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Supporters of organic agriculture question Beachy's appointment to research institute

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 9, 2009 - When Roger Beachy took over in October as the first director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, supporters of organic agriculture were concerned.  They fear that organic agriculture will continue to get short shrift when it comes to funding for agricultural research and that Beachy will favor biotech and genetic engineering.

Beachy, who heads up the new research arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says that he will be a fair broker.

Still, as the institute gears up, supporters of organic agriculture worry that the Agriculture Department will favor biotechnology in farming. This approach, they say, will naturally boost agribusiness companies that produce patented seeds and costly chemicals and fertilizers. They fear research to bolster organic farming will lose out in the highly competitive scramble for millions of federal research dollars.

"Give us 10 to 20 percent of the research dollars and watch out," Tim LaSalle, CEO of the Rodale Institute, the "mother church" of organic agriculture in Kutztown, Pa., told the Beacon in a telephone interview. "But the agribusiness lobbyists don't want that. They make money from biotech farming. When you farm the organic way, you don't need all those chemicals and biotech seeds."

Beachy has said he is not wedded to either approach. He says he wants to apply the rigors of science to American agriculture -- improving food production, reducing the harmful effects of climate change, developing biofuels and using plants and animals in ways to make the world a livable planet in the decades ahead.

"It's not about technology; it's about scientific inquiry," Beachy said. "This applies to carbon sequestration, sustainability, producing safe food. ... I am not a pro-tech person as much as I am pro science."

The seeds of mistrust

In the past two years, at least, the numbers seem to bear out the fears of leaders in the organic movement. Research funded by the Agriculture Department's predecessor to NIFA was tilted heavily toward biotech.

According to figures compiled by the institute and provided to the Beacon, 23 percent of ag research dollars -- $148 million -- went to biotech research, while organic got nearly $11 million, or 1.7 percent, of the total 2008 budget of $630 million.

Both percentages were higher in 2008 than 2007. Of a $635 million budget in 2007, biotech netted 13.5 percent, or nearly $86 million, while organic got close to $8 million, or 1.2 percent.

Critics like Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director for the Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit advocy organization in Washington, argue that NIFA should shift its focus strongly toward organic farming methods.

Furthermore, Baden-Mayer said, organic and biotech farming methods are fundamentally incompatible. Her argument is complex, calling for American farmers to stop using chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides in favor of methods that stress composting and rebuilding soil, returning to smaller-scale farming and repopulating rural areas.

"Organic farming is a holistic model," Baden-Mayer said. "It does not rely on short-term interventions of technology" to boost production of grains, livestock or horticulture.

Can trust be Cultivated?

Congress created NIFA in the 2008 farm bill to become the focal point for federally funded ag research -- along the lines of the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Research grants are to be peer reviewed to encourage top-quality research in universities and in private-sector firms and corporations.

As a scientist, Beachy said he will use science to evaluate research projects. Proposals for research on an organic-farming project would be peer-reviewed by experts in organic farming, Beachy said. Projects in biotechnology, likewise, would be reviewed by experts in that field.

But Beachy has a lot of distrust to overcome.

Skeptics' concern about Beachy is rooted in his work as the director of the Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur for 10 years. Baden-Mayer, for instance, sees the Danforth Plant Science Center as "essentially the nonprofit arm of (genetically modified organism) seed giant Monsanto."

The Organic Consumers Association is part of a coalition of like-minded groups such as the Center for Food Safety, National Family Farm Coalition, the Pesticide Action Network, Food & Water Watch, Greenpeace and others that are unhappy with Beachy's appointment.

They are now trying to derail Obama's nomination of Islam Siddiqui to be chief agricultural negotiator for the Office of U.S. Trade Representative. Siddiqui is a vice president for science and regulatory affairs at CropLife America, a trade association for pesticide manufacturers.

Beachy said he will be a fair broker. "We will do as NIH and NSF have done," he said. "We have had a lot of free releases of technology at the plant science center."

Marc Linit, associate dean for research and extension at the University of Missouri, supports Beachy's appointment.

"Beachy's credentials are impeccable," Linit said. "If the goal of NIFA is to raise the stature of agriculture research, which was taken for granted, Beachy is a good choice. One of our problems [in American agriculture] is our success. We have a very affordable food supply. Most of the people don't think about it."

A seat at the table

Linit added that when Beachy is trying to raise the visibility of ag research, as opposed to his work at the Danforth center, he will have broad responsibilities and have to balance many contending interests.

"There are so many powerful groups at the table in agriculture," Linit said. "If there's a general perception that NIFA's going biotech, there will be push back. Other farm interests will be concerned."

Like many other leaders in ag research, Linit sees biotech and organic farming co-existing in the years ahead in the effort to provide enough food to feed billions of people around the world.

Unlike a decade ago, Linit said, many consumers today routinely shop for organic foods in supermarkets, which have expanded their lines of organic produce, meat and dairy products in response. He also referred to the growth in demand for farmers markets featuring locally grown foods. 

So there is grassroots support for groups that advocate for organic and so-called naturally grown foods, he said.

"The challenge (for the organic movement), just like any other interest group, is to make their voices heard. One powerful ally they have is consumers," he said. "The organic movement has to remain vocal and vigilant. ... Nobody is going to hand something to them. They have to make their case, like anybody else."  

Repps Hudson is a freelance writer in St. Louis.