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Science holds the key to a more sustainable farm future

Science holds the key to a more sustainable farm future
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Recent news about Sam Clovis withdrawing his nomination for the United States Department of Agriculture’s top scientist post was probably the first time that the issue of agricultural research made headlines — and was a trending topic on Twitter. 

But a wide range of other agricultural issues have continually made the news this year, including continually depressed corn and soybean prices, rapidly expanding weed problems and the associated spread of toxic chemicals, threats to safe drinking water, and the ever-growing dead zones from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.

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These problems may seem unrelated, but to agroecologists — scientists who work at the intersection of agriculture and ecology — they are all fundamentally connected. Farms are complex systems of soils, pests, air, water, trees, grasses, insects and animals interacting with one another. Understanding how to keep enough nutrients in soils and plants, while reducing pollutants in water and the atmosphere, are key to maintaining productivity of farmers and ranchers while preventing damage to the environment and human health in rural communities.

 

Growing research shows that taking this bird’s eye perspective on the food system is critical if we want to tackle the interrelated challenges of pollution, floods and droughts, climate change, and deteriorating soil health.

For example, scientists have found that strategically incorporating perennial plants into small areas of commodity crops can slash water pollution and soil loss. Keeping the land covered year-round can also boost soil’s sponge-like ability to absorb water and prevent storm runoff, reducing the damage caused by both droughts and floods to farms and nearby communities.

But in order for scientists to find new solutions and work with farmers to implement them, stronger research, education, and extension programs that integrate and consider the social and economic aspects of food systems more holistically are needed, according to a newly-released survey of scientists working in the field.

The survey, taken by 176 scientists, also found that researchers need a wider range of funding options. Many of the currently available grants are tailored to three- to five-year studies, which means that researchers are less likely to obtain funding for smaller pilot projects or long-term experiments that investigate practices that require more time to demonstrate impacts. Yet, smaller and larger projects may give researchers more room to test and explore innovative practices.

Many scientists also reported they need more training and support so they can effectively communicate their research findings to broader audiences, including farmers, the public and policy makers. While the outreach and education responsibilities differ among various scientific career tracks, equipping these professionals with more skills and tools to share their knowledge can ensure that research results are translated onto farm fields and enhance the impact of publicly-funded research. 

A large majority of survey respondents also expressed that entrenched financial interests are an obstacle to sustainable agriculture research, reinforcing the need for public funding that facilitates independent research. 

This finding gets at agricultural scientists’ perpetual worry about the influence of increasing private funding on research directions. This concern is in part because there is typically little incentive for the private sector to invest in research into practices that produce public benefits such as cleaner air and water, outcomes which do not necessarily lead to profits, or that may even reduce farmers’ need for companies’ products, such as fertilizer and pesticides.

As conversations around the upcoming 2018 farm bill pick up pace, the future of key research grants at the USDA that support a regenerative agricultural system and a healthy, equitable food system —such as SARE, OREI, ORG, and AFRI — is uncertain.  

Money spent on agricultural science is money well spent. We know that research and development in agriculture pay off and can improve the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers, while reducing erosion and water pollution, adding resilience and food security, supporting human health, boosting biodiversity and more. As depressed crop prices persist across rural America, we owe it to our farmers and ranchers to work towards new solutions. 

Marcia DeLonge is a senior scientist in the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists where she conducts scientific research and analyses identifying practices that lead to healthy, sustainable food system that serves all farmers, rural communities and consumers.