November 16, 2015
On Friday, November 10, the Journal of Environmental Science & Policy published an article, Investing in the transition to sustainable agriculture, which provides an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and partners to identify how much U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2014 competitive grant funding for research and education incorporated agroecology.
According to the study, acroecology includes agricultural research that applies ecological principles and relies, to the greatest extent possible, on ecological processes to address current and future farming challenges.
The UCS study was driven by an urgent need to enhance the sustainability of agriculture to address critical issues including climate, lack of diversity, soil health, aquatic dead zones, herbicide resistant “super-weeds,” and intensive pesticide use. While research has found that agroecological systems can provide long-term environmental benefits and simultaneously maintain productivity, supporting these systems requires investment in research and technical assistance, and, the report concludes, current federal funding levels are not meeting this need.
As a recent UCS fact sheet on the study points out, agroecology has enormous potential that unfortunately remains unmet as a result of inadequate federal investment:
“Agroecology promises solutions, but this science of managing lands to boost the health of farms, ranches, and surrounding environments is underfunded and understudied.”
The in-depth analysis examined National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) funded projects that were initiated in 2014 in order to assess the share supporting agroecological education. Specifically the analysis included projects across NIFA programs related to certain key topic areas, as well as all projects funded through one of four specific NIFA programs: the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), the Organic Transitions (ORG), the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI), and the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI).
The system below describes the classification system used for the analysis.
Levels of Sustainable Farm Practices
In order to dive deeper into USDA grant funding, the study relies upon a framework for classifying agriculture practices based on their potential to make the system more sustainable. In this framework, practices are grouped in five “levels,” which range from incremental to transformative:
Acroecology Funding is Inadequate
Of the total $294 million in grant funding analyzed in the study, at most 15 percent ($44 million) was spent on projects that considered the agroecological practices in Level 3. While NIFA allocated the largest portion of agroecological funding to projects focused on mitigating climate change (6 percent of total funding analyzed), less funding went to projects that included agroecological practices such as crop rotation, diversification, and biodiversity.
About 35 percent of the analyzed funds ($105 million) went to projects that aim to increase efficiency (Level 1), which was primarily accomplished by decreasing pesticide use or increasing yields. Additionally, 23 percent of the analyzed funds ($69 million) supported efforts to replace practices with better alternatives (Level 2) by introducing ecological pest management, planting cover crops, reducing tillage, or adopting alternative fertilizers.
While these projects support practices that can promote incremental sustainability, the study maintains they fall far short of a transformative, agroecological approach. An exceptionally small amount of funding, only $12 million, went to projects that pair socioeconomic supports to agroecological field practices (Level 5) in a way that could realistically encourage a transition to a sustainable food system.
How to Capitalize on Agroecology’s Potential?
The report’s take away message: given the need for profitable, ecologically sustainable farms and ranches, funding for sustainable agriculture and agroecology continues to be entirely inadequate. Recognizing that the private sector largely lacks a profit incentive to invest in agroecology, USDA leadership and support are all the more important to ensuring sufficient funding is available for this critical research.
The study points out that the long-term success of agroecological systems not only depends on science and practice, but also on developing the community, business, and policy supports that can ensure economic sustainability. For this reason, the Level 5 projects that link on-farm practices (Level 3) to socioeconomic supports (Level 4) provide an important foundation for a larger scale transition to sustainability agriculture. Unfortunately, as the data illustrate, funding for these projects is extremely rare.
UCS recommends key actions that USDA, land-grant colleges and universities, and extension can take to prioritize and expand holistic agroecological research and education programming. Additionally, they propose that Congress should significantly increase funding to USDA and partner agencies for agroecological research through the annual budget and appropriations process.