Redistributed as a Service of the National Library for the Environment*
Jean M. Rawson
The term "sustainable agriculture" is used to designate both a reduced-chemical approach to farming and an alternative political viewpoint on the distribution of economic and social benefits in the farm sector. In practice, sustainable agriculture is characterized by the substitution of more intensive farm resource management--generally involving more labor--for purchased inputs of fertilizers and pesticides. It comprises a range of practices that include integrated pest management (which may include pesticide applications), nonintensive livestock production, crop rotations for pest, disease, and erosion control, and alternative tillage and planting practices to reduce soil erosion.
Although many conventional producers use some of the practices named above, farmers and others who label themselves sustainable agriculture adherents also assert that the Federal commodity price and income support programs have acted as barriers to more widespread adoption of these practices. They maintain that sustainable agriculture promotes the economic sustainability of small and mid-sized farms and slows the trend to large, nondiversified operations with associated environmental hazards and loss of rural economic activity. Opponents argue that widespread adoption would lead to lower farm income and decreased productivity, raise domestic food prices, force more marginal acres into production (to the detriment of wildlife and the environment), and require a return to smaller and more labor-intensive farm units.
Grassroots Beginnings and State Initiatives
Concern about the adverse environmental and public health effects of using synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides in farming--both documented and potential--began to emerge in the 1950s. Private organizations such as the Rodale Research Institute in Pennsylvania began doing research on nonchemical or low-chemical farming techniques even before the publication of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" brought the issue of toxic chemicals to national attention in 1964. A variety of terms were used to label the production practices emerging from these early research efforts--e.g., biological, regenerative, low-input, alternative, and sustainable. The latter term has become the most frequently used in program planning and domestic policy debate. (2)
In the 1970s and 1980s, small-scale State and local research and demonstration programs on sustainable agriculture proliferated. Several States--Iowa, California and Minnesota, for example--mandated State-supported agricultural research on sustainable practices, and the majority of States now encourage the concept through programs of their State departments of agriculture or their land-grant college of agriculture, or both. Some States have offered low-interest loans through a State bank to help farmers buy specialized equipment or have taxed purchases of pesticides and fertilizers, floated bonds, or used lottery money to support a variety of sustainable agriculture initiatives. On the producer level, farmers in many States have organized their own information exchange groups. In addition to the Rodale Research Institute, the Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture in Maryland is a more recently established private research organization working to develop the science and define the policy of sustainable agriculture.
Federal Programs Related to Sustainable Agriculture
At the national level, the Federal Government for a number of years has supported certain concepts of sustainable agriculture as part of soil and water conservation research and implementation programs. One of the most established of these is the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program, which began in 1972. IPM aims to decrease pesticide applications by teaching farmers to use a variety of nonchemical control techniques to capitalize on natural pest mortality. These techniques include biological controls, genetic resistance, and the calculated use of tillage, pruning, plant density, and residue management factors. Pesticide applications are used only when these preventive practices fail to keep impending crop damage from exceeding the cost of controlling the pest with a chemical.
Federal support for IPM is allocated to a number of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agencies, including the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES), the Forest Service, and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The current level of funding is about $200 million, of which $129 million is for research and implementation, and $57 million is for collecting and analyzing data on pesticide application and other work that USDA performs in support of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) pesticide registration process. USDA and EPA signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 1994 pledging to work together to encourage the adoption of IPM on 75 percent of U.S. cropland by 2000. USDA currently estimates that more than half of U.S. fruit, vegetable, and major field crop producers are now using some level of IPM.
Another Federal initiative, "best management practices," or BMPs, were developed and implemented as a requirement of the 1977 amendments to the Clean Water Act. BMPs are established soil conservation practices that also provide water quality benefits. They include such practices as cover crops, green manure crops, and stripcropping to control erosion; and soil testing and targeting and timing of chemical applications (similar to IPM) to prevent the loss of nutrients and pesticides. District soil conservation agents use BMPs in helping individual farmers develop conservation plans for their farms.
Through its long-standing conservation programs, USDA also has provided cost-sharing assistance to farmers to adopt practices that are now considered to support the concept of sustainable agriculture. The Agricultural Conservation Program (ACP), administered by State and local farmer-elected committees under the guidance of USDA'S Consolidated Farm Service Agency (CFSA), provides incentives to farmers to implement enduring conservation practices by covering up to 75 percent of the cost (not more than $3,500 per year per farm). Practices for which farmers may receive ACP funds include rotations, biological pest control, ridge-tillage, soil testing, and specialized equipment purchases. During the past 20 years, appropriations for these activities have generally run between $175 million and $200 million each year. However, in FY1995 the total was reduced to $100 million. The conference committee on FY1996 appropriations agreed to provide $75 million for this program. Debate over provisions in the 1995 farm bill may provide Congress with an opportunity to examine the past accomplishments of the cost-share approach and to define whether and how it might be used in the future.
The terms "ecosystem management" or "watershed management" are used to designate an emerging concept that could include sustainable agriculture in the long term. This approach looks at large natural resource systems and targets site-specific soil and water conservation projects based on how individual farms affect the larger area. It is receiving increased attention from some Federal and State conservation agencies, researchers, and private conservation organizations.(3) Relatedly, criticism of the proliferation of Federal conservation and environmental programs and their requirements has led to proposals to integrate the programs into "total resource management" or "whole farm management" plans for farms. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is initiating pilot studies of this approach in six States.
Programs and Policies in 1985 and 1990 Farm Bills
Congress authorized a research and education program on sustainable agriculture in the Food Security Act of 1985 (P.L. 99-198) in response to widespread acknowledgment that science-based information was lacking for farmers seeking to reduce chemical use in crop production. The Low-Input Sustainable Agriculture (LISA) program got started with a $3.9 million appropriation in FY1988. The LISA program, which was renamed and expanded in the Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-624), makes grants to teams of farmers and scientists for on-farm experiments in less chemical-intensive methods of pest control and soil fertility. Program funds also support the dissemination of information on sustainable agriculture through such clearinghouses as the Alternative Farming Systems Information Center at USDA's National Agricultural Library, and the Sustainable Agriculture Network, a coalition of individuals from farm groups, universities, agribusiness and nonprofit organizations that provides information exchange through print and electronic media.
The 1990 Act renamed LISA the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE), and added two other programs--one for research on integrated crop/livestock operations, and another to train Extension agents in disseminating sustainable farming practices. The first has never been funded, and the second was funded in FY1994 and FY1995 at $3 million, bringing the total for FY1995 to $11.5 million. The conference report for FY1996 appropriations also provides a total of $11.5 million for SARE, of which $8.1 million is for research and $3.4 million is for training Extension personnel.
In 1991, the SARE program began cooperating with the Environmental Protection Agency to administer the Agriculture in Concert with the Environment (ACE) program. SARE and EPA each contribute approximately $1 million annually to fund projects that reduce the risk of pollution from pesticides and soluble fertilizers and safeguard environmentally sensitive areas such as critical habitat and wetlands. The program's success is measured in "tons of pesticides not introduced into soils or groundwater," according to program materials. In general, ACE projects are aimed at pollution prevention, whereas SARE projects take a more systems-oriented approach.
A 1992 review of the SARE program by the General Accounting Office (GAO) concluded that "the program at the regional and project levels has successfully involved often opposing entities, including farmers, nonprofit organizations, agribusiness, and public and private research and extension institutions. The SARE Program has been a catalyst in increasing interest in and acceptance of sustainable agriculture by individuals and institutions.(4)
Congress also authorized the Integrated Farm Management Program Option (IFMPO) in the 1990 Act to provide farmers the flexibility to rotate crops without losing commodity program benefits. Farmers who choose to enroll in this program can plant resource-conserving crops (e.g., legumes or alternative crops) on program crop acreage and still receive deficiency payments as if they had planted their program crop. However, farmers must agree to enroll their acreage for at least a 3-year period.
Although Congress authorized enrollment of up to 5 million acres in IFMPO in each of the years 1991-1995, the most recent data available show that only about 100,000 acres currently are enrolled nationwide. USDA officials state enrollment is low in part because farmers can achieve the same benefits under other programs but with a shorter time commitment. Sustainable agriculture groups maintain that ambiguous and inflexible regulations for IFMPO have dampened farmers' interest.
The 1990 farm bill also initiated the Water Quality Incentive Projects (WQIPs) specifically to reduce nonpoint source pollution (sediment, nutrient, and pesticide runoff) from farms. Farmers are given technical assistance to help them restore or enhance water resources, and they receive incentive payments to change management practices (e.g., using IPM) as part of 3- to 5-year water quality protection plans. In 1995 there are more than 200 WQIP projects targeted to small watersheds. Congress appropriated $15 million in FY1995 for WQIP; the conference report on FY1996 appropriations funds the program at $11 million.
The Economics of Sustainable Agriculture
One of the key concerns about sustainable agriculture is whether it can be as productive and profitable as conventional agriculture. Since 1988, LISA/SARE program funds have supported an increasing number of direct farm comparisons, plot studies, computer simulations, and farmer surveys to compare the profitability of sustainable and conventional farms in a more rigorous scientific manner than had been done before.
Many exceptions exist to generalizations drawn from these studies, which are limited both in number and length.(5) However, an overview of the results to date suggests that sustainable farms can be competitive with conventional farms in the drier, grain-growing areas of the Midwest, Great Plains, Northwest and Northeast. When sustainable farms in these areas are profitable, it is because they have managed to maintain yields while cutting costs. When they are not, it is because their savings in input costs do not make up for higher labor costs, lower yields, and/or rotations with lower-value legumes.
The literature also suggests that the period of transition from conventional to sustainable practices is economically risky, especially if it is attempted for the entire farm all at once. However, once implemented, sustainable practices appear to have a "drought-proofing' effect for crops in semi-arid areas. Limited studies of sustainable fruit/vegetable farms or of farms in the South suggest that the greater insect and disease pressure on those farms weaken the short-term prospects for achieving profitable production with reduced chemical use.
Studies also show that, on average, sustainable farms are smaller than conventional farms. Research has not been done to determine whether this is cause or effect. However, it is generally thought that sustainable farms have higher management needs (e.g., increased tillage, frequent field surveillance for IPM, etc.) that would not be economically feasible for larger operations.
SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE ISSUES IN THE 1995 FARM BILL
Senators Lugar and Leahy introduced a new conservation title as a free-standing bill (S. 854) in May 1995. Among other provisions, it would combine four existing cost-share programs (including the Agricultural Conservation and Water Quality Incentive Programs) into an Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to assist farmers through 2005. A key change is that EQIP (and other conservation programs) would be funded through the Commodity Credit Corporation as an entitlement (to date, these have been discretionary programs). It also would give States and regions the responsibility of deciding which environmental problems are priorities. The block-grant aspect of this proposal is similar to the conservation reforms being considered by the House Agriculture Committee.(6) Sustainable agriculture proponents, who generally favor the consolidation of programs and a shift to more local control, support this proposal.
The Lugar/Leahy bill does not contain language to extend the Integrated Farm Management Program Option. A sustainable agriculture interest group is recommending that IFMPO be replaced with a "Conservation Flex Option." Similar to the IFMPO, the proposal would maintain deficiency payments for farmers adopting resource-conserving crop rotations, but extend this benefit to cropland used for conservation practices that protect soil and water quality, including livestock grazing and biomass production. The beef cattle industry always has strongly opposed proposals to allow grazing on land enrolled in conservation programs, fearing market disruption from increased meat production.
The Senate Agriculture Committee approved a farm bill research title in July 1995. Since the current funding authority for the SARE program has no termination date, the Senate's title does not deal in depth with policy issues in this area. However, the Committee's title would remove the authority for the National Sustainable Agriculture Advisory Council as part of an overall elimination and consolidation of nine USDA research advisory councils.
The Senate's actions notwithstanding, congressional debate on the SARE program may not occur until 1996. In late August 1995, the bipartisan leadership of the House Agriculture Committee stated its intention to reauthorize the 1990 farm bill research title for two years in order to allow time for a fundamental review and reform of U.S. agricultural research, education, and extension policies. The SARE program will likely come under close scrutiny during this review.
1. Material for this report was drawn from S. Hrg. 100-762, Alternative Agricultural Systems and Related Agronomic and Economic Research and Extension Efforts; S. Hrg. 102-945, Sustainable Agriculture; and an extensive literature review on sustainable agriculture prepared for CRS in August 1993 by David A. Shimoni, intern.
2. Some opponents of sustainable agriculture argue that it is the same as organic farming. The difference lies mainly in the starting point. The goal of sustainable agriculture is to reduce chemical usage; a farmer's adoption of sustainable practices may or may not result in a totally organic operation. In contrast, the fundamental tenet of organic farming is a proscription against using synthetic chemicals. Pursuant to the Organic Foods Production Act of l990 (as part of P.L.101-624, the Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act of l990), a comprehensive set of Federal standards for what constitutes organic production is expected to be completed in 1996 or 1997. This should clarify the distinctions between the two terms.
3. For further information see CRS Report 94-399, Ecosystem Management: Federal Agency Activities; and S. Prt. 103-98, Ecosystem Management: Status and Potential, December 1994.
4. U.S. General Accounting Office. Sustainable Agriculture: Program Management, Accomplishments, and Opportunities. GAO/RCED-92-233. September 1992.
5. In addition to these limitations, there are some inherent problems with the type of research that seems to be most useful for studying sustainability. For example, the research projects tend to focus on how a variety of practices work as an integrated, or "systems approach to farming, and are best performed on actual farms. The methodology for such projects differs from that for laboratory studies, is relatively new and still evolving, and many laboratory-trained scientists are critical of it.
6. For more information on conservation issues in the 1995 farm bill, see CRS Issue Brief 95027, Soil and Water Conservation: Policy Issues for the 1995 Farm Bill.
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