REVIEWING COMMITMENTS TO SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE RESEARCH
In 1993 at the behest of Senator Daschle (D-SD), Chair of the
Senate Subcommittee on Agricultural Research, the USDA Agricultural
Research Service completed a comprehensive review of the
``sustainable agriculture'' portion of its natural resources and
environment, crop, pest control, and animal research programs. The
ARS is USDA's $650 million a year ``in-house'' research agency. The
review utilized a ``protocol'' developed
by a diverse panel that was convened by Jan van Schilfgaarde of ARS
and George Bird, then director of the SARE program.
The protocol is based on elements that appear in the 1990 farm bill
definition of sustainable agriculture. Subsequent panels convened
to conduct the assessment were asked to rank each project as
``contributing to,'' ``detracting from,'' or having ``no direct
impact'' on sustainability in each of seven categories:
1. Integrated system of plant and animal production practices; 2.
Satisfy human food and fiber needs over the long-term;
3. Enhance environmental quality;
4. Natural resource conservation;
5. Biological Resource Utilization;
6. Economic Viability;
and 7. Quality of Life. Final scores for projects could range from
a +7 to a -7. The panel that designed the protocol determined that
a project should receive an average score of at least +4 to be
considered a ``sustainable agriculture research project,'' and at
least a +2 to be considered ``contributing significantly towards
achieving the goals of sustainable agriculture.''
Five panels, each composed of ARS, university, agribusiness,
non-profit and farmer representatives, assessed 1,177 projects by
applying these criteria. The panels found only 21 projects out of
1,177 that qualified as fully sustainable agriculture research.
They amounted to about 1% of ARS's total research budget, or
$6,744,654. However, nearly one-third of the 1,177 projects,
totalling $143,840,411, were found to ``contribute to
sustainability.'' In contrast, 73 projects, representing
the expenditure of $18,987,799, received an average score below
zero, suggesting that they ``detract from sustainability.''
These figures represent the best, most accountable, numbers we have
to date of the Agricultural Research Service's commitment to
sustainable agriculture. However, the process was not flawless and
the numbers reflect several varieties of practical and political
compromise. One practical compromise was the use of ``Current
Research Information Service'' project descriptions. As a result,
the information available to panelists was generally neither very
complete nor fully up-to-date.
A secondary check of the procedure being designed by George Bird
would ``calibrate'' panel findings based on CRIS descriptions
against the findings of site review panels.
Political compromises took place in both the overall process and
within each panel. The first panel, on which I served, produced
quite dismal-looking figures for the natural resources and systems
program (2 projects out of 251 considered sustainable agriculture,
51 considered contributing to sustainability, and 11 considered
detracting from sustainability).
Ostensibly seeking to reduce the cost of the process, concerned ARS
higher officials subsequently reduced the number of panelists from
nine to seven. They eliminated one each of the two farmer and
non-profit representatives, and left one agribusiness, two academic
and two ARS representatives on each panel.
According to representatives of sustainable agriculture
organizations, farmers, and an organic agribusiness CEO who served
on subsequent panels, the number of other panelists who could be
considered promoters of sustainable agriculture research dwindled
dramatically from the first to the last panel. The final panel, on
animal research, found 123 out of 247 projects contributing to
sustainability, and no projects detracting from sustainability.
Even this panel, however, found only seven out of 247 projects that
it counted as ``sustainable agriculture research.''
A central concern expressed by these participants was that the
protocol was unevenly applied. Even a carefully designed protocol
with well-defined criteria apparently could not forestall broad
interpretations. Dr. van Schilfgaarde, who facilitated every
panel, confirmed their assertion that while some panelists tried
hard to understand and distinguish each criterion and evaluate
projects in close accordance with the demands of the protocol,
others had difficulty applying the criteria (for example,
interpreting ``quality of life'' impacts), seemed to
have axes to grind, or interpreted the criteria apparently without
regard to the definitions provided and the intent of the protocol.
Several panelists (from four of the five panels) wrote to Senator
Daschle after their experience to praise ARS for carrying out the
review, and criticize the agency for its research priorities. These
panelists, most of them either farmers or from non-profit
sustainable agriculture organizations, concluded that ARS
priorities will not generate a more sustainable system of
agriculture. A group of five of the first nine panelists wrote:
The priority seems to be on incremental and piecemeal patching of
environmental symptoms.... We found relatively little evidence that
ARS addresses agriculture's environmental problems in the context
of whole farming systems, or considers alternative approaches that
would eliminate or greatly reduce those problems at their source.
We were dismayed by the lack of vision and creativity directed
toward developing a new generation of agricultural systems that
will sustain not only environmental quality and productive
resources but wildlife habitat and family farming.
Another panelist praised ARS projects aimed at improving crop pest
resistance, crop tolerance to environmental stresses, and natural
control mechanisms for crop pests, and acknowledged the agency's
past importance ``to the development of this country's food
production system.'' Yet he concluded from his panel experience
that ``the agency has not done a very good job of changing its
focus to deal with current research needs....
In general, our cursory review of ARS crop production/crop
protection research showed that a number of current projects are
duplicative, outdated and are perhaps better suited for study by
the private sector.
We don't need more publicly supported work on the efficacy of
pesticides. We need research on alternative pest management
strategies. We don't need breeding programs or biotech projects for
the development of new, high yielding crop varieties that also
require high pesticide and nutrient inputs. We need varieties with
natural pest resistance and better tolerance to environmental
stresses like drought and cold. We don't need top down research
telling producers how to grow crops. We need field research
projects that integrate the practical experience of farmers with
multi- disciplinary experts."
Another drew similar conclusions from the projects she reviewed:
"[I]f one were to design a research program with sustainability as
a major goal, the allocation of resources would be very different.
First of all, most of the biological control work begins with the
premise that pests are our enemies and we must either exterminate
them or develop resistance to them. There is another way of looking
at plant growing: begin, instead, with examining plants that are
healthy. What are the systems that seem to produce healthy plants?
How do they work? Why are potatoes grown in strips through a field
of clover free of Colorado Potato Beetles? Are the plants more
vigorous? Does the
clover disguise the field from the beetles? Is something else
entirely going on that we do not yet recognize? There was not a
single project of this kind amongst those that we evaluated."
Finally, a panelist who reviewed ARS animal research summed it up
"ARS is out of touch with the needs of family farmers and has
failed to look at the challenges facing American agriculture from
a systems or holistic perspective.
Despite shortcomings in the review process, all the above panelists
praised ARS for undertaking the review, and all found the protocol
to be a valuable tool, despite its sometimes uneven use. All also
found that ARS priorities require substantial rearrangement if the
agency is to contribute effectively to a sustainable system of
Due to the cost of the external review process, ARS does not intend
to undertake it every year. Instead, ARS researchers are now being
asked to assess their own projects using the same protocol. Not
surprisingly, according to Dr. van Schilfgaarde self-reported
scores are coming in higher, and the program dollars considered
contributing to sustainability are growing. Unfortunately, if this
signals an un-self-critical perspective
at the agency, it may slow efforts to re-assess and reform
The primary purpose of the review process was to provide accounting
figures to the Senate Subcommittee on Agricultural Research; no
comprehensive ARS report exists. However, we at the Center for
Rural Affairs, with ARS cooperation and review, have analyzed the
raw data to develop a complete list of panel results which we will
gladly share. Copies of the protocol may be obtained from us, Dr.
van Schilfgaarde at ARS, or Dr. George Bird at Michigan State
Elizabeth Bird, Ph.D.; Research and Technology Policy Project
Leader, Other Efforts to Assess Sustainability of Research
OTHER EFFORTS TO ASSESS SUSTAINABILITY OF RESEARCH PROGRAMS
The review of ARS commitments to sustainable agriculture research
is being used as a model for review of the land-grant colleges of
agriculture. Dr. George Bird (Entomology, Michigan State
University) is leading this effort. A sample of projects at several
colleges has been reviewed by panels diverse in personnel. Due to
limited funds, projects from remaining colleges may be grouped
together in a single review.
Use of the protocol to evaluate the relevance to sustainability of
National Research Initiative funded projects has been under
discussion. Concerns have been expressed that the protocol
penalizes basic research, thus potentially making the program
appear less relevant to sustainable agriculture than it might be.
With North-Central Region SARE support, Dr. Bird convened a
committee in December to consider alterations to make the protocol
appropriate to the NRI. Neither the results of the land-grant
review nor the new protocol are available yet, but
when they are we will report on them both in this newsletter.
University of Wisconsin researchers are developing a framework to
classify how research projects employing biotechnology contribute
to agricultural sustainability. A forthcoming publication may be
obtained from Dr. Jack Kloppenburg (Rural Sociology) or Dr. Bob
Goodman (Plant Pathology). We will keep you apprised.
EB Center for Rural Affairs