I am taking a quite interesting class in agroecology at WSU. It focuses on the interconnections between agricultural production and the ecosystem to increase sustainability through a better understanding of these relationships and inputs/outputs. It has made me understand more about how to place our farm in our local ecosystem and how to have nature work for us instead of against us! Always so much to learn!
Here is an essay I had to write that chose an agroecological concept to improve sustainability in U.S. agriculture with two suggestions on how to make it come to pass:
“One thing we’re realizing about this changing climate is that you never really know when it’s going to turn dry or when it’s going to rain. You have to be ready for both.” Dairyman Dan Vosberg, Wisconsin


There is no argument that agricultural production within the United States greatly increased after the Second World War due to plant genetics, agrochemicals, and education. Yet, there was also a great loss of diversity within the monoculture crops grown on an intensive large scale. A growing debate at the end of the century highlighted the need for more diversity, better stewardship of resources, and more transparency for consumers. Within the past decade, support and resources for alternative farming systems (Organic, biodynamic, holistic, sustainable, etc.) have grown and these approaches have become very popular. Paralleling this trend in conventional agriculture, there has been great volatility within the financial sector and our global climate. The struggle for the current generation of farmers will be how to maintain production in the face of uncertain weather and prices. The most beneficial agroecological concept to achieve this goal will be the reintroduction of agrobiodiversity into the largely uniform agricultural production system within the United States.


The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines agrobiodiversity as, “the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms that are used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture, including crops, livestock, forestry and fisheries…as well as the diversity of the agro-ecosystems.” This includes everything from the microorganisms in the soil to the plants and trees that the land produces. During the 20th century, however, “about seventy-five percent of plant genetic diversity” was lost and currently about a third of animal breeds may become extinct (Gliessman, 2007). What exactly does that mean for farmers and consumers? Shouldn’t we strive for the most streamlined food production system to feed the growing population? Although increased production is achieved using intensive monocrop agriculture, this system requires extensive off-the-farm inputs, ultimately reduces crop resiliency, actually threatens food security, and is eventually unsustainable.
The increased dependence on high-production monoculture is linked to a similar increase in production expenses for fertilizer, seeds, fuel and pesticides. The graphs below from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (USDA ERS) demonstrate this correlation over the past fifteen years.

As more non-native species are used as well as genetically engineered or modified (GMO) crops, the need to manipulate the local environment to support these crops grows. This is even more apparent in GMOs where for example, some are created specifically ready for certain off-the-farm inputs such as the infamous Monsanto Roundup Ready line. The increased dependence on external inputs relegates the farmer to being dependent on global agribusiness corporations with little ability to harness local varieties and knowledge.
The necessity of these inputs also demonstrates how crop resiliency has not increased with crop production. In fact, although pesticide use has increased after the Second World War, loss to pests, “have not significantly decreased during the last 40 years” (Oerke, 2006). Biotic factors such as weeds, animal pests and pathogens continue to plague farmers and will continue to do so as they are part of the agroecological system. The turn away from agrobiodiversity has increased the need for external pesticides to counteract the loss of genetic diversity that provides natural resilience to both biotic and abiotic factors. This is often referred to as the “pesticide treadmill” wherein the local pests adapt to the crops and pesticides, but the continued use of the monocrop demands increased use of new pesticides (Gliessman, 2007).
There is increased concern on the influence of humans on the global environment having far reaching impacts on areas such as agriculture and food security. The year 2012 will be well remembered in the U.S. for a specific critical weather event: the drought. As shown in the graphic below from the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA), about eighty percent of U.S. agricultural land was affected by the drought. In general, drought is caused by a variety of factors such as weather volatility, decreased precipitation, increased evapotranspiration, and increased temperatures. Although Global Warming may have exacerbated the drought, the lack of agrobiodiversity certainly hindered the ability of plants and animals to adapt and survive the extreme conditions. This drought was also experienced worldwide reducing global food reserves, and causing price increases that can lead to food riots in certain areas (Dreibus & Campbell, 2012).
2012 drought
The high use for external inputs has brought great production for the farmer, but made them dependent on outside materials, and more susceptible to weather extremes. As our global environment continues to change to a drier and hotter climate, and the amount of agricultural land decreases, past dependence on agrochemicals and GMOs will not be able to sustain production without further degradation of the environment causing an increased “treadmill” effect. Increasing genetic diversity through plant and animal varieties would improve a farmer’s ability to manage price fluctuations, crop failures, harsh weather and pest infestations. It would also strengthen regional food systems making them better able to survive socio-political upheaval. Two specific proposals to increase agrobiodiversity within the U.S. would be to alter the crop insurance/subsidy system and institute stronger federal support for alternative farming systems. Together these two ideas would alter the agricultural system by reducing the financial incentives of intensive monoculture, and increasing the monetary support for diverse farming operations.
Currently in America, a farmer can get relatively cheap crop insurance to hedge against crop loss or less than expected productivity. The premiums are subsidized at sixty-two percent by the USDA, and according to agricultural economist Dr. Vincent Smith, the public pays $1.40 for every $1 payment a farmer receives (Looker, 2013; Holbrook, 2012). In fact, although 2012 will be remembered for the terrible drought, $11.4 billion dollars was paid to farmers from the USDA for crop losses (USDA-RMA, 2013). The availability of this safety net was necessary during the Great Depression, but has grown now to basically bolster farms and prevent them from experiencing financial distress due to farming failures.
If the crop insurance system was greatly altered to provide only basic assistance or required full premiums payable by the farmer, the producers would have stronger incentive to seek methods to increase production success. As Dr. Smith pointed out, before crop insurance, “farmers used other ways to manage risk, like diversification” (Looker, 2013). Such diversification of enterprises included raising different varieties, having various crops, and raising a mix of animals. By doing so, the farmer spread out risk of failure while, most likely inadvertently, increasing agrobiodiversity. With increase knowledge of soil, animal and plant science, there is real ability for farmers to unite agroecological principles with high production (Badgley et al, 2007).
Beyond attaching economic benefit to the adoption of agrobiodiversity principles for conventional producers, the government needs to do more to increase resources for farmers seeking to have diverse operations initially or to transition to such operations. Currently, the hallmark for federal support of sustainable farming methods includes these USDA programs: Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE), National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA), the Alternative Farming Systems Information Center (AFSIC), and the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). There is a wealth of information online for those interested in researching ways to be more sustainable, but the main obstacle for beginning farmers is access to capital and land (Brown, 2013). The FSA does have loans but these are generally after you have been denied by commercial vendors. Further, the financial and agricultural system is geared to basing decisions upon metrics created by large operations. These ratios and guidelines often do not see the value in a smaller operation or one that openly wants to use sustainable methods. Personally, we had a hard time obtaining funding for our small farm, even with excellent credit scores, and one spouse earning full-time military pay. We were actually asked by one agricultural bank, “what exactly do you plan to do with only forty-one acres?” Thus, the federal programs in place must be bolstered to create more access for beginning farmers to low interest start up loans such as the $35,000 USDA microloan program (USDA-FSA, 2013). As a corollary, there could be a tax break or other loan assistance for large producers who want to transition to more sustainable methods.


As this past year has clearly demonstrated, agricultural production is still very much at the whim of Mother Nature. The increasing addition of off-the-farm inputs have artificially inflated production at the expense of diversity and fertility. The inability for conventional monoculture farms to prevent total crop failure this past year would generally be enough to cause a change in agricultural production. Yet, the artificial support of crop insurance greatly reduces the financial incentive to try something new or to diversify. Until larger farms see a real monetary benefit, they will not (or may not be able to) change their farming methods. This financial incentive could come from reducing the subsidy of crop insurance, but also could come from increased demand by consumers for more sustainably raised products. Further, as the average age of farmers increase, it is important to bring in new farmers and give them access to capital and land to start farms. The younger generation generally shows more promise for instituting various alternative farming systems and incorporating agrobiodiversity principles on smaller operations.


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USDA-FSA. 2013. Microloans up to $35,000 aim to assist small farmers, veterans, and
disadvantaged producers [Online]. Available at Releases (accessed 17 Feb. 2013). USDA-FSA, Washington, DC.
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Vosberg, Dan. 2013. As weather changes, so must we. Graze 20(2):1, 11.
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payments and federal crop insurance. USDA-ERS, Washington, DC.