Research funding stacked against sustainable agriculture, says OEFFA speaker

By Debbi Snook, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 1/30/15

When Doug Gurian-Sherman gears up to talk about sustainable agriculture versus industrial agriculture, he pauses to consider the farmer in the middle.

“It’s important not to demonize big ag farmers,” said the senior scientist for the advocacy group, Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C. “They’re stuck in the system, too.”

When those farmers cut back on chemicals to reduce their environmental impact, they risk being less competitive with similar farmers.

But, Gurian-Sherman adds, farmers who practice sustainable agriculture – a process of conserving and enriching the soil more organically – can have similar yields and many more ecological benefits.

“It requires 30 percent more labor,” he said of the ecologically principled farm, “but that’s not necessarily a problem, since more money goes to farmers. And it can reduce the need for chemicals by 90 to 95 percent, which is better for our water and soil.

“But the money for research is stacked against us.”

Gurian-Sherman, who is working to change that, is one of the keynote speakers at the 36th annual conference of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association, a statewide support and certification group holding its36th annual meeting Feb. 14-15 in Granville.

His talk will be part of a weekend of events that include a film about genetically modified organisms, a marketplace of sustainable goods and more than 75 workshops on everything from growing hogs in pasture to gut health to understanding the Farm Bill. A pre-conference event on Feb. 13 focuses more deeply on poultry production, udder and plant health. Two-day conference costs are $225 for adult non-members, with discounts for fulltime students, OEFFA members, one-day registrants, and online purchases before Jan. 31. Costs for the Feb. 13 pre-conference sessions peak at $95.

Gurian-Sherman, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expert on the effect of genetically engineered plants on human health, doesn’t dismiss the potential benefits of genetically modified organisms or GMOs now regularly used on the country’s largest corn and soybean farms. Transplanting genes from one plant to another can sometimes make plants more disease resistant. But they can also transfer hidden allergens.

He says more regulation and research is needed to sift through new GMOs and the growing concern over their potential to adversely affect people and the land.

If Gurian-Sherman could, though, he’d turn the argument away from GMOs.

“Part of the problem of that debate is that it focuses too much on potential health risks. Yes, all the major scientific bodies have admitted that some GMOs could be harmful to eat, but right now our research system is not robust enough to detect the risk in those crops.”

His real worry is that other, more important issues are ignored.

He lists the emergence of “superweeds” that have become resistant to herbicides, and are now reported in Southern Ohio. Farmers who grew food crops resistant to herbicides, but raised superweeds instead, are now returning to older herbicides to wipe them out.

“They’re going back with a vengeance,” said Gurian-Sherman, “and those older herbicides cause more health problems. There’s a lot of epidemiology to show a connection between one of those herbicides and higher rates of non-Hodgkins lymphoma in farmers.”

Also, he says some of today’s herbicides have likely contributed to the estimated 90 percent decline in Monarch butterflies because they’ve wiped out the insect’s main source of food, a variety of milkweed.

The trouble, Gurian-Sherman says, is the style of agriculture itself. Better soil health can be achieved with crop rotation, cover crops to enrich the soil coupled with no-till methods that curb nutrient runoff.

One is not as good without the others, he said, especially if you’re looking to tackle the algae-causing runoffs in places such as Lake Erie.

“Growing single crops without a sustainable agriculture process is in a nutshell why phosphorus is going into the lake,” he said. “Also, climate change with bigger storms.”

No-till reduces erosion and runoff, he said, but a lot of phosphorus stays on the surface, doesn’t bind with the soil and can get washed away. Growing cover crops helps prevent that.

“If no-till is implemented in a piecemeal way, you won’t see the real benefits,” he said.

Getting the word out is hard when the playing field is tipped in favor of big agriculture, he said.

“Over the last several decades, as we’ve reduced money for university research, private industry has stepped in. Now 60 percent of agricultural research money comes from industry. A lot of scientists are beholden to companies for research funds. Even if they are not directly beholden, their universities are. I know from talking to a lot of them that there is pressure to say the right thing. I’m not saying they’re making things up, but if you don’t ask certain questions, all you have is the answers to other things.”