Click for next page ( 4


The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement



Below are the first 10 and last 10 pages of uncorrected machine-read text (when available) of this chapter, followed by the top 30 algorithmically extracted key phrases from the chapter as a whole.
Intended to provide our own search engines and external engines with highly rich, chapter-representative searchable text on the opening pages of each chapter. Because it is UNCORRECTED material, please consider the following text as a useful but insufficient proxy for the authoritative book pages.

Do not use for reproduction, copying, pasting, or reading; exclusively for search engines.

OCR for page 3
E _ xecutive summary | N THE 1930S, CROP YIELDS in the United States, England, India, and Argen- tina were essentially the same. Since that time, researchers, scientists, and a host of federal policies have helped U.S. farmers dramatically increase yields of corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, and most other major commodities. Today, fewer farmers feed more people than ever before. This success, how- ever, has not come without costs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified agricul- ture as the largest nonpoint source of surface water pollution. Pesticides and nitrate from fertilizers are detected in the groundwater in many agri- cultural regions. Soil erosion remains a concern in many states. Pest resis- tance to pesticides continues to grow, and the problem of pesticide residues in food has yet to be resolved. Purchased inputs have become a significant part of total operating costs. Other nations have closed the productivity gap and are more competitive in international markets. Federal farm pro- gram costs have risen dramatically in recent years. Because of these concerns, many farmers have begun to adopt alternative practices with the goals of reducing input costs, preserving the resource base, and protecting human health. The committee has reviewed the di- mensions and structure of U.S. agriculture, its problems, and some of the alternatives available to farmers to resolve them. Many components of alternative agriculture are derived from conven- tional agronomic practices and livestock husbandry. The hallmark of an alternative farming approach is not the conventional practices it rejects but the innovative practices it includes. In contrast to conventional farming, however, alternative systems more deliberately integrate and take advantage of naturally occurring beneficial interactions. Alternative systems empha- size management; biological relationships, such as those between the pest 3

OCR for page 3
4 ALTERNATIVE AGRICULTURE and predator; and natural processes, such as nitrogen fixation instead of chemically intensive methods. The objective is to sustain and enhance rather than reduce and simplify the biological interactions on which production agriculture depends, thereby reducing the harmful off-farm effects of pro- duction practices. Alternative agriculture is any system of food or fiber production that systematically pursues the following goals: . More thorough incorporation of natural processes such as nutrient cy- cles, nitrogen fixation, and pest-predator relationships into the agricul- tural production process; Reduction in the use of off-farm inputs with the greatest potential to harm the environment or the health of farmers and consumers; Greater productive use of the biological and genetic potential of plant and animal species; Improvement of the match between cropping patterns and the produc- tive potential and physical limitations of agricultural lands to ensure long-term sustainability of current production levels; and Profitable and efficient production with emphasis on improved farm management and conservation of soil, water, energy, and biological resources. Alternative agriculture is not a single system of farming practices. It in- cludes a spectrum of farming systems, ranging from organic systems that attempt to use no purchased synthetic chemical inputs, to those involving the prudent use of pesticides or antibiotics to control specific pests or diseases. Alternative farming encompasses, but is not limited to, farming systems known as biological, low-input, organic, regenerative, or sustain- able. It includes a range of practices such as integrated pest management (IPM); low-intensity animal production systems; crop rotations designed to reduce pest damage, improve crop health, decrease soil erosion, and, in the case of legumes, fix nitrogen in the soil; and tillage and planting practices that reduce soil erosion and help control weeds. Alternative farmers incor- porate these and other practices into their farming operations. Successful alternative farmers do what all good managers do they apply management skills and information to reduce costs, improve efficiency, and maintain production levels. Some examples of practices and principles emphasized in alternative sys- tems include . Crop rotations that mitigate weed, disease, insect, and other pest prob- lems; increase available soil nitrogen and reduce the need for purchased fertilizers; and, in conjunction with conservation tillage practices, re- duce soil erosion. {PM, which reduces the need for pesticides by crop rotations, scouting, weather monitoring, use of resistant cultivars, timing of planting, and biological pest controls.

OCR for page 3
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY . 5 Management systems to control weeds and improve plant health and the abilities of crops to resist insect pests and diseases. Soil- and water-conserving tillage. Animal production systems that emphasize disease prevention through health maintenance, thereby reducing the need for antibiotics. Genetic improvement of crops to resist insect pests and diseases and to use nutrients more effectively. Alternative systems are often diversified. Diversified systems, which tend to be more stable and resilient, reduce financial risk and provide a hedge against drought, pest infestation, or other natural factors limiting produc- tion. Diversification can also reduce economic pressures from price in- creases for pesticides, fertilizers, and other inputs; drops in commodity prices; regulatory actions affecting the availability of certain products; and pest resistance to pesticides. Alternative farming practices can be compatible with small or large farms and many different types of machinery. Differences in climate and soil types, however, affect the costs and viability of alternative systems. Alter- native practices must be carefully adapted to the biological and physical conditions of the farm and region. For example, it is relatively easy for corn and soybean farmers in the Midwest to reduce or eliminate routine insecti- cide use, a goal much harder for fruit and vegetable growers in regions with long production seasons, such as the hot and humid Southeast. Crop rota- tion and mechanical tiDage can control weeds in certain crops, climates, and soils, but herbicides may be the only economical way to control weeds in others. Substituting manure or legume forages for chemical fertilizers can significantly reduce fertilizer costs. However, a local livestock industry is often necessary to make these practices economical. FINDINGS In assessing current conventional and alternative farming practices in U.S. agriculture the committee Studied the potential influence of alternative farming practices on na- tional economic, environmental, and public health goals; Identified and evaluated the factors, including government programs and policies, that influence adoption of alternative farming practices; and Reviewed the state of scientific and economic knowledge of alternative farming practices to determine what further research is needed. Based on its study, the committee arrived at four major findings. 1. A small number of farmers in most sectors of U.S. agriculture currently use alternative farming systems, although components of alternative sys- tems are used more widely. Farmers successfully adopting these systems generally derive significant sustained economic and environmental benefits.

OCR for page 3
6 ALTERNATIVE AGRICULTURE Wider adoption of proven alternative systems would result in even greater economic benefits to farmers and environmental gains for the nation. 2. A wide range of federal policies, including commodity programs, trade policy, research and extension programs, food grading and cosmetic stan- dards, pesticide regulation, water quality and supply policies, and tax pol- icy, significantly influence farmers' choices of agricultural practices. As a whole, federal policies work against environmentally benign practices and the adoption of alternative agricultural systems, particularly those involving crop rotations, certain soil conservation practices, reductions in pesticide use, and increased use of biological and cultural means of pest control. These policies have generally made a plentiful food supply a higher priority than protection of the resource base. 3. A systems approach to research is essential to the progress of alterna- tive agriculture. Agricultural researchers have made important contribu- tions to many components of alternative as well as conventional agricultural systems. These contributions include the development of high-yielding pest- resistant cultivars, soil testing methods, conservation tiliage, other soil and water conservation practices, and IPM programs. Little recent research, however, has been directed toward many on-farm interactions integral to alternative agriculture, such as the relationship among crop rotations, till- age methods, pest control, and nutrient cycling. Farmers must understand these interactions as they move toward alternative systems. As a result, the scientific knowledge, technology, and management skills necessary for widespread adoption of alternative agriculture are not widely available or well defined. Because of differences among regions and crops, research needs vary. 4. Innovative farmers have developed many alternative farming methods and systems. These systems consist of a wide variety of integrated practices and methods suited to the specific needs, limitations, resource bases, and economic conditions of different farms. To make wider adoption possible, however, farmers need to receive information and technical assistance in developing new management skills. Incentives for the Acloption of Alternatives Major segments of U.S. agriculture entered a period of economic hardship and stress in the early and mid-1980s. This period followed more than 30 years of growth in farm size and production following World War II. Export sales after 1981 slumped well below the record levels of the late 1970s. This was caused by the rising value of the dollar, a period of worldwide reces- sion, high and rigid federal commodity program loan rates, and increases in agricultural production and exports from developed and certain devel- oping countries. As food surpluses grew in some regions of the world, the industrializect nations promoted agricultural exports with a variety of sub- sidies. Many U. S. farmers, particularly specialized producers of major

OCR for page 3
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 7 export crops such as corn, soybeans, cotton, and wheat, suffered financial hardship. Some farmers, caught by the abrupt downward turn in commodity prices and land values, were unable to pay debts. Many were forced to leave farming. A substantial increase in federal price and income support pay- ments beginning in 1983, coupled with stronger export demand, has helped insulate row-crop and smaD-grain producers from further economic losses. Nonetheless, tens of thousands of farms are still struggling, particularly mid~e-sized family farms with little or no off-farm income. Apart from economic hardship, other adverse effects of conventional ag- riculture are being felt in some regions. Specialization and related produc- tion practices, such as extensive synthetic chemical fertilizer and pesticide use, are contributing to environmental and occupational health problems as wed as potential public health problems. Insects, weeds, and pathogens continue to develop resistance to some commonly used insecticides, herbi- cides, and fungicides. Insects and pathogens also continue to overcome inbred genetic resistance of plants. Nitrate, predominantly from fertilizers and animal manures, and several widely used pesticides have been found in surface water and groundwater, making agriculture the leading nonpoint source of water pollution in many states. The decreasing genetic diversity of many major U.S. crops and livestock species (most notably dairy cattle and poultry) increases the potential for sudden widespread economic losses from disease. Evaluating Alternative Farming Methods anti Systems A review of the literature led the committee to conduct a set of case studies to further explore and illustrate the principles and practices of alternative agriculture. Some farmers who have adopted alternative prac- tices have been very successful, while others have tried and failed. Some who have successfully adopted alternatives experienced setbacks during the transition. Experience and research have led to a detailed understanding of some alternative methods. But many others are not well understood. Con- sequently, it is hard to predict where and how specific alternative practices might be useful. Although sconce has accumulated a great base of knowl- edge of potential benefit to alternative agriculture, research and extension have not focused on integrating this knowledge into practical solutions to farmers' problems. It is difficult to estimate the economic impact of many alternative farming practices, particularly those that influence several facets of the farm, such as soil fertility and pest populations. The task of isolating the impact of a new practice requires detailed knowledge of a farm's biological and agro- nomic characteristics. Even more difficult is the task of predicting and measuring the economic effects of the transition to alternative methods.

OCR for page 3
8 ALTERNATIVE AGRICULTURE During the transition period, it is often unclear how well and how quickly alternative practices will become effective. The aggregate effects of alternative agriculture need to be evaluated in the context of market forces and government policies that determine farm prof- itability. In spite of obstacles, however, innovative farmers will continue to broaden and refine alternative farming practices, with increasingly signifi- cant benefits for agriculture, the economy, and the environment. With ap- propriate changes in farm policy and expanded and redirected research and extension efforts, the rate of progress in developing and adopting alterna- tive systems could be markedly accelerated. CONCLUSIONS Alternative Farming Practices anc! Their Effectiveness Farmers who adopt alternative farming systems often have productive and profitable operations, even though these farms usually function with relatively little help from commodity income and price support programs or extension. The committee's review of available literature and commissioned case studies illustrates that alternative systems can be successful in regions with different climatic, ecological, and economic conditions and on farms pro- ducing a variety of crops and livestock. Further, a small number of farms using alternative systems profitably produce most major commodities, usu- ally at competitive prices, and often without participating in federal com- modity price and income support programs. Some of these farms, however, depend on higher prices for their products. Successful alternative farmers often produce high per acre yields with significant reductions in costs per unit of crop harvested. A wide range of alternative systems and techniques deserves further support and investigation by agricultural and economic researchers. With modest adjustments in a number of federal agricultural policies many of these systems could become more widely adopted and successful. Alternative farming practices are not a weIZ-defined set of practices or management techniques. Rather, they are a range of technological and management options used on farms striving to reduce costs, protect health and environmental quality, and enhance beneficial biological interactions and natural processes. Farmers adopting alternative practices strive for profitable and ecologi- cally sound ways to use the particular physical, chemical, and biological

OCR for page 3
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 9 potentials of their farms' resources. To these ends, they make choices to diversify their operations, make the fullest use of available on-farm re- sources, protect themselves and their communities from the potential haz- ards of agricultural chemicals, and reduce off-farm input expenses. Instead of rejecting modern agricultural science, farmers adopting alternative sys- tems rely on increased knowledge of pest management and plant nutrition, improved genetic and biological potential of cultivars and livestock, and better management techniques. A fuller understanding of biological and ecological interactions, nutrient cycles, and management systems geared toward sustaining and maximizing on-farm resources is often prerequisite for a successful transition to an alternative system. The transition can occur rapidly in some cases; however, most farmers adopt alternative practices gradually as they learn to integrate these practices into more profitable farm management systems. WeZZ-managed alternative farming systems nearly always use less syn- thetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics per unit of produc- tion than comparable conventional farms. Reduced use of these inputs lowers production costs and lessens agriculture's potential for adverse environmental and' health effects without necessarily decreasing and in some cases increasing per acre crop yields and the productivity of livestock management systems. Farmers can reduce pesticide use on cash grains through rotations that disrupt the reproductive cycle, habitat, and food supply of many crop insect pests and diseases. By altering the timing and placement of nitrogen fertil- izers, farmers can often reduce per acre application rates with little or no sacrifice in crop yields. Further reductions are possible in regions where leguminous forages and cover crops can be profitably grown in rotation with corn, soybeans, and small grains. This usually requires the presence of a local hay market. Fruit and vegetable growers can often dramatically decrease pesticide use with an IPM program, particularly in dry or northern regions. Subtherapeutic use of antibiotics can be reduced or eliminated without sacrificing profit in most beef and swine production systems not reliant on extreme confinement rearing. Significant reduction of antibiotic use in poultry production is possible, but will be more difficult without major changes in the management and housing systems commonly used in intensive production. Alternative farming practices typically require more information, trained labor, time, and management skills per unit of production than conventional farming. Alternative farming is not easy. Grain farmers who add livestock to their farms may find it more difficult to balance demands on their time during certain peak work seasons. Labor needs, particularly for trained personnel,

OCR for page 3
10 ALTERNATIVE AGRICULTURE typically increase on farms using alternative systems. Marketing plans take more time to develop and implement. Alternative farming practices also require more attention to unique farm conditions. Scouting for pests and beneficial insects, using biological controls, adopting rotations, and spot spraying insecticides or herbicides require more knowledge and manage- ment than simply treating entire fields on a programmed schedule. The development of optimum rotations or planting schedules for specific climatic and soil conditions demands careful observation of crop response and precise management. Preventive health care for livestock requires greater knowledge of animal health and accurate diagnoses of health prob- lems. Monitoring soil nutrient levels through soil and crop tissue testing is a reliable way to estimate more precisely fertility needs and calibrate fertil- izer applications. Such testing and analysis, however, require time, knowl- edge, money, and, in many cases, specialized skills. The Effect of Government Policy Many federal policies discourage adoption of alternative practices and! systems by economically penalizing those who adopt rotations, apply certain soil conservation systems, or attempt to reduce pesticide appZi- cations. Federal programs often tolerate and sometimes encourage un- reaZisticaZZy high yield goals, inefficient fertilizer and pesticide use, and unsustainable use of land and water. Many farmers in these programs manage their farms to maximize present and future program benefits, sometimes at the expense of environmental quality. Commodity program rules have an enormous influence on agriculture. Through provisions governing allowable uses of base acres, these programs promote specialization in one or two crops, rather than more varied rota- tions. Between 80 and 95 percent of all acreage producing corn, other feed grains, wheat, cotton, and rice (or about 70 percent of the nation's crop- land) are currently enrolled in federal commodity programs. All acres enrolled in the federal commodity income and price support programs are subject to specific crop program rules that determine eligibil- ity. The most crucial and basic rule determines eligible base acres. A farm's base acres are those eligible for program participation and benefits. They are calculated as an average of acreage enrolled in a particular crop program each year during the past 5 years. Thus, any practice that reduces acreage counted as planted to a program crop will reduce the acreage eligible for federal subsidies for the next 5 years. For example, if a farmer rotates ah of his or her base acreage one year to a legume that will fix and supply nitrogen and conserve soil, fewer acres will be eligible for program pay- ments in subsequent years. In general, under this scenario, benefits would be reduced 20 percent per year for the next 5 years. Payment reductions could be even greater in subsequent years. - Another rule, cross-compliance, passed in the Food Security Act of 1985,

OCR for page 3
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 1 1 has had a great influence on a farmer's choice of crops. Cross-compliance stipulates that to receive any benefits from an established crop acreage base, a farmer must not exceed his or her acreage base for any other program crop. In general, cross-compliance discourages diversification into rotations involving other program crops. For example, if a farm is enrobed in the corn program and has no other program crop base acreage, the farm would lose all corn program benefits that year if any other program crop were planted on the farm. Farmers wishing to diversify into rotations with other program crops must generally forfeit program payments from crops currently in the program. If a farm had base acreage for two or more crops when cross- compliance went into effect in 1986, it must meet two criteria to retain eligibility for maximum program benefits: (1) the farm may not be planted with any other program crops and (2) the farm must stay enrobed in both programs each year. Oats are currently exempt from cross-compliance to encourage production. And in 1989, farmers have the option of planting 10 to 25 percent of feedgrain base acres to soybeans with no reduction in feedgrain base acres in subsequent years. The government also sets per bushel target prices for program crops. Farmers enrolled in the programs are paid the difference between the target price and the crop-specific loan rate or market price, whichever difference is less, in the form of a per bushed (per hundredweight for rice, per pound for cotton) deficiency payment. This is paid in addition to what a farmer receives on the market or for placing the crop under loan with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Commodity Credit Corporation. Of- ten these deficiency payments are a substantial portion of gross farm in- come. For example, in 1986 and 1987, corn deficiency payments were $1.~1 and $~.21 per bushel, while market prices averaged $1.92 and $~.82, respec- tively. Wheat deficiency payments in 1986 and 1987 were $~.98 and $1.78 per bushel, while market prices averaged $2.40 and $2.60, respectively. Farmers in these programs manage their land to maximize future eligibil- ity for farm program benefits. They are often far more responsive to subtle economic effects of the farm programs than to the biological and physical constraints of their land. Two principal objectives of farmers participating in the commodity programs are to sustain or expand eligible base acres and to maximize yields on those acres, thus maximizing per acre payments. These goals are usually achieved by growing the same crop or crops year after year and striving for the highest possible yield on the greatest possible acreage. Shifts in international market demand driven by economic policy changes in the United States, including devaluation of the doDar and changes in the tax code and deficits, can also have significant, unintended effects on the land. During the export boom of the 1970s and early 1980s, land previously considered unsuitable for cultivation, primarily because of erosion, was brought into cultivation. About 25 million acres of this land has been re- cently icHed under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), but much remains in production.

OCR for page 3
12 ALTERNATIVE AGRICULTURE Fertilizers and pesticides are often applied at rates that cannot be justified economically without consideration of present or future farm program payments. The committee identified two major forms of input inefficiency encour- aged by federal commodity programs: (1) excess input use to achieve higher yields and maximize government program payments and (2) use of inputs to expand crop production onto marginal lands or to support the produc- tion of crops in regions poorly suited to a particular crop. Efficiency of input use, total variable costs, and per unit production costs differ widely among growers and regions. The committee's review of se- lected cost of production studies resulted in the following conclusions that warrant further study to help improve farm profitability and reform farm . - pollcles: . Within a given region for a specific crop, average production costs per unit of output on the most efficient farms are typically 25 percent less, and often more than 50 percent less, than average costs on less efficient farms. There is a great range in the economic performance of seemingly similar or neighboring farms. Average production costs per unit of output also vary markedly among regions, although not as dramatically as among individual farms. High-income and low-cost farms are often larger. The causes and effects of this, however, deserve study. Certain variable production expenses- machinery, pesticides, fertilizers, and interest (excluding land)account disproportionately for differ- ences in per unit production costs. Federal grading standards, or standards adopted under federal market- ing orders, often discourage alternative pest control practices for fruits and vegetables by imposing cosmetic and insect-part criteria that have little if any relation to nutritional quality. Meat and dairy grading standards continue to provide economic incentives for high-fat content, even though considerable evidence supports the relationship between high consumption of fats and chronic diseases, particularly heart dis- ease. Most fruits and vegetables are marketed under orders that set specific criteria for cosmetic damage and other quality criteria that rarely affect the safety or nutritional value of the food. Commodity producer organizations generally support these standards as a way of reducing market supply and increasing price; food processors favor them as a quality control mechanism and because they can offer a lower price for food that does not meet the highest cosmetic standards. In many cases, pesticides are applied solely to meet grading criteria. Although IPM methods permit successful mainte- nance or even enhancement of crop yields, in many cases they are less

OCR for page 3
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 13 effective than routine spraying for controlling cosmetic damage. Pesticides applied solely to meet cosmetic or insect fragment standards increase pest control costs to producers and may increase residues of pesticides in food and hazards to agricultural workers. Repercussions from pesticide use may become more serious as new pests encroach on major fruit- and vegetable- producing regions, and as insects and plant diseases become resistant to currently effective products. Many animal feeding and management systems and technologies cur- rently exist to reduce the fat content of meat and dairy products. These practices also often help cut costs. Producers are unlikely to adopt them, however, without changes in grading standards and higher prices for lower fat products. Some progress is under way in this area, particularly in the beef and pork industries, but further reform of the rules is needed. Current federal pest*idle regulatory policy applies a stricter standard to new pesticides and pest control technologies than to currently used older pesticides approved before 1972. This policy exists in spite of the fact that a small number of currently used pesticides appears to present the vast majority of health and environmental risks associated with pesticides. This policy inhibits the marketing of biologically based or genetically engineered products and safer pesticidles that may enhance opportunities for alternative agricultural production systems. Federal pesticide regulatory procedures and standards are increasingly expensive and time-consuming. Many scientific issues remain unresolved, complicating decisions to allow new pesticides onto the market and remove older pesticides from the market. Pesticide benefits assessments, for exam- ple, are an extremely challenging area for research. Neither the EPA nor the USDA has developed formal procedures to calculate the economic benefits of pesticides under regulatory review. This often leads to uncertainty, con- troversy, and delay in regulatory decisions on older pesticides. The benefits assessments that are typically developed tend to overestimate the actual value of pesticides under review for health and environmental effects, by not fully accounting for IPM and nonchemical alternatives. This policy helps to preserve market share for older compounds known to pose health and environmental hazards. This in turn discourages the development and adoption of biological, cultural, or other alternative pest control practices. Current and pending regulations need to be improved to provide greater opportunity for the development of naturally occurring pest control agents and those that rely in some way on genetic engineering. Uncertainty over the definition of a genetically altered organism has resulted in some confu- sion in registration of nonpathogenic microflora that can help control pests biologically. One possible outcome of this confusion is delay in efforts to select and produce strains of naturally occurring bacteria for many pur- poses, including more efficient fixation of atmospheric nitrogen by legumes and control of plant pests.

OCR for page 3
14 ALTERNATIVE AGRICULTURE The State of Research arc! Extension The results and design of basic, discipline-oriented research programs often are not sufficiently integrated into practical interdiscipZinary ef- forts to understand agricuZturaZ systems and' solve some major agricul- turaZ problems. Many would agree that the United States has been slow to marshal certain new scientific capabilities, such as biotechnology, to develop agricultural products and technologies. This is largely due to declining support for applied research and extension and difficulty in maintaining facilities and incentives for multidisciplinary research. While the decline of the heavy industry and manufacturing sectors is perhaps the most dramatic example of the erosion of U.S. technological leadership, many fear that agriculture will be added to the list in the early l990s. U.S. agriculture has always taken pride in its ability to apply science and technology in overcoming the everyday problems of farmers. Many states, however, are losing by retirement and attrition the multidisciplinary agri- cultural research and education experts capable of bridging the gap between laboratory advances and practical progress on the farm. These individuals, frequently cooperative extension system employees, have traditionally played an important role in informing research scientists of the problems faced by farmers and in integrating research advances into production pro- grams on the farm. Insufficient numbers of young scientists are pursuing careers in interdis- ciplinary or systems research. This is in part because higher education, peer review, the agricultural research systems, and their funding sources tend to encourage narrow intradisciplinary research over interdisciplinary work. As a result, agricultural scientists often lack the skills and insights to under- stand fully on-farm problems or how farmers can most readily overcome them. The lack of support for on-farm systems research is creating a serious problem for the cooperative extension system. The cooperative extension system's ability to carry out its traditional role has eroded substantially in the last decade. This trend is likely to continue unless there are changes in research and development, educational policies, and increased financial support. The committee is nonetheless encouraged by the growing interest in alternative farming practices among research and extension personnel. Without additions to existing programs and new research and educational initiatives, however, the current system will not be able to provide farmers the kind of information, managerial assistance, and new technologies needed to support widespread adoption of alternative agricultural prac- tices. An effective alternative agricultural research program will require the participation of and improved communication among problem-solving and systems-oriented researchers, innovative farmers, farm advisers, and a larger cadre of extension specialists.

OCR for page 3
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY Research and extension program funds to study, develop, and promote alternative farming practices are inadequate. It is unrealistic to expect more rapid progress in developing and transferring alternative practices to farmers without increased funding. 15 A shortage of public funds in support of agricultural research has dis- couraged work on alternative agriculture. With shrinking funds, publicly supported research and extension services have not been able to provide adequate regional or farm-specific information about alternative farming practices. Increasing production efficiency through the use of off-farm in- puts to achieve higher yields has been a dominant objective, in part because private funds were available to support these efforts. During the last two decades, research support has increased for biological research, especially in molecular biology. This work has made possible ad- vances in the understanding of plants and animals at the subcellular level. During the same period, however, government support for field and applied research and extension in farming systems has not kept pace with the need, or even with inflation. This applied research and extension is vital to im- proving agricultural practices and dealing with agriculture's adverse envi- ronmental effects. State support for research, which tends to emphasize applied research adapted to local crops and field conditions, is stable, at best, in many states. Land-grant colleges, which receive much of their support from the states, have had to find other sources of funds (including commodity organiza- tions and agribusiness firms) to support adaptive field research. Despite some success in securing private industry funding in support of some applied research on specific products, private funds are rarely provided to support the multidisciplinary research needed to advance alternative agri- culture. The committee believes that farming systems research promises signifi- cant short- and long-term returns. inadequate funding, however, has post- poned work in several areas, including the development of monitoring processes and analytical tools, biological control methods, cover crops, al- ternative animal care systems, rotations, plant health and nutrition, and many others. Without increased funding and a change in the intradisciplin- ary orientation in the tenure and promotion systems of major research universities, farming systems research and extension will remain limited, and progress toward alternatives will be much slower than otherwise pos- sible. There is inadequate scientific knowledge of economic, environmental, and social costs and thresholds for pest damage, soil erosion, water contamination, and other environmental consequences of agricultural practices. Such knowledge is needed to inform farm managers of the tradeoffs between on-farm practices and off-farm consequences.

OCR for page 3
16 ALTERNATIVE AGRICULTURE Farmers are told too little about the ecological, biological, and economic relationships associated with the use of agricultural chemicals. Farmers generally follow the guidelines offered by the input manufacturers, but these typically do not explain alternatives or the many conditions that may reduce the need for a pesticide or a fertilizer. Farmers receive little guidance in evaluating the economics of input use with respect to shifts in the market price for a commod*y or those inputs. Eradicating as many pests as possi- ble, for example, is rarely the most economical option and often ignores the long-range impact of pesticides on the environment. When fertilizer costs are low, higher per acre nitrogen fertilizer applications may seem like a prudent investment. Applications in excess of need, however, are not com- pletely used by crops and can aggravate water qual*y problems. Many agricultural practices have an off-farm impact on society and the environment. Common agricultural practices have clegraded surface water quality, and, to a lesser degree, groundwater quality in most major farming regions. In recent years, state and federal agencies have recognized that off- farm costs of certain agricultural practices must be reduced, especially the costs associated with some pesticides, tiDage methods, and excessively high rates of manure and nitrogen fertilizer application. But methods and models for measuring the costs and benefits of conventional and alternative farming practices are simplistic. Moreover, many policy goals, such as conserving soil and increasing exports, are often at odds. Farmers need guidance and management tools to balance stewardship and production objectives. To help farmers make these choices, reliable cost-benefit comparisons between conventional and alternative systems are needed. Developing improved information and techniques for calculating on- and off-farm costs, benefits, and tradeoffs inherent in different farming systems and technologies must be a prior*y. ~ ~ . Research at private and public institutions should give higher priority to development and use of biological and genetic resources to reduce the use of chemicals, particularly those that threaten human health and the environment. Genetic research has greatly increased the productivity of plants and animals in agriculture. Conventional plant breeding research such as hy- bridization has produced many crop cultivars that are naturally resistant to various diseases and insects. Genetic engineering techniques such as gene transfer mediated by bacteria and viruses and direct transfer methods prom- ise further improvements. Financial incentives exist for the development of crop cultivars that pro- duce higher yields. But there is less incentive and more risk for private industry to produce cultivars designed to reduce input use and make vari- ous alternative farming practices more feasible and profitable. Thus, the federal government must increase its support for this type of research. Examples of genetically engineered products that could reduce the need

OCR for page 3
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 17 for purchased inputs include legumes and bacteria that more effectively fix nitrogen, diagnostic tools and preventative measures for major infectious animal diseases, crop cultivars with genetic resistance to insects and other pests, and enhancement of the allelopathic capability of crops to suppress weeds. In these areas, genetic research could greatly reduce pesticide use, increase the profitability of legumes and cover crops in crop rotations, and lessen chemical levels in the food supply and the environment. While it is too early to tell how biotechnology wiD influence agriculture, the committee believes that biotechnology has much to offer farmers looking to adopt alternative production practices. Greater support for research on biological controls and improved plant nutrition is also needed. Research on and implementation of biological control lags far behind total support for other pest control methods, even though several important pests remain difficult or costly to control by cur- rent methods. Better understanding of the role of plant nutrition and health in resisting pests, utilizing available soil nutrients, and improving yields could be of great benefit to farmers. Greater public support is needed, however, to support research designed specifically to achieve these goals and reduce input costs and the environmental consequences of current practices. RECOMMENDATIONS Farm and Environmental Policy A variety of farm programs and policies have had a profound, continuing influence on U.S. agriculture. Over the years, policies have had intended and unintended effects. One important unintended effect is the variety of financial penalties that farmers must overcome when adopting alternative and resource-conserving production practices. These include the potential loss of farm program subsidies, the inability of publicly supported research institutions to provide information on alternative farming systems, and the way current policies tolerate external environmental and public health costs associated with contemporary production practices. Many changes in com- modity and regulatory policies win be required to neutralize their bias against the adoption of alternative farming systems. Federal commodity programs must be restructured to help farmers realize the full benefits of the productivity gains possible through many alternative practices. These practices include wider adoption of rota- tions with legumes and nonieguminous crops, the continued use of improved cuZtivars, IPM and biological pest control, disease-resistant livestock, improved farm machinery, [ower-cost management strategies that use fewer off-farm and synthetic chemical inputs, and a host of alternative technologies and management systems. A number of government policies and programs have strongly encour-

OCR for page 3
18 ALTERNATIVE AGRICULTURE aged farmers to specialize and deterred them from adopting diversified farming practices. This is particularly true for farmers growing major com- modities covered by price support programs. In many regions, the need to retain eligibility for future government program payments has become more important than the inherent efficiency or immediate profitability of a pro- duction system in the absence of government program payments. The committee recommends that a primary goal of commodity program reform be the removal of the existing disincentives to alternative farming practices. This step would ensure that farmers who employ crop rotations and recommended resource conservation practices are not deprived of farm income support. For the Congress, this means that . Existing commodity programs, if retained, should be revised to elimi- nate penalties for farmers adopting rotations. These revisions should allow more flexibility in substituting or adjusting base acreage allot- ments to accommodate crop rotations, acceptance of forage crops in rotations as satisfying set-aside requirements, and harvesting or grazing of forage crops grown during such rotations; Mandatory production controls, if enacted, should not require land retirement for participation because this discourages crop rotations. Farmers should be free to decide how to produce the allotted level of output over a 2- to 5-year period; and Decoupling of income support from crop production, if enacted, should ensure that aD farming systems and rotations are treated equitably. Natural Resource Management Despite five decades of federally supported soil conservation programs, soil erosion and water quality deterioration continue. Agricultural and con- servation policies have not consistently supported the stewardship of natu- ral resources. This inconsistency among policies should be changed. The committee recommends that Provisions in the Food Security Act of 1985 designed to protect erodible lands and wetlands must be fully and fairly implemented. Future farm programs should offer no new incentives to manage these and other fragile lands in a way that impairs environmental quality. Surface water and groundwater quality monitoring must be more sys- tematic and coupled with educational and regulatory policies that pre- vent future water contamination. Cost-effective water quality protection provisions must be incorporated into existing conservation and commodity programs. Regulations that require farmers to maintain soil and water conserva-

OCR for page 3
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY lion practices and structures instaZZed with government technical or financial assistance must be enforced. Adjustments in regional cropping patterns must be facilitated when such changes are necessary in order to make progress toward profitable and environmentaZZy sustainable production systems. Regulatory Change 19 Procedures for review and approval of the safety of existing and new agricultural chemicals and other agents used in production agriculture must be implemented to achieve more rapid progress toward safer working con- ditions, improved environmental quality, and reduced chemical residues in foods and water. Existing policies permit pesticides with known risks to human health but approved years ago under less stringent criteria to remain in use, while new effective and safer substitutes are sometimes kept off the market by the regulatory approval process. Regulating Pesticides in Food: The Delaney Paradox, a report of the National Research Council published in 1987, pre- sents detailed recommendations for a consistent policy for regulating die- tary exposure to pesticides. A set of guidelines for assessing the benefits of pesticides under regu- latory review should be developed. This procedure must include a definition of beneficiaries as well as an assessment of the costs and benefits of other available pest control alternatives. Benefits of control methods must be assessed as they accrue to growers, consumers, tax- payers, the public health, and the environment. As a basic rule, the benefits of any pest control method should be characterized as the difference between its benefits and those of the next best alternative, which may involve an alternative cropping system that requires lit tie or no pesticide use. The dollar costs of the health and environmental consequences of each pest control method should be weighed against its benefits. Publ* information efforts should explain to consumers the relationship of appearance to food quality and safety. Alternate means of controlling the supply and price of fruits and vegetables should be developed. Cosmetic and grading standards should be revised to emphasize the safety of food and Reemphasize appearance and other secondary criteria. Federally approved grading standards and marketing orders for fruits and vegetables usually allow few surface blemishes on fresh produce or ex- tremely low levels of insect parts in processed food. Consequently, farmers

OCR for page 3
20 ALTERNATIVE AGRICULTURE use more pesticides to meet these standards and guarantee receipt of a top price. This increases worker exposure to pesticides and may result in in- creased food residues. Cosmetic standards, however, often have no relation to nutritional quality, flavor, or food safety. Furthermore, these standards discourage alternative pest control practices that may not be as effective in meeting their rigid criteria. Research and Development Exploring the interactions and integration of agricultural practices is vital to the understanding and development of alternative farming systems. In- vestigation must begin with on-farm studies that address relationships among practices that supply nutrients, conserve soil and water, control pests, and sustain livestock health and productivity. Long-term monitoring of commercial farms using alternative methods must be added to farm management record studies to evaluate the environ- mental, agronomic, and economic effects and viability of specific alternative farming systems. Farming systems research must also take into account the effects of policies and management decisions on resource conservation, environmental integrity, farm worker health, food safety, and economic sustainability. The committee recommends the following strategy to encourage research and development in support of alternative farming practices: Develop a regional, multidisciplinary, Zong-term research, demonstra- tion, and extension program such as that initiated by the USDA's Zow- input sustainable agriculture (~ISA) initiative. This program should focus on alternative farming practices and systems tailored for each region's major types of crop and livestock operations. The research program must include on-farm studies of farming systems, with participating farmers cooperating with researchers and extension per- sonne] in conducting field tests and demonstrations. The program should establish at least six research and demonstration farm sites in each of the four Cooperative State Research Service (CSRS) administrative regions. Within each region, grants from between $100,000 and $1 minion wouic3 support research at each she. State agricultural experiment stations would manage or coordinate farm she research. In addition, centers for sustainable or alternative agriculture should be instituted in these four CSRS regions. These centers would establish a network of physical, chemical, biological, and social scientists from govern- ment, academia, and foundations. In cooperation with participating farms, these centers would determine and oversee the research agenda of the research and demonstration farms.

OCR for page 3
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY Substantial annual funding at least $40 millionshould be allocated for alternative farming research. The USDA should distribute the money through its competitive grants program to scientists from uni- versities, private research institutions, foundations, and industry. 21 A new competitive grants program is essential to accelerate work in sup- port of alternative agriculture. New funding should give priority to basic and applied multidisciplinary research involving scientists at public and private universities and private research institutions and foundations. The specific research areas for an expanded competitive grants program should include biological, genetic, and ecological research priorities and social sci- ence research objectives focusing on the economic performance and conse- quences of alternative systems. Priorities for the competitive grants pro- gram are: . . . . . Nutrient cycling research to assess plant nutrient availability and in- crease the efficiency of nutrient use; establishment of economically and environmentally optimum levels and methods of fertilization with em- phasis on leguminous crops; identification of points in the nutrient cycle where nutrients are lost; exploration of how the efficiency of nutrient uptake is affected by the source of nutrients, plant health, and plant cultivars; and evaluation of the role of soil structure, filth, and soil biota in plant nutrient use and availability. Analysis of the effect of alternative tillage systems on weed and erosion control, nutrient availability, fertilizer and pest control needs, cultiva- tion costs, and compatibility with leguminous and nonleguminous cover crops and specific soils. Development of new pest management strategies that take advantage of cultural practices; rotations; allelopathy; beneficial insect, parasite, and pathogen species; and other biological and genetic pest control mecha- nisms. Analysis of the effect of crop rotations, including leguminous forages, on plant vigor; disease, insect, and weed damage; allelopathy; soil microorganisms; nutrient levels; and the effectiveness of strip intercrop- ping, overseeding, and relay cropping. Development of improved crop and livestock species' resistance to dis- eases and pests through genetic engineering or classical breeding tech- niques. Development and modification of farm equipment to meet the needs of alternative farming practices and development of better processing and handling systems for plant residues, animal wastes, and other biomass to recycle plant nutrients into the soil. Research on the economics of alternative agricultural systems to deter- mine their effect on net return to the farm family; per unit production costs; the profitability of conventional versus alternative systems with reduction or elimination of government support; the effect of alternative

OCR for page 3
22 ALTERNATIVE AGRICULTURE agriculture on labor demand, supply, and rural development; and the influence of widespread adoption of alternative systems on U.S. agri- culture's competitiveness in international markets. Development of computer software and systems to aid farmers in the management and decision making needed to adopt alternative systems. Economics and Markets Data bases and economic research on the profitability of alternative farm- ing systems are minimal. Meaningful research on the effect of these systems on the international competitiveness of U.S. agriculture is not available. The results of most studies to date are not relevant. They often compare the performance of conventional production systems that differ primarily in the level of inputs applied per acre. They do not compare conventional systems with successful alternative systems. An objective assessment of the macro- economic impacts of widespread adoption of highly productive alternative farming practices has not been undertaken. Recent economic studies of IPM demonstrate its profitability. However, studies also highlight the fact that IPM requires continuous refinement as new crop production methods are adopted or when new pests become established. IPM systems can also change as old pests develop resistance to pesticides, regulations are imposed, and prices paid and received by farm- ers fluctuate. Studies of the economics of whole-farm systems, once com- mon in farm management research and extension, are now rare, and the necessary data bases are seriously neglected in all but a handful of states, crops, and enterprise types. Compared with conventional systems, alternative farming systems usu- ally require new management skills along with greater reliance on skilled and unskilled labor. How these demands will affect net income and rural economies, however, is not known and is difficult to predict. The commit- tee's case studies and review of available data illustrate that alternative farming is often profitable, but the sample is too small and unrepresentative to justify conclusions about the precise economic effects of widespread adoption of specific practices or systems. The goal of sustaining a viable operation during transition from conventional to alternative farming also deserves more study. The aggregate, health-related, and environmental costs and benefits to society of alternative farming practices must be documented more fully. More reliable estimates are needed of the long-term costs of soil erosion, water pollution, human exposure to pesticides, certain animal health care practices, and other off-farm consequences. The committee recommends that More resources should be allocated to collect and disseminate data on yields, profits, labor requirements, human health risks, threats to

OCR for page 3
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY water quality, and other environmental hazards of conventional and alternative farming practices within a given region. These data will help policymakers and farmers make more informed choices. Research should be uncertain to predict the long-term impacts of various levels of adoption of alternative farming practices on the total production and prices of various agricultural commodities; use and prices of various farm inputs; international trade; employment, eco- nomic development, and incomes of various categories of farmers; and the overall structure of agriculture and viability of rural communities. Research should be expanded on consumer attitudes toward paying slightly higher prices for foods with lower or no pesticide residues, even though such foods may not meet contemporary standards for appearance. THE FUTURE OF ALTERNATIVE FARMING 23 Current scientific, technological, economic, social, and environmental trends are causing farmers to reconsider their practices and look for alter- natives. Many farmers are turning to farming practices that reduce pur- chased off-farm input costs and the potential for environmental damage through more intensive management and efficient use of natural and bio- logical resources. The success of some of these farmers indicates that these alternative farming practices hold promise for many other farmers and potentially significant benefits for the nation. How fast and how far this transformation of U.S. agriculture wig go depends on economic opportunities and incen- tives, which are shaped by farm policies, market forces, research priorities, and the importance society places on achieving environmental goals. Government policies that discourage the adoption of alternative practices must be reformed. Information about alternative practices and new policies to encourage their wider adoption must be disseminated effectively to farm- ers. Experimentation must provide the basic physical, biological, and eco- nomic understanding of agroecosystems on which alternative practices and systems are built. Ultimately, farmers wiB be the ones to decide. However, significant adop- tion of alternative practices win not occur until economic incentives change. This change win require fundamental reforms in agricultural programs and policies. Regulatory policy may play a role, particularly in raising the cost of conventional practices to reflect more closely their fun social and environ- mental costs. On-farm research win have to be increased and directed to- ward systems that achieve the multiple goals of profitability, continued productivity, and environmental safety. Farmers win also have to acquire the new knowledge and management skills necessary to implement suc- cessful alternative practices. If these conditions are met, today's alternative farming practices could become tomorrow's conventional practices, with significant benefits for farmers, the economy, and the environment.

OCR for page 3