USDA Organic Research Tackles Vital Issues, Report Says

February 18, 2015 - The US Department of Agriculture, which has invested in agricultural research since the late 1800s, only began including organic-specific projects in its massive research portfolio in 2002. But since that date, the agency has plowed more than $142 million into 188 organic farming studies, successfully targeting issues of vital concern to organic farmers, according to a preliminary analysis conducted by the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF).

Since 2002, USDA funding has produced “a substantial body of research into priority production constraints and other vital issues for organic, transitioning-organic, and sustainable farmers and ranchers,” according to OFRF analyst Mark Schonbeck, who said he was inspired by the “extent, ingenuity and level of farmer involvement” in the agency-funded research.

Schonbeck found that USDA-funded organic research has emphasized soil nutrient management, soil quality, and management of weeds, insect pests and diseases – issues identified as top priorities in multiple surveys of organic and sustainable farmers. The agency has also made significant research investments in crop breeding for organic systems, another top issue for farmers.

However research funding for livestock issues has lagged, and a number of important organic crops including rice, cotton, tree nuts, medicinal herbs, cut flowers and peanuts were either under-represented or entirely overlooked.

The preliminary findings were released as OFRF’s research team, led by Executive Director Brise Tencer and Research Director Dr. Diana Jerkins, completed the first phase of a two-year analysis of USDA’s investments in organic farming research, examining abstracts of 124 projects funded by OREI, and another 64 funded by the agency’s Organic Transitions (ORG) project.

The analysis, funded by a $100,000 grant from the USDA’s Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), aims to evaluate the effectiveness of the agency’s organic research program, gauge its alignment with farmer priorities, and help set priorities for future research investments. Additional preliminary results will be distributed later this year, with the final report expected to be released in 2016.

The project is a collaboration between OFRF and partners including Oregon Tilth, the National Center for Appropriate Technology, Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, the Virginia Association for Biological Farming, and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

When the project was first announced, analysts anticipated reviewing 115 organic research projects with $82 million in funding, but were pleased to discover a much higher total of 188 USDA-funded studies supported by more than $142 million in grants.

Other preliminary findings include:

·         A large majority of the projects provide in-depth examination of research priorities identified in the 2007 National Organic Research Agenda (NORA), a farmer-driven survey published by OFRF.

·         A number of newly-emerging issues were also addressed, including pollinator conservation, food safety and the increasing need for organic-friendly seed sources.

·         Some of the earliest projects appear to have produced substantial practical outcomes with modest budgets, while some of the most expensive research lagged in farmer-ready results.

Image courtesy of USDA

By Maria Gaura, OFRF