By Mark Schonbeck
Agriculture is art and science, culture as well as technology. We need skilled, innovative growers and researchers working together to develop sustainable farming, ranching, and food systems for the future. The organic agriculture movement has included a strong research component since its inception, led by pioneers such as J. I. Rodale, Ehrenfried Pfeiffer (Biodynamics), and Sir Albert Howard.
With 20th century mainstream agricultural science focused on agrichemical approaches to production challenges, non-profit organizations like Rodale Institute (http://rodaleinstitute.org/), Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF, http://ofrf.org/) and Organic Seed Alliance (OSA, https://seedalliance.org/#) sought to fund and conduct research that addresses to the needs and goals of organic producers. Gradually, the USDA undertook organic research, at first through Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), which funded VABF projects on mulching and nutrient management in the 1990s. USDA launched the Organic Transitions Program (ORG) in 2002 and the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) in 2004.
How effectively has USDA organic research engaged and served the organic farming community, and how well have projects addressed organic producers’ priorities? In 2014, the OREI funded OFRF to address these questions, leading to the publication of Taking Stock, Analyzing and Reporting Organic Research Investments, 2002-2014. This analysis revealed a substantial body of research that addresses many farmer priorities identified by OFRF in its 2016 National Organic Research Agenda. In addition to advances in soil health, nutrient and weed management, and new crop varieties for organic systems, the Taking Stock analysis identified a need to continue and expand organic research, and to deliver practical outcomes to producers. In 2016, OFRF further reviewed USDA research to identify practical tools and findings that farmers can apply now, and published a series of Soil Health and Organic Farming guides. Topics include organic matter, nutrients, weeds, cover crops, conservation tillage, water management, and crop cultivars for organic systems. Reports and guides are available at http://ofrf.org/.
These outcomes are impressive, considering that USDA organic research comprises only 1.5% of the total USDA research budget (lagging behind the 5% market share for organic foods). Much more is needed. As growing human populations, soil erosion, resource degradation, climate disruption, and economic pressures on farmers continue to threaten future global food security, greatly expanded research and extension in organic and sustainable agriculture is urgently needed. Thus, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has joined with OFRF, OSA, and other groups to advocate for increased organic research funding in the 2018 Federal Farm Bill. Some promising developments on Capitol Hill include:
- The Organic Agriculture Research Act of 2017, introduced on May 16 by Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Dan Newhouse (R-WA), and Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) would increase OREI funding (current $20 M per year) to $50 M per year. See http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/organic-ag-research-act-2017/ for more.
- On June 15, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing at which USDA personnel, other stakeholders, and Senators from both parties advocated increasing USDA research funding, citing specific needs for research into conservation practices, climate-related difficulties, and organic systems. See http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/senate-ag-research-hearing/ for more.
- In July, both the Senate and House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees rejected the President’s proposed cuts to research, rural development, and other key USDA programs. The Senate committee proposes funding increases for SARE and ORG. See http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/senate-appropriations-markup-2017/ for more.
Watch for updates on research, conservation, and other issues related to the coming 2018 Farm Bill in future issues of the VABF e-newsletter.