A New Direction on Research at the USDA? Some Experts Weigh In On What We Need to Know Now About Agriculture

Last week, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack gave a speech on the role of research at the USDA at the launch of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the research arm of that agency formerly referred to as the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES).

Vilsack had this to say in his kick-off speech:

The opportunity to truly transform a field of science happens at best once a generation. Right now, I am convinced, is USDA’s opportunity to work with the Congress, the other science agencies, and with our partners in industry, academia, and the nonprofit sector, to bring about transformative change.

It is hard to reject the idea that our country needs more research on agriculture — specifically, more science-based knowledge from which to make political and regulatory decisions around food. But as his speech continued, Vilsack placed the focus on technology as our aegis. And while technology is not a bad thing, there are still many questions left unanswered that USDA could and should be focusing on — questions that the agribusiness lobby quite possibly doesn’t want answered, as the outcomes could force the public and our politicians to take a harder look at just what it means to build a truly sustainable food system.

NIFA will be headed by a controversial choice, Roger Beachy — formerly of the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, MO, which receives funding from Monsanto, and was part of the lobbying effort to create NIFA in the mold of the National Science Foundation. Beachy joins a team that already includes Rajiv Shah, formerly of the Gates Foundation. The re-branding of CSREES worries sustainable food advocates who fear US research priorities could shift with the private sector’s coaxing further towards a more biotechnology-oriented focus in an attempt to end world hunger, even though more viable solutions to hunger — a problem of distribution and not yield — exist on the ground that are both cost-effective and ready to implement now in the developing world.

The government’s job is to to give unbiased science center stage, so that we can assess and make informed decisions about agriculture moving forward — decisions that are in our collective interest as a nation, not just in the interest of one sector of our economy. To begin, the USDA must extend 100% funding to formula grants at land grant universities again, thereby replacing the current practice of “matching funds” [pdf] — requiring these institutions to find a matching donor for between 50%-100% of the grant from outside of the government — which usually ends up being a private industry source. And what might the industry be interested in funding? Shareholders hope they will support things that have the potential to increase the bottom line, instead of research that investigates the way our food system is affecting us, which could detract from it. This is how the industry has controlled the types of research being conducted since matching funds were instituted in 1999 (as an amendment to the National Agricultural Research, Extension, and Teaching Policy Act of 1977).

Vilsack also stated in his speech that in creating NIFA, “we will be rebuilding our competitive grants program from the ground up to generate real results for the American people.” In thinking about how to better focus the government’s efforts on agricultural research in order to truly benefit the American people, I thought I’d reach out to some key thinkers on agriculture, and find out what they would like the USDA’s new research body, NIFA, to be focusing on. Here were their answers:

Biologically focused organic agriculture—which uses neither chemical fertilizer, pesticides nor GMO crops—provides broad ecological services while it sequesters carbon to fight global warming. We need research that documents the greenhouse-gas mitigation aspects of organics, conducted at the whole-farm level to capture the cascading biodiversity benefits of organic systems. This work should be focused on the three most appropriate, farmer-identified organic techniques per bioregion in the 10 most agriculturally significant areas of the U.S. Tied to this multi-disciplinary, 10-year study should be data collection on soil water-holding ability, biological diversity and productive capacity, in order to qualify and quantify the corollary benefits that come with increases in soil organic matter.
Tim LaSalle, CEO, Rodale Institute

Since I just spent more time than I care to think about sitting through hearings on the proposed Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, I think I would say that USDA should be focusing its research more on scale appropriate food safety programs — and exploring what we really know about risks posed by wildlife, the use of vegetated buffers and other practices that some private food safety programs have targeted.  It seems like USDA could serve a useful role in finding ways for diversified, organic, and small farms to prove that their methods can coexist with food safety requirements.
Patty Lovera, Assistant Director, Food & Water Watch

We need to be studying how best to protect agriculture from the effects of climate changes, which is to say, how can we make farming more resilient?– which is further to say, how can we successfully diversify our monocultures?
Michael Pollan, Author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma

There are both areas of research that USDA is neglecting as well as a lack of investment in research examining agricultural systems and practices that are critical to addressing the research challenges that Secretary Vilsack outlined in his speech at the NIFA event on Thursday.  On the former, areas of research that USDA is neglecting include long-term agroecosystem trials; the characteristics, barriers, and opportunities for the growth and development of local and regional food systems; public plant and animal breeding (all the non-biotech plant and animal research); organic agriculture; the sustainability of biofuel and bioenergy production; and rural development, just to name a few. While several of these have dedicated funding streams, they pale in comparison to other research programs and the overall research budget at USDA.

On the latter, the Administration on Thursday defined a surprisingly narrow approach to addressing the challenges to overcome with the help of agricultural research. Vilsack laid out significant challenges — including ensuring global food security through productive and sustainable agricultural systems, mitigating and adapting to climate change, and improving public health and reducing childhood obesity — and NIFA is structured into separate institutes around these challenges and others. But the tools that Vilsack, Research Undersecretary Shah, and NIFA Director Beachy identified as key to solving these problems were extremely limited to biotechnology, nanotechnology, and computer simulations. Without investing in the development of technologies and practices of sustainable and organic agricultural systems, USDA’s research agenda will fall far short of meeting its objectives and will continue to support an agricultural system that contributes to — rather than mitigating — these challenges.
Ariane Lotti, who focuses on Agriculture Research Policy at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

Organic and sustainable-systems agriculture is still woefully underfunded and misunderstood. Likewise, research and education directed towards regional food-system integration is still only getting a trickle of support. Good programs and projects do exist within the agency, but they are still marginal in the scheme of things. These commitments and investments by the research agencies have to be much more significant if alternative systems themselves are going to be scaled upward and outward.

The essential problem of the conventional wisdom is that ecosystem health and community/regional food systems are considered to be lifestyle amenities, not core requirements for sustainability and survival.
Mark Lipson, Policy Program Director at the Organic Farming Research Foundation

I would like to see more research on the reasons for the general decline in nutrient levels in conventional foods, including the decline in protein levels in conventional corn and soybeans.

I would like to see more research done on the factors triggering proliferation in a cow’s GI tract of E. coli 0157, as well as one management practices like grazing known to reduce the risk of this bacterium reaching dangerous levels.

I would like to see research on how to design the most energy-efficient and soil-building cropping systems in the Midwest involving (1) a traditional corn-soybean rotation, (2) C-S-small grains rotations, (3) C-S-Small grains-Alfalfa-Alfalfa rotations. The goal would be producing maximum animal feed energy and food value for minimal fertilizer and pesticide input.  I would like to see the same work done with the goal of maximizing soil carbon sequestration.  Then, a comparison of the two sets of experimental results, and the management practices and strategies deemed most effective in achieving these two goals, would be both fascinating and valuable in crafting the farming systems of the future.
Charles Benbrook, PhD, Chief Scientist at The Organic Center

A few research priorities from my perspective:

the conversion to perennial agriculture; replacement sources for nitrogen fertilizers; detailed continent-wide soils and climate mapping to determine priority areas for cultivated crops versus grazing areas; productive yet resilient breeds of animals beside the Cornish Cross, White Leghorn, Holstein, Hyper Lean Pig, and Angus and Hereford beef cattle — with regional emphasis immediately; and a detailed carbon analysis of pasture-raised versus grain fed livestock.
Dan Imhoff, President of the Wild Farm Alliance and author of Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to a Food and Farm Bill

The need for independent research at all levels has never been greater. We are living through the failures of much of the corporate dominated research agenda – whether on biotechnology, expanded production or the repercussions of a free trade model – when in fact having research that addresses the underlying causes of the food crisis would be truly beneficial here in the US and around the world. Here in the US, our taxpayer funds should not be subsidizing more of the same; but building on the succesful on the ground models – whether focussed on reasons for reserve policies, community food approaches or on the ground conservation and sustainable agricultural practices. The recent results of the IASTAAD report should be reviewed and implemented by our USDA – not ignored.
Kathy Ozer, Policy Director, National Family Farm Coalition

Please add your thoughts in the comments below about what you think NIFA should be studying in order to improve the food system.

h/t to Ralph Loglisci for his informative research on matching funds

One thought on “A New Direction on Research at the USDA? Some Experts Weigh In On What We Need to Know Now About Agriculture

  1. The research foci highlighted by Ariane Lotti are important because they would help pave the way for establishing a more sustainable food and agricultural SYSTEM in the United States. It seems necessary to focus research on topics that will push our food production and distribution system in the U.S. and worldwide in sustainable directions. This would include work on problem identification, as many of the traditional research questions in agriculture remain framed in rationales originating from eras whose priorities and questions are not as relevant in today’s environment, where we are facing problems such as climate change, food insecurity, and major ecosystem-level changes due to agricultural land use and other land use changes.

    I would have liked to see some of your queries go out to people who actually conduct research on agricultural systems, or at least those who are closer to the process – perhaps deans of land grant universities or agronomists and other researchers who currently work on agricultural systems – as they are the ones who will be primarily participating in setting the research agenda from the standpoint of proposal writing and problem identification.

    Good post!