Research sponsored by the US Department of Agriculture has made progress since the old days. The original model was for agricultural scientists to do research on field stations for the purpose of improving yields, and then hold up the results to farmers as the best methods for farming. However, when the new methods met the off-station environmental conditions and social and economic constraints, they didn’t always perform well. Nowadays the USDA, through its funding arm the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, mandates on-farm research and collaboration with relevant parties. In this way the research gains relevance in real-world situations.
What might this arrangement mean for sustainability? Consider the NIFA program known as the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative. AFRI offers a grant with the title of Sustainable Agricultural Systems to fund efforts to increase production while keeping the environmental footprint of agriculture to a minimum, and it requires the involvement of a stakeholder advisory board in the management plan for any application. The committees who review the applications check that the applicants have reached out to stakeholders, listened to their input, and molded the research plan to respond to their concerns. The intended result is research that better addresses real-world issues of sustainability. I always wondered, though, what if one of the stakeholders is a powerful interest, one that can take advantage of the rules of the process to marginalize the voices of small farmers, workers, academics, and environmentalists? Depending on how the rules are set up, it is conceivable that the funded research could end up supporting the status quo over more sustainable alternatives. Now there is some support for my suspicions — a team of researchers led by Jason Konefal out of Sam Houston State University in Texas presents a look into the dark side of stakeholder involvement, in a recent paper in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems.
Konefal et al. looked not at USDA-funded research, but at three private initiatives to develop a certification system for sustainably grown products, along the lines of the existing system for organic certification standards. As interest in sustainable agriculture grows and consumers start to seek sustainably produced food, different streams of thought come into contention over what is truly sustainable. At its most basic level, “sustainable” refers to a system that will provide for future generations. However, different interests have different points of view on the details. Konefal et al. differentiate weak versus strong sustainability, in which the weak form is basically conventional agriculture cleaning up its operations and becoming more efficient, while the strong form seeks to nurture functioning ecosystems, not just for the benefits these ecosystems provide to agriculture, but also for their intrinsic value, and along the way to build community and equity as well.
The first of the three initiatives, called Farm to Market, was started by an environmental conflict resolution organization with a utilitarian vision of sustainability, where technology is substitutable for natural resources. There was no formal process for recruiting stakeholders onto the standards committee, but rather existing networks were used, and it was largely conventional agriculture interests who fit with the vision and were chosen to serve. The stakeholders on the committee are of the opinion that US agriculture has become steadily more sustainable over the decades thanks to crop breeding and management techniques that have wrung higher yields out of existing land and resources. Their resulting standards include requirements such as land use efficiency, water use efficiency, and energy efficiency, all areas where conventional agriculture can earn high marks. Under their standards, chemical-intensive monocropping could be certified sustainable. The committee also discussed economic and labor standards, but none have been put forth, leaving their certification system firmly in the weak category.
The second initiative, the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops (“specialty” referring to fruits and vegetables), was started by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Western Growers Association, and SureHarvest, with a vision of farming efficiency, ecosystem integrity, equity for farmers, and worker and community well-being. The rules of the standards committee organize the stakeholders into three bodies, one representing mainly growers, one mainly buyers, and one environmental and public interest groups. There was no formal recruitment process, and the first two bodies became dominated by big players in the conventional agriculture and food system. In order for a standard to be approved, a majority of the members in each of the three bodies had to vote in favor. Thus, in spite of a vision of strong sustainability and a diverse membership, conventional agriculture stakeholders essentially had a veto over any new standards that would put their practices at a disadvantage, and the first set of standards that the initiative released promoted a vision of weak sustainability that focused solely on efficiency just as Farm to Market.
The third initiative, LEO-4000, was put together by the Leonardo Academy under strict guidelines of the American National Standards Institute. Starting with a strong vision of sustainability, the Leonardo Academy released a public call for applicants to serve on the standards committee, and from a large pool of applicants it screened and selected a diverse set of stakeholders representing conventional agriculture, environmental groups, worker organizations, and others. As this diverse assemblage began to hammer out initial principles, they fell into two opposing camps, one representing conventional agriculture and one representing environmental and worker organizations. A series of early votes went narrowly against conventional agriculture, and thirteen conventional ag stakeholders walked out, leaving the Leonardo Academy to scramble to fill those seats. The process was completed, and the final set of standards reflected the strong vision of sustainability, albeit with some concessions to conventional ag. In effect though, in spite of the fact that conventional ag stakeholders lost control of the third initiative, they still have a veto. Their representatives point out that it’s the market that makes a certification valuable, and if conventional ag doesn’t want to be constrained by the requirements of a strong sustainability certification, they will take their business elsewhere.
So a narrow vision will end up giving the advantage to conventional agriculture, and a poorly designed governance system will end up giving the advantage to conventional agriculture. And while a broad vision with good governance will promote practices that support the best principles, a reliance on market-based implementation may make it moot.
Going back to NIFA, the aforementioned Sustainable Agricultural Systems grant of the AFRI operates under a weak definition of sustainability mandated by Congress, where natural resources are to be preserved for future exploitation rather than ecosystem functioning, and efficiency is paramount. If you’ll excuse my reading between the lines, the program seeks to increase production in a glutted national market, drive down food prices to accompany the assumption of ever-stagnating consumer incomes, and export farm products under the fiction that US producers are in charge of providing what other countries are perfectly capable of growing themselves. Other stated goals are to reduce inputs, tap ecosystem services, introduce new technologies and new products, and promote consumer acceptance. Interested parties are invited to contact the program with their comments, but there are no formal guidelines for designating stakeholders. Environmental and social justice organizations may be able to weigh in, but they will be haggling over methods, not the underlying assumptions and goals.
Then there is the bigger picture. NIFA has several grant programs in addition to the Sustainable Agricultural Systems initiative. Consider the Specialty Crops Research Initiative, a source of funding that also requires stakeholder involvement. The SCRI starts with the weak vision of sustainability, but whereas the AFRI has no set definition of stakeholders, the SCRI actually specifies “industry stakeholders” in its application. In essence, the vision of the SCRI is to address the obstacles interfering with corporate profits, and thus the function of the initiative is to shovel more money to the interests that already have plenty, the interests that should need the least government assistance. Any proposed research under SCRI must get buy-in from industry before the application can be submitted.
My question is answered. Stakeholders in NIFA-sponsored research projects are self-selected or mandated to be industry representatives. The stakeholders operate under a narrow vision of sustainability. Under such a system it is doubtful that the research will lead to a vision of sustainability where crop germplasm is used wisely to head off crop collapse, where the poor can have a diet rich in nutrient-dense superfoods, and where all farmers can step off the pesticide treadmill. Konefal and colleagues suggest that a non-market approach will be necessary to overcome moneyed interests and progress toward a strong sustainability. Might I offer that a research funding system made up of a broad grassroots movement that supports researchers committed to an all-encompassing vision of sustainability could be a start? I wonder.