June 30, 2015

Agroecology Practices Critical to Sustainable Agriculture, but Lack Funding

Statement by Marcia DeLonge, Union of Concerned Scientists

WASHINGTON (June 30, 2015)—More than 300 leading scientists have issued a statement calling on Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to prioritize agroecology—the science of managing agricultural lands and minimizing their impact on the environment—when funding agricultural research. According to their statement, agroecology can increase land productivity while reducing the harm that conventional farming practices have had on public health, wildlife and air and water quality.

“As climate change and industrial agriculture create new problems, agroecologists are developing innovative, cost-effective solutions,” said Marcia DeLonge, agroecologist with the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which initiated the statement. “Congress and USDA need to recognize the opportunities in agroecology and ramp up research funding so that these solutions can be realized.”

As a case in point, DeLonge pointed to a toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie that contaminated the water supply of Toledo, Ohio, and parts of southern Michigan last summer. The bloom formed because excess nutrients from fertilizers in agricultural runoff—a problem endemic to dominant conventional agriculture practices—spurred rapid and excessive growth of naturally occurring bacteria in the water. USDA quickly responded to the situation by pledging $2 million to help farmers in the region plant cover crops, an agroecological tactic used to minimize runoff.

Cover crops not only prevent erosion and water pollution, they also protect soil and increase its ability to hold water, helping crops withstand drought. Additionally, cover crops can reduce weed and pest problems in fields. Investments in cover crops and other agroecological practices could help Toledo and communities across the country avoid water contamination and other problems related to conventional agriculture in the future, while providing great benefits to farmers.

“The elegance of these types of practices is that agriculture and the environment work together,” said DeLonge.

Private investments in agricultural research are most likely to flow to products and practices that generate profits: seeds, chemicals and services that fit within established business models. This leaves public funding as the main source for agroecology research, which can provide solutions to the environmental issues created by conventional agriculture at modest cost. 

However, taxpayer-funded channels for this work today are drying up, even as the nation experiences agricultural crises including record-breaking temperatures and extreme droughts. Research institutions are not receiving the resources needed to keep up with the demand for ecologically sound agricultural practices.

“Farmers and ranchers deserve to hear more about profitable and sustainable farming practices that increase yields and resilience while protecting their communities and future generations,” said DeLonge. “The best way to bolster America’s farmers and farmlands is to invest in agroecology research.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with people across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.