Reflecting on the \”early days\” of sustainable agriculture research and education

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\"\"Today, many public universities including my own promote their research and educational efforts in support of a more sustainable agriculture.  It wasn\’t always this way.  The end of the year seems like a good time for reflection – to see what we can learn from our past.  So lets look back to the \”early days\” of sustainable agriculture, the late 1980\’s, when a loosely organized contingency of farmers invented an idea they called \”sustainable agriculture.\”

The  early advocates of sustainable agriculture were mostly  farmers. They generally managed mid-sized farms, but there was no consistent pattern, no typical type of farm that led the way into sustainable agriculture.  Some were organic, others not.  The unifying characteristic among these early advocates was that all had weathered the severe financial stress of the mid-1980\’s – and they were still farming.

\"\"In the late 1980\’s, the concept of sustainable agriculture was poorly defined and much debated.  It received immediate and vocal support from the environmental community – resulting in immediate and vocal distrust from mainstream agricultural institutions.  The cries of the environmentalists generally reflected a poor understanding of agriculture. The response from agricultural commodity groups, agribusiness, and public universities ranged from confused to openly hostile.

But these farmer-driven and farmer managed sustainable agriculture organizations persisted.  Perhaps uneasy with much of the debate, they simply got down to work and began doing research and education on their own.  Some of the farmer-led sustainable agriculture organizations became well established, and began calling for assistance from their public research and educational institutions.

The response from the public university system to their call for help was at best mixed and at worst loaded with animosity, derision and ridicule.  Some faculty reacted to the call for help with respect and curiosity, and these individuals were initially marginalized by most mainstream faculty and college leadership.  This was a lonely time for the early advocates of sustainable agriculture within the university system.  But this had to change, as the signs that \”modern farming\” was in trouble were becoming increasingly obvious to anyone willing to look.  Remember….

  • In the late 80\’s we were emerging from a farm crisis that had accelerated the rate in which farmers were leaving the farm.
  • The public had been frightened by two major media events causing us to worry about pesticides on our food, one concerning the safety of apples, the other concerning grapes from Chile.
  • Pesticide residues were being found in rural wells, surface waters, snowfall, windblown soil and fog.
  • Soil erosion made the front page of the Chicago Tribune and the CEO of Archer Daniels, Midland Co. claimed that soil loss was more dangerous a threat than nuclear war.

Overtime, more faculty and administrators came to look on sustainable agriculture as an opportunity rather than a threat.  When public funding became available through the U.S.D.A. Low-input Sustainable Agriculture program, university scientists began to pay more attention.  At first cautious but eventually more enthusiastic partnerships between the universities and the non-profit organizations (which were required for public funding) emerged.   Today, public research and education in sustainable agriculture is almost \”mainstream\”.  But this transition took time.

\"\"Most Americans probably assume that public institutions have an obligation to serve the public good.  And how better for a public land grant university to serve the public than to address the continued degradation of the land that provides our sustenance?   Solving important public problems is what public university science should be all about.  But in the 1980\’s many agricultural scientists could not admit there was a problem.

\"\"Reports that only 5% of rural wells had traces of pesticide and only 12% of rural wells had high nitrate levels were not viewed as a problem by apologists for industrial agriculture inside and outside the university.  During the winter of 1989-90, an analysis of every major snowfall event across the corn belt found only traces of the commonly used corn herbicide, Atrazine.  This was declared simply the cost of doing business – the \”price of bounty.\”

Even once we acknowledged evidence that all was not right, the debate continued as to whether the problem was indeed worth our attention. The scientists inside the public university system who had invested so much in the development of industrial agriculture remained reluctant to accept that something might be wrong.  It took public groups to bring pressure on the university system to begin to address these problems.   In a democracy, the public must be involved.  While science can help define the problem, community values and public debate must help determine where public resources are focused.

\"\"As a young scientist deeply engaged in the sustainable agriculture controversy, I found the response of some of my colleagues disappointing.  Somehow I expected scientists to respond with more curiosity to the claims being made by farmers and environmentalists that something was not right with American agriculture. 

\"\"Today, most university agricultural programs are willing to address the environmental degradation and resource depletion associated with modern agriculture.  But new ideas are often still met with skepticism, and some of the most interesting work being done  in sustainable food and farming is not initiated inside the university, but by creative practitioners.  New ideas that came from outside the university, and deserving of our attention are:

  • permaculture and forest gardening,
  • rotational grazing and seasonal dairying,
  • food sovereignty,
  • carbon farming,
  • urban agriculture, and
  • edible landscapes….

We still need to face some unpleasant truths about the public university system.

\"\"We will likely continue to be skeptics, as that is the nature of science.  But I hope we can learn to be more open to innovation and creativity when it comes from outside the institution.   Many farmers have criticized the public land grant universities as being reluctant to consider new ideas generated in the field (the \”not invented here\” syndrome).

There is some truth to this critique.

If we are to learn from the \”early days\” of sustainable agriculture, we must recognize that criticism from outside the institution should be welcomed. It says that someone cares about what we do and how we are doing it. And if we are willing to listen, the criticism helps us focus on what we should be doing. It keeps us sharp – and it pushes us to do better.

Please don\’t stop caring and criticizing YOUR public university.

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

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