USDA investments in sustainable agriculture and agroecology research: Setting the benchmark
Research suggests that agroecology and biologically diversified farming systems can meet today’s food and agriculture challenges, and there is an urgent need for additional research to support a global transition to more ecologically sustainable farming practices. Federal research funding is crucial, as research shows that agroecological practices enhance ecosystem services, reduce externalities and input dependency, and are less likely to be supported by the private sector. One obstacle to acquiring additional support is that the current funding for agroecology and sustainable agriculture research and development remains unknown.
We quantified 2014 federal research funding for sustainable agriculture and agroecology projects from USDA’s Current Research Information System (CRIS). Following Gliessman (2015), we developed a definition of sustainable agriculture that included four levels of agroecological research: improving input efficiency of conventional farming systems (Level 1), substituting more sustainable inputs into farming systems (Level 2), redesigning agroecosystems (Level 3), and socioeconomically supporting a transition to sustainable agriculture (Level 4). We then built a coding manual based on this framework and conducted a detailed content analysis of project reports, focusing on three key sections (non-technical summary, project objectives, and approach). One researcher analyzed all reports, while a second analyzed a random sample to assess uncertainty.
We identified over 30 practices and topics that together encompass current research in sustainable agriculture. Total funding towards the 740 projects analyzed was $262.6 million. Results from 370 projects (representing >$130 million) indicated that the maximum number of codes assigned to any project was 11, but less than 10% of projects were associated with more than three codes. Several projects had components relevant to multiple levels: 12 percent addressed at least two levels, while 6 and 1 percent included topics within three or four levels, respectively. Projects addressing improved efficiency of conventional agricultural practices received over $50 million, while those addressing other aspects (levels 2-4) received less than half of that amount. An average level for each project was calculated using all assigned level 1-3 codes. We found less than 25 projects (<$10 million of funding) with an average level of 2.5 or above. The majority of level 3 practices and topics, including pollinators, improved grazing practices, and spatially diversified farming, were found in projects receiving under $5 million each. These findings point to the need for more funding towards a variety of projects researching ways to effectively redesign agroecosystems to support the long-term ecological sustainability of U.S. agriculture.