Investing in Sustainable Agriculture

An analysis of federal funding for agroecological research shows tremendous untapped potential

Each month the Elsevier Atlas Award recognizes research that could significantly impact people's lives around the world.

June 2016 winner (open access)
Investing in the transition to sustainable agriculture
Marcia DeLonge, Albie Miles, Liz Carlisle
Environmental Science & Policy, Volume 55, Part 1, January 2016, Pages 266–273

Read the story about the award-winning research

Sustainable agriculture holds great promise for alleviating a whole host of environmental problems and health risks associated with the modern industrial agricultural system. But, according to a new analysis of federal funding which was awarded the Elsevier Atlas award of June 2016, increased investments in research and development aimed to make sustainable food production even more beneficial are urgently needed.

“Prior to this there was no clear accounting of how much funding had gone for agroecological research,” said Marcia DeLonge, of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C. and corresponding author of the study “When we started asking this question, I thought I could dig around online and find the answer. It was an important gap in knowledge that we needed to tackle. We knew anecdotally that there was a need for more funding, but we needed to understand the numbers better and to understand what research areas might hold the most untapped potential.”

To fill the knowledge gap, DeLonge and her colleagues Albie Miles at the University of Hawai‘i – West Oahu and Liz Carlisle at the University of California, Berkeley, identified USDA-funded projects beginning in 2014 and searched key sections of project reports for major components emphasizing sustainable agriculture, including agroecology. Those components were grouped into four categories: improving system efficiency to reduce inputs including fertilizers and pesticides, substituting more sustainable inputs and practices into farming systems, redesigning agricultural systems based on ecological principles, or strengthening connections between producers and consumers.

The team searched 824 projects accounting for almost $300 million in funding or about 10 percent of the 2014 USDA Research, Extension, and Economics budget. In many cases, sustainable agriculture was included in projects but not as the primary focus. The findings suggest that significant gains in sustainable agriculture could be made through additional investments.

“It’s important to understand to what degree the USDA provides incentives and support for the development of alternative farming systems because they are delivering the outcomes society is seeking, but we were concerned about whether or not it is adequately supported at the federal level,” Miles said. “Our goal was to illustrate the political and economic context in which sustainable agricultural practices, including certified organic agriculture and biologically diversified farming systems, have been able to achieve the level of environmental performance and productivity they have as measured in hundreds of studies.”

While their findings suggest great potential, there are significant challenges to overcome in pursuing increased investments in agroecological research, they say. For one thing, understanding the costs and benefits of sustainable practices, such as crop rotation and its influence on soil health, requires dedicated, long-term research. Despite the challenges, the researchers say they are optimistic that progress will be made.

“Quite frankly we have to make this transition to sustainable agriculture,” Carlisle said, noting the costs of diet-related diseases, agriculture-related environmental problems such as pesticides, and a changing climate linked to fossil fuels.

“The question is: Can we be proactive about it so that our institutions and economy are prepared to make the transition in a more intentional way and can we be sure that all rural communities will have access? We don’t want another unjust system like we have now in which some people eat and farm organically and others are stuck with agricultural toxins in their water supply and fast food for dinner.”

An estimated 25 to 35 percent of global greenhouse gases are produced from agriculture. Modern agriculture has been implicated in the loss of biological diversity, habitat loss, water pollution, degradation of soil quality, and loss of beneficial organisms including pollinators and biological control agents while posing a risk to human health through pesticide exposure and excess nitrogen in drinking water.

A Conversation with Marcia DeLonge, Albie Miles and Liz Carlisle:

Podcast In this podcast, we speak with with Drs. Marcia DeLonge, Albie Miles and Liz Carlisle about their Atlas award-winning article published in Environmental Science & Policy on the need for investments in research to encourage the transition to sustainable agriculture. Listen now.

Atlas: What does sustainable agriculture look like? How does it differ from the way so much of our food is produced now?

Albie Miles: Researchers tend to think about this in two ways, looking at the agroecosystem or the production unit itself and then the broader food system. For sustainable agroecosystems, a number of characteristics are key: minimizing reliance on externally derived inputs such as pesticides, synthetic chemical fertilizers, fossil fuels; minimizing environmental impacts, including eutrophication, creation of dead zones, non-targeted exposure to pesticides. Sustainable agriculture also restores global ecological services like natural pest control, sequestration of carbon in the soil, long-term maintenance of soil quality, nutrient cycling, prevention of nutrient loss, and biodiversity conservation. Lastly, a sustainable form of agriculture is also expected to be resilient under the expected conditions of extreme weather related to climate change.

At the food system level, researchers and scholars identify a number of factors—primarily that the food system is equitable, ensuring the human right to food. The food should be culturally appropriate, safe, and sustainably produced for all citizens at all times. A sustainable food system is also non-exploitative in terms of race, class, gender, nation and even species.

We now have a form of agriculture that is very efficient in terms of return on capital investment and production of large volumes of commodities. Even though modern agriculture has proven remarkably productive—more than doubling food production since 1960—it has simultaneously generated a range of unintended ecologically and social impacts.

Atlas: How did you get interested in these issues of sustainable agriculture?

Albie Miles: I was raised in California. As an undergraduate I studied biology and environmental science. I was initially interested in biodiversity and then became aware of agriculture as a key driver of global environmental change. As I got interested in becoming an organic farmer, I realized that there were many structural obstacles to small-scale, diversified and organic agriculture. I opted instead to pursue a Ph.D. in environmental sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. I studied agroecology while maintaining an interest in structural obstacles to food sustainability and equity.

Liz Carlisle: I grew up in Montana surrounded by agriculture. My first career was as a country singer and in my travels I met farmers across the country, and I started to hear a pattern in the stories they told me. They wanted to be good land stewards and feed people healthy food, but the structure of the food system, the way agriculture was organized as an economy, as an industry, particularly in the U.S. but increasingly globally, was getting in the way of the good things they wanted to do. I got fired up about sustainable agriculture and I’ve been working in sustainable agriculture ever since.

Marcia DeLonge: I grew up in the agriculturally rich state of Wisconsin. As a child I had a strong appreciation for agriculture, but what I loved most was nature. Like Albie, I started out in environmental science, thinking about climate science and weather and how earth systems work together. I also recognized that the things I was trying to solve, the problems I wanted to fix, had links to agriculture. I realized that agriculture was negatively impacting the environment, but my take home was that there was a lot of room for solutions in agriculture. The more I studied, the more hooked I became on agriculture as an exciting field to be working on.

Atlas: You say that there is an urgent need for research in an area you refer to as agroecology. Can you offer some examples of questions that should/need to be addressed in this area?

Marcia DeLonge: First it’s worth reiterating what we mean by agroecology. A simple definition of the science of agroecology is the application of ecological principles to agricultural practices. But what does that entail? One thing that distinguishes it is a reliance on big picture perspective, on ecosystem scales. It looks more deeply at interactions between plants, animals and humans - on and off the farm. We’re talking about diversified farms, beneficial crop rotations, and reintegrating crops and animals. We need to think about how to understand the performance of different kinds of practices not just from the perspective of agricultural yield but also ecosystem services. In addition to farm-scale aspects it’s also important to understand that agroecology goes beyond the farm-scale. The viability of these systems depends on relationships between producers and consumers. We need to think about socioeconomic support systems to help make the connection between producers and consumers much stronger.

Atlas: What are the challenges to encouraging research in this area?

Liz Carlisle: There are definitely challenges to encouraging research in agroecology. A lot of them are related to the history of how we’ve pursued research in the past. Many important agroecological questions demand longer-term studies—longer than most grant cycles we see now and longer than many researchers stay at institutions. Two or three year studies don’t tell us much about long-term soil health or the impacts of crop rotation, for example. They don’t allow us to move beyond the noise of climate variability. So I think one of the things our work calls for is for funders and academia to think about how to better support long-term research because that’s really what we need to solve as pressing questions and consider how to produce healthy food for people while not undermining the environmental supports of the food system.

Albie Miles: In addition to inadequate research and development funding at both federal and state levels for agroecology, not many researchers are trained in agroecology and even fewer are well prepared to advance whole system research projects to evaluate the ecological, social and economic aspects of transitioning to a more sustainable model of production. Because there’s a lack of stringent regulation on pesticides and large-scale monocultures there aren’t signals to drive research in solving the soil fertility and pest management problems now addressed through synthetic chemical inputs.

Atlas: Can we meet the growing demand for food and do so sustainably?

Liz Carlisle: This question gets asked a lot and is important to address. My answer is absolutely. It’s at once quite complex and quite simple. A sustainable food system encompasses tremendous ecological and social complexity, but we don’t need the bevy of agricultural inputs and “miracle” products that have been marketed to farmers over the years. We need to manage and design farms as self-regenerating ecosystems. A recent meta-analysis should have erased any lingering doubt about whether these kinds of agroecological, diversified farms can produce adequate food to meet human needs. The good news is that these practices are in play in many places in the world thanks to farmers and pioneering agroecologists. We know a lot about how to design them. We need research to improve them, but it’s not some pie in the sky thing we’re talking about that could be realized in 30 or 50 years. It’s already happening in many places.

On another note, there’s a lot of evidence that food insecurity is not a matter of insufficient production but the consequence of inequality. That’s exactly the situation now. Global agriculture produces plenty of food and yet 780 million people are food insecure and many more lack essential nutrients. We need to change the production system so that we don’t undermine the environment. Another big problem is: how do we make sure people actually get to eat healthy food? It’s not just a challenge of production. It’s a much larger political and social question.

Atlas: What can individuals do to help?

Liz Carlisle: I think that the food movement is tremendously exciting and you can make a difference. Support local organic farms. Buy fair trade. Garden. Don’t patronize the industrial meat system; you’ll do your body and the planet a favor. But go ahead and get a pastured, heritage turkey at Thanksgiving. Get a share from your friend’s grassfed cattle operation. All of these actions are more effective if you work at the institutional level, not just the individual level. Ask about what’s in your child’s school lunch. Ask whether your community has adequate community gardens. These are all ways in which you can participate.

Marcia DeLonge: The simplest possible thing you can do in general is to vote. Vote for people making decisions in your states, cities, and in the country and demand they start talking about these issues. Think about how we get people in positions of power that take these issues seriously. Go to to learn more.


Sustainable Agriculture Techniques (Union of Concerned Scientists)

Marcia DeLonge (Union of Concerned Scientists)

Sustainable Community Food Systems (University of Hawaii)

Plate of the Union

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