The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) solicited public input on the emerging needs and opportunities in food and agricultural research, education, and extension through the initiative, “NIFA Listens: Investing in Science to Transform Lives.” The Organic Farmers Association (OFA) submitted their comments on behalf of the nationwide organic farmers that the organization supports.

What is your top priority in food and agricultural research, extension or education that NIFA should address?

Organic agriculture is the future of American agriculture.  It is the fastest growing sector of U.S. agriculture—driven directly by U.S. consumer demand.  Organic family farmers are able to remain viable because organic farms are 35% more profitable than average farms, and organic agriculture helps maintain rural vitality and healthy drinking water, air, and soil-elements essential for our country’s future.

U.S. organic production lags far behind U.S. organic demand.  This market gap hurts U.S. farmers and it is crucial that we invest in organic research to support domestic production of organic crops.  U.S. farmers can compete with imported products—surely American farmers can replace the 70% imported organic soybeans and 40% imported organic corn with domestic product.  Organic agriculture has a prominent place in the future of U.S. agriculture and we need a larger investment in public organic agricultural research.

Funding organic research is a win-win for all U.S. farmers, as the basis of organic agriculture is soil health and alternative pest and disease management strategies—research in these areas benefit both organic and conventional farmers.  Unfortunately, over the past five years, while overall funding for agricultural research has grown significantly, funding for organic research has stagnated. For example, USDA’s own data shows that funding for organic in the flagship competitive grant research program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), has averaged about two-tenths of one percent (0.2 percent) annually. In addition, funding for USDA’s organic-specific research programs has been stagnant for years.

The bipartisan Organic Agriculture Research Act (H.R. 2436) has been introduced in the House to authorize $50 million in mandatory funding annually across all the relevant competitive grant research programs.  OFA strongly supports the Organic Agriculture Research Act as a means to address the many production challenges organic, and all, farmers face.  As the organic market grows at impressive speed, research must pick up the pace to meet the increasing research needs of U.S. farmers to be successful with organic production solving challenges of weed management, soil building and successful marketing. Conventional farmers are watching the organic market and ready to transition acres, but they need more research support to aid them in successful three-year organic land transitions while they try to understand how to follow organic standards but do not receive the organic price premiums on their products.

Within the organic research priorities, organic farmers strongly support research dollars for public research in seeds and breeds adapted to local and organic conditions.  The seeds and breeds developed with this public funding should remain in the public realm, not protected by private patents that restrict farmers saving the seed for future use.  Seed saving is an innovative strategy to further improve varieties for micro-local conditions—a practice in line with public funding for breed improvement.  Public varieties (no patents) also allow for breeders and researchers to share and further improve the cultivars or breeds—thus continuing improvement and refinement on varieties created with public dollars. We recommend an increased AFRI priority on public cultivar and breed development, through the establishment of a Public Plant Breeding and Cultivar priority area, with its own review panel and panel manager, within the AFRI Foundational RFA.  The priority area should be focused on public cultivar development and release and must remain in the public realm.

What are the most promising science opportunities for advancement of food and agricultural sciences?

Organic farmers have long known and been dedicated to the principle that healthy soil is the foundation of sustainable agriculture and results in healthy plants, animals, and humans.  In the past few years, conventional agriculture has begun to also acknowledge and explore the benefits of soil health and USDA NRCS has campaigned on the importance of soil health nationwide.  Soil is extremely complex and more science is needed to maintain, restore, and build soil health so that we can reduce soil inputs, reduce herbicides through better soil health and balance, and use the properties of healthy soil structure to clean water leaving farms.  More science on healthy soil will also enhance our understanding of how nutrient density enters food, so that we focus our agricultural production energy in producing the most nutritious food for our communities.