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All-Natural Agriculture Education

By Elizabeth Levitan SpaidStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 16, 1991



BURLINGTON, VT.

WILLIAM MURPHY, a professor of agronomy at the University of Vermont (UVM) looks out of his office at this hilltop, mountain-framed college campus and shakes his head. "Anyone who would argue that we shouldn't go toward sustainable agriculture has to be a fool because I don't think there's any alternative," he says. "How can there be an alternative? How would anyone work toward a nonsustainable way unless they had a death wish?"Dr. Murphy voices the sentiment of a number of professors, graduate students, and other faculty members who are pushing for a sustainable agriculture program at the University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. In five years, supporters hope to expand what is now mainly research-based projects to a program that would include an undergraduate and graduate curriculum. They want to get more research money, attract greater student interest, and construct a building that would house a sustainable agriculture center. Supporters of sustainable agriculture advocate a simple, natural, and environmentally sound approach to farming. Most farm practices now involve large amounts of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, which contaminate soil and water. Many scientists say the chemicals used on food create unknown side effects. The goal of sustainable agriculture is to lessen the use of chemicals, keep food safe and wholesome, and still make agriculture economically viable. It looks at the whole ecological system and examines the effects of one farming practice on another. More farmers will have to be cognizant of their farm as part of the planet because the use of too many pesticides and fertilizers "has a trickle effect," says Catherine Donnelly, associate dean and associate director of UVM's agricultural experiment station. "Sustainable agriculture tries to marry a profitable agriculture with some cognizance that the environment is worth protecting and saving." Although the movement is slow, the University of Vermont is one of a growing number of colleges and universities around the United States that are incorporating sustainable agriculture into courses or increasing research. At least one college - the University of Maine - offers both an undergraduate and graduate program. Agricultural schools "that want to be around are looking very seriously at sustainable agriculture," says Jerry DeWitt, agricultural extension director at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa."The bandwagon is rolling, and everybody wants to be on it. Those schools that are listening are making some appropriate changes in their research, teaching, and extension programs." The catalyst for this activity was the United States Department of Agriculture's Low Input Sustainable Agriculture (LISA) program. In 1988, Congress appropriated federal funds for sustainable-agriculture research. Each year, this money is divided among four regions of the country. Last year each region received about $1.7 million. Scientists, farm groups, and universities submit research proposals to compete for funds. The environmental movement and consumer concern with food safety are also boosting the shift toward sustainable agriculture, Dr. Donnelly says. And as a growing number of colleges stress a more global and holistic approach to agriculture, sustainable practices fit in well, she adds. "Sustainable agriculture requires you to think across all lines," says Neill Schaller, associate director of the Institute for Alternative Agriculture near Washington, D.C. "You don't get there by looking at problems one at a time." UVM professors in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have drafted a sustainable agricultural curriculum that would include such courses as plant ecology, environmental soils, bio- logical control of insect pests, and pasture production and management. "We're trying to find ways of making certain that no one gets through here without knowing that everything is interrelated," Murphy says.Sustainable practices being studied at UVM range from managing crop pests with minimal reliance on pesticides to rotational grazing of animals. (Rotational grazing means that cows graze in small, fenced-in areas, rather than wide-open pastures. Researchers find that the practice results in better quality milk and reduces feed costs.) One setback for sustainable agriculture research is that it receives minimal funding. Chemical companies usually give grants to individuals who work with their products. And organizations such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health help fund biotechnology programs, which are growing. People look at the relationship between sustainable agriculture and biotechnology as antithetical, UVM's Donnelly says. "Actually they're very well linked. Through genetic exploration ... if we could breed resistance to insects in some plants and better equip them with defense mechanisms, then we're not going to need to apply chemicals." "I think the public is calling for [sustainable-agriculture practices]," says Iowa State's Dr. DeWitt. "It comes slowly, but once you get it turned, it's going to go in that direction."

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