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A New Agenda for Agriculture Research

The development of a sustainable system of agriculture to support the nation's food, feed, fiber, and energy needs requires the federal government to adopt a new agenda for research. Such an agenda would be characterized by a more basic research in ecology of agricultural systems, more interdisciplinary research, and greater farmer involvement in designing and carrying out research projects. In addition, appropriate new technologies must be developed to support a sustainable agriculture.

A national commitment to sustainable agriculture research is particularly important as the country rushes headlong into new uses of agricultural products for energy. Research into sustainable systems is needed to make wise decisions about using biomass for energy in coming years. Use of crops and other biomass for energy offers opportunities to enhance the sustainability of agriculture, but if not done well could have serious negative consequences for the environment, human health, and the economy.

A New Research Agenda

A sustainable agriculture will not be achieved without a strong scientific base, but the base will be different from the one on which conventional agriculture rests. It requires basic and applied research that is rooted deeply in ecology rather than molecular biology. Basic research on soil ecology, the role of pollinators, and plant ecology would become the foundation of agricultural research. Applied research growing out of that base would determine which crop rotations, which soil amendments, and which biological control agents will work in a particular cropping system or part of the country.

Interdisciplinary Research

Under a new national research agenda, interdisciplinary research would be given high priority, a reversal of the current situation. The government would take seriously its role as the sponsor of long-term interdisciplinary research, both basic and applied. The objective of this research will be the creation of agricultural systems that are simultaneously productive, economically viable, and environmentally sound. Different teams will be needed to answer different questions. In the western United States, the questions may concern grazing systems and teams composed of weed ecologists, range managers, and animal scientists. In the East, the questions may concern agricultural runoff into the Chesapeake Bay and teams made up of estuarine ecologists, agronomists, and poultry scientists. The key is in the questions: not just how can one grow chickens on the Delmarva peninsula or how can one fish in the Chesapeake, but how can new systems be designed that allow both. Researchers evaluating crops for energy purposes would evaluate the net impact of different bioenergy sources on atmospheric carbon levels; air, water, and soil quality; biodiversity; water usage; and more.

New Crops

Another high priority for the new agenda will be the breeding of new kinds of crops and crop varieties. A sufficient number of economically viable crops to employ in crop rotations is essential for a sustainable system of agriculture. Many farmers, asked why they do not rotate to crops other than corn or soybean, answer, "Rotate to what?" Other than corn and soybeans, there are not many crops to which a midwestern farmer might turn. For the last fifty years, the United States has not made increased crop variety a research goal. Instead, the US agricultural establishment has devoted considerable resources to developing new uses and markets for the few crops already being grown. As a result, corn now has many uses: as an oil, a feed, a sweetener, and a fuel additive. While this research policy was good for corn farmers in the short run, it left agriculture as a whole far too dependent on a few crops.

For sustainable agriculture to work, farmers need a much larger set of crop and livestock options. New crops could be introduced not only for food uses, like new grains and edible oils, but also for nonfood uses, like paper and energy crops. New uses of crops should be aimed at new kinds of integrated farm systems. For example, farms that reintegrate swine and crop operations might need new nutritious forages that could be planted for pigs to graze on. Grazable swine forage could add to crop variety and at the same time provide medium-sized farmers with an economic advantage over large, concentrated operations that depend on processed feed. We also need new breeds of animals, for example cows adapted to life on pasture rather than in a feedlot.

A More Balanced Approach to Biotechnology and Sustainable Agriculture

In adopting this new agenda, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will have to curb its current fascination with agricultural biotechnology and genetic engineering. The resources now devoted to this research are disproportionate to the contribution this technology will make to sustainable agriculture. Biotechnology products can bolster and entrench the existing industrial mode of agriculture and delay the transition to a sustainable future. Products like herbicide-tolerant plants, for example, shackle agriculture to chemicals. This does not mean that genetic engineering should be abandoned, but that it should be encouraged only to the extent that it will support a transition to a more environmentally sound approach.

Influencing the Policymakers

The national research agenda can be influenced in a number of ways. The USDA broadly sets its research agenda through the research title to the omnibus farm bills, which come up every five to seven years. In between farm bills, the USDA periodically invites the public to participate in the establishment of its broad institutional goals. The agency also now provides a relatively open process for the setting of the research agenda in which all citizens are considered potential "customers" with a stake in the future of agriculture. The USDA can be influenced informally by individuals or groups insisting that it seriously add protection of the environment and concern for rural economies to the historical objective of increasing productivity. Finally, the USDA, the U.S. Department of Energy, and other relevant government entities can be influenced through Congress and the administration through the budget and appropriations processes.

New Technologies for Sustainable Agriculture

In addition to basic scientific research, sustainable agriculture needs new technologies that support its focus on preventing problems. These technologies must enhance farmers' abilities to work with a variety of crops and livestock operations. And such technologies must be affordable to benefit small and medium-scale operations. Three examples of needed technologies are ridge tillers, soil enrichment, and information management systems.

Ridge tillers

Among the new kinds of farm equipment needed are machines that allow kinds of cultivation that can solve agricultural problems. An example of such a piece of machinery that already exists is the ridge tiller, a piece of machinery that would enable farmers to control weeds by creating long ridges in fields on top of which to plant row crops like corn. The cultivator is a parallel set of sharp-edged knives pulled by a tractor that can build up ridges in fields early in the season and then cut them down later on. The cycle of building up and cutting down ridges has been shown to prevent erosion and discourage weeds, reducing the need for chemical herbicides.

Soil enrichment

Many kinds of technologies are needed to help preserve soil and enrich soil quality. One is cover crops for planting between cropping seasons, say over the winter. More leguminous cover crops are needed, since they add nitrogen -- an important plant nutrient -- and protect bare soil from wind or water erosion. Another technology that needs development is safe soil amendments of composted animal and plant material. Finally, farmers need soil monitoring devices to help in evaluating the soil quality in different fields and parts of fields and choosing appropriate responses.

Information management systems

Sustainable farmers also need information technology and management systems. Although all farmers need to acquire and manage information, this is especially true of sustainable farmers. A farmer growing livestock and several crops can face many more decisions than a farmer growing only wheat year after year. Farmers growing several crops need to master several sets of pest problems, plant nutrient requirements, and cultural conditions. Overseeing several crops usually demands attention over a greater part of the year than a single crop. Adding animals to a farm requires new skills in husbandry and disease control. And the acquisition of knowledge and management can pay off handsomely in lower input costs and improved future prospects for a farm. Improved information management systems of many kinds are key to the future of sustainable agriculture. Some have even defined sustainable agriculture as a system that substitutes management skills for purchased inputs like pesticides.

Innovative Programs

Several recent innovative programs suggest that some government sectors are recognizing the need for a new agenda.

The USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) offers an instructive example of how federal investment in sustainable agriculture research can encourage farmers to adopt techniques that improve the environment. SARE is an innovative federal competitive grants program with a distinctive regional administrative structure. The program's mission is to foster—and help farmers and ranchers adopt—sustainable practices.

In the 12 years it has been in operation, the SARE program has pioneered a new way of doing agricultural research. Decisions about who get grants are not made in Washington, but by administrative councils and technical advisory committees in the four SARE regions: northeast, north central, southern, and western. The emphasis is on profitable, practical solutions to problems that make sense in the local economy. SARE emphasizes multidisciplinary research and has forged exciting partnerships between farmers and ranchers, scientists, community groups, and environmentalists. The results speak for themselves. SARE projects have developed new and profitable ways of producing everything from corn to cranberries and beef to poultry.

Unfortunately, the program is woefully underfunded at about 14 million dollars annually, including the training funds as well as a contribution from the Environmental Protection Agency. By contrast, the overall research and extension budget of the US Department of Agriculture is on the order of one and a half billion dollars. SARE needs a boost in funding, but more importantly, the rest of agriculture research programs need to learn from SARE and shift their priorities in the directions this program has pioneered.

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