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Is Our Agricultural Technology Innovation System Up to 21st Century Challenges?

The Shifting Research Model of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Land Grant Universities

SOURCE: AP Photo/Seth Perlman A corn farmer sprays weed killer across his corn field in Auburn, Ill. American farmers are producing more food than ever, but agricultural research is too narrowly focused on increasing production through advances in molecular biology to the exclusion of other valuable pursuits such as low-input methods and place-based innovation.

As the season of Thanksgiving approaches, Americans may be unaware of the role that agricultural technology plays in making their family meal possible. Thanks to remarkable innovations in agriculture over the past century, each acre of farm land now supports two and a half more Thanksgiving feasts than it did just 50 years ago.

But many Americans may also be unaware that failed harvests in Russia have again sent world food prices soaring. Or that the fertilizer used to grow the food on their table is helping to wipe out marine ecosystems in our streams and estuaries. Or that the carbon-rich topsoil that is vital for many crops is being depleted at an astonishing rate. They even may not know that climate change threatens to intensify regional drought and flooding, risking global food shortages, or that the resulting price fluctuations will exacerbate chronic hunger, potentially leading to civil unrest and instability.

Indeed, while agricultural innovations have made it possible for 6 billion humans to live comfortably on the same land that once supported only 1.5 billion, many challenges remain to ensuring our global food system continues to support our society in a sustainable way.

Yet despite these pressing challenges, Americans have been disinvesting in agricultural research for the last three decades. Our agricultural innovation engine has become too narrowly focused on piecemeal adjustments in plant and animal genetics, to the exclusion of potentially valuable research into alternative, low-input methods such as organic, no-till, and poly-crop agriculture. This leaves us in a dangerous position with too few options for the future.

The dawn of the USDA land-grant innovation model

Agricultural science is one of the great accomplishments of American intellectual culture. Although the acknowledged progenitor of 20th century scientific agriculture is the German chemist Justus Leibig (1803-1873), there is little disputing the claim that agricultural science realized its greatest potential in the combination of the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service and the land-grant university system in each of the 50 states. This system had its origins in President Abraham Lincoln’s creation of the USDA in 1862, and its philosophy was succinctly articulated in a speech that candidate Lincoln gave in 1859. Lincoln advocated science and technology development that would aid farmers by increasing the yield of agricultural crops, a vision popularized long before by Jonathan Swift with the adage “Make two blades of grass grow where one grew before.”

In the century and a half between its inception and the era of biotechnology, the USDA land-grant system produced hundreds of plant varieties specifically tailored to local growing conditions around the United States and pioneered the use of soil testing and other methods for helping farmers optimize their farming methods.

The USDA and land-grant universities could be thought of as an early case of federal funding for place-based innovation—an idea that has seen a resurgence in recent years and about which Science Progress has written extensively.  The historian Charles E. Rosenberg argues that this system for developing and demonstrating the economic viability of new crops and farming techniques won the American public over to the possibilities of science-led progress in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The USDA land-grant model expended great effort in making minor adjustments to crop methods that would make them more useful to farmers in specific sub-regions of each state, conducting fairs and demonstrations so that farmers themselves could minimize risky experiments with new methods, and working within real farmers’ fields to diagnose problems and identify workable solutions.

Shifting priorities and the rise of the NIH model

Despite its utility, however, this was not especially sexy science. In the years after World War II, it was the National Institutes of Health model for sponsoring science that captured the imagination of Washington, D.C. In contrast to the USDA’s approach that spread support for practical process innovation to virtually every county in the nation, the NIH model was built on nationwide competitive grants that would concentrate on breakthrough science, relying on drug companies, clinics, and physicians (e.g. the private sector) to commercialize these discoveries and move them to useful application. The NIH model enrolled scientists from the most prestigious private universities, none of which had significant programs in agriculture.

This new basic science-oriented model of innovation funding quickly gained in popularity and soon began to be applied to agricultural research. In 1975, a National Research Council report entitled “Agricultural Research Production Efficiency” lambasted the USDA land-grant research system for wasting resources on multiple trials and demonstration efforts. The study, colloquially known as the Pound report, urged more effort on lab-oriented basic science, and less attention to on-farm studies and problem-solving research.

In comparison to NIH-style science, the report argued that agricultural research was spending entirely too much public money on incremental technical improvements that were of little scientific interest.  Demonstration projects conducted at regional experiment stations allowed researchers, county extension agents, and local farmers to work collaboratively in solving highly localized production problems, but they did not result in the important peer-reviewed journal articles that were the hallmark of breakthrough science.

Meanwhile, the beginnings of the molecular biology revolution in agricultural science were shifting the point at which efficiency gains could be made from the farm to the lab. With biotechnology research, university scientists could concentrate on basic plant science, including genomics and methods for plant transformation, while the development of new crops and their dissemination to farmers fell to private-sector biotechnology companies. That is to say, biotechnology made it possible for the USDA to shift its model.

It would be naïve to suggest that trends were not moving in that direction well before genetic engineering. The great fortunes in agricultural machinery were made in the late 19th century. And as historian Deborah Fitzgerald has shown, seed companies had their great period of growth decades before the Pound report. The influence of chemical companies on pesticide research programs in agricultural universities was the subject of a blistering attack by Robert van den Bosch in 1977. Nonetheless, genetic engineering and genomics provided a way for the agricultural sciences to emulate more prestigious models of biological science being conducted at institutions such as the NIH that had never been deeply involved in agriculture.

Farmers, seeing these shifting priorities as a threat, did not countenance the abandonment of a scientific infrastructure deeply committed to solving their problems peacefully. They didn’t want to see research funding that had been focused on solving their local problems instead go to research that seemed only to benefit biotechnology firms. State-by-state, farm groups have lobbied legislators for continuation of favored programs.

For the most part, however, these battles were fought in piecemeal fashion, as labs and programs dedicated to highly specialized activities at USDA and the universities have been closed one by one over the last 35 years. Farmers complained to deans and directors of agricultural programs, but state governors and U.S. Congressmen have become less and less responsive to these complaints as the relative size of the farm population declined.

It is, ironically, the success of the agricultural research establishment in making two blades of grass grow where one grew before that contributed to this decline, but that is a story for another time and place. The result has been that it has become more and more important for researchers in institutions formerly dedicated to agriculture to source external funds through grants and contracts. As USDA funding itself has declined as a proportion of total U.S. research funding, a primary source for agricultural research grants has become NIH itself, which means contracts to agricultural scientists have shifted increasingly to chemicals and biotechnology.

Reducing our options

There was, however, a small cadre of farmers who were becoming enamored with farming technologies that had never received a great deal of support from the USDA land grant system, even in its heyday. These techniques stressed composting and complex mixes of crops and animal production. They tended to eschew chemical amendments, and those who were developing these approaches were fond of describing them in language suggestive of vitalism: seeing the soil, the earth, or the farm itself as an organism, as a living thing. Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms in Swoope Virginia is a prime example.

With very little support from established agricultural research in the developed world, these low-input methods (many of which have become the core of organic agriculture) have been tested and spread by farmers themselves. It is really only in the last decade that a few scientists in the USDA land-grant system have begun to notice the level of sophistication in present-day low-input farming, and have begun to reinvent scientific approaches to understand, improve, and spread them.  But this research into alternative farming methods has had an uphill fight.

As it happens, the emergence of genetically engineered crops in the late 1990s coincided with development of a marketing standard for a loose group of these production methods, the USDA Certified Organic label. The fear that large biotech companies would undermine the organic movement caused organic leaders to ban all use of genetic engineering in organic farming. Organic production and GE crops were thus on a philosophical and practical collision course. Agricultural research eager to prove itself more “scientific” had little interest in the metaphors and trial-and-error methods of the organic world, while organic growers, fiercely independent to start with, had every reason to view the trend toward NIH-style relationships with industry as a conspiracy against them.

There is debate about these alternative approaches here in the United States, but there is really no debating the fact that poor farmers around the world could imitate many of Salatin’s farming practices, given some adaptive research that tailors them to local soils and climate. In contrast, the more industrial approach requires two things that poor farmers lack. One is the infrastructure of local seed, fertilizer, and chemical companies, along with an effective regulatory system to monitor the impact of high-tech farming. The other is the money to buy these inputs from the private sector, even when they are available.

Indeed, low-input farming methods emphasize management of soils, crop rotations, tillage, and water to reduce the need for purchased inputs, even while increasing yields. A convincing account of why the USDA land-grant system ignored “alternative agriculture,” as some called it, awaits the attention of some future historian, but a few points might be noted.

For one thing, the on-farm style of research that would have been needed to support organic production requires more time in the field (hence more cost). Unlike genetic engineering, research into organic methods is tied to real-time cycles of farming: A scientist must design experiments and data collection methods that coincide with the annual cycle of farming. And like farming, such research is subject to variations in the weather and economic conditions that limit the opportunity for controlled experiments. It is thus arguably less amenable to the metrics used to evaluate scientific productivity (peer-reviewed publications, patents, and grants) in the NIH model.

For another, as the work of Fitzgerald and van den Bosch showed, USDA land-grant researchers were too cozy with big-money industry players, and probably did not lobby very hard for funding programs that would support alternative strategies. Finally, the organic farming community’s attraction to vitalistic metaphors and unsubstantiated health-claims alienated many scientists whose careers depended upon pursuing a research program that could pass the laugh test.  On each of these three points, research focused on genomics and genetic engineering was much more promising to a budding scientist than the iffy strategy of partnering with the organic growers.

In conclusion, there are two questions that we should be asking in tandem as we sit down for our Thanksgiving turkey (or tofu, as the case may be). First, has the decline in funding and the shift toward a breakthrough science model left us adequately prepared to solve the problems with our national and global food system? And second, would simply bolstering, as opposed to also broadening, our current system of agricultural research be an adequate response?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University.

Further reading:

Deborah Fitzgerald, The Business of Breeding: Hybrid Corn in Illinois, 1890-1940 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990).

Charles E. Rosenberg, No Other Gods: Science and American Social Thought (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976, rev. ed, 1997).

Paul B. Thompson, The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2010).

Robert van den Bosch, The Pesticide Conspiracy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978).

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