Investing in a Sustainable Food and Farm Future

Cotton fields at Popp Farms in El Campo, Texas on June 20, 2013. The 2,400 acres of farmland currently grow cotton and milo (grain sorghum) and are part of the United Agricultural Cooperative, Inc. (Photo: USDA/Lance Cheung)

Investing in a Sustainable Food and Farm Future

This week, state agriculture officials from across the country have gathered on the shores of Lake Champlain for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) annual meeting in Burlington, Vermont. These leaders have a unique opportunity to increase collaboration aimed at ensuring an abundant, nutritious food supply that promotes environmental stewardship and community health.

With numerous small dairies and diversified and organic farms, New England may appear to have little in common with farming regions in the Midwest and Pacific coast. But they all share a number of challenges and opportunities that call for collaborative action across states and regions: Hunger, poor nutrition, and inequity persist in every state; farmers of all types are on the front lines of adapting to climate change; and agriculture officials are wrestling with how to scale up local food and farming. Consumer interest and understanding about how food is produced is increasing in pockets, but needs to be broadly expanded to ensure diverse participation in decision making about how we feed ourselves.

At the same time, large-scale conventional agriculture needs to be made more sustainable. Just last month, a toxic bloom of Cyanobacteria in Lake Erie contaminated the water supply of Toledo, Ohio and parts of southern Michigan, grabbing national headlines as it left these communities without safe drinking water for two days. The toxic bloom formed because agricultural runoff, including fertilizer from farm fields and manure from CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), spurred rapid growth of naturally occurring bacteria in the water, upsetting the lake's delicate balance.

In response to the crisis, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) quickly pledged $2 million to help farmers in the region plant cover crops, which protect soil between main crop production seasons. Cover crops reduce pollution by capturing nutrients in the soil, while also preventing erosion and helping farmers withstand drought. The elegance of this practice is that agriculture and the environment work together--what's beneficial for one is beneficial for both.

Such symbiotic solutions are investigated and tested within the emerging scientific field known as "agroecology." An agroecological approach designs and manages farms with whole ecosystems--soils, plants, animals, the atmosphere, and human beings--in mind. By understanding the connections between each component, farmers can be productive while building essential natural resources.

There are a growing number of examples from public universities that show how agroecological practices can produce multiple benefits. Research at the University of New Hampshire is demonstrating how an organic dairy farm can generate energy and reduce environmental impacts, while a long-term study at Iowa State University has shown that more diversified farming systems can reduce chemical use and increase farmers' profitability.

Despite their potential, a lack of funding is holding back further development of such systems. Most research investments support practices that depend on agribusiness products--like seeds designed to work with specific chemicals--rather than agroecological innovations that increase farmer choices and resilience and reduce costly pollution. NASDA leadership could make a real difference by working with the USDA to direct more funding to research and incentives that help farmers implement sustainable practices on a large scale, and not just when crisis strikes.

If they do this, the scientific community is behind them. Since July, more than 270 scientists and experts have signed a statement calling for an increased public investment in agroecology that would spur wider adoption of sustainable practices. Farmers would benefit through greater resilience to droughts, floods and other climate extremes. And we would all reap the benefits of reduced pollution--cleaner waterways, safer drinking water, and more productive fisheries.

After drinking water was restored in Toledo last month, the city's mayor described the incident as a wakeup call. But it must not be limited to Ohio, and we can't afford to hit the snooze button. Here in the Northeast, A New England Food Vision--a collaborative research effort--envisions tripling the amount of farmland in production by 2060. As agriculture expands across the country, agricultural leaders must ensure this is done sustainably, while embracing the potential of agroecology. Our future depends on it.

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