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Ag research explores social, economic effects

Published on December 3, 2010 3:01AM

Last changed on December 31, 2010 7:41AM


Too much agricultural research focuses on food production and not enough focuses on sustainability and the social and economic effects of growing food.

That's the word from the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council, which recently updated a 1989 study on alternative agriculture. "Only about one-third of research is devoted to exploring environmental, natural resource, social and economic aspects of farming practices," the summary states.

That, apparently, isn't enough. In reading the highlights of the study, one wonders whether they need to do more research on ag research. What they would find is researchers around the nation are tackling all sorts of issues facing agriculture, including sustainability.

Most research, the council said, is aimed at solving particular problems.

Well, yes, that would be true. Most research tends to be a problem-solving exercise. Such hands-on research helps farmers and ranchers overcome difficulties. Pests, droughts and other problems can cut into yields. Unabated, they can destroy livelihoods.

To say that researchers solve these fundamental problems shouldn't be couched in criticism. Rather, it should be applauded.

The report does admit that there have been many successes in agricultural research.

"Modern agriculture has had an impressive history of productivity that has resulted in relatively affordable food, feed and fiber for domestic purposes, accompanied by substantial growth in agricultural exports," the summary states. "Farm output in 2008 was 158 percent higher than it was in 1948, and farmers are producing more food with less energy per unit output than ever before."

But the council adds a caveat that research on goals such as "enhancing environmental quality or increasing the number of farming jobs" has been secondary.

At land grant universities across the West, sustainability is a top-of-mind issue. Research these days is as broad as it has ever been. The effect agricultural has on the land and other resources continues to be a subject with which many researchers deal. No-till and low-till farming methods, organic and sustainable agriculture are part of the mix.

But sustainability also includes the welfare of farmers and ranchers, without whom agriculture would not exist. In reading the research report, it is clear that the panel of scientists has separated that factor from the others.

Most fascinating is the council's comment about the need for studying the economic and social effects of agriculture. Here's one of the conclusions they will find:

If people don't have enough food at affordable prices, the economic and social effects are bad. Very bad.


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