The comment period recently closed on the USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics (REE) Action Plan Draft, which responded to informal and formal consultations with internal and external advisors and stakeholders, and “lessons learned from implementation of Farm Bill provisions.” It refines the initial REE Action Plan, which was released in February of 2012.
Why should we care? Well, the action plan is meant to identify and outline the core organizing efforts of the USDA’s science agenda, including how the USDA delivers on its the scientific discovery mission through The Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Agricultural Statistics Service. In other words, it is setting the priorities for the work of 1,200 research projects and thousands of staff within the USDA, the priorities for over $1.2 million in projects and research funds distributed to Land-Grant universities and other partners, and the priorities around what kinds of data the USDA works to collect and how it disseminates it. This document will strongly influence what kind of science is supported, what kinds of things we can find out about our own food system and what possibilities and alternatives are explored. As a former academic, I can say the USDA is a very important funder for academic work on the food system and their statistics are vital to allowing us to figure out what’s going on in our own food system.
So I was displeased to read the 45-page draft document and see no mention of agroecology. Agroecology, which most fundamentally is about dealing with agriculture as a system that is inescapably both ecological and social, would seem almost wholly congruent with the USDA REE Action Plan’s stated goals. This is why I was happy to see the Ecological Society of America address this in a letter to Dr. Catherine Woteki, Chief Scientist of the USDA and Under-Secretary for REE (I contributed to the letter as the chair of the Agroecology Section of the Society):
The Ecological Society of America is grateful for the opportunity to submit comments on the USDA’s draft revised Research, Education, and Economics (REE) Mission Area Action Plan […] We are glad to see the priorities placed on studying natural resources, sustainable agricultural systems, and the environment more broadly. ESA shares these priorities […] [but] the current REE Mission Area Action Plan draft document includes only two mentions of ecology (both in reference specifically to microbial ecology) […] Yet the field of agroecology would appear logically foundational to achieving practically all of the primary goals and subgoals laid out in the Draft document, which emphasizes “a comprehensive approach to agriculture and working lands,” and in taking “an assertive and progressive approach to transforming USDA REE into a high-profile research organization.”
ESA goes on to propose three changes: “(1) The incorporation of ecology into the REE plan […] (2) A dedicated budget line within USDA REE for agroecological research […] (3) An annual high-level Conference on Agroecology, under the auspices of the USDA.” The letter also highlights several examples of exciting, cutting-edge and very timely work currently being undertaken by agroecologists.
For a primer on agroecology, you can also see IATP’s recent report, Scaling Up Agroecology.
See the letter’s appendix, which shows that over the past 20 years, agroecology has had the highest percentage of well-cited peer-reviewed papers (7 percent) when compared to organic agriculture (5.1 percent), agronomy (4.5 percent), and soil science (4.8 percent).