Friday, October 24, 2008

Integrated Nitrogen Committee Workshop

Last week, the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) Integrated Nitrogen Committee (INC) held a workshop to review the committee white paper, “Selected Recommendations and Findings from the Integrated Nitrogen Committee”, on integrated nitrogen management. Laura Murphy, the Science Policy Intern, attended the preliminary and breakout group reporting sessions of the workshop.

The breakout group focus areas for this workshop included:
1: NOx Emissions from Combustion
2: Managing Ammonia Emissions
3: Urban and Aquatic Nr Discharge
4: Agricultural Aquatic Discharge
(Co-chaired by ASA-CSSA-SSSA member Dr. Ken Cassman)
5: Impacts of Land Use on Accumulation & Effects of Reactive Nitrogen in the Environment
6: Integrated Reactive Nitrogen Policies
7: Agroecosystems, Food Security, and Bioproducts
8: Energy and the Cascading Costs of Reactive Nitrogen

Overall the groups collectively submitted that more support is needed in several areas in terms of both funding and policy to realize national integrated nitrogen management. The following statements represent the overarching needs:

Long-term research is essential.
In the US, funding for monitoring has not been prioritized; although it is critical for natural resource science, exposing trends and aiding evaluation of new policies or practices. National, integrated monitoring networks will be critical to advancing the understanding and management of N, as well as other pollutants. Data must be accessible to researchers to answer scientific problems, and the scientific analysis must be timely and available for decision-makers to use in setting policies and priorities.

It is necessary to educate both policy-makers and the public about N in the environment.
Education should include timely scientific information about health concerns and discuss the true costs of nutrient management practices (i.e. full life-cycle assessments, benefit of ecosystem services).

Managers need regionally adaptable decision-making frameworks.
These decision-making frameworks must be informed by science from field to farm to regional and national scales. No one rule will apply to all landscapes, and a regional perspective is very important to informing on-farm practices. Multi-scale thinking will link field to farm to watershed and airshed scales, and ultimately identify the scale of the “problemshed”.

Management and policy must take a ‘systems-based approach’.
A systems approach takes into account landscapes, ecosystems, all forms of N and other potential pollutants. In contrast, a regulatory approach would establish limits on one aspect of N, potentially resulting in a trade-off with another pollutant or degradation of another area.

Policies must encourage education, training and persuasion.
Even—perhaps especially—in the case of agriculture, where pollutants have historically been less regulated than the industrial or municipal sectors, an educational/training approach is warranted.

Some breakout groups also identified data gaps, which should be prioritized to support the research which will ultimately inform and support the policy on integrated nitrogen management. These data gaps included:
• N use (especially at farm scale)
• Fluxes and loads
• N losses from farms
• Nutrient balances
• Links between N and C, water, climate change, etc.
• N storage in soil
• N transformations, transport, etc. in ‘no-till’ systems, medium term
• Dry deposition of N across landscapes at various scales
• High-resolution short-range models
• National monitoring networks (with consistent funding/support)
• Improved understanding and monitoring of feedback loops – both on the landscape and in the socio-political-production realm

For more information about the INC, visit HERE

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Comment by October 29th: What role can higher education play in agricultural development in Africa?

What role can higher education play in agricultural development in Africa?

The Africa-US Higher Education Initiative is currently hosting a web-based consultation, open to anyone, about what role higher education can play in agricultural development in Africa.

The dialogue began on Oct 20th and will close on Oct. 29th.

In mid-November, there will be a call for proposals for planning grants. Watch for details in the October 29th Science Policy Report.

See the Africa-US Higher Education Initiative website:

Discuss the role of higher education in agricultural development here:

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Comments on Farm Bill REAP due Friday, October 24

The Farm Bill Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) is currently open for comments. This program has been discussed at recent meetings of the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture (NCSA) Committee on Renewable Energy.Scientists working in areas related to bioenergy may wish to add to the draft comments (access them by clicking here) by the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), or submit their own.

If you would like to submit comments on the ELPC draft, please send them to Laura Murphy at and I will compile comments from ASA-CSSA-SSSA scientists and submit them jointly to the ELPC.

If you would like to submit independent comments, I will connect you with John Moore at ELPC, who will gladly help you coordinate their filing with USDA.

The following background is from ELPC: USDA's public comment period for REAP and the other new programs in the Farm Bill Energy Title ended on September 19. However, we know that USDA is still 6-12 weeks away from issuing this year's notice of funds availability (NOFA) for REAP. Since for the first time it includes Energy Audits/Technical Assistance, we think it's especially important to give USDA guidance on how to best implement the program. Our draft comments therefore focus on the energy audit program, together with comments on improving the existing REAP grant and loan guarantee program. The primary reason why we are submitting these comments (which are similar in the main to ELPC's first comments) is that comparatively few entities submitted comments on REAP on September 19. So we think it's especially important for more ag, rural development, energy and other organizations to weigh in now so that USDA gets the rules right - which is much better than trying to undo poorly-designed rules.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Exploring Buzzwords: Agroecology

Currently, the agriculture science policy community stands at the brink of being swarmed by a new buzzword: “Agroecology”. Buzzwords have a tendency to sound important, but are often misunderstood. (In fact, ‘buzzword’ is itself one, so for clarity I will work with the definition proposed by the Merriam-Webster Online dictionary: an important-sounding usually technical word or phrase often of little meaning used chiefly to impress laymen.) It is difficult to implement good policy based on a popular concept that is not well-developed. It is important to have a clear idea of what the concept represents in the physical world, and what metrics can be used to determine whether a situation accurately reflects the concept, before one can measure progress and/or success.

So, what is agroecology? And how can we determine whether it is a valuable concept for agriculture science policy? A number of definitions are available, including the classic and the contemporary:

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (entered 1967):
Agroecology is an ecological approach to agriculture that views agricultural areas as ecosystems and is concerned with the ecological impact of agricultural practices

Webster’s Online Dictionary (entered 2003-2008):
Agroecology is the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design, development, and management of sustainable agricultural systems

…and the complicated:

"Loosely defined, agroecology often incorporates ideas about a more environmentally and socially sensitive approach to agriculture, one that focuses not only on production, but also on the ecological sustainability of the productive system. [This definition] implies a number of features about society and production that go well beyond the limits of the agricultural field.
"At its most narrow, agroecology refers to the study of purely ecological phenomena within the crop field, such as predator/prey relations, or crop/weed competition."
[Susanna B. Hecht, "The Evolution of Agroecological Thought," in Agroecology: The Scientific Basis of Alternative Agriculture, ed. by Miguel Altieri (Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1987)

The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) has not yet developed a working definition of the term ‘agroecology’. However, the major groups* --Science and Technology, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and Farmers--have all made reference to agroecology in their comments to the Commission during sessions of multi-stakeholder dialogue on sustainable agriculture.
*The UNCSD major groups represent various stakeholders in civil society. Follow the link for more information about the major groups and their role in informing the UNCSD.

The NGO Major Group voices: a need for further support for ‘agroecological approaches or ‘investments in agroecological participatory methods’. The Farmers Major Group offered a few examples of agricultural practices that might be included in agroecology. And the Science & Technology community has weighed in with the following statement: “Advanced knowledge in agroecology offers the potential to increase productivity while providing critical ecosystem services, including improved soil and water quality and carbon sequestration.”

Other documents drafted by NGOs, e.g., the Kenya Food Security Steering Group, use the term ‘agro-ecology’ to refer to the characteristics of a given landscape, including agricultural practices and biodiversity, as well as climate and common natural disaster conditions. This treatment of the word is slightly different from the concept of agroecology as a discipline of study.

The latter use of the term follows on an early model from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). As early as 1978, the FAO reported: The Agro-Ecological Zones concept represents unique combinations of agroclimatic zones and soil units that would likely be homogeneous with regard to their capacity to support (rainfed) production of a wide range of food and cash crops.

More recently (2007), the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (SARD) branch drafted a brief outlining the emerging science of agro-ecology. They use Gliessman’s definition:

Agro-ecology is the application of ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agro-ecosystems.

(From: Gliessman, S. Agroecology: the ecology of sustainable food systems. Boca Raton, Florida, USA, CRC Press. 2007)

The briefing also provides a concise history of the development of the concept:

In the past, agriculture was mainly studied through an agronomic approach, rather than an ecological or social one. In the 1960s and 1970s, ecological analysis of agriculture gained momentum, and in the 1980s the traditional agricultural systems of developing countries started to be recognized as important natural resource management systems. By the 1990s, agro-ecology had emerged as a scientific discipline with a conceptual framework and defined methodology for the holistic study of agro-ecosystems, including human and environmental elements, and the provision of principles for the design and management of sustainable agriculture and food systems.

And it is true; there are now a number of resources available for working groups in agroecology to reference for assistance in defining their approach to the concept. But because agroecology remains a flexible term with various approaches and definitions, it is important for a group working with the concept of agroecology to establish a working definition suitable to the purposes of the group, to avoid confusion. Likewise, it is important for a group to have clearly determined metrics, whether trying to determine if a research program fits within the study of agroecology, or trying to determine if the study of agroecology itself is succeeding at its own purported goals. Successful communication will rely on mutual understanding of the group terminology.

For those of you interested in further discussion of concepts related to sustainable agriculture and how to define and measure it, the Tri-societies’ Committee on Organic and Sustainable Agriculture (COSA) will be meeting at the Annual International meetings in Houston to discuss: Promoting Sustainability through use of Metrics, Policy and Education.

COSA roundtable: “Promoting Sustainability through use of Metrics, Policy and Education”
Date: Monday, October 6th
Time: 7:00 – 9:00 pm
Place: Lanier Grand Ballroom E, Hilton Americas Houston Hotel

Some links to agroecology resources:

Agroecology Research Group at UCSC:
The Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems at UCSC:
Agroecology in Action at UCB:
The Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology, Inc. at UM:

Monday, August 04, 2008

Investing in Research, Education, and Extension—a Solution to Solve the ‘Global Food Crisis

Accounts from around the world describe a “global food crisis”—a series of events resulting in an inflation of price indices for commodities such as rice, maize, and wheat upwards of 40% per year by highlighting the gravity of the decisions it forces global citizens to make in order to survive. In more than 30 countries across the globe, the weight of food decisions is so pressing that it has led to food riots. African nations have endured the highest number of conflicts.

According to a recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the crisis is unraveling of more than 30 years of international development, resulting in increased calls for help for the UN World Food Program. While experts point fingers and hypothesize about the cause of the crisis, it is apparent that there is no one single cause or solution. However, one proposal stands out to ASA–CSSA–SSSA, the proposal for increased investment in research, development and technology transfer.

"The present situation is a result of the international community's neglect of agriculture in developing countries for a long time," notes Dr Jacques Diouf, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). "The share of agriculture in official development assistance has declined from 17% in 1980 to only 3% in 2006. Investment in agricultural research in developing countries is less than 0.6% of their Gross Domestic Product compared to more than 5% in the OECD countries."

"Increasing agricultural production in developing countries will only be achievable by additional public and private investment. FAO estimates incremental public investment needs at about US$24 billion every year—this includes increased resources for water management, rural roads, storage facilities, as well as research and extension,” Diouf said when he addressed a conference at the European Parliament in Brussels in July of this year.

The International Food Policy Institute concedes that in China spending on agricultural research, education, and rural roads was more effective in promoting agricultural growth and poverty reduction, yielding 10 times greater returns than input subsidies. Is China a good case study?

Is the Chinese Model Worth Extrapolating?

In China, the researchers for the World Bank found that between 1981 and 2004 agricultural growth relieved the nation’s rate of poverty four times more than did growth in the manufacturing or service sectors.

Is part of the success and impact of China’s growing agricultural sector related to its continued investments for institutes that are developing crop and livestock varieties to improve agricultural productivity? Evidenced by recent activity, this seems to be what China believes. On 2 July 2008, the State Council, China’s Cabinet, approved a National Program for Long- and Medium- Term Grain Security, which ensures that grain security will be China's long-term basic national policy. The DuPont business, Pioneer Hi-Bred will be a significant partner for China in these efforts and has offered resources to help improve the productivity of Chinese farmers.

"We need to increase the productivity of each acre of land for China to achieve food security—and biotechnology will be a key technology in doing so," claims William S. Niebur, Vice President of DuPont Crop Genetics Research and Development. "China has experienced productivity gains in rice and corn production through hybridization, but growth has reached a plateau. New technologies are needed to achieve the step-change increase in corn and rice production that is required to meet China's growing demand for grain."

It will be interesting to see what role the crop sciences play in the execution of China’s national grain security program, both publically and through private-R & D effforts.

Will plant breeding, crop physiology, and cropping systems also be part of the research and development efforts?

Tell Us What You Think!

Does the Chinese model reinvent the wheel, or serve as a renewed method for providing aid? Does R&D help to alleviate poverty and mitigate food shortages? If so, how? What are your experiences from the field?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Climate Debate--Terrestrial Systems

Summary of Climate Change Legislation

A cap and trade system is a system where economic sectors, broadly defined as electrical generation, industrial, and transportation, will be required to register with a Federal Greenhouse Gas Registry managed by a non-government entity (in S. 2191 the Climate Change Credit Corporation).

The covered facilities under the regulated sectors of the economy are allocated emissions allowances each year (2012-2050) that equal 100% of the total emissions for the broadly defined sectors in a given year. The goal is to limit the emission of Greenhouse Gases (GHGs), effectively reducing emissions over the bill’s lifetime. The sum value of allocated emissions allowances equals the cap; each emissions allowance allows a covered facility the authorization to emit 1 carbon dioxide equivalent of greenhouse gas as determined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Emissions allowances are considered to be “under the cap”. The environmental lobby will work towards reducing the cap, i.e. less emissions; whereas other lobbies work for a higher- or no- cap.

The offset allowances outside the cap are by their nature more stringent, but no farmer is required to participate in the offset program. The offset allowance is a regulated allowance monitored by the EPA. These allowances require a unit of reduction in the quantity of emissions or an increase in sequestration equal to 1 carbon dioxide equivalent at an entity that is not a covered facility. The reduction in emissions at the said facility, or increase in sequestration, is eligible to be used as an additional means of compliance for the offset certification submission requirements established under the emissions allowances section of the bill. These offset allowances are beyond the cap and could, if they are not true forms of sequestration (i.e. where sequestration is the capture, permanent separation, isolation, or removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, as determined by the EPA Administrator), weaken the bill. As a result there is pressure on the land-based sequestration lobby to develop a very scrupulous set of measuring, monitoring and verification criteria to ensure a high level of rigor.

What is happening in Congress and the Administration...

The Congressional leadership has stated that Climate Change is a priority for the 110th Congress. However, if movement on the bill does not occur in June (and this is questionable), it is likely that next year’s bills (introduced in the new Congress) will have a new approach. New Climate Change bills introduced in the 111th Congress will be shaped in the presence of several new circumstances. Next year, Senator John Warner (R-VA) will no longer be in office, meaning that a new Republican must step forward to co-sponsor. It is unclear who would be willing to do so. Additionally, the bill will likely be assigned to the Committee on Environment and Public Works (who authorizes language for the EPA), and needs to be passed by that committee before it goes to the Senate floor. That means that it will have to have bipartisan support from that committee. Finally, the new President will have to sign that bill into law. It is undetermined who will win the presidency and if that individual will be supportive of climate change legislation.
In short, there are many factors weighing into the climate debate on the domestic front. It will be interesting to see how it all pans out.

We are interested to hear from you! What is the role of our Societies in this debate? Please let us know what you think!

More links about Climate:

President Bush
House Committee on Science and Technology
House Committee on Energy and Commerce
Foriegn Relations
Environment and Public Works

Monday, February 11, 2008

Advancing the Second Decade of Biotechnology Discussion

Biotechnology has become an emotional topic. Rarely can you have a discussion without being accused of supporting one extreme or the other. If you voice concerns regarding environmental impact of biotechnology you are labeled as being against biotechnology, while at the same time, if you acknowledge anything positive to come from biotechnology you are aligned with industry. I think biotechnology is more complex than either extreme; therefore how can we create a forum where we can discuss the gray area? Has the topic gotten so emotional that we can’t have a scientific discussion? How do you propose we move forward with the biotechnology debate so individuals can discuss their views openly without getting placed on a “side”?

-Science Policy Intern

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Please Help Support Senate Resolution 440

Recognizing soil as an essential natural resource and soils professionals as playing a critical role managing our nation’s soil resources.

Whereas soil, plant, animal, and human health are intricately linked and the sustainable use of soil affects climate, water and air quality, human health, biodiversity, food safety, and agricultural production;

Whereas soil is a dynamic system which performs many functions and services vital to human activities and ecosystems;

Whereas, despite soil’s importance to human health, the environment, nutrition, and food, feed, fiber and fuel production, there is little public awareness of the importance of soil protection;

Whereas the degradation of soil can be rapid, while the formation and regeneration processes can be very slow;

Whereas protection of United States soil based on the principles of preservation and enhancement of soil functions, prevention of soil degradation, mitigation of detrimental use, and restoration of degraded soils is essential to the long-term prosperity of the United States;

Whereas United States legislation in the areas of organic, industrial, chemical, biological, and medical waste pollution prevention and control should consider soil protection provisions;

Whereas United States legislation on climate change, water quality, agriculture, and rural development should offer a coherent and effective legislative framework for common principles and objectives that are aimed at protection and sustainable use of soils in the United States;

Whereas soil contamination coupled with poor or inappropriate soil management practices continues to leave contaminated sites in the United States;

Whereas soil can be managed in a sustainable manner, which preserves its capacity to deliver ecological, economic, and social benefits, while maintaining its value for future generations: Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That the Senate--
(1) recognizes it as necessary to improve knowledge, exchange information, and develop and implement best practices for soil management, soil restoration, carbon sequestration, and long-term use of the nation’s soil resources;

(2) recognizes the important role of soil scientists and soils professionals, who are well-equipped with the information and experience needed to address the issues of today and those of tomorrow in managing the nation’s soil resources;

(3) commends soil scientists and professionals for their efforts to promote education, outreach, and awareness necessary for generating more public interest in and appreciation for soils;

(4) acknowledges the promise of soil scientists and professionals to continue to enrich the lives of all Americans by improving stewardship of the soil, combating soil degradation and ensuring the future protection and sustainable use of our air, soil, and water resources.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Quick Question and Answer on the UN-CSD

Q. What is the United Nation’s Commission on Sustainable Development (UN-CSD)?

A. “The United Nations’ Commission on Sustainable Development (UN-CSD) was created December, 1992 to ensure effective follow-up of the 1992 United Nations’ Conference on Environment and Development (also called the UNCED or Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At the UNCED, world leaders signed the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity, endorsed the Rio Declaration and the Forest Principles and adopted Agenda-21, a 300-page plan for achieving sustainable development in the 21st century (UNCED documents). The UN-CSD's role has been to ensure effective follow-up of the Earth Summit and to monitor and report on implementation of the Earth Summit agreements at the local, national, regional and international levels.”

(additional information)

Q. How Does a CSD Work?

A. Each CSD is divided into issue areas known as thematic clusters. The thematic clusters change every two years. In 2008/2009, CSD-16 will focus on, Agriculture, Rural development, Land, Drought, Desertification, and Africa. The first year is referred to as a review year, during which stakeholders present key issues relevant to their countries/regions to the larger CSD body. The year ends with a Review Session held in New York, this year it will take place between May 5th-16th. At the Session, world leaders and government representatives listen to stakeholder presentations and discuss strategies to mitigate local and regional issues. The second year, in this case 2009, is dedicated to policy development relating to the thematic cluster.

Q. How will I, as a member, benefit from ASA-CSSA-SSSA contribution to the UN CSD?

A. The UN CSD-16 is currently in a policy review year. As part of this review, the U.S. is collating a National Report profiling domestic and international development best practices, case studies, and effective partnerships. Members of ASA-CSA-SSSA can submit case studies or best practices through ASA-CSSA-SSSA to the State Department to be profiled in the U.S. National Report or can register sustainability partnerships directly with the UN.

ASA-CSSA-SSSA hopes to participate in the Regional Implementation Meeting in Geneva in Geneva in January and to host learning sessions at the CSD, and participate in the CSD in May, 2008 at the UN in New York. With broad participation in the policy review year in 2008, ASA-CSSA-SSSA can influence the forthcoming policy debate at the UN CSD in 2009.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Views From the Field

There are several strategies employed for nutrient management: buffer strips, timing of fertilizer applications, adoption of nitrogen stabilizers, and adoption of new technologies to name a few. Despite significant information, nutrient management practices are not universally adopted.

As corn acreage is increased for biofuel production, how should we proceed?
What are your thoughts on encouraging adoption of BMPs?
Which BMPs give more bang for their buck?
What is the contribution from urban landuses to nutrient pollution?
What BMPs are useful to mitigate urban pollution?
Should we outreach to urban lawn care specialists?

A Soil Science Society Of America (SSSA) Statement
A Soil and Water Conservation Society Workshop
Press Release from the National Science Foundation