Insights by Goldie: Research and education: critical for a food-secure future

by Goldie Caughlan

This article was originally published in July 2008

As petroleum costs soar, energy-intensive farmers and ranchers will be considering their options. They may focus on finding markets for their products as close to home as possible before looking in other areas.

Non-organic producers especially will have to reconsider their dependence on petroleum-based agricultural chemicals. This includes all synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.

Meat, dairy and egg producers — organic or not — may question the economic sense of shipping tons of grains long distances to feed animals. They’ll need to explore providing at least some pasture for their animals, or growing forage grasses on-site, as their forebears did.

Unfortunately, many may not discover the better options that exist. They won’t if they continue to rely on the “research advice” provided by their friendly, farm-chemical sales representatives — who typically are neighbors or folks they’ve known for years.

These reasons underscore why it’s crucial that there’s dependable, science-based, unbiased, sustainable and organic agricultural research conducted by agricultural schools.

It’s crucial that all results be published, widely publicized and shared in rural communities through well-educated County Extension Agents. The time-honored extension services for all in agriculture have a federal mandate to be provided by every agricultural “land grant” university in each and every state, including our own Washington State University.

The commitment to vigorous research and educational services at our land grant colleges must be as free of commercial bias as possible — since that’s at the root of major problems in the current system. It’s important to producers and all of us who eat and breathe air and drink water!

We’ve got no sane choice but to leave behind this unsustainable, industrialized food system. The political differences and resistance to change are challenging and may get worse before they get better. All the more reason that we need to support change-making efforts with solid science.

The good news is that good science increasingly is validating the nutritional, environmental and social value in changing our food production systems. We can restore our landscape to an economically decentralized, socially just, environmentally sustainable, and healthier means of producing and securing food. We must, for the sake of future food security — and sooner than later.

Most agricultural land grant schools and other research institutions since World War II have favored the industrial model. They developed “chemical dependency” problems — hooked on the industrial complex’s funding of research and key faculty.

Kicking addictive habits never is easy. Monsanto and other funding “partners” for genetic modification of seeds and animals have tightened the dependency. But we can and must change that.

Long-time Sound Consumer readers know something about PCC’s work over the decades to build relationships with regional organic producers. Over the past nine years, we’ve also worked closely with agricultural groups and others working for sustainability, including Washington Tilth Producers, the Washington Sustainable Food & Farming Network, the Washington Toxics Coalition, and more recently, the national Center for Food Safety.

Our Sound Consumer editor and I engage and participate often, and we meet about four times a year with key faculty and administrators at WSU.

We’ve learned to listen and learn from sharing each other’s perspectives. For our part, we communicate to the WSU leadership our perspective on the research needed to promote sustainable and organic production methods, and we look to WSU to assist in these efforts.

While not always agreeing on certain issues, our progress has been tangible, positive and gratifying. Our “place at the table” has been instrumental in helping to secure federal and state funding for sustainable and organic research and instruction, and for establishing the nation’s first organic major, now in its third year at WSU.

Academic opportunities for students are available online now, plus there are placement opportunities for farming and ranching internships. Most inspiring is the range and depth of interdisciplinary research that already is benefiting both non-organic and organic farmers — and that’s a win-win situation.

So if you’re concerned about the “state of our plate,” take a few minutes to visit the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, and you’ll find good reasons for hope.

Read the general overview, then on the left side, click on each of four key focus areas: BIOAg, Climate Friendly Farming, Organic Agriculture, and Small Farms for a quick look at some pioneering work.

If you can’t access the Internet but want the info, let me know and I’ll mail you some articles for interesting and very reassuring reading.

Also in this issue

Letters to the editor, July 2008

Farm worker justice, Support for EWG, GM soy, and more

The gifts of local growers

For those who create their shopping list based on the availability of local organic produce, July is most notable for its steadiness and abundance. Four farm and the farmers who own them are profiled: Rent's Due Ranch, Nash’s Organic Produce, Full Circle Farm and River Valley Organics.

Your co-op, July 2008

PCC 2008 election results, Board report, PCC member benefit with Zipcar