Less than 15 percent of the major external research and education grants the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) awarded last year touched on the science of agroecology—the science of managing agricultural lands to boost the health of the farmland and surrounding environment, according to a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Policy.

The study was conducted by Marcia DeLonge, a scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) Food and Environment Program; Liz Carlisle, a fellow at the Center for Diversified Farming Systems at the University of California, Berkeley; and Albie Miles, an assistant professor in the Sustainable Community Food Systems Program at the University of Hawaii, West O’ahu.

The activist UCS blame the “industrial model” of farming for frequently polluting the air and waterways and degrading soil. DeLonge claims what most of agriculture refers to as “conventional farming” as being a wrong approach. “By contrast, agroecological farming systems work with nature to protect and conserve resources while maintaining farmers’ productivity and profits over the long term. The federal government should invest more taxpayer dollars in these systems,” she said.  

DeLonge is presenting results from the study today, November 16, at the annual meeting of the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America and Soil Science Society of America. The UCS is pleased that the conference organizers are “increasingly entertaining discussions about organic and sustainable farming practices.” 

The study showed that the grants awarded to universities and other institutions that involved agroecology represented less than 2 percent of USDA’s total research and education budget in 2014.

“Agroecological research can give farmers better tools to manage pests and weeds, prevent soil erosion and cope with extreme weather of a changing climate,” Carlisle said. “Additional investment would help scientists test which techniques work best with various climates and soil types and share that information with farmers.” 

The USDA needs more resources overall, according to DeLonge, but could also direct more of its current funding into this type of research. 

“Agroecological practices tend to reduce the need for commercial fertilizers and pesticides, so it isn’t too surprising that industry hasn’t invested in this type of research,” said DeLonge. “That’s why it’s so important for it to receive public funding.” 

Farmers practicing agroecology are praised by UCS for how they design their farms to use biodiversity and soil management as tools to increase productivity and resilience. As part of their practices, these farmers often replace chemical fertilizers with compost, mulch, manure or plants to “naturally improve soil fertility.” They also employ non-chemical pest control methods, including the use of natural enemies, and they protect fields with cover crops during the off-season. They also praise farmers who have replaced regular tillage with no-till management or conservation tillage to maintain soil health and reduce erosion. 

More about UCS is at www.ucsusa.org.