The Sustainable Seeds Project: Research Funding for Sustainable Agriculture – A Non-Sustainable State of Affairs (Part I)


In the following two part post in the ongoing blog post series on The Sustainable Seed Innovations Project, Julia Köninger (Technical University Munich) investigated research funds that flow into different farming approaches. The post shows that most fundings currently flow into high-input farming neglecting the sustainability of these practices. It emphasizes the consequent dearth of research for low-input farming and shows the urge to adapt research funds in order to close current knowledge gaps.

Research Funding for Sustainable Agriculture: A Non-Sustainable State of Affairs (Part I)

Julia Köninger[1]

A wide gap exists in research funds flowing into the different methods of farming. The gap is closely linked with the goals of each of these farming methods and more directly related to the external inputs needed to reach these goals. This article starts with an introduction of the different approaches followed by an investigation of the gaps in funding.

– Conventional Farming aims to optimise nature in order to increase yields whereby synthetic fertilisers (chemical and mineral) boost soil fertility and production efficiency, pesticides and herbicides counteract unpleasant distractions on the fields. A conventional farmer purchases seeds, fodder, livestock growth hormones, antibiotics and medicated feeds externally[2] and due to the amount of external inputs, conventional farming is also known as high-input farming.[3]

– Not only do conventional methods depend on external inputs, organic farming does as well. The difference between both farming methods: organic farming follows “a more holistic idea about the relationship among soil, plants and, human society” [4] and inputs are of an organic origin only and originate preferably from the farm localities (e.g. manure). In order to meet the increasing demand for organic food,[5] the number of organic farms has increased. Especially in countries where the organic sector is expanding rapidly (e.g. UK, Germany, France, US) the organic market generates high turnovers[6] which contributes to an expanding average farm size of organic farms.[7] In these countries, correlating with the size of organic farms, the number of specialized farms and monocultures has increased,[8] so that often local inputs no longer meet the needs of the farm calling for an increase of external organic inputs (e.g. copper, manure). This intensification is also referred to as “conventionalization” of organic agriculture[9] and correlates with a higher dependency on external inputs, higher expenses and less socially embedded communities creating doubts about the method’s sustainability.[10]

– Recent studies show agroecological farming systems achieve all three pillars of sustainability – economically, ecologically and socially.[11] These methods have been shown in some instances to outperform chemically grown crops with a more efficient and healthier approach for the ecosystem, the farmer and the rural community.[12] Agroecological farming systems are closer to traditional farming systems and focus on local inputs only (see Prong 1). They also benefit from synergies in socio-economic systems (e.g. sharing). From an ecological perspective, these methods have been shown by modern scientific research[13] to boost ecosystem services and consequently also biodiversity and natural resistance to (a) biotic stresses, e.g. resistance to pests, and climatic change, making the methods especially valuable in facing future agricultural challenges. Due to the importance of local characteristics, a generalisation of practices is not possible – there is not one recipe that works for all farm(er)s (as discussed in Prong 1).[14]

Global studies analyzing public and private research funding on different agriculture methods found that only around 1-5% of the budget for research on food and farming research is spent on research for organic methods.[15] For Europe, the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FIBL) estimated the annual spending of the European Union on organic food and farming systems at only 3-11% of the total agriculture budget between 1998 and 2013. Despite an increasing budget, the share for organic research decreased from 11.6% (2002-2007) to 7% (2007-2013).[16] In the years after 2013, the growing demand and importance of organic farming has led, in Europe, to a slight increase in the amount of research funding, and consequently research, on organic farming.[17] However, there is still a wide gap between organic and conventional research funding.[18] It must be noted here, however, that from a global perspective, there is no comprehensive information or statistics available.

Comparing private with public spending, the inputs for the farming methods make the correlation between private research funds and conventional farming, perhaps quite obvious. Surprisingly, also for organic farming, private investments lead over public investments. However, instead of corporates, farmers themselves generate most knowledge in organic farming and spend resources for this knowledge.[19] In the context of global public research, the major share of public research funds flow into projects fostering conventional, industrial methods such as biotechnology, “associated with scientific prestige and corporate investments, but sometimes with dubious goals and questionable impacts”.[20]

One of the major challenges is, that studies on organic farming often apply the same research methods and goals as conventional farming, namely aiming for efficiency, and productivity through yield optimization.[21] These research goals neglected sustainability as the base of organic farming and do not equally focus on the social, economic and ecologic perspective of farming. Although both agroecology and genetic engineering came up (or were “rediscovered”) around the same time, the latter has developed into a specialized science, while the former has received only marginal attention, rarely being covered by science.[22] This is despite the fact that some studies confirm agroecology’s links to future benefits and sustainability.[23] A study in the US investigated projects that were registered in 2014 at the USDA Current Research Information System (CRIS) database with a focus on sustainable agriculture, including agroecology. Of all registered research within agriculture (including all types of agriculture):

  • 18-36% of studies analysed reduced, more efficient inputs
  • 24% of studies analysed more sustainable inputs & practices
  • 15% of studies investigated ecological principles
  • 14% the social dimension of agroecology.[24]

Within the USDA, very little funding (4%) flowed into studies that focused on a more holistic, integrated approach (e.g. by combining the social and ecological principles). Only 1% of the funding was invested in integrated crop-livestock systems and less than 1% of the funding flowed into agroforestry. De Longe et al. emphasized with the study, that research does not target solutions, but rather focus on the mitigation of negative ecological and social consequences of the existing system (e.g. impact on health and the prevention of health issues).

[1] The author thanks Dr. Mrinalini Kochupillai and Dr. Natalie Kopytko for their comments and suggestions for this blog post.

[2] Liebman et al., (2008).

[3] Mäder et al., (2000).

[4] Reganold and Wachter, (2016).

[5] FIBL, (2016); Soil Organic Association, (2019); Organic Trade Association, (2019); Luttikholt, (2019).

[6] Willer, Rohwedder, and Wynen, (2009).

[7] Ikerd, (2000).

[8] Tittonell, (2014).

[9] Seidel, Heckelei, and Lakner, (2019).

[10] Kremen, Iles, and Bacon, (2012); Goldberger, (2011); Guthman, (2014).

[11] Garibaldi et al., (2017).

[12] Hatt et al., (2016); Wezel et al., (2018).

[13] Faucon, Houben, and Lambers, (2017); Gianinazzi et al., (2010).

[14] Wezel et al., (2014); Wezel et al., (2018).

[15] It needs to be noted that these numbers are difficult to measure since research cannot always be contributed to one or the other farming method. De Ponti, Rijk, and Van Ittersum, (2012); Ponisio et al., (2015); Beintema et al., (2012); Tittonell, (2014).

[16] Including FP 5,6 and 7; See Baret et al., (2015), 6.

[17] Willer and Lernoud, (2017); Niggli, Willer, and Baker, (2016).

[18] Willer and Lernoud, (2017).

[19] Tittonell, (2014).

[20] Jacobsen et al., (2013); Scientific American, (2009); Tittonell, (2014).

[21] Watson, Walker, and Stockdale, (2008).

[22] Vanloqueren and Baret, (2009).

[23] Wezel et al., (2018); Altieri, (2002); (2009); Altieri, Funes-Monzote, and Petersen, (2012); Altieri et al., (2015); Bonaudo et al., (2014); Hatt et al., (2016); Khadse et al., (2018); Kremen, Iles, and Bacon, (2012); Niggli, (2015); Parmentier, (2014); Perfecto and Vandermeer, (2010).

[24] DeLonge, Miles, and Carlisle, (2016).

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