Union of Concerned Scientists Urges Policy Makers to Open the Door for Healthy Farms
May 28, 2013 | Noelle Swan
Industrialized agriculture pollutes water, land, and soil; harms natural wildlife habitats; threatens natural resources, all while still leaving a billion people hungry around the world, charged a new policy brief by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit science advocacy organization with headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “American agriculture is at a crossroads: a point where we can either apply our scientific knowledge to create a vibrant and healthful food and farming system for the future, or double down on an outdated model of agriculture that is rapidly undermining our environment and our health,” the brief began.
While grassroots movements around the country have pushed back against industrialized agriculture for decades, the science has only recently caught up to the sentiment, said Doug Gurian-Sherman, plant pathologist and senior scientist for the Food and Environment Program at UCS. Monoculture was long touted as the most productive and economically viable form of agriculture. However, recent research indicates that complex farming systems that more closely mirror natural ecosystems can be even more productive while taking a lesser toll on the environment, he said. The UCS hopes that policy makers will help to promote these agro-ecological principles in the upcoming Farm Bill.
What is agro-ecological agriculture?
The UCS report refers to agro-ecological farms more simply as “ ‘healthy farms,’ because they contribute to the health and well-being of people, economies and the land and natural resources on which we all depend.” So-called healthy farms recycle resources by incorporating natural ecological cycles into farming techniques and collaborate with neighboring farms to pool resources. UCS does not offer up strict prescriptions for healthy farms, because every region, crop, community, and farm has its own unique sets of circumstances. “One of the hallmarks of agro-ecology is that it’s place specific. It depends on the particular environment that you are working in,” Gurian-Sherman said. Instead, UCS urges policy makers to restructure the agricultural food system to foster not only productivity and economic viability, but also environmental sustainability. Doing so requires an investment in farms that are multifunctional, regenerative, biodiverse, and interconnected, he said.
The UCS report emphasizes four strategies for shifting the American food system to an agro-ecological system, starting with what it calls “the landscape approach.” The landscape approach sees farms as just one component of a larger interconnected ecosystem. Farms can affect the surrounding ecosystem by polluting streams, habitats, and soil with excess nutrients and pesticides. It turns out the surrounding ecosystem can also affect the farm. For instance, allowing wild shrubs and grasses to flourish on a portion of uncultivated land adjacent to crops creates a habitat for birds and other wildlife that provide natural pest control and reduce the need for synthetic pesticides, the brief reported.
Similarly, UCS suggested that the reintegration of livestock and agriculture could help to restore some interconnection between farming operations while closing the loop on valuable nutrient losses. Before the rise of monocrop agriculture and confined feedlots, farmers raised livestock and crops side by side. Manure produced by the cattle was recycled back into the farm as fertilizer for the crops. Today, the two arms of farming have become separate and distinct. Today, the manure that once helped fertilize crops on integrated farms pollutes streams, leaches into groundwater, and threatens the broader ecosystem. “The current situation is deemed economically efficient only because livestock producers can ignore the societal costs of pollution and the lost value of manure in their calculations,” the report charged. Reintegration could happen regionally, with dedicated ranchers and farmers keeping pasture and field side by side, or individually, with pasture becoming just another function of the diversified farm.
Crop diversity and rotation could be “the most important change we could make to move toward a healthy, sustainable food system,” the policy brief said. Currently, the American Midwest has invested most heavily in just two crops, corn and soybeans. Introducing complex crop rotations that include more crops like alfalfa, oats, wheat, legumes, and sorghum could increase yields, help control pests and weeds, and enhance soil fertility, the report added. However, the existing agricultural system is constructed in such a way that it tends to foster big row crops, Gurian-Sherman said. Farming subsidies tend to support big row crops at the expense of diversified crops, he said.
“One of the most beneficial practices that farmers can undertake with relative ease is planting cover crops,” the UCS suggested. Clover, rye, and hairy vetch, are examples of crops that can be used not for harvest, but to cover the soil. Cover crops can prevent weeds, reduce soil erosion, store nutrients for future plants, and maintain a habitat for beneficial organisms. “Scientists have shown that cover crops can reduce groundwater pollution from nitrogen by 40 to 70 percent,” according to one study cited in the policy brief.
“While the ideal would be to implement all of these practices, progress can be made by implementing some of them gradually,” Gurian-Sherman said. Even traditional row croppers could benefit by incorporating some agro-ecological principles like cover cropping into their existing farming plans, he added. However, he and his co-authors stressed that simply tweaking the industrialized food system will not bring about the level of change that they deem necessary. While practices like conservation tillage and precision farming have some benefits, “the fundamental restructuring we advocate, on the other hand, can deliver multiple benefits for the environment and the U.S. economy that can be sustained over time,” the report said.
However, farmers need support to be able to transition to healthy farming, the report said. This spring, UCS scientists are bringing their policy brief to lawmakers and pushing for an inclusion of financial incentives for farmers making conservation efforts, an expansion of outreach and technical assistance for farmers, and an increase in publicly funded research in the upcoming version of the Farm Bill. “I have a huge amount of confidence that if we put anywhere near the kind of resources into agro-ecological research [that we have put into industrialized farming subsidies] we can go a huge distance,” said Gurian-Sherman.