An ambitious report urging dramatic changes in the nation's farm system continues to generate heated debate within the food industry two months after its release.
"Alternative Agriculture," a 448-page study by the National Research Council, strongly recommends that the farm sector establish environmental preservation, as well as economic viability, as a top priority.
The Washington-based group, which is an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, studied means of reducing farm chemical usage among growers without significant declines in crop yield. Ways of improving soil and water quality were also examined.
The researchers analyzed a wide variety of alternative practices to commercial agriculture. These ranged from cases where farmers have successfully reduced their use of chemicals to the more stringent organic farming process. Also among the methods studied in the report was Integrated Pest Management, a technique that employs predator insects to destroy only those bugs that pose a threat to crops.
"The report talks about another way to approach the problem of crop infestation besides spraying with chemicals," said Charles M. Benbrook Ph.D., the principal author of "Alternative Agriculture."
Benbrook, executive director of the council's Board of Agriculture, recently discussed the research at the American Institute of Wine & Food's annual conference on gastronomy in Chicago.
"If the food safety crisis in confidence we're now in continues then farmers will be forced to make changes in their methods down the road," he said. "But you can't turn the system on its head in a matter of months. It's taken a long time for farmers to build up to where they are today."
Benbrook was one of four leading industry observers to discuss changes occurring on American farms at the conference.
Another speaker, Wes Jackson, co-director of the Land Institute in Salina, Kan., warned the gathering that as much as one-third of the nation's topsoil--vital for a vibrant farm sector--has been lost since North America was first settled by Europeans. Some of this erosion has resulted from the continued use of commercial fertilizers. The current rate of soil loss, he said, threatens the rural American life styles upon which the country was founded.
The deep-seated concerns expressed by Jackson, and others, are helping to drive the evolving agricultural practices discussed in the National Research Council's report. However, the public's growing concern over pesticide residue in foods as well as the increasing soil and water pollution problem have made the study especially timely.
For instance, the researchers estimated that about 5% of the nation's 2.1 million farmers have already adopted some form of alternative agricultural technology.
"Our research found that there are sometimes new, sometimes old practices that can improve the ecology and the economics of farming," Benbrook said. "We have real opportunities to improve the quality of the food supply and there is no need to make a trade-off on protection of the environment."
The report has been received warmly by numerous Congressional sources and some of its components are likely to be incorporated into the 1990 Farm Bill that is making its way through the legislative process in Washington, Benbrook said. Others, however, such as manufacturers of fertilizer and other farm chemicals, have called the report "impractical."
Although the study cited numerous examples of how new methods of environmentally sound farming is succeeding, it concluded that federal farm policies are discouraging expansion of these practices.
Most impediments are found in the current commodity subsidy programs. These support plans, in place mainly for major grain crops, promote overproduction at the expense of conservation. The report noted that 50% of the 430 million pounds of pesticides used in the country is applied on just three subsidized crops: corn, wheat and soybeans.
"As a whole, federal policies work against environmentally (sound) practices and the adoption of alternative agricultural systems, particularly those involving crop rotations, certain soil conservation practices, reductions in pesticide use and increased used of biological and cultural means of pest control," the report stated. "These (federal) policies have generally made a plentiful food supply a higher priority than protection of . . . resource(s)."
Benbrook said the impetus for the study first surfaced several years ago.
"There was a recognition in the mid-1980s that there were some real problems in American agriculture," he said.
Some of these included a decline in farm exports, a drop in commodity prices and a simultaneous downturn in land prices and farm income.
Many heavily indebted farmers and agribusinesses did not survive, Benbrook said. At the same time, public concerns about the food supply began to grow and centered on the heavy use of chemicals.