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SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE RESEARCH AND EDUCATION IN THE FIELD: A PROCEEDINGS Introduction Charles M. Benbrook These proceedings are based on a workshop that brought together scientists, farmer-innovators, policymakers, and interested members of the public for a progress report on sustainable agriculture research and education efforts across the United States. The workshop, which was held on April 3 and 4, 1990, in Washington, D.C., was sponsored by the Office of Science and Education of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Board on Agriculture of the National Research Council. The encouraging new science discussed there should convince nearly everyone of two facts. First, the natural resource, economic, and food safety problems facing U.S. agriculture are diverse, dynamic, and often complex. Second, a common set of biological and ecological principles—when systematically embodied in cropping and livestock management systems—can bring improved economic and environmental performance within the reach of innovative farmers. Some people contend that this result is not a realistic expectation for U.S. agriculture. The evidence presented here does not support such a pessimistic assessment. The report of the Board on Agriculture entitled Alternative Agriculture (National Research Council, 1989a) challenged everyone to rethink key components of conventional wisdom and contemporary scientific dogma. That report has provided encouragement and direction to those individuals and organizations striving toward more sustainable production systems, and it has provoked skeptics to articulate why they feel U.S. agriculture cannot—some even say should not—seriously contemplate the need for such change. The debate has been spirited and generally constructive. Scholars, activists, professional critics, and analysts have participated in
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SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE RESEARCH AND EDUCATION IN THE FIELD: A PROCEEDINGS this debate by writing papers and books, conducting research, and offering opinions about alternative and sustainable agriculture for over 10 years. Over the past decade, many terms and concepts have come and gone. Most people—and unfortunately, many farmers—have not gone very far beyond the confusion, frustration, and occasional demagoguery that swirls around the different definitions of alternative, low-input, organic, and sustainable agriculture. Fortunately, though, beginning in late 1989, a broad cross-section of people has grown comfortable with the term sustainable agriculture. The May 21, 1990, issue of Time magazine, in an article on sustainable agriculture entitled “It's Ugly, But It Works” includes the following passage: [A] growing corps of experts [are] urging farmers to adopt a new approach called sustainable agriculture. Once the term was synonymous with the dreaded O word—a farm-belt euphemism for trendy organic farming that uses no synthetic chemicals. But sustainable agriculture has blossomed into an effort to curb erosion by modifying plowing techniques and to protect water supplies by minimizing, if not eliminating, artificial fertilizers and pest controls. Concern and ridicule in farm publications and during agribusiness meetings over the philosophical roots of low-input, sustainable, or organic farming have given way to more thoughtful appraisals of the ecological and biological foundations of practical, profitable, and sustainable farming systems. While consensus clearly does not yet exist on how to “fix” agriculture's contemporary problems, a constructive dialogue is now under way among a broad cross-section of individuals, both practitioners and technicians involved in a wide variety of specialties. This new dialogue is powerful because of the people and ideas it is connecting. Change will come slowly, however. Critical comments in some farm magazines will persist, and research and on-farm experimentation will not always lead to the hoped for insights or breakthroughs. Some systems that now appear to be sustainable will encounter unexpected production problems. Nonetheless, progress will be made. The Board on Agriculture believes that over the next several decades significant progress can and will be made toward more profitable, resource-conserving, and environmentally prudent farming systems. Rural areas of the United States could become safer, more diverse, and aesthetically pleasing places to live. Farming could, as a result, become a more rewarding profession, both economically and through stewardship of the nation's soil and water resources. Change will be made possible; and it will be driven by new scientific knowledge, novel on-farm management tools and approaches, and economic necessity. The policy reforms adopted in the 1990 farm bill, and ongoing efforts to incorporate environmental objectives
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SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE RESEARCH AND EDUCATION IN THE FIELD: A PROCEEDINGS into farm policy, may also in time make a significant difference in reshaping the economic environment in which on-farm management decisions are made. This volume presents an array of new knowledge and insight about the functioning of agricultural systems that will provide the managerial and technological foundations for improved farming practices and systems. Examples of the research projects under way around the country are described. Through exploration of the practical experiences, recent findings, and insights of these researchers, the papers and discussions presented in this volume should demonstrate the value of field- and farm-level systems-based research that is designed and conducted with ongoing input from farmer-innovators. Some discussion of the basic concepts that guide sustainable agriculture research and education activities may be useful. Definitions of key terms, such as sustainable agriculture, alternative agriculture, and low-input sustainable agriculture, are drawn from Alternative Agriculture and a recent paper (Benbrook and Cook, 1990). BASIC CONCEPTS AND OPERATIONAL DEFINITIONS Basic Concepts Sustainable agriculture, which is a goal rather than a distinct set of practices, is a system of food and fiber production that improves the underlying productivity of natural resources and cropping systems so that farmers can meet increasing levels of demand in concert with population and economic growth; produces food that is safe, wholesome, and nutritious and that promotes human well-being; ensures an adequate net farm income to support an acceptable standard of living for farmers while also underwriting the annual investments needed to improve progressively the productivity of soil, water, and other resources; and complies with community norms and meets social expectations. Other similar definitions could be cited, but there is now a general consensus regarding the essential elements of sustainable agriculture. Various definitions place differing degrees of emphasis on certain aspects, but a common set of core features is now found in nearly all definitions. While sustainable agriculture is an inherently dynamic concept, alternative agriculture is the process of on-farm innovation that strives toward the goal of sustainable agriculture. Alternative agriculture encompasses efforts by farmers to develop more efficient production systems, as well as
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SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE RESEARCH AND EDUCATION IN THE FIELD: A PROCEEDINGS efforts by researchers to explore the biological and ecological foundations of agricultural productivity. The challenges inherent in striving toward sustainability are clearly dynamic. The production of adequate food on a sustainable basis will become more difficult if demographers are correct in their estimates that the global population will not stabilize before it reaches 11 billion or 12 billion in the middle of the twenty-first century. The sustainability challenge and what must be done to meet it range in nature from a single farm field, to the scale of an individual farm as an enterprise, to the food and fiber needs of a region or country, and finally to the world as a whole. A comprehensive definition of sustainability must include physical, biological, and socioeconomic components. The continued viability of a farming system can be threatened by problems that arise within any one of these components. Farmers are often confronted with choices and sacrifices because of seemingly unavoidable trade-offs—an investment in a conservation system may improve soil and water quality but may sacrifice near-term economic performance. Diversification may increase the efficiency of resource use and bring within reach certain biological benefits, yet it may require additional machinery and a more stable and versatile labor supply. Indeed, agricultural researchers and those who design and administer farm policy must seek ways to alleviate seemingly unwelcome trade-offs by developing new knowledge and technology and, when warranted, new policies. Operational Definitions Sustainable agriculture is the production of food and fiber using a system that increases the inherent productive capacity of natural and biological resources in step with demand. At the same time, it must allow farmers to earn adequate profits, provide consumers with wholesome, safe food, and minimize adverse impacts on the environment. As defined in our report, alternative agriculture is any system of food or fiber production that systematically pursues the following goals (National Research Council, 1989a): more thorough incorporation of natural processes such as nutrient cycling, nitrogen fixation, and beneficial pest-predator relationships into the agricultural production process; reduction in the use of off-farm inputs with the greatest potential to harm the environment or the health of farmers and consumers; productive use of the biological and genetic potential of plant and animal species; improvement in the match between cropping patterns and the productive potential and physical limitations of agricultural lands; and
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SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE RESEARCH AND EDUCATION IN THE FIELD: A PROCEEDINGS profitable and efficient production with emphasis on improved farm management, prevention of animal disease, optimal integration of livestock and cropping enterprises, and conservation of soil, water, energy, and biological resources. Conventional agriculture is the predominant farming practices, methods, and systems used in a region. Conventional agriculture varies over time and according to soil, climatic, and other environmental factors. Moreover, many conventional practices and methods are fully sustainable when pursued or applied properly and will continue to play integral roles in future farming systems. Low-input sustainable agriculture (LISA) systems strive to achieve sustainability by incorporating biologically based practices that indirectly result in lessened reliance on purchased agrichemical inputs. The goal of LISA systems is improved profitability and environmental performance through systems that reduce pest pressure, efficiently manage nutrients, and comprehensively conserve resources. Successful LISA systems are founded on practices that enhance the efficiency of resource use and limit pest pressures in a sustainable way. The operational goal of LISA should not, as a matter of first principles, be viewed as a reduction in the use of pesticides and fertilizers. Higher yields, lower per unit production costs, and lessened reliance on agrichemicals in intensive agricultural systems are, however, often among the positive outcomes of the successful adoption of LISA systems. But in much of the Third World an increased level of certain agrichemical and fertilizer inputs will be very helpful if not essential to achieve sustainability. For example, the phosphorous-starved pastures in the humid tropics will continue to suffer severe erosion and degradation in soil physical properties until soil fertility levels are restored and more vigorous plant growth provides protection from rain and sun. Farmers are continuously modifying farming systems whenever opportunities arise for increasing productivity or profits. Management decisions are not made just in the context of one goal or concern but in the context of the overall performance of the farm and take into account many variables: prices, policy, available resources, climatic conditions, and implications for risk and uncertainty. A necessary step in carrying out comparative assessments of conventional and alternative farming systems is to understand the differences between farming practices, farming methods, and farming systems. It is somewhat easier, then, to determine what a conventional practice, method, or system is and how an alternative or sustainable practice, method, or system might or should differ from a conventional one. The following definitions are drawn from the Glossary of Alternative Agriculture (National Research Council, 1989a).
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SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE RESEARCH AND EDUCATION IN THE FIELD: A PROCEEDINGS A farming practice is a way of carrying out a discrete farming task such as a tillage operation, particular pesticide application technology, or single conservation practice. Most important farming operations—preparing a seedbed, controlling weeds and erosion, or maintaining soil fertility, for example—require a combination of practices, or a method. Most farming operations can be carried out by different methods, each of which can be accomplished by several unique combinations of different practices. The manner in which a practice is carried out—the speed and depth of a tillage operation, for example—can markedly alter its consequences. A farming method is a systematic way to accomplish a specific farming objective by integrating a number of practices. A discrete method is needed for each essential farming task, such as preparing a seedbed and planting a crop, sustaining soil fertility, managing irrigation, collecting and disposing of manure, controlling pests, and preventing animal diseases. A farming system is the overall approach used in crop or livestock production, often derived from a farmer's goals, values, knowledge, available technologies, and economic opportunities. A farming system influences, and is in turn defined by, the choice of methods and practices used to produce a crop or care for animals. In practice, farmers are constantly adjusting cropping systems in an effort to improve a farm's performance. Changes in management practices generally lead to a complex set of results—some positive, others negative—all of which occur over different time scales. The transition to more sustainable agriculture systems may, for many farmers, require some short-term sacrifices in economic performance in order to prepare the physical resource and biological ecosystem base needed for long-term improvement in both economic and environmental performance. As a result, some say that practices essential to progress toward sustainable agriculture are not economically viable and are unlikely to take hold on the farm (Marten, 1989). Their contention may prove correct, given current farm policies and the contemporary inclination to accept contemporary, short-term economic challenges as inviolate. Nonetheless, one question lingers: What is the alternative to sustainable agriculture? PUBLIC POLICY AND RESEARCH IN SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE Farmers, conservationists, consumers, and political leaders share an intense interest in the sustainability of agricultural production systems. This interest is heightened by growing recognition of the successes achieved by innovative farmers across the country who are discovering alternative agriculture practices and methods that improve a farm's economic and environmental performance. Ongoing experimental efforts on the farm, by no
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SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE RESEARCH AND EDUCATION IN THE FIELD: A PROCEEDINGS means universally successful, are being subjected to rigorous scientific investigation. New insights should help farmers become even more effective stewards of natural resources and produce food that is consistently free of man-made or natural contaminants that may pose health risks. The major challenge for U.S. agriculture in the 1990s will be to strike a balance between near-term economic performance and long-term ecological and food safety imperatives. As recommended in Alternative Agriculture (National Research Council, 1989a), public policies in the 1990s should, at a minimum, no longer penalize farmers who are committed to resource protection or those who are trying to make progress toward sustainability. Sustainability will always remain a goal to strive toward, and alternative agriculture systems will continuously evolve as a means to this end. Policy can and must play an integral role in this process. If sustainability emerges as a principal farm and environmental policy goal, the design and assessment of agricultural policies will become more complex. Trade-offs, and hence choices, will become more explicit between near-term economic performance and enhancement of the long-term biological and physical factors that can contribute to soil and water resource productivity. Drawing on expertise in several disciplines, policy analysts will be compelled to assess more insightfully the complex interactions that link a farm's economic, ecological, and environmental performance. It is hoped that political leaders will, as a result, recognize the importance of unraveling conflicts among policy goals and more aggressively seizing opportunities to advance the productivity and sustainability of U.S. agriculture. A few examples may help clarify how adopting the concept of sustainability as a policy goal complicates the identification of cause-and-effect relationships and, hence, the design of remedial policies. When a farmer is pushed toward bankruptcy by falling crop prices, a farm operation can become financially unsustainable. When crop losses mount because of pest pressure or a lack of soil nutrients, however, the farming system still becomes unsustainable financially, but for a different reason. In the former example, economic forces beyond any individual farmer's control are the clear cause; in the latter case the underlying cause is rooted in the biological management and performance of the farming system. The biological and economic performance of a farming system can, in turn, unravel for several different reasons. Consider an example involving a particular farm that is enrolled each year in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's commodity price support programs. To maintain eligibility for government subsidies on a continuing basis, the farmer understands the importance of growing a certain minimum (base) acreage of the same crop each year. Hence, the cropping pattern on this farm is likely to lead to a
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SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE RESEARCH AND EDUCATION IN THE FIELD: A PROCEEDINGS buildup in soilborne pathogens that attack plant roots and reduce yields. As a result, the farmer might resort to the use of a fumigant to control the pathogens, but the pesticide might become ineffective because of steadily worsening microbial degradation of the fumigant, or a pesticide-resistant pathogen may emerge. A solution to these new problems might be to speed up the registration of another pesticide that could be used, or relax regulatory standards so more new products can get registered, or both. Consider another possibility. A regulatory agency may cancel use of a fumigant a farmer has been relying upon because of food safety, water quality, or concerns about it effect on wildlife. The farmer might then seek a change in grading standards or an increase in commodity prices or program benefits if alternative pesticides are more costly. Each of these problems is distinctive when viewed in isolation and could be attacked through a number of changes in policy. The most cost-effective solution, however, will prove elusive unless the biology of the whole system is perceptively evaluated. For this reason, in the policy arena, just as on the farm, it is critical to know what the problem is that warrants intervention and what the root causes of the problem really are. Research Challenges In thinking through agricultural research priorities, it should be acknowledged that the crossroads where the sciences of agriculture and ecology meet remain largely undefined, yet clearly promising. There is too little information to specify in detail the features of a truly sustainable agriculture system, yet there is enough information to recognize the merit in striving toward sustainability in a more systematic way. The capacity of current research programs and institutions to carry out such work is suspect (see Investing in Research [National Research Council, 1989b]). It also remains uncertain whether current policies and programs that were designed in the 1930s or earlier to serve a different set of farmer needs can effectively bring about the types of changes needed to improve ecological management on the modern farm. In the 1980s, the research community reached consensus on the diagnosis of many of agriculture's contemporary ills; it may take most of the 1990s to agree on cures, and it will take at least another decade to get them into place. Those who are eager for a quick fix or who are just impatient are bound to be chronically frustrated by the slow rate of change. Another important caution deserves emphasis. The “silver bullet” approach to solving agricultural production problems offers little promise for providing an understanding of the ecological and biological bases of sustainable agriculture. The one-on-one syndrome seeks to discover a new
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SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE RESEARCH AND EDUCATION IN THE FIELD: A PROCEEDINGS pesticide for each pest, a new plant variety when a new strain of rust evolves, or a new nitrogen management method when nitrate contamination of drinking water becomes a pressing social concern. This reductionist approach reflects the inclination in the past to focus scientific and technological attention on products and outcomes rather than processes and on overcoming symptoms rather than eliminating causes. This must be changed if research aimed at making agriculture more sustainable is to move ahead at the rate possible given the new tools available to agricultural scientists. One area of research in particular—biotechnology—will benefit from a shift in focus toward understanding the biology and ecology underlying agricultural systems. Biotechnology research tools make possible powerful new approaches in unraveling biological interactions and other natural processes at the molecular and cellular levels, thus shedding vital new light on ecological interactions with a degree of precision previously unimagined in the biological sciences. However, rather than using these new tools to advance knowledge about the functioning of systems as a first order of priority, emphasis is increasingly placed on discovering products to solve specific production problems or elucidating the mode of action of specific products. This is regrettable for several reasons. A chance to decipher the physiological basis of sustainable agriculture systems is being put off. The payoff from focusing on products is also likely to be disappointing. The current widespread pattern of failure and consolidation within the agricultural biotechnology industry suggests that biotechnology is not yet mature enough as a science to reliably discover, refine, and commercialize product-based technologies. Products from biotechnology are inevitable, but a necessary first step must be to generate more in-depth understanding of biological processes, cycles, and interactions. Perhaps the greatest potential of biotechnology lies in the design and on-farm application of more efficient, stable, and profitable cropping and livestock management systems. For farmers to use such systems successfully, they will need access to a range of new information and diagnostic and analytical techniques that can be used on a real-time basis to make agronomic and animal husbandry judgments about how to optimize the efficiencies of the processes and interactions that underlie plant and animal growth. Knowledge, in combination with both conventional and novel inputs, will be deployed much more systematically to avoid soil nutrient or animal nutrition-related limits on growth; to ensure that diseases and pests do not become serious enough to warrant the excessive use of costly or hazardous pesticides; to increase the realistically attainable annual level of energy flows independent of purchased inputs within agroecosystems; and to maximize a range of functional symbiotic relationships between soil micro-
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SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE RESEARCH AND EDUCATION IN THE FIELD: A PROCEEDINGS and macrofauna, plants, and animals. Discrete goals will include pathogen-suppressive soils, enhanced rotation effects, pest suppression by populations of plant-associated microorganisms, nutrient cycling and renewal, the optimization of general resistance mechanisms in plants by cultural practices, and much more effective soil and water conservation systems that benefit from changes in the stability of soil aggregates and the capacity of soils to absorb and hold moisture. Because of the profound changes needed to create and instill this new knowledge and skills on the farm, the recommendations in Alternative Agriculture (National Research Council, 1989a) emphasize the need to expand systems-based applied research, on-farm experimentation utilizing farmers as research collaborators, and novel extension education strategies—the very goals of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's LISA program. Future research efforts—and not just those funded through LISA—should place a premium on the application of ecological principles in the multidisciplinary study of farming system performance. A diversity of approaches in researching and designing innovative farming systems will ensure broad-based progress, particularly if farmers are actively engaged in the research enterprise. REFERENCES Benbrook, C., and J. Cook. 1990. Striving toward sustainability: A framework to guide on-farm innovation, research, and policy analysis. Speech presented at the 1990 Pacific Northwest Symposium on Sustainable Agriculture, March 2. Marten, J. 1989. Commentary: Will low-input rotations sustain your income? Farm Journal, Dec. 6. National Research Council. 1989a. Alternative Agriculture. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. National Research Council. 1989b. Investing in Research: A Proposal to Strengthen the Agricultural, Food, and Environmental System. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
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