November 5, 2015

Study Finds USDA Woefully Underfunding Research Needed to Spur Better Farming Practices

Scientist to Present Findings Monday at Tri-society Annual Meeting

Washington (November 13, 2015)—Less than 15 percent of the major external research and education grants the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) awarded last year even touched on the science of agroecology—the science of managing agricultural lands to boost the health of the farmland and surrounding environment—according to a study published today in the journal Environmental Science and Policy. The study was conducted by Marcia DeLonge, a scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment Program; Liz Carlisle, a fellow at the Center for Diversified Farming Systems at the University of California, Berkeley; and Albie Miles, an assistant professor in the Sustainable Community Food Systems Program at the University of Hawai’i, West O’ahu. 

“The predominant form of agriculture in the United States is an industrial model that frequently pollutes the air and waterways and degrades soil,” said DeLonge. “By contrast, agroecological farming systems work with nature to protect and conserve resources while maintaining farmers’ productivity and profits over the long term. The federal government should invest more taxpayer dollars in these systems.” 

DeLonge will present results from the study next Monday, November 16, at the annual meeting of the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America and Soil Science Society of America. The conference is increasingly entertaining discussions about organic and sustainable farming practices. 

The study showed that the grants awarded to universities and other institutions that involved agroecology represented less than 2 percent of USDA’s total research and education budget in 2014.

“Agroecological research can give farmers better tools to manage pests and weeds, prevent soil erosion, and cope with extreme weather of a changing climate,” Carlisle said. “Additional investment would help scientists test which techniques work best with various climates and soil types and share that information with farmers.” 

The USDA needs more resources overall, according to DeLonge, but could also direct more of its current funding into this type of research. 

“Agroecological practices tend to reduce the need for commercial fertilizers and pesticides, so it isn’t too surprising that industry hasn’t invested in this type of research,” said DeLonge. “That’s why it’s so important for it to receive public funding.” 

Farmers practicing agroecology design their farms to use biodiversity and soil management as tools to increase productivity and resilience. As part of their practices, these farmers often replace chemical fertilizers with compost, mulch, manure or plants that naturally improve soil fertility. They also employ non-chemical pest control methods, including the careful use of natural enemies or protecting fields with cover crops during the off-season. Many farmers have replaced regular tillage with no-till management or conservation tillage to maintain soil health and reduce erosion. 

“Every year, fertilizer runs off farmlands resulting in the pollution of waterways, while the overuse of pesticides increases the spread of resistant insects, pathogens and weeds,” said Miles. “We can’t keep doing things the same way and expect a different outcome. Instead, we need to find better ways to farm while protecting environmental quality, and the science of agroecology is key to this goal. Scaling up agroecology research will help develop new strategies for conservation agriculture and enable farmers everywhere to employ them.”

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.