STATEMENT FROM REPRESENTATIVES FROM
THE COUNCIL FOR AGRICULTURAL SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
DR. VIRGIL W. HAYS
Animal Science Department
UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY
DR. VERNON W. RUTTAN
Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics
UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA
DR. FRED P. MILLER
Department of Agronomy
THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY
TESTIMONY BEFORE JOLNT ECONOMIC COMMITTEE
JUNE 6, 1990
STATEMENT FROM REPRESENTATIVES FROM
THE COUNCIL FOR AGRICULTURAL SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
We are pleased to have the opportunity to appear before this Committee to respond to the
National Research Council report Alternative Agriculnire. We respectfully request that our
proposed statement and the CAST review of the NRC report be entered into the record.
The Council for Agiculturl Science and Technology (CAST) was requested to "undertake a
review of the methodology and findings of the recently published National Research Council
study, Alternative Agricultre." The request for the CAST document was made ir letter from Lee
H. Hamilton, Chairman of the Congress or the United States-Joint Economic Committee to CAST
President, Dr. Virgil Hays. "In particular the report, Dier, Nutrition and Cancer, prepared by
CAST in 1982 is the type of study we would hope to see in this case." .This statement indicates
that the Joint Eonomic Committee desires a compilation of individual reviews by scientists rather
than a consensus task force report prepared by joint authorship. In his letter, Congressman
Hamilton father stated, "With a large enough panel of CAST members I am certain that we would
receive a comprehensive review."
In response to the request, Dr. Lowell S. Jordan, president-elect of CAST, assumed
chairmanship of the project and contacted over 50 agricultural and food scientists and specialists
throughout the .United States; most are members of the CAST Board of Directors. In a letter to the
participants, Dr. Jordan stated, "'Our purpose is to provide you the opportunity to respond as an
agricu turalscientist to the request [from Congressman Hamilton]." "Your critique will be
published as submitted." In response, 44 scientists and specialists reviewed the National Research
Council (NRC) report and contributed 41 reviews to this document. This document is the result of
the coordinated effort by these experts from various agricultural disciplines and specialties.
CAST followed its long-established policy of selecting credentialed and highly qualified
specialists to make this response, including those who are not members of CAST. For non-
mnember who prepared responses, CAST does provide a one year complementary membership
when each project and report are completed. No financial remuneration is paid to any authors
except where expenses for travel might be involved.
The purpose of this CAST report is: (1) to present the individual scientists' reviews of the
Alternative Agriculture report, and (2) to compare the opinions of the reviewers with statements
concerning the same subject in the NRC repon. The document is divided into four parts:
highlights, executive summary, summary, and scientists' reviews.
The reviewers comments were not changed by CAST, except for agreed on minor editorial
chanLs. All statements made in each individual review reflect the viewpoints of the author. The
opinions in this document do not represent those of CAST, its officers, the member scientific
societies, or any public or private institutions associated with either CAST or the reviewers.
- REVIEW .
At the outset, we commend the NRC Board on Agriculture for undertaking this effort. To
wasW the ooonomio, environmental, toouhnioal, social, and policy chamotor of American agriculture
operating across a wide spectrum of ecosystems with over two million individual operators is a
herculean task. Differences in philosophy between alternative and conventional agncultral
proponents cannot be fully resolved by scientific analysis. Only long-term comparisons of whole
farm systems based on scientific evidence can be subjected to such scrutiny. Such data are not
available, particularly for alternative systems. We view the Board's Alternative Agriculture report,
therefore, as a challenge to researchers, producers, and policy makers to fine-tune the current
research-based agricultural systems and not as a blueprint from which the complex and diverse
U.S. agricultural enterprise should be modeled. Many of the concepts, practices and
recommendation endorsed within the NRC report provide common ground upon which both
conventional and alternative agriculture can build,
Since its origins, humankind has been inexorably linked with agriculture of some type for its
sustenance. In its earliest and most primitive form, agriculture consisted of a hunting and
gathering system. Land, its natural bounty, and the labor of the forager were the only resource
requirements. This system required hundreds of acres to sustain a person. Subsequent advances in
crop and animal husbandry allowed for a more reliable and sustained food supply. From this
historical fabric, large segments of populations were relieved from agriculture to developgoods
and services contributing to the, advancement of civilization. Within the last centuryscience has
been applied to agriculture.AOne of the benefits of today's agriculture is that only a very small
percentage of the population are required to produce the food needs for the rest of us.
Furthermore, today's land requirements for agriculture have been reduced by at least two orders of
magnitude compared to the land required to sustain populations relying on hunting and gathering
systems. For the United States, this ratio is about 1.7 acres of cropland per capital compared to
about 0.6 to 0.7 acres per capital on a global scale.
Concerns are being raised by some about today's agriculture. They range from environmental
impacts caused by erosion and water quality deterioration to trace amounts of actual and potential
chemical residues in foods. There are social, economic, and policy concerns as well. Alternative
Agriculture is an excellent review of these concerns. As the report emphasized, there are those
who are looking for and implementing alternative agricultural production systems as compared to
today's most commonly used technologies.
We have attempted to ask several questions. After decades of developing today's science-
based agriculture through rigorous testing protocols, where are the short-falls and unforeseen
impacts? And for those challenging this system or seeking alternative systems, where is the
common ground for building a viable and sustainable agriculture? We believe there is much
It is important to review several basic tenets that are applicable to any crop and animal
* Humankind's energy source is the sun with plants as the energy converter.
* Humankind's sustenance and well-being, including the population to be supported, are
dependent upon the stocks of nutrients and flow of energy through the biological system.
Only a small fraction of the earth's biota is consumed for human food and only a relatively
small portion of the earth's land area is arable.
* Other than hunting-gathering systems, plants and animals must be selected and grown in rees
and systems where they are not native or in communities that are less diverse than the natural
ecosystem which was displaced for their production.
* Mana g ecosystemsto accommodate crop and animal production of any kind results in
c g the original ecosystem and environmental disturbance.
* As a result of the preceding tenet, pest and weed control and nutient management are the
foremost management requirements for most systems.
* All ecosystems leas, i.ec., some mineral and organic matter are removed from the area;
disturbing an ecosystem usually results in changes in the hydrology of the system which often
increases these leakages.
* Harvesting agricultural products from the land on which they were produced without
replenishing (recycling) the nutrient base will reduce the productivity of the land.
* The amount of food production, therefore, is a function of labor/management plus
The latter tenet or formula is the "law" which governs the entire spectrum of any agricultural
production system. A primitive foraging system relies totally on the labor of the gatherer-huntcr.
No other resources are invested in the system except for the land requirement which is huge. At
the other extreme of this spectrum are those low diversity systems such as hydroponics or
chemically.dependent crop morocultures where labor and even management are minimized and
replaced by resource and energy inputs ''managed" in part by computer programs.
Our position is that most of U.S. agriculture is operating closer to the middle of these extremes
than at either end. While today's technology provides for the option of chemically-dependent crop
monocultures, the land-grant university system and federal research establishment have literally a
centuw?'s-worth of data and experimental evidence clearly demonstrating the benefits of system
diversty, rotations, and the benefits of legumes and manures. We stand solidly behind today's
science.based agricultural recommendations which include many of those components of crop and
animal husbandry espoused in Alternative Agriculture.
We agree with the primary message in the NRC report, i.e., maximize the efficiency of
resource instments in the production system, including the full utilization of on-farm resources.
This is consistent with the land-grant university and USDA, ARS position. We agree with the
report authors that agriculture cannot be sustained under today's food demands with total reliance
on organic or on-farm resource production systems.
We believe the conflict among us and those who espouse a more diverse and more on-farm-
resource-dependent agriculture is not so much a difference about the scientific principles upon
which more selfMliani systems are based, but what American agriculture has become due to
economic forces, including farm policies, and life-style choices that have modified what is known
to be sound agricultural husbandry. Advances in and application of land saving, biological, and
chemical techIelgy, has been driven primarily by rising prices or scarcity of land often
reinforced by government programs. Advances in and application of mechanical and other labor-
saving technology has been driven by rising wage rates in the American economy. Quite frankly,
some of today's technologies allow farmers to be sloppy managers and still get by. A major
question needing clarification is whether today's agricultural technology options are resulting in
environmental impacts because of poor management or whether the technologies themselves are
predisposed to environmental insults or both.
Some technologies arc used to produce monoculturs and low diversity systems suited to take
advantage of government programs and to provide opportunities for off-farm employment. When
over half of the U.S. farm population generates significant amounts of their income from off-farm
sources, we need to determine whether this is a life-style choice to increase their income or a
necessity due to unprofitable production technologies. As more management is required for
alternative systems, the amount of income may not be adequate to satisfy those who choose an
easy-to-manage monoculture so they have the opportunity for other income.
One of the short-comings of Alternative Agriculture is that it tends o bifurcate the broad
agricultural production system spectrum Into a simple two categoy taxonomy, namely
conventional and alternative agriculture. Conventional or traditional agriculture was never defined
other than through the inference that it was more dependent upon chemical est control;
commercial fertilizers, and tended toward less diversity than alternative agriculture. Bur there are
dangers in such simple taxonomic classes. Good managers of traditional systems utilize most of
the practices and technologies ascribed to alternative agriculture. There is no evidence that well
managed traditional production systems based on researched recommendations have any greater
impact on the environment than alternative systems or that the quality of thefood supply generated
from such systems is less wholesome than that generated from alternative systems.: We reject the
notion that the NRC report implies, as some media and others have concluded, alternative *
agriculture is available and superior to conventional systems. Thif premise is not documented.
Following are several points selected from the report that neco empnasls, clarification or that
we take exception to:
* We all have the same goal: a secure, reliable, high quality, and affordable food supply that is
produced in an environmentally benign manner and is socially acceptable and economically
viable for the producer.
* The NRC report is not meant to be a scientific treatise from which policies should be reformed
to apply alternative technologies across the broad ecological spectrum of U.S. farmland without
an adequate research base.
* The case studies should be viewed as samples within the whole and not of the whole. .These
cases should have included failures (from which we can learn) as well as comparisons to
counterpart conventional systems under various levels of management. No environmental
impact data were available from these studies. No follow-up comparisons were made.
The economic advantage of several case studies resulted from premium prices in niche markets.
The NRC report did not indicate whether the Incentive to exploit these markets was
cconomically-driven or philosophically-driven.
Pest control strategies including IPM, rotations, and biological control are important but may
fall short of necessary pest control, especially for certain crops and ecosystems. Chemical pest
control should remain as one of the weapons in the total arsenal of pest control strategies.
One of thcjaajor incentives for using commierelal fertilizers is being able to order precisely thc
nutrient anysis needed in minimal volume at the time wanted and applied (e.g. broadcast;
banded, split, injected, etc.), with relative ease and as compared to manures and sludge which"
are bulky, unpleasant to handle and accumulate over time with only narrow windows of
applicadon. Furthermore, manures and sludges are not without their own unique
environmental threats, including the potential for coliforn contamination of water, biochemical
oxygen demand loading of surface waters if washed off, nitrate leaching (some of the highest
nitrate contaminated areas are under heavy manure and legume operations), nutrient imbalances
such as phosphorus, potassium and sodium, and heavy metal contamination of soil in the case
of sludges. Pesticides provide similar trado-offs such as time-management, ease of application,
and less risk of weeds getting out-of ontrol when weather shuts down cultivation options.
* The NRC report emphasizes the negative side of pesticides (plant and animal), without
* Legume nitrogen is not necessarily available at the optimum time and may be unavailable in
stess (e.g., wet or dry) years: Other nutrients are necessary to compliment legume nitrogen.
* Under any analysis of U.S. plant nutrition requirements, utilizing all practically and
economically available on-farm and nearby organic nutrient sources, commercial fertilizers will
remain a major component of U.S. nutrient management strategy. Good management will
utilize all sources and match the commercial source to fit the remaining nutrient needs.
The NRC report states that the alternative animal agriculture systems characterized by less
confinement, greater use of pasture, lower incidence of disease and consequently less use of
antibiotics are more productive and more profitable. It further implies that veterinarians,
universities, drug companies and regulatory agencies encourage the substitution of drugs for
sound management and environmental practices. The recommendations of livestock extension
specialists, health programs of practicing and extension veterinarians, residue avoidance
programs of livestock and poulty producer groups, residue monitoring programs of regulatory
agencies, production and business records of livestock and poultry producers and theo
university and industry research data do not support this contention.
* Increasing forages and other crops to rotations implies additional land requirements arid
markets to absorb the increased livestock and forages. The environmental trade-offs (c.g.,
erosion) of this option were not addressed.
* It is implied by the NRC report and assumed by the public and media that naturally produced
food is more wholesome with less risk of deleterious health affects. Such data are not available
for comparison under alternative systems. Naturally-occurring toxins and metabolites are not
without risk; thus, one cannot assume that reducing or eliminating synthetic chemicals from
production systems reduces risk. Breeding for resistance to pests is, likewise, not without risk
m increasing metabolites that may be more toxic to humans than the parent grmplasm or
synthetic pesticide being replaced. The NRC report speaks to harmfulresidues without
mentioning that modem analytical technologies permit detection of levels that are biologically
* Depending how far one goes in reducing or eliminating production options in the form of
pesticides, commercial fertilizers, and animal management systems, food supply reductions can
occur with resulting increased food costs.
* For certain crops and ecosystems, monocultures (e.g., citrus, orchard crops) are the only
* One can argue that agricultural research has been reductionist, I.e., looking at the parts rather
than the whol0. American farmers have been very successful at integrating this research into
their own production system. Whole farm research is a worthy goal, but not without
significant ramifications. First, such research is very expensive g.d long-term. Second, this
type of research is extremely complex and, unless executed in a comprehensive experimental
design, runs the risk of overlooking critical interactions of individual components that may
dampen a net positive result. Thus, such whole farm research should actually be broadened to
include the local economy and social saucture since off-farm employment options may override
the advantage of a well integrated alternative production unit.
* Biotechnology, while holding much promise for the future of agriculture, is nowhere near
providing rep options for pesdcides.
In summary, the primary message in this NRC report is the reduction in use of synthetic
chemicals and fertilizers through increased efficiencies and utilization of on-farm resources with
intensified management using options such as IPM, romtaons, legumes, recycling manures, etc.
There is a bias toward the biological approach versus the more simplifying approach offered by
chemistry and engineering. The alternative agricultue agenda should be viewed at present
primarily as a research agenda and not as a package of technology. We are in general agreement
that technology options needs to be broadened in order to cope with future resource and
It is our position that, while improvements in agricultural systems can and should be made,
most conventional practices have a sound research base and should be refined and adjusted as
necessary through research on these and alternativesystems., We argue that many well managed
conventional production systems are economicaallyviable and sustainable, IPM, pest resistant
variety selection, nutrient managentnt through soil testing, nutricit banding, split applications,
reduced tillage, residue management, rotations, cultural practices such as timely planting to reduce
pests, and other management strategies arcomrnonly used in conventional systems. Insecticide
rates have been declining for a decade and a half... Farhers must operate within the constTints of
government policies and programs, economic and social systems toremain viable Furthermore,
we must not forget that our current agricultural systemhas not only sustained production output
but enhanced this output at the annual rate ofl,to2.percenLt.Thus, we must tae into account that
any alternative system must be measured against ths sndard or add land resouresIf future needs
cannot be met by sustained production with less than one percent growth.
Society has progressed by fine-tuning its experience and building upon a solid research
foundation and correcting unforeseen consequences of previous actions. The NRC report should
be viewed as a critique for adjusting, where necessary, an agricultural system that has served us
and large segments of the world population well. Because this system has been forged from a long
history of solid research, it has withstood all manner of stresses, Including environmental as well
as fluctuating economic conditions. Clearly, the Alternative Agriculture report raises several major
issues that must be addressed. But we do not believe the database is available to move toward
major policy shifts without further research. As the NRC report itself maintains, "conventional
and alternative systems may use many common practices or methods, but they usually differ in
overall philosophy." Policy decisions should not be made based on philosophy without a sound
database or experience to back it up. Research agendas are dictated by funding. Here is where the
NRC report can serve its most important function by contributing to the forging of a national