Agroecology should be at the core of USDA’s mission

Agroecology should be at the core of USDA’s mission

Dr. Catherine Woteki, Chief Scientist of the USDA and Under-Secretary for REE.

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.

Read the letter from the Ecological Society of America to Dr. Catherine Woteki, Chief Scientist of the USDA and Under-Secretary for Research, Education and Economics.

Read the USDA Draft Action Plan (2013 revision).

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).