Investing in the transition to sustainable agriculture
Ecological impacts of industrial agriculture include significant greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity, widespread pollution by fertilizers and pesticides, soil loss and degradation, declining pollinators, and human health risks, among many others. A rapidly growing body of scientific research, however, suggests that farming systems designed and managed according to ecological principles can meet the food needs of society while addressing these pressing environmental and social issues. The promise of such systems implies an urgent need for increasing the scope and scale of this area of research – agroecology. Overall, US public funding of sustainable agriculture is relatively small.
Notably, agroecological systems have been shown to reduce input dependency and therefore related research is unlikely to be supported by the private sector. Yet, the amount of federal funding available for agroecology has remained unclear. To address this gap in knowledge, we identified projects beginning in 2014 from the USDA Current Research Information System (CRIS) database and searched key sections of project reports for major components emphasizing sustainable agriculture, including agroecology. Components were grouped into four levels according to their focus on: improving system efficiency to reduce the use of inputs (L1), substituting more sustainable inputs and practices into farming systems (L2), redesigning systems based on ecological principles (L3: agroecology), or reestablishing connections between producers and consumers to support a socio-ecological transformation of the food system (L4: social dimensions of agroecology). We identified 824 projects, which accounted for $294 million dollars: just over 10% of the entire 2014 USDA Research, Extension, and Economics (REE) budget. Using a highly conservative classification protocol, we found that the primary focus of many projects was unrelated to sustainable agriculture at any level, but the majority of projects had at least one relevant component (representing 52–69% of analyzed funds, depending on whether projects focused exclusively on increasing yields were included). Of the total $294 million of analyzed funds, 18–36% went to projects that included a L1 component. Projects including components in L2, L3, or L4 received just 24%, 15%, and 14% of analyzed funds, respectively. Systems-based projects that included both agroecological farming practices (L3) and support for socioeconomic sustainability (L4) were particularly poorly funded (4%), as were L3 projects that included complex rotations (3%), spatially diversified farms (3%), rotational or regenerative grazing (1%), integrated crop-livestock systems (1%), or agroforestry (<1%). We estimated that projects with an emphasis on agroecology, indicated by those with a minimum or overall level of L3, represented 5–10% of analyzed funds (equivalent to only 0.6–1.5% of the 2014 REE budget). Results indicate that increased funding is urgently needed for REE, especially for systems-based research in biologically diversified farming and ranching systems.
Overall, US public funding of sustainable agriculture is relatively small. In our highly conservative analysis we identified $294 million, of which 52–69% could be considered related to sustainable agriculture at some level (depending on whether projects focused on increasing yields are included). However, a much smaller portion of these analyzed funds went toward systems-based agroecology research. This lack of funding is particularly noteworthy when considering the significantly larger US budget for medical research, as well as the relatively large portion of USDA funding dedicated to addressing the negative social and ecological impacts of the existing system. Given that our current system is responsible for significant public health and environmental issues, it would be strategic to invest in a large-scale transition to a more sustainable agri-food system.
Of the public funds for sustainable agriculture analyzed in this study, we found that the largest portion were directed at improving the input efficiency of conventional agricultural systems (L1), with much of that geared toward yield increases in either crops, meat, or fish. Projects including practices that substitute less damaging inputs into dominant agricultural systems (L2), which included many practices embraced by organic farmers, garnered the next greatest amount of funding.
A relatively smaller amount of the existing sustainable agriculture funding was directed at projects that, overall, are reflective of agroecological systems. For example, only 10% of all analyzed funds were toward projects with an emphasis on agroecology, as indicated by an average level of L3. Even less (5%) were allocated to projects that included only L3, or L3 and L4 components. Furthermore, it is unrealistic to conclude that all funding allocated to a project would be used to support the advancement of any given component; therefore, these estimates reflect a best-case scenario.
Given the importance of agroecology, a much larger focus on all relevant topics is critical. Among funded agroecological research, projects focusing on spatially diversified farms, crop rotations, and improved grazing received particularly small fractions. Projects focusing on either soil carbon sequestration or greenhouse gas emissions received slightly more funding and are critical pieces, but may be maximally effective when combined with diversified and ecologically informed farming and ranching systems.
The long-term success of agroecological systems depends on not only science and practice, but also on developing the community, business, and policy supports that can ensure economic sustainability. Thus, projects that link on-farm practices (L3) to socioeconomic supports (L4) are believed to provide an important foundation for a larger scale transition to sustainable agriculture (L5), but such projects are exceptionally rare.
Our analysis focused exclusively on successful proposals, thus the level of demand for more sustainable agricultural research is outside of the scope of this study. However, since proposals are encouraged through a formal solicitation process (USDA, 2015), more sustainable agriculture and agroecological research could be widely encouraged through both existing and new funding programs. Overall, this study indicates an urgent need for additional public funding for systems-based agroecology and sustainable agriculture research, particularly for the advancement of highly promising areas of biologically diversified farming and ranching systems.