Seven Key Elements of a Great Public Agricultural Research System

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

We recently wrote one of five papers in response to a call for concept notes issued by AGree to elicit bold ideas on strengthening the U.S. public sector agricultural research system. The papers are available here. We believe the following seven recommendations are critical ingredients for building a more efficient and sustainable public agricultural research system that responds to the challenges of the future:

  1. Agroecology and Biologically Diversified Farming Systems: Enhancing Ecosystem Services to and from Agriculture

    One of the most promising strategies for achieving better social, ecological, and economic sustainability in US agriculture is a new focus for REE on biologically diversified farming systems. For USDA research, education, and extension, this will mean a heightened focus on the discipline concerned with designing and evaluating such systems: agroecology. A new strategic emphasis on agroecology and biologically diversified farming systems would prioritize projects that further develop scientific knowledge of the role of biological diversity in enhancing ecosystem services to and from agroecosystems (Altieri 1999, Collins and Qualset 1999, Zhang et al. 2007).

  2. Multi-disciplinary ‘Whole Systems’ Research: Understanding Agriculture as Complex Socio-ecological Systems

    The second strategic emphasis follows necessarily from the first: understanding and exploiting the full potential of biologically diversified agriculture will require multi-disciplinary and multi-scale scientific analyses that relate farming system and landscape-scale biodiversity to the full range of ecological and social services (Robertson et al. 2004, Tscharntke et al. 2005, Naeem et al. 2009, Bacon et al. 2012, in press). In addition to quantifying and describing the impact of farming system biodiversity on ecological and social conditions, this research would also serve to identify important economic and policy obstacles to achieving environmental and social sustainability in agriculture (Allen et al. 1991, Gliessman 2001, Allen 2008, Iles and Marsh 2012, in press).

  3. Complete Life Cycle Analysis: A Net Gain Perspective

    While assessing whole systems, USDA research and extension should evaluate current farming practices or proposed innovations on a "net gain" basis across the full life cycle of the system in question (PCAST 2012). We recommend complete life cycle analysis, in which social, economic and ecological dimensions would be considered in a comprehensive accounting of constraints, costs, and benefits.

  4. Multidisciplinary Teams

    The type of research and extension we are recommending will require collaboration. Studying whole systems in ways that account for costs and benefits, both ecological and social, will require multidisciplinary teams. Such multidisciplinary teams should include scholars with different fields of expertise relevant to the system and research question at hand. For a research project exploring the restoration of an indigenous agricultural system, for example, a team of eight might include an agronomist, a microbiologist, a sociologist, a biogeographer, a land use planner, a public health specialist, an entomologist, and a soil ecologist. Multidisciplinary teams should also include extension and other technical assistance personnel and should substantively involve farmers as co-researchers if not research leaders.

  5. Long-Term Studies

    Such work will not happen overnight. In order to capture trends in both social and ecological phenomena, both research and extension need to take into account variability over time. Unfortunately, the time scale at which most agricultural research has been funded and conducted is poorly matched to the time scale of the ecological and social indicators we recommend as guiding metrics. This dearth of long-term studies produces a portion of our current knowledge gap. Farmers, extensionists and researchers, for example, frequently work without good information about the residence time of persistent chemicals, the soil fertility effects of proposed multi-year crop rotations, or the degree to which a particular cover crop or rotation strategy might help control a specific pest or multi-pest complex over the life of a cropping system. To address these issues we recommend adopting multi-disciplinary, Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) methodologies and research site development as a pragmatic investment for the USDA REE system (Redman et al. 2004).

  6. On-Farm Studies and Research-In-Context

    One of the most chronicled blind spots in the history of public agricultural research and extension has been over-extrapolation of experiment station data to diverse production contexts (White 1983, Altieri 2002, Buruchara 2008, Sayre 2008, Weiseger 2009). We think the best way to close this knowledge gap is to engage producers and their systems from the beginning of the research process. When feasible, studies should combine the use of both agricultural research stations and production farms and ranches. The combination of the two will allow researchers to capture “real world” conditions by utilizing production farms, while allowing for highly replicated and controlled experiments at research stations to illuminate specific ecological mechanisms under consideration. Furthermore, a critical focus of such research-in-context should be the development of regionally-adapted varieties and cropping systems that perform well with few to no external inputs. We urge renewed emphasis on conventional public breeding, with participatory plant breeding highlighted as a key strategic practice for the preservation and enhancement of crop genetic resources and agro-biodiversity (Chiffoleau and Desclaux 2006, Østergård et al. 2009).

  7. Innovative Education and Training: Next Generation Land Grant Universities

    Addressing the many pressing ecological and social issues in agriculture and directing food and farming systems toward greater sustainability will not only require changes to US agricultural research and extension but must involve considerable transformations in how Land Grant Universities educate the next generation of agriculture and food system professionals (Lieblein et al. 2000, Frances et al. 2011). In order to train undergraduate and graduate students to better understand and manage complexity and change in food and farming systems, key elements of a new “integrative agricultural university” would include an emphasis on multi-disciplinary and applied scholarship, problem-based learning opportunities, and the integration of theory with practice (Röling and Wagemakers 2000, Lieblein and Francis 2005, Østergaard et al. 2010).

Liz Carlisle is a predoctoral fellow at the Center for Diversified Farming Systems at UC Berkeley, and a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Geography. She is currently working on a book based on her dissertation research with diversified farmers on the northern Great Plains.

Albie Miles is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley. His research explores the tradeoffs and synergies between farming system biodiversity and the provisioning of ecosystem services to and from agriculture.