Criticisms and Commentaries on the
1989 NAS Report
Statement Presented June 6, 1990
Joint Economic Committee
Mr. Chairman, we are pleased to have an opportunity to appear before the
committee this morning to discuss the Council for Agriculture Science and
Technology review of the 1989 National Academy of Sciences report Alternative
Agriculture. I am John Pesek, Head of the Department of Agronomy at Iowa State
University, and Chair of the seventeen member committee which wrote Alternative
Agriculture. I am accompanied today by another member of the study committee,
Dr. Robert Goodman, who is also a current member of the Board on Agriculture,
the unit of the National Research Council which convened the alternative
agriculture committee. Dr. Charles Benbrook, the Executive Director of the
Board, is also here this morning.
Our report Alternative Agriculture has received a great deal of attention.
More than 35 major daily papers ran lengthy front page stories on the report the
day following its release. We are aware of six stories on major network news
programs based on the report, and there is extensive, ongoing coverage in the
agricultural trade press and professional journals. The report is in its second
printing, and has sold nearly 40,000 copies.
But more important, the report has stimulated throughout the agricultural
community a far-reaching, generally constructive debate. I might note, Mr.
Chairman, that it is also receiving growing attention around the world. I have
just had a visit with representatives of the Soviet National Academy of
Agricultural Sciences who are very enthusiastic about using the report as the
Soviet Union restructures its agriculture. Earlier, I had delivered several
copies of the report to individual scientists I met on a previous trip to the
USSR and to the Soviet Academy. I am told there are plans for a Russian
translation of the report. It is also being translated into Italian, Japanese,
and possibly French. Agricultural scientists and resource managers in Central
and South America are using the report extensively as they move forward with
efforts to develop more sustainable farming and agro-forestry systems in the
critical transition zones between already cleared and settled lands and virgin
tropical rain forests.
Alternative Agriculture has been both unjustifiably praised and unfairly
criticized. It is a long and complex report, and requires considerable time
and effort to digest fully. Unfortunately many people who have commented on
the report--both favorably and critically--have not had time or the inclination
to read it carefully, and have not fully understood what the report says. In
addition, much concern and criticism has been focused more on what others have
said about the report, rather than on the content of the report itself.
The tenor of the initial press coverage of the report was, in particular,
a source of real concern throughout the agricultural community. Many stories
and editorials inappropriately interpreted the report as concluding that American
agriculture could sustain current levels of production and profitability with
little or no use of agrichemicals. The report reaches no such conclusion,
although it does state clearly that a range of alternative practices have the
potential to reduce pest pressures markedly, and hence lessen reliance on
pesticides as the principle means of crop protection.
The collection of reviews of Alternative Agriculture compiled by the
Council for Agricultural Sciences and Technology (CAST) reflects the full range
of comments and criticisms that have surfaced since the report's release. We
are delighted to have this opportunity to respond to the major points raised in
the CAST review, and wish to thank the Joint Economic Committee for contributing
to what promises to be a lively, ongoing dialogue. This is indeed a time of
heightened interest about these issues as the Congress works toward completion
of the 1990 farm bill.
An Issue of Definition?
The CAST review states that Alternative Agriculture offers no definition
of conventional agriculture, and hence there is no basis to make a scientific
comparison of alternative and conventional agricultural practices, methods, or
systems. Reviewers also highlight the fact that many different combinations of
practices can be found on farms around the country, a point emphasized repeatedly
in Alternative Agriculture.
We agree that it is a complex task to compare the performance of different
agricultural systems, because so many factors must be taken into account.
Moreover, we agree with several CAST reviewers, and we had stated clearly in
our report, that alternative or conventional agriculture is not one distinct set
of practices that comprise a unique system. Rather, conventional and alternative
agriculture can be thought of as representing two points on a spectrum of
practices, that arise from and reflect different approaches to management. For
these reasons, it remains difficult, and often controversial to define
conventional, alternative, sustainable, low-input, or organic agriculture. In
hindsight, we recognize that it would have been valuable for many readers to
have explained in more detail the distinctions among these various terms.
Let us take this opportunity to clarify for the record what we mean by
conventional, alternative, and sustainable agriculture:
Sustainable agriculture is the production of food and fiber using a system
that increases the inherent productive capacity of natural and biological
resources in step with demand, while earning adequate profits for farmers,
providing consumers wholesome, safe food, and minimizing adverse impacts on the
Alternative agriculture is defined in Alternative Agriculture, and in the
agricultural research title recently passed by the House and Senate Agriculture
Committees, as any system of food or fiber production that systematically pursues
the following goals:
o More thorough incorporation of natural processes such
as nutrient cycles, nitrogen fixation, and pest-
predator relationships into the agricultural production
o Reduction in the use of off-farm inputs with the
greatest potential to harm the environment or the health
of farmers and consumers;
o Creative and productive use of the biological and
genetic potential of plant and animal species;
o Improvement in the match between cropping patterns and
the productive potential and physical limitations of
agricultural lands; and
o Profitable and efficient production with emphasis on
improved farm management and conservation of soil,
water, energy, and biological resources.
Conventional agriculture is the predominant farming practices, methods,
and systems in a region. Clearly, conventional agriculture is not inherently
bad or good, and will vary over time, and according to soil, climatic, and other
environmental factors. Indeed, many conventional practices and methods will
continue to play integral roles in the farming systems of the future, and are
likely to prove sustainable when applied or utilized appropriately in systems
that are otherwise well-designed in light of local soil and climatic conditions.
The CAST review raises a more serious definitional issue. It states:
"Alternative agriculture relies on various techniques that were innovative when
first introduced and which became common practices when adapted as part of
conventional agriculture (e.g. crop rotation, conservation tillage, and
integrated pest management [IPM]). Hence, delineation between alternative and
conventional agriculture becomes indistinct, and the difference becomes one of
Alternative Agriculture makes it very clear that there is more to the
difference between alternative and conventional agriculture than philosophical
orientation. The principle differences are highlighted in the definition quoted
above. Alternative agricultural systems, in contrast to most conventional
systems, rest upon the sophisticated management of biological and ecological
cycles, forces, and interactions that lie at the heart of all farming
Farming is, after all, an inherently biological process. Farmers who
practice alternative agriculture are striving through management and the careful
selection of agronomic and pest control practices to turn biological processes
and interactions into assets rather than liabilities. Alternative agriculture
relies upon an ecological approach to evaluate both the near-term and long-run
consequences of farm management decisions so that the overall performance of a
farming system can be more thoroughly understood and made more assuredly
sustainable. To quote the report, alternative agriculture strives to "sustain
and enhance rather than reduce and simplify biological interactions upon which
production systems depend."
The degree of concern and attention to the long-term sustainability and
performance of farming systems is central to the distinction between alternative
and conventional agriculture. Farmers who have pioneered alternative
agriculture systems tend to evaluate farm profitability over at least a few
multiyear rotational cycles. They are inclined to ask questions about the
impact of current production practices on the longer-term sustainability and
profitability of production practices measured in terms of human health and
impacts on wildlife, from the perspective of food safety, and relating to
natural resource and environmental quality. Such a long-run view will be needed
for agriculture to respond to society's growing concern about the environment,
yet a farmer's time horizon is, as a practical matter, becoming progressively
shorter, collapsed by the need to assure economic survival, comply with
government program rules, and meet community norms and expectations.
Farmers utilizing conventional systems share these same concerns, but tend
to evaluate the performance of a farming system more narrowly in terms of per
acre yields and profits in a given year. Also, they tend not to consider such
a wide range of off-farm consequences or alternative cropping patterns,
agronomic practices, and technologies in the design of farming systems. A
practitioner of alternative agriculture would readily consider a change in crop
rotation patterns on a given field to bring a particular pest under control, or
to lessen reliance on a purchased input that is becoming more expensive. A
conventional producer would tend to stick with the same cropping pattern, and
seek some other solution or a new production input to solve problems that arise.
Viability of Alternative Agriculture
The CAST review states that "Alternative agriculture is viable in some
situations, under certain economic conditions, at specific locations, under
appropriate management expertise, and with a receptive market." This assertion
misses the point. Again, quoting the report, Alternative agriculture is not
a single system of farming practices. It includes a spectrum of farming
systems, ranging from organic systems that attempt to use no purchased synthetic
chemical inputs, to those involving the prudent use of pesticides or antibiotics
to control specific pests or diseases...Successful alternative farmers do what
all good managers do--they apply management skills and information to reduce
costs, improve efficiency, and maintain production levels."
Geographical differences, market conditions, the level of management
skill, and farm policy are among the many factors that will affect the success
of each farmer as he or she decides upon and manages specific cropping patterns,
enterprises, tillage systems, pest control programs, and marketing plans in a
given year. Regardless of the outcome of these decisions, all farms will benefit
from a more systematic consideration of biological and ecological opportunities
to improve the performance of their farming activities.
The success of any one farm in using alternative production practices in
a given area and with a particular set of crop and livestock enterprises begs
the question whether other farms in the area, or elsewhere but with similar
soils and climatic conditions might also be successful in applying alternative
systems. Indeed, one the principle conclusions of Alternative Agriculture is
that virtually all farms will, over time, benefit from a continuing and probing
assessment of biological and ecological performance, with an eye toward
identifying new ways to avoid pest pressures, conserve soil and water resources,
and make more efficient use of critical inputs like fertilizer and animal feeds.
The economic value of such an assessment is likely to increase, particularly in
the long-run, if and as:
o The price of energy-intensive inputs increases.
o Society places a higher premium on environmental
protection and food safety.
o New technologies emerge, providing new opportunities to
utilize genetics and biology to sustain high levels of
o Government policies change to more nearly "level the
playing field" as farmers consider the economic
prospects of different management decisions.
Clearly then, alternative agriculture is relevant and applicable to all
farmers. It is true, as several commentators have pointed out, that the science
and practice of alternative agriculture is unevenly developed. For some crops
in certain regions of the country, much is known about the scientific foundation
of profitable, effective alternative agricultural systems that achieve, or
approach many of the goals in the definition reported above.
Corn-soybean-small grain-meadow systems in the midwest are a good example.
Many farmers have gained valuable experience with such systems. In conjunction
with researchers, they are making rapid progress in delineating the specific
considerations that play a central role in explaining farming system
performance. In certain regions for some crops many of the practices integral
to alternative agriculture are rapidly becoming conventional.
In other regions, and for some crops, our base of knowledge about the
biology and ecology of farming systems is too poorly developed to evaluate
critically the performance of conventional systems, let alone design effective
alternatives. For this reason, some critics discount the importance or
relevance of alternative agriculture, in effect asserting that if proven
alternatives can not now solve all problems in all places, the promise of
alternative agriculture should not be taken seriously.
Other critics follow a different line of argument, a line evident in
several of the CAST reviews. They point out, correctly in most cases, that an
alternative practice or crop rotation that works on a particular-farm (like any
of those featured in the Alternative Agriculture case studies) will probably not
work as well or as consistently on a nearby farm with a different soil type, or
where spring temperatures are cooler, or on a farm without livestock or lacking
a given piece of equipment.
Economists are inclined to criticize the report for either failing to
fully consider the macro-economic consequences of micro-level change, or the
farm-level consequences of macro-policy or economic change. They also challenge
recommendations calling for change in practices, programs or research priorities
in the absence of thorough and compelling data and analysis demonstrating that
everyone will be better off. We still lack the scientific bases to make such
economic estimates, and will remain constrained by the limitations of
contemporary scientific and economic knowledge until we do something to relax
them. (See the research recommendations in Alternative Agriculture).
Standing alone, each of these cautions and caveats have merit, as do
several others reflecting the uncertain, dynamic world in which we live. We
were well aware of these concerns as we developed the report. Accordingly, we
tried to stress throughout Alternative Agriculture that the development and
application of alternative systems should proceed methodically and gradually.
Moreover, the report strongly emphasizes that alternative agriculture will
not be easy, nor without costs and disappointments. Nonetheless, the report
conveys a hopeful message that rests in no small part upon the resourcefulness
and common sense of the American farmer. The most important conclusion in
Alternative Agriculture is that farmers, when armed with facts and new
technology, should be able markedly--indeed often dramatically--to improve the
economic and environmental performance of their operations.
Solutions to agriculture's contemporary problems will arise from more in-
depth knowledge of the biology and ecology of farming systems, coupled with more
precise management of agronomic and pest control practices. Novel solutions
will evolve from a systems-based understanding of the functioning of a farm, and
will remain elusive until our superior research capabilities in the sciences
basic to agriculture are better funded (see the 1989 NAS-NRC report Investing
in Research, which calls for a $500 million increase in USDA's competitive
grants program), and then matched with a serious effort to apply the results of
scientific research to develop improved farming systems such as those called for
in Alternative Agriculture.
The research agenda called for in Alternative Agriculture must focus on
understanding the inherently interactive and complex nature of a farm
enterprise. Greater research effort must also be matched and leveraged through
the efforts of all public institutions that can help creatively apply the
results of scientific research in the evaluation and design of farming
systems. Attention must also be directed toward the reform of agricultural,
regulatory, and marketing policies which stand in the way of innovation on the
Key Role of Management
Alternative Agriculture stresses the critical importance of farm
management skills in improving the performance of farming systems. Several CAST
reviewers correctly note that solid management skills are equally vital for
success on farms utilizing conventional production practices. A key
distinction, however, needs to be emphasized.
Most conventional farming systems have become very specialized. In such
systems, farmers exercise management discretion over the selection of tillage
and planting systems, the selection of plant varieties; levels, sources, rates,
and timing of application of plant nutrients purchased off the farm; and crop
protection methods, typically herbicides for weeds, insecticides for insects,
and fungicides for plant diseases. Even specialized, single crop cropping
systems, which include vineyards and orchards, are very complex, and confront
farmers with unique difficulties and many critical choices each season.
A practitioner of alternative agriculture, on the other hand, must
generally develop and apply an even more diverse set of skills.
Many of the most critical management decisions in alternative systems
occur before a farmer decides what to grow on a particular acre of land. For
example, the decision whether to specialize only in crop production or diversify
by including a livestock enterprise on a farm is of enormous consequence in
determining the practicality of many other practices.
Perhaps another example will help explain this key point. Consider two
neighbors--a conventional and alternative farmer--who for some reason moved into
another county and happened to settle on adjoining farms where they decided to
grow the same crop in their first season. In the first year of field work, the
practices they would choose to employ might differ only marginally.
Important differences between the two farmers, however, would become
increasingly evident over the years, reflecting the outcome of major decisions
including what crops to grow in what order, or whether to integrate crop and
livestock enterprises; the crops, tillage systems, and conservation practices
applied on each field in response to its topography, soil type, or other natural
resource limitations; and the level of dependence on inputs purchased off the
farm per unit of production (that is, the percent of gross farm income per unit
of output required to pay for the principle inputs--fuel, seed, fertilizer,
pesticides, and animal drugs).
Several CAST reviewers criticize Alternative Agriculture for recommending
alternative practices that have not been fully proven effective, except in
certain narrow circumstances, or for which we lack detailed knowledge regarding
both micro- and macro-economic consequences. They argue that the NAS report is
reckless in encouraging change in conventional systems that work well in most
instances. Again, this criticism misses our basic point that alternative
agriculture is an approach to farming, not a distinct set of practices. It also
ignores the history of technological advance, a record of steady progress that
is absolutely critical in sustaining mankind's ability to feed itself.
For centuries, our ability to survive has rested upon the inclination of
farmers to experiment, and in times of adversity, adapt to conditions
threatening their capacity to produce enough food and fiber to sustain life.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, innovative farmers were far ahead of most
agricultural scientists in designing on-farm systems and methods to reduce cash
costs, control soil erosion, limit chemical and energy dependence, and protect
Some farmers sought change to improve economic performance, others were
more concerned with the environmental consequences of certain practices.
Regardless of their motivation, farmers have historically proven very adept at
innovation, both by trial-and-error and, in many instances, through more
structured forms of on-farm experimentation. It would be a great loss indeed
if we were now to discourage farmers from trying the unproven because science
has yet to document carefully all possible consequences.
It is for this reason that Alternative Agriculture, in its research
recommendations, places considerable importance on an expansion, of applied,
field-level research which includes farmers as active participants in the design
and conduct of research activities, and in the communication of research
results. We view this as absolutely vital because the science and art of farm
management has for too long been one of the major missing ingredients in the
agricultural science equation. We can think of no better way to overcome this
historical shortcoming than by bringing the real managers directly into the
The organization Practical Farmers of Iowa has already demonstrated
convincingly the practical benefits of this approach. Incidentally, Practical
Farmers of Iowa was started by Dick Thompson, whose operation is among those
featured in the case studies of Alternative Agriculture (see case study number
5, page 308). In fact, the Thompson farm operation is now one of the most
intensively studied anywhere in the world. Researchers from the USDA's
Agricultural Research Service, the Iowa State University Agricultural Experiment
Station, and a variety of other state and federal institutions and agencies are
collaborating with the Thompsons on a variety of studies this summer.
It is worth stressing again that management skills and information are
universally critical elements all farmers need both to diagnose problems with
current practices successfully, and to discover ways to overcome problems or
constraints consistent with available soil and water resources, machinery,
labor, and market opportunities.
Traditional Strengths of U.S. Agriculture
Several reviewers feel that Alternative Agriculture fails to acknowledge
the many strengths and accomplishments of American agriculture. Others are
highly critical because the report recommends what they perceive as wholesale
changes in proven agricultural research programs and institutions. Yet the
Executive Summary begins with the following passage:
"In the 1930s, crop yields in the United States, England, India,
and Argentina were essentially the same. Since that time,
researchers, scientists, and a host of federal policies have helped
U.S. farmers dramatically increase yields of corn, wheat, soybeans,
cotton, and most other major commodities. Today, fewer
farmers feed more people than ever before. This success, however,
has not come without costs."
In several other places, the report highlights the outstanding successes
of American agriculture. On page 137, Alternative Agriculture states that:
"During the last four decades, agricultural research at the land-grant
universities and the USDA has been extensive and very productive." Furthermore,
the report calls for a substantial increase in public funding for agricultural
research, through the very institutions we are criticized of belittling.
Alternative Agriculture does criticize existing research as too narrow in
focus. The research system continues to reward narrowness, and has yet to
attack seriously institutional and professional constraints to
multidisciplinary, systems-based research. We conclude that: "The unifying
premises of alternative systems are to enhance and use biological interactions
rather than reduce and suppress them and to exercise prudence in the use of
external inputs. Research has not fully addressed the integration of study
results essential to the adoption of a number of alternative farming methods as
unified systems . Lack of systems research is a key obstacle to the adoption
of a number of alternative farming practices."
For this reason, two of the central research recommendations of
Alternative Agriculture call for an expansion of systems-based research. We
o A $40 million competitive grants program focused on the
biological and ecological foundations of alternative
o A nationwide network of applied, on-farm research and
demonstration projects that include farmers as active
participants in the design and conduct of ongoing
research, like USDA's current Low-Input Sustainable
Agriculture, or LISA, program.
The CAST review, on the other hand, cautions that: "While the
interdisciplinary and/or systems approaches may be useful in some cases .
By using a systems approach, it becomes extremely difficult to establish cause-
and-effect relationships." CAST reviewers also highlight a number of well-
documented problems in carrying out systems-based multidisciplinary research.
We agree with CAST that these problems can be serious, yet do not share its
hesitancy in working toward meaningful solutions. Indeed, several concrete
recommendations are offered to overcome these problems, both in Alternative
Agriculture and Investing in Research.
We wish to be very emphatic here. American agriculture possesses great
strengths upon which to draw as we face the challenges of the 1990s and beyond.
Our experience with highly specialized industrial agriculture, with its reliance
on pesticides and a relatively narrow base of genetic resources, is very short-
lived when seen from the perspective of human history. We should not feel
compelled to apologize for failing to anticipate the many subtle--and some not
so subtle--problems that have arisen, but would be foolish to ignore them.
We will overcome these problems by drawing upon the traditional strengths
of American agriculture--its natural resource base, the farmer-innovator, and
the institutions that serve agriculture. Our rate of progress will accelerate
if we augment ongoing research and on-farm experimentation with the insights
possible through a systems-based analysis of the ecological and biological
performance of farming systems.
A Return to Old Time Agriculture?
Some critics argue that an erroneously romantic vision of the good life
experienced by family farms early in this century motivates much of the interest
in alternative agriculture. They contend that adoption of alternative practices
will condemn farmers to lower yields, reduced profits, and more drudgery.
Furthermore, they argue that U.S. agriculture will lose the capacity to produce
sufficient food and fiber to meet domestic and export demand; or, result in a
marked increase in the price of food coupled with a reduction in the quality of
food. In the CAST review, analysts predict that "widespread adoption of
alternative agriculture" would reduce the food supply by 15 percent according
to one review, or "up to 26 percent" according to another.
Quite to the contrary, alternative production systems are modern in every
respect, and in fact require more sophisticated knowledge and more diverse
technology than many conventional systems. Critics who dwell on this point are
attempting to create a straw man. For some reason they seem convinced that a
system that is based on the use of crop rotations, efficient management of
animal manure, and other traditional practices can not also utilize modern
machinery, crop and animal varieties developed with the advanced tools of modern
genetics, appropriate levels and formulations of fertilizers, pesticides, and
other modern inputs.
Will alternative agriculture result in a reduction in the food supply, an
increase in food prices, or a loss in food quality, as some critics allege? We
think not. Indeed, we believe that alternative agricultural systems will be
essential in the 1990s to address pressing environmental, food safety, and
competitiveness pressures, and to avoid trends toward steadily increasing food
production prices and consumer food costs.
Moreover, alternative agriculture holds great promise in helping farmers
adjust in response to changing state and federal policies. The 1990 farm bill
and the need to reduce the federal budget deficit are bound to constrain
somewhat the capacity of government to support farm income, share risk, and
underwrite investments to the extent farmers have grown accustomed. In the
longer-run, alternative agriculture holds great promise in leading American
agriculture toward farming systems that attain increasingly high levels of
production by building and exploiting the underlying productive capacity of soil
and water resources. It will also help reconcile contemporary political
tensions that arise whenever the Congress is asked to reconcile conflicts or
broker tradeoffs among agricultural production, farm income, and environmental
Throughout the 20th century, U.S. agriculture has taken advantage of the
vastness and native fertility of the continent's landscape. But regrettably,
there has been in nearly all major farming regions a slow but gradual loss of
topsoil depth and soil organic matter content. In most areas, we have lost at
least a third--and often one-half or more--of the organic matter content
originally present when land was first farmed. To date, the loss of native
fertility has been more than overcome in terms of crop yields by the addition
to the soil of commercial fertilizers, crop residues, and other wastes.
The evidence is persuasive, though, that a new era has arrived for U.S.
agriculture--indeed for agriculture in all countries that have aggressively
adopted Green Revolution technologies. We should no longer count on existing
technologies and inputs to steadily increase production levels consistent with
demand through the next century, and if we try to do so, the world is likely to
experience increasingly severe environmental problems, markedly higher food
costs, and disappointing results in terms of overall production performance.
The reason is simple, yet its evolution complex and gradual. Farming
practices over the last five decades or so have gradually degraded the
underlying productive potential of the land. The cost and social tension
surrounding the use of many contemporary technologies are bound to increase
appreciably. In more and more cases--the emergence of pesticide-resistant pests
and serious soil compaction problems for example--the biological performance and
costs of once highly effective and profitable technologies are becoming
unacceptable to society and a serious financial burden to farmers.
Accordingly, in the long-run farmers will need to move toward alternative
systems that actually build up the inherent productive potential of the soil,
protect the purity of water supplies, and attain high yields with lessened
dependence on nonrenewable resources. Reversing several decades of resource
degradation can be accomplished in several ways: by a renewed commitment to
reducing soil erosion to levels far below average rates today, by producing more
than one crop per season so that the amount of crop residues and green manure
worked back into the soil each year increases, by making better use of animal
and other organic wastes, by more carefully managing water and controlling pest
losses, and by ensuring that near-term financial pressures do not periodically
compel farmers to adopt short cuts and forestall needed investments in soil and
water conservation systems. In other words, through a commitment to alternative
Mr. Chairman, we would be delighted to respond to any questions you might
have, and if needed, provide for the record further responses to technical
points raised by the CAST reviewers.
Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this hearing.