaches how to avoid consistent over-utilization of herbicides, on the rationale that this both extends the lifetime of valuable herbicides, and assures their effectiveness when they are needed as a tool of last resort. The protocol, known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM), is a standard and conventional part of agricultural production curricula. As someone who taught this to beginning agronomy students for 26 years at Iowa State University (a paragon of four-square agricultural orthodoxy), I can attest to this from personal experience.
The strategy consists of acknowledgment that a farm field is a living, dynamic biological system. Insects, weeds and disease-causing agents will always be present, and their presence alone does not require control measures, because there are natural countervailing forces that usually keep any of those potential pests in check. The key to successful IPM is to monitor the levels of potential problems, and act only when economically important thresholds are surpassed. The response should be diverse, combining cultural and biological methods such as crop rotation, cover crops, and the protection and use of beneficial insects.
It is only when this succession of steps fails and (for example) a weed infestation runs away, that an herbicide should be applied. Doing this guarantees that levels of the herbicide in the environment are low and that the herbicide is effective when it is needed. Farmers who practice IPM know their fields and their crops, spend less on purchased inputs, have higher quality soil and water, and a greater share of their returns are to their management, less to capital investment. In other words, they don’t buy as many inputs.
To hear Dow’s business case for schemes of designer-made herbicides and resistant crops, they enable “the company to bring to the market this necessary, innovative technology that is expected to deliver significant growth for Dow while at the same time addressing a critical global challenge.” As we’ve seen, the “need” to which Dow refers is about selling more inputs, not actually for controlling weeds. The “global challenge” that Dow insinuates is not actually evolved herbicide resistance, which you don’t address with more of the same. The accurate diagnosis of this problem is that it results from the improper use of herbicides in a way that perpetuates, accelerates and aggravates the problem that the technology ostensibly addresses. And (let us not overlook)… assures a permanent market.
Of course it is in the interest of every corporation to sell as much of their product as possible and to expand markets. But the public and our government should not abet that effort. Common sense, scientific analysis and responsible public policies should protect farmers and the public from patently cynical business schemes.
What specifically are the scientific alternatives? A weed is a plant that has opportunities to grow in a friendly space that exists within a cropping system. Ecologists refer to that space as a “niche.” Applying ecology to agriculture is the science of agroecology. The highest form of this knowledge applied to weed control reveals that the most effective strategy is to prevent the weed from expressing in the first place. In other words, you farm in such a way that you favor crop growth and do not provide niches for weeds to express. This saves costs, enhances productivity and increases profits to farmers, but not to industry. That is the ultimate dynamic at play in this scenario.
At the Union of Concerned Scientists, we advocate for scientifically sound, agroecologically managed farms and agricultural landscapes for all the benefits outlined here. However, the question must be asked: “if industry has no incentive to develop agroecological knowledge and methods, then how will that knowledge be generated, imparted to farmers and implemented on farms?”
This nation has invested in a system that is the answer to that question. The nation’s network of public state colleges of agriculture, the “Land Grant System,” exists to perform research, teaching and continuing education in the public interest. Yet, due to chasing dollars, the research agenda for this national jewel has been increasingly influenced by private sector interests at the expense of those in the public interest. For this reason, we have joined with nearly 300 prominent agricultural scientists in demanding that the USDA provide more and adequate research funding to develop the agroecological knowledge and practices that will be the foundation for the future of agriculture.
Public investment in scientific research and outreach is what made this nation’s agricultural system great to begin with, and it is appropriate to apply that strategy to our current and future needs. But the agencies responsible for scrutinizing and approving transgenic technologies also need to be more responsible to the science and to the public. This is not an argument against biotechnology, but for competent understanding and assessment of both the agriculture we want and the technologies enabling it.
The storyline here is very clear: In the 1990s, when then Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro made the case for staking the future of the company on biotech, his argument was that the company needed to move from “dirty chemical” products (which were costing the company due to defending against litigation) and into the new era of “green products.” The idea was that in the agriculture of the future, seeds would be the biological vehicles for improved traits, such as pest resistance, drought resistance, nitrogen fixation and better product composition. No external chemicals needed. The cash cow that would cover the research and development necessary for the transition from dirty to green would be the company’s successful RoundUp herbicide. Instead, the model that actually emerged was for transforming seeds so that they created a larger and perpetual market for that very herbicide.
To track what is actually going on in this elaborate shell game, enter science once again: “Widespread use of herbicide-tolerant crops—with their associated potent herbicides—will exert significant pressure on additional populations of weeds to develop resistance to the herbicides.” So forecast the Biotechnology Working Group in 1990, years before introduction of the first biotech crops, and a full two decades before today’s crisis of herbicide resistant crops. In fact, the point was so scientifically obvious that Dr. Robert Fraley, the molecular biologist in charge of developing the technology for Monsanto, said to Fortune magazine in 1997 that “his worst nightmare is that pests thwarted by Monsanto’s scientists will eventually adapt and create an untamed new menace.”
Well, Dr. Fraley’s worst nightmare has come true, but sadly is not a nightmare for him alone, but for all of us. Application of the existing science could have prevented it. Yet the industry pretends, dragging all of production agriculture with it, that all is fine, and that none of us see or understand the big picture.
Scandalously, public agencies are happy to collude. EPA intentionally set the lowest threshold possible to find the new herbicide non-toxic. One of the components of Enlist Duo is 2,4-D, an old herbicide targeting broadleaves that is responsible, as it is, for more crop damage due to drift than any other herbicide. USDA itself estimates that by 2020 the new technology will result in an increase of annual 2,4-D use from 26 million pounds (in 2002) to 176 million pounds. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect greater crop damage due to spray drift. That the regulatory agencies were blithely proceeding with approval of these products in the face of these facts prompted 50 members of Congress this summer to appeal for more rigorous and objective risk assessment of all tradeoffs involved, a plea that went unanswered.
The agencies understand the fragile nature of their decisions, illustrated by the USDA news release this week coupled with that of EPA. In it, the Agriculture Secretary announces “several of the steps [USDA] is taking to help farmers manage their herbicide resistant weed problems in a more holistic and sustainable way.” The fact that none of those steps describes new initiatives, and that the list is merely a collection of existing programs with a mission to address pest management generally, makes transparently clear the window dressing.
So if the EPA and USDA are not prioritizing the public interest, nor acting upon the comprehensive science on weed control, just whose interests are they serving?]]>
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:
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:
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.
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.]]>
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.
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.
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.
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.]]>