Ag policies should promote a truly sustainable bioeconomy says research group

AMES, Iowa -- Agricultural policies should focus more on developing and rewarding sustainable, multifunctional landscapes that benefit both varied commodity production and the environment, and less on merely maximizing crop yield, according to a policy forum article in the June 15 edition of the journal Science.

The paper, "Sustainable Development of the Agricultural Bio-Economy," is a call to action by 14 researchers in the Green Lands, Blue Waters consortium. The authors include Jeri Neal, ecology initiative leader for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

"A sustainable approach to developing the bioeconomy requires that we raise the level of conversation about what we call 'multifunctional' agriculture," Neal said. "It can be thought of, in its simplest form, as having strategic production goals for both commodity and environmental benefits.

"Most plant research is based on producing the highest yield," Neal said. "But there are additional benefits to be gained by using a broader approach that also considers concerns about climate change, wildlife habitat, soil and water, and healthy economies in rural areas."

The keys are more extensive and diverse uses of perennial crops and compensating farmers for the environmental benefits they provide.

The Bear Creek Riparian Buffer Demonstration Site in Story County (Iowa) is one example of such a multifunctional system, Neal said. The 17-year-old project (first funded by the Leopold Center) involves seven farmers and seven riparian plans that use natural vegetation along the waterway's floodplain to curb erosion and filter out chemical runoff. More information is available at

"Another opportunity for Iowa is to encourage grazing combined with recreation/hunting or other uses," Neal said. "The most recent, out-of-the-box thinking is about grazing wetlands."

The authors propose a national innovation system (funded by a $20 million annual federal investment) to foster dialogue about policy alternatives and a network of research and demonstration projects to research real-world complexities on a life-size scale, with efforts evaluated scientifically and guided by research results.

"Considering that agricultural subsidies in 2005 exceeded $24 billion, we believe this modest investment in capitalizing on the capacities of multifunctional landscapes could produce enormous benefits to the environment and economy," Neal said.

"Policy and economics set the stage for most of our farming choices, and it's risky to work outside the system," she said. "Policy that encourages and rewards multiple benefits from agriculture will lead to a more secure future for agriculture and more resilient environment and communities. That's why we wrote this article."

Green Lands, Blue Water is a consortium of land-grant universities and agricultural, environmental and rural development non-profit organizations. The research study was led by Nick Jordan, professor in agronomy and plant genetics at the University of Minnesota. It was funded by the Kellogg Foundation and the Coastal Oceans Program of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.