Dr. Paul's Research Perspectives
SANREM: Sustainable Agriculture and
Natural Resource Management
A new dawn for longer-term thinking.

By Paul Hepperly

editors' NOTE:

As New Farm Research and Training Manager at The Rodale Institute®, Dr. Paul Hepperly has been a regular contributor to NewFarm.org for some time, providing research updates, op-ed pieces, and white papers on topics like carbon sequestration in organic farming systems.

None of those venues do full justice to the range of Paul's experience, however. Paul grew up on a family farm in Illinois and holds a Ph.D. in plant pathology, an M.S. in agronomy and a B.S. in psychology from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He has worked for the USDA Agricultural Research Service, in academia, and for a number of private seed companies, including Asgrow, Pioneer, and DeKalb. He has overseen research in Hawaii, Iowa, Puerto Rico, and Chile, and investigated such diverse crops as soybeans, corn, sorghum, sunflowers, ginger, and papaya. He has witnessed the move toward biotech among the traditional plant breeding community and the move toward organics among new wave of upcoming young farmers. Beford coming to the Rodale Institute Paul worked with hill farmers in India to help them overcome problems with ginger root rot in collaboration with Winrock International.

Now we've decided to give Paul his own column, in which he can report on agricultural research from around the world and reflect on its relevance to The Rodale Institute's research program and to the progress of sustainable agriculture more generally in light of his own broad perspective. Enjoy.

How to contact Paul

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611 Siegfriedale Rd.
Kutztown, PA 19530


Posted February 16, 2006: “Green Revolution.” Even now the name sounds promising. In the 1960s, the intensive production of new dwarf grain varieties of major cereals was touted as the answer to world hunger. That unfulfilled panacea—and concomitant chemical assault on the environment—has been largely replaced with the even loftier promises of today’s “Gene Revolution.”

The reality is that sustainable developments depend on long-term research based on natural biological systems that tend toward regeneration. Shortcuts don’t work (though they do have the habit of lining pockets).

The Green Revolution relied on the intensive use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers with little acknowledgement of their cumulative negative impacts on health, wildlife and the environment. “Inefficient” varieties that had sustained peoples for generations and had adapted to specific microclimates were forsaken in favor of heavier producers. The cultural synergy of having grains that also served as roof thatch was somehow lost in the technology transfer.

In addition to impacts of introduced toxicants and reduction in straw, the market-driven overproduction of cereal grains led to a diet bereft of the diversity upon which sound nutrition is based. A rice-and-bean diet can satisfy most human protein requirement; a rice, rice and more rice diet certainly cannot.

IPM no panacea either

Beginning in 1970s, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) was used to apply economic and ecological criteria to the application of chemical insecticides in order to attempt to reduce their impact. This is nothing like the cold-turkey approach toward chemical use taken by organic agriculture. We look at this IPM approach as something akin to a system for smokers to learn more cost-effective ways of not kicking the habit. This really does not get to the heart of the problem: senseless and destructive chemical addiction.

But there is reason for optimism. In 2004, the U.S. Agency of International Development took an historic step forward by opening a program called Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (SANREM) Cooperative Research and Support Program (www.sanrem.uga.edu), which puts the environment on par with production prerogatives in international agricultural development. We embrace this evolution as a more sensible effort to provide better resolution of real health and environmental challenges currently facing our world.

After all, there is plenty of evidence of degradation of our collective health and environment from short-term productivity approaches with a narrow viewpoint, poor implementation and no consideration of future generations.

The United States Agency for International Development supports countries to build up their infrastructures to improve quality of life for their citizens. Until very recently, the agricultural development focus has been on Green Revolution-type intensive monocultures. The SANREM program is a good indication that sustainable agriculture is strongly entering the mainstream. And it’s about time.

Genesis of longer-term thinking

In 1981, The Rodale Institute® established a field trial to investigate the major limitations of organic agriculture as stated in USDA analysis. This trial, now called The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial®, has clearly shown how to overcome the obstacles to organic agriculture (such as the nitrogen-supply and weed-control challenges highlighted by a 1980 USDA Report and Recommendation on Organic Farming). We clearly showed that initial findings of compromised corn yields in organic systems did not hold up in the long term. Furthermore, long-term studies showed corn yields were better in drought years due to the superior water-and-nutrient-holding abilities of organic soils.

Now in its 26th year, The Rodale Institute Farming System Trial has spurred other researchers and institutions to develop their own long-term studies. The North Carolina State University (NCSU) long-term trial is one standout. Thanks to a SANREM grant, we have the opportunity to collaborate with NC State and other institutions under the leadership of Virginia Tech University. The real and pressing agriculture problems facing our world are bigger than any single institution can handle.

The challenges of longer-term thinking

Paul Mueller, PhD, a crop science professor at NC State, and Denise Finney, the university’s SANREM coordinator, are key collaborators in our efforts to develop literature on field applications and other strategies for sustainable agriculture that address natural resource conservation issues in the tropics and subtropics. Paul and Denise were brainstorming with us about this when they visited us in early January. They gave us a virtual tour of NCSU’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems and its ongoing projects, including their long-term organic agriculture trials.

One of Dr. Mueller’s first observations was the challenge of setting up these trials and the difficulty of keeping them going (their trial is fast approaching 10 years). Although these types of experiments are the only effective way of judging the long-term impacts of agricultural practices, this value is often forgotten when funding is needed; thus, it becomes extremely difficult to keep such efforts going. Another obstacle is the ability to maintain continuity by retaining key personnel.

Dr. Mueller mentioned that even a decade into the project, they consider it a bit early to detect significant soil organic matter changes among their farming systems because field variability is so great.

Changing our working paradigm

A while back I went to a federal-funding conference where the sponsors explained that short-term programs were standard to support junior scientists in their quest for tenure. I brought up the nearsightedness of this approach, from my perspective, and explained that bigger collaborations of multiple scientists from distinctive disciplines are a necessary approach to attacking the large, complex problems we face in the field of agriculture science and technology.

These sentiments fell largely on deaf ears.

It comes to mind that we must strip our process of vested interest and get into problem-solving mode if we are to positively influence the big long-term challenges facing us as a society. This will require multiple institution, multiple discipline work for sustained periods, with a wide-angle approach that goes far beyond issues of junior faculty tenure. We must also be proactive in preventing problems before they occur, thereby circumventing an emergency response mode.

If we are to keep with ancient medical wisdom of “first, do no harm,” how can we do anything but take a cautionary, long-term approach? This doctrine of the ancients reflects precisely the wisdom of supporting long term experimentation.