Supporting Progress in Sustainable Agriculture

By Ann Thrupp

This post originally appeared on the UC Food Observer on April 10, 2017

BFI Executive Director Ann Thrupp
BFI Executive Director Ann Thrupp

Last week, I was in Washington, DC for a Farm Bill symposium that the Berkeley Food Institute organized in collaboration with American University. We were joined by policy experts, politicians, farmers, food justice advocates and educators. Among these experts was a prevalent feeling that the significant progress made over the last 30 years in sustainable agriculture is at risk of being unraveled. Many of the federal programs responsible for positive change in the agriculture and food industry are poised to find themselves on the political chopping block, although it is still too early to know what will happen in the federal budget.

While federal support for sustainable agriculture is significantly at risk, public enthusiasm is at an all-time high. Now is the time for farmers, researchers and experts in the field to build a rallying cry for maintaining and increasing support for sustainable agriculture programs—for the sake of agriculture’s ecological, social and economic viability.

All those who uphold sustainable agriculture practices—whether recognizing it as organic farming, agroecology, regenerative farming, permaculture, carbon-smart, or diversified farming systems (DFS)—need to capture this enthusiasm and work together to continue proving the multiple benefits of sustainable agriculture. Through collaboration, advocates can show the importance of increasing public funding for research, education and support to producers in this field.

Sustainability Grows as a Win-Win Approach

While some types of sustainable farming practices have essentially been around since the beginning of agrarian society, the term “sustainable agriculture” was coined more popularly in the 1980s, as an approach that sought to avoid problems from chemical-intensive, monocultural industrial farming practices that have become predominant in the U.S. since the 1950s. (Many promoters of sustainability also based their methods on organic farming, which has deep historical roots, but was defined and established by federal law in 2002.)

“Sustainability” was initially seen as a threat to large mainstream agriculture operations. But as consumer demand drives the market for organically and responsibly grown food, and as the economic and environmental benefits of sustainable farming practices are demonstrated, increasing numbers of farming businesses, food companies and public agencies have embraced sustainability.

Some have revived traditional farming methods, others have applied new scientific insights on more ecologically and socially responsible practices, and others have jumped eagerly into adoption of sustainability standards for supply chains and procurement practices. Such efforts have blossomed partly due to consumer pressure, partly due to regulatory issues, but also because many food producers realize that sustainable agriculture reduces risk and makes good business sense.

Investment in sustainable agriculture should not be confined to the private sector, however, as public sector investments in research, education, outreach and other support are critically important to the future of farming. Instead of reducing public investments in sustainable agriculture, there is significant evidence that now is the time to increase these investments to meet future demand for both consumption and production while supporting rural and urban development and vitality.

History of Government Support

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has historically given relatively little support to sustainable agriculture when compared to support for mainstream commodities. That said, the USDA has provided important programs to help farmers with soil and resource conservation since the 1930’s.

Cover crops at Full Belly Farm, Yolo County, CA. Photo by Paul Kirchner Studios

In 1988, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) was established at USDA through the support of Congress, providing competitive grant support to farmers, researchers, and students in this field. Over the years, SARE has made important contributions to applied farmer-oriented research and professional development—particularly supporting cover crops, rotational grazing and the growth of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). For example, the research behind cover crops has not only influenced organic growers, it has also provided the evidence needed to influence conventional growers to adopt practices that improve the quality of their soil.

Despite the value gained through existing programs, support for sustainable agriculture research continues to account for just 5-10% of the USDA’s already small pool of research funding. This is in gross misalignment with both the potential for impact and the demand from researchers and consumers.

Now is the time to double down on sustainability efforts and continue to ride the momentum that is building. If significantly more investment was put into sustainable agriculture research (to prove the benefits), cost-sharing (to lessen the risk of change) and support for farms (to provide the training needed), I believe that our food systems would be poised to make more rapid progress than ever before.

Critical Needs for Future of Food and Ag Sector

This gap of funding and policy support for sustainable agriculture – and the potential for further cuts in the current administration – is illogical given that public enthusiasm and market trends are moving in a direction of greater sustainability in food systems. Educational programs in sustainable agriculture and food systems are growing nationwide and globally.

Prof. Miguel Altieri leading an agroecology class. Photo by Rosalie Z. Fanshel
Prof. Miguel Altieri leading an agroecology class. Photo by Rosalie Z. Fanshel

Training and skill-building are increasingly needed in this field, as growing numbers of job opportunities emerge. Both urban and rural educational institutions are realizing that building skills in food systems sustainability is vital for both current and future generations, and are appropriately responding to this demand. While expanding, special attention needs to be given to social equity concerns and the role of social sciences in sustainable agriculture, as labor conditions and health impacts are often left out of research and educational programs in this field.

Reflections

Reflecting back on the symposium in Washington, D.C. last week, the room was filled with researchers, faculty, administration and students from land-grant universities across the country. The recurring theme heard is that academic institutions have never seen so much demand for sustainable agriculture. Collectively, we are training a skilled workforce that will demand greater investment and accountability from public resources.

The future of the food supply and of the health of people and the planet depends on ensuring that authentically sustainable approaches are amplified and adopted much more broadly. Now is the time for lawmakers, agencies, scientists, advocates, producers and distributors to work collaboratively to prove, fund and advance sustainable methods that contribute to quality of life for all.