PART SIX

Summary



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SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE RESEARCH AND EDUCATION IN THE FIELD: A PROCEEDINGS PART SIX Summary

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SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE RESEARCH AND EDUCATION IN THE FIELD: A PROCEEDINGS This page in the original is blank.

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SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE RESEARCH AND EDUCATION IN THE FIELD: A PROCEEDINGS 22 Assessing the Progress of Sustainable Agriculture Research Jonathan H. Harsch The more than 20 scholarly reports from all parts of the United States presented in this volume firmly established one fact: Despite the continuing chorus of criticism aimed at low-input sustainable agriculture (LISA), there already is an impressive body of thoroughly documented scientific evidence relating to all aspects of sustainable or alternative agriculture. This much is established, and this much marks a significant milestone in the latest campaign to improve the performance of U.S. agriculture. What remains in doubt is interpretation of the scientific evidence. As Michael Duffy explained in his presentation on economic considerations, manure and crop rotations have been proved to be effective. The question is how they fit the goals of farmers and society. In other words, to what extent will the individual farmer be willing to sacrifice higher short-term profits for the rewards of environmental stewardship and other intangibles? To what extent will an environmentally aroused public and the U.S. Congress provide cash incentives, at least for a transitional period, to help farmers cut back on their use of purchased commercial fertilizers and pesticides? The chapters in this volume have provided many important research findings. Some particular points from particular chapters are presented below. North Dakota's John Gardner and colleagues, in their paper “Overview of Current Sustainable Agriculture Research,” and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Assistant Secretary for Science and Education Charles Hess brought out a key point: there is a great reluctance within the scientific community to challenge accepted wisdom and a great reluctance for scientists to challenge their department heads.

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SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE RESEARCH AND EDUCATION IN THE FIELD: A PROCEEDINGS This reluctance will be a continuing constraint, one that needs to be counterbalanced through greater efforts to pursue new research avenues. A second key point is that no matter how overwhelming the evidence, interpretations will continue to differ. Dale Darling discussed both points clearly. During the workshop, Darling summed up his position by commenting that when he was a boy, his family's dairy farm in Vermont was 100 percent organic “because we didn't know any better.” No matter what the evidence may be, interpretation of this evidence will differ. Some differing opinions on the value of fertilizers of farm origin and current research findings were presented by Harold Reetz. This volume includes strong voices calling for going slowly enough in areas such as new groundwater protection legislation to avoid the overkill that is inevitable if public policy decisions are based on public fears rather than on sound scientific evidence. The need is to avoid a situation in which economic costs to the farm sector and its customers might far outweigh the economic and environmental gains sought by society as a whole. Charles Hess provided a very strong response in that key area, a response that demonstrated that the Bush administration has come a very long way from the days of the Reagan administration. Hess indicated that there is a very narrow window, that the farm sector is under pressure to respond quickly and responsibly to public concerns in currently explosive areas such as food safety and water quality. He warned that there must be a positive response to the issues being raised. He also indicated that it is time to be proactive rather than defensive. To do otherwise would be to invite legislation and regulation that may remove the decision-making power and constrain the flexibility to adopt management practices that best fit each farming situation. Raymond E. Frisbie, from Texas A&M University, and Iowa State Legislator Paul Johnson, in his remarks to workshop attendees, reinforced the point that agriculture must change its ways voluntarily or agriculture will inevitably find itself burdened with a mandated regulatory straitjacket tailored by other groups with little understanding of farm-sector realities. The farm-sector response will not be easy. It will require broad agreement on often hard-to-accept voluntary constraints. In addition, because public funds are limited at all levels—federal, state, and local—the farm sector faces the challenge of working out a priority list of goals that will be acceptable to the public, to the U.S. Congress, and to the whole range of often competing government agencies. This challenge is complicated by the fact that along with achieving consensus support for more environmentally benign farming practices, these general practices necessarily will include an immense range of options in order to respond to site-specific problems. How far has agriculture gone along this challenging response road? The

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SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE RESEARCH AND EDUCATION IN THE FIELD: A PROCEEDINGS research findings presented in this volume prove that there has been progress, both in the area of scientific research and in the practical changes that have been made. Both the scientific and regulatory communities have made progress in identifying goals, specifically in recognizing the importance of focusing sustainable agriculture systems on three equally important goals: improving farm-level profitability, improving the U.S. farm sector's international competitiveness, and at the same time, reducing environmental damage caused by farming practices. Agreement on the equal importance of profitability, competitiveness, and environmental concerns is a major step forward in itself and is part of a three-stage progression. September 1989 marked stage one. Publication of the National Research Council's (1989) report Alternative Agriculture consolidated what had been learned. This important report stated the issues clearly and established that sustainable agriculture “isn't just for breakfast anymore”—that sustainable agriculture is a real meat-and-potatoes system capable of moving U.S. production agriculture, as a whole, closer to the three goals of profitability, competitiveness, and environmental stewardship. The workshop on which this volume is based was part of stage two, that is, the creation of a vast data base of sound, replicated research findings that increasingly will make it possible for any commercial farmer in any part of the country, with any crop or livestock mixture, to improve his or her own operation's profitability, competitiveness, and environmental stewardship. Because this seminar has proved that stage two is well established, stage three—when the sustainable practices detailed in Alternative Agriculture will be in widespread use throughout production agriculture—cannot be far off. These points can be illustrated by a statement made at the workshop by Charles Hess: Overall, today's agriculture is being challenged to operate in an environmentally responsible fashion, while at the same time continuing to produce abundant supplies of food and fiber both economically and profitably. On one hand, agriculture needs to be highly efficient and internationally competitive in order to be economically viable. On the other hand, it needs a system of production which is environmentally sensitive, sustainable, and whose products are viewed as safe. Basing his conclusion on the solid research findings already available,

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SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE RESEARCH AND EDUCATION IN THE FIELD: A PROCEEDINGS Hess stated firmly that he believes that both the economic and environmental goals are achievable. At the workshop, he explained: We feel it is the department's responsibility to provide farmers with a range of options that best fit their economic and environmental situation. The choices range from the optimal use of fertilizers, pesticides, and other off-farm purchases in conjunction with best management practices to operations which actively seek to minimize their off-farm purchases and emphasize crop rotation, integration of livestock and crop production, and mechanical or biological weed control. To support this significant policy change—and to guard against the regulatory overkill that he and other speakers warned against—Hess pointed to the need for further government investment in research, because “we must work to get more hard data so we can make informed decisions based in science rather than in emotion. ” It is an important step forward to have this explicit USDA support for sustainable agriculture research. As we learned from key speakers at the workshop, such as Michael Duffy and Robert Papendick, researchers themselves must take the next step and, in fact, are doing that in a big way. Throughout the country, both farm- and laboratory-level researchers and their bureaucratic funding sources now recognize that what is needed is thorough interdisciplinary research focusing on far more than just agronomics. Speakers explained that the big research payoffs are coming because individual LISA research projects today integrate the full range of interrelated factors including agronomics, economics, social policy, and government farm program biases. Researchers today, as described in this volume by R. James Cook and Gail Richardson, are not just confining themselves to academic research. Instead, they are doing what must be done to satisfy the site-specific requirements of a truly sustainable system: they are working with commercial farmers in the fields and are giving these farmers an active role in the research process. Researchers are also deeply involved in trying to unravel the complex and often conflicting effects of both current commodity programs and the variety of proposed 1990 farm bill changes. Perhaps most important for the evolution of LISA research was definite evidence that the spirit of scholarly objectivity is replacing crusading zeal. Thomas Dobbs and colleagues straightforwardly explained their findings that after a 5-year comparison of a conventional farm with an alternative LISA farm, average net returns were higher for the conventional system when the premium prices for organically grown crops were replaced with conventional prices. Dobbs noted that the premiums for organically grown products actually received by the case study farm brought its profit above that of the comparison conventional farm.

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SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE RESEARCH AND EDUCATION IN THE FIELD: A PROCEEDINGS Another two-pronged sign of LISA researchers' maturity was revealed. First, no one tried to sell his or her own specific definition of LISA. That must be considered progress, because as stated repeatedly, LISA needs to operate in very different ways, depending not only on the part of the country and the type of crop or livestock mixture but also depending on the specific characteristics of the individual farm and the individual farm manager, on his or her own management skills, and on the local availability of farm labor. Second, it also must be considered a sign of progress that consensus seemed to emerge that it is time to replace the term LISA with the term sustainable agriculture. No one wants to abandon this attractive acronym; however, a number of speakers pointed to problems with the low-input connotation, noting that the low-input label automatically attracts the easy criticism that LISA is antichemical or even antitechnology per se. LISA proponents appear ready to drop the acronym in order to shift attention away from the secondary effect, which in many, but not all, cases will be reduced use of purchased inputs. Instead, their aim is to emphasize what matters most: sustainable agriculture's primary goal of enhancing profitability, competitiveness, and environmental stewardship. Charles Benbrook summed up this shift, emphasizing that “the goal of LISA systems really need not be viewed as reducing the use of pesticides and fertilizers. Lessened reliance on agrichemicals, though, is often one of the positive outcomes of successful adoption of LISA systems.” As he and others have explained, fully sustainable, site-specific best management practices may call for increased rather than decreased use of chemical inputs under the right conditions. From James Cook's key research on the 65 percent boost in wheat yields through the use of a 3-year rotation to break the cycle of harmful pathogens in the root zone, to Gail Richardson's use of neglected, low-technology gypsum blocks for monitoring soil moisture, the workshop and this volume on which it is based have broken important ground. As has been stressed throughout, there is much more work left to be done. That is the challenge: to continue building on the sound scientific foundation revealed here. To sum up both what research has already accomplished and the major challenges for future research, as well as for legislation over the years ahead, a key passage from Charles Benbrook is appropriate: Often, farmers are confronted with choices and sacrifices because of seemingly unavoidable trade-offs. An investment in a conservation system may improve soil and water quality, yet do so at some sacrifice in near-term economic performance. Diversification may increase the efficiency of resource use and bring within reach certain biological benefits, yet may require additional machinery and a more stable and

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SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE RESEARCH AND EDUCATION IN THE FIELD: A PROCEEDINGS versatile supply of labor. Indeed, a major challenge for agricultural researchers, and those designing and administering farm policy is to seek ways to alleviate seemingly unwelcomed trade-offs by developing new knowledge and technology and, when warranted, new policies. REFERENCE National Research Council. 1989. Alternative Agriculture. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.