Is agroecology on the USDA radar? The Chesapeake Bay, a case study
This session asserts that “agroecology integrates the relationships among ecosystems, our economy, and society to address the needs of people and the planet today and in the future.” Although “agroecology” is a nascent addition to the federal government’s lexicon, the Natural Resources Conservation Agency (NRCS) and our partners have worked toward agroecological goals for decades. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Service (SCS), predecessor to the NRCS, was conceived in the spirit of sustainability and has grown to embrace the principles of agroecology, albeit under a different vernacular.
In 1935, Congress created the SCS to address agricultural soil erosion, a proclaimed menace to national welfare. The SCS asserted that solutions to soil erosion could not be mandated from a federal platform. In 1937 President Roosevelt encouraged state legislation to empower local landowners to form democratically organized soil conservation districts. The SCS established collaborations with the >3,000 soil conservation districts across the U.S. to work with farmers to develop conservation plans. SCS hired scientists and engineers to study erosional processes and devise new and better conservation practices, which they shared with soil conservation district staff. In other words, SCS nurtured a system similar to that proposed by agroecologists, whereby scientists developing innovative conservation solutions work directly with empowered groups of farmers, ranchers, and land managers to set and meet local social, economic, and ecological goals.
In 1994 Congress renamed SCS the NRCS. The name change reflected a shift in the agency’s focus from preventing soil erosion on private agricultural lands to developing plans with multiple stakeholders to implement comprehensive solutions. NRCS administers funds to assist private land owners in the adoption of conservation plans that decrease agricultural impacts on soil and water quality while also protecting wetlands, prairies, highly erodible acres, and other lands from agricultural or urban development. No other federal agency has a mandate that allows them to work with private landowners to encourage voluntary adoption of holistic conservation plans designed to span socio-agroecological needs.
The NRCS Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) quantified the conservation gains achieved through voluntary actions on private lands in the Chesapeake Bay region between 2003-06 and 2011, including conservation practices in place on 97 percent of the region's agricultural acres. In conjunction with work on public lands, these efforts have improved the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay and provide a case study highlighting the potential gains achievable through an agroecological approach.