Food Companies Step Up Funding for Organic Farming Research


For nearly 20 years, Stephen Jones developed wheat varieties for white commodity wheat flour, however he by no means appreciated it a lot. So when the Washington State University (WSU) researcher was supplied the prospect to maneuver to Washington’s Skagit Valley 10 years in the past, he gladly shifted gears. Jones based The Bread Lab, a multi-disciplinary analysis middle at WSU that works with native farmers, cooks and shoppers to breed new natural wheat and barley varieties with larger yields, higher style, and extra dietary worth.

Stephen Jones. (Photo courtesy of WSU)

Jones doesn’t miss working with the commodity market. “I like the model of keeping value where it’s produced,” he informed Civil Eats “If we grow wheat here, let’s use it here in a way that makes sense economically and environmentally.”

The Bread Lab just lately produced the “approachable loaf,” a complete grain bread made with simply seven components that’s smooth, sliced, and retails for not more than $6 wherever within the nation. Jones stated he was impressed to create the bread after studying that folks frequenting the Skagit Valley meals pantry weren’t taking his lab’s artisanal loaves as a result of they didn’t acknowledge it as bread—that’s, it wasn’t smooth, sliced, or packaged in a recognizable wrapper.

Since the pandemic started, the lab has stepped up its manufacturing of the approachable loaf, producing 10 instances greater than common to assist feed households in want, stated Jones.

Jones’ sensible analysis is supported partially by a novel $1.5 million endowment for natural agriculture analysis from Clif Bar & Company and King Arthur Flour. The endowment pays the lab’s managing director’s wage and supplies Jones with a pool of discretionary funds. But extra broadly, Jones says that the endowment “allows us to do unrestricted discovery. That is, we can go in directions that have no predetermined end. This is rare in today’s science.”

The endowment has turn into a lifeline to the Bread Lab because it misplaced its monetary help from space eating places, bakeries and cooks after coronavirus hit. then. “If we didn’t have the endowment, we wouldn’t be here,” stated Jones.

The endowment is Clif Bar’s third—in 2015, the corporate provided the University of Wisconsin with a $500,000 endowment (matched by Organic Valley, and an extra $1 million from alumni), and earlier this 12 months, the corporate made headlines with a $500,000 endowment for the University of California’s first-ever natural analysis institute.

Clif Bar is essentially the most prolific funder on this area, however it isn’t alone. Companies like Organic Valley and King Arthur are additionally looking for to finance open-source, college analysis into natural seeds and plant varieties as a method of scaling up natural agriculture and to behave as a counterbalance in a college analysis system awash in hundreds of millions of funding from corporations like Bayer and Cargill. (Disclosure: Civil Eats has acquired monetary help from the Clif Bar Family Foundation and Organic Valley prior to now.)

These endowments are ever extra important as universities face collapsing revenues introduced on by the pandemic, and lots of researchers brace for impending funds cuts.

Such efforts might assist to beat the obstacles to increasing natural manufacturing within the U.S. whereas combating the outsized affect that typical agribusiness has over agricultural universities and their affiliated cooperative extension companies for on-farm training. That’s necessary for a number of causes, from lowering the large environmental and well being impacts related to pesticide and artificial fertilizer use, to diversifying plant breeds to higher face up to local weather change and drought, whereas additionally providing higher vitamin. Many of at the moment’s crops are bred for yield on the expense of all else, whereas analysis means that natural agriculture could also be more resilient.

“Our goal is to try to develop a new generation of ag professionals to serve the maturation of the organic sector,” Matthew Dillon, senior director of presidency relations and agricultural packages at Clif Bar & Company, informed Civil Eats. He emphasised that the significance of an endowment is that it says, “this research is so important that we’re putting a stake in the ground and we’re going to make sure there is funding in perpetuity for these programs.”

The pandemic isn’t slowing Clif Bar’s plans to proceed funding college researchers. It expects to announce its fourth endowment by fall, in line with Dillon, and just lately celebrated the appointment of a analysis director to California’s new natural agriculture analysis institute.

Lack of Organic Seeds and Breeds

One large barrier to increasing natural manufacturing is the restricted variety of high-quality, high-yielding natural seeds and plant varieties accessible for farmers.

“For a lot of crops, [especially fruit and vegetables], we don’t have breeds that were made for organic. We’re using conventional seeds that . . . weren’t bred to withstand pest pressures, or for use with organic fertilizers,” stated Diana Martin, director of communications and advertising and marketing at Rodale Institute. She famous, nonetheless, that Rodale’s 40 years of trials on grains present natural to be simply as aggressive as typical if the seeds are bred to work with the farming system.

Endowments from corporations may assist fill that hole, and it’s one of many the explanation why Clif Bar turned to them because it sought to develop its use of natural components, stated Dillon.

Because endowments go on in perpetuity, when particular person researchers just like the Bread Lab’s Jones step down, the natural plant breeding will go on, and proceed to churn out new natural plant breeders.

These endowing corporations’ efforts distinction with these of General Mills, Danone, and others, which give attention to regenerative—not essentially natural—agriculture of their provide chains.

Limited Research Dollars

Organic farming analysis is woefully underfunded within the United States and globally. In 2019, it acquired simply $20 million out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) $2.9 billion research budget. While the 2018 Farm Bill dedicated regular will increase in funding for natural analysis as much as $50 billion by 2023, it’s nonetheless a tiny sliver of the whole funds. No marvel, then, that solely round 1 p.c of U.S. farmland has acquired natural certification, regardless that 5 p.c of all meals—and 14 p.c of the produce—that we eat within the U.S. is natural.

“We’re importing a lot of our organic food, which is a missed opportunity for our domestic farmers who are struggling in the commodities markets when we have this market right here in the U.S. that’s demanding [domestic] organic over importing that food,” stated Martin. Organic farmers have seen demand rise for their merchandise in the course of the pandemic, added Martin, as a result of shoppers are cooking extra meals at dwelling and turning to more healthy meals. Organic produce gross sales are up by double digits.

USDA’s natural funding comes out of its Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), which supplies grants to university researchers ranging in measurement from about $50,000 to $2 million for multi-university collaborations.

Oregon State University (OSU), for instance, is the lead on a big challenge known as the Northern Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC). The collaborative is conducting long-term analysis into 10 natural vegetable crops throughout 5 states. Founded in 2009, NOVIC is now on its third four-year funding cycle, with every cycle bringing in $2 million in USDA grant funds.


Lane Selman.

Long-term funding is important for breeding new plant varieties, however it “is really unheard of,” stated Lane Selman, professor of follow at OSU and a NOVIC researcher. Instead, she spends a whole lot of her time writing shorter-term grants.

What’s extra, the $2 million is cut up amongst six establishments, and the college takes half the funds earmarked for its researchers. That leaves Selman scrambling to search out supplemental funds to assist join native farmers with the brand new varieties. Without that, adoption of natural agriculture is even slower.

Selman turns to a handful of corporations, together with Clif Bar, Organic Valley, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Vitalis, High Mowing Seeds, and Burgerville, to fund her outreach to farmers and cooks, by way of the Culinary Breeding Network.

“You have to be an out-of-the-box thinker in this university system,” Selman informed Civil Eats. “All of these amazing people are fighting for the same funds,” she added. “There’s not enough.”

California State University at Chico hasn’t even sought USDA Organic funding for its utilized natural analysis initiatives, together with the Organic Vegetable Project (OVP), an Organic Dairy Unit that research soil carbon in an built-in natural livestock and cropping system, and a research evaluating natural manufacturing in no-till programs.

Instead, Chico State solicits different funding from USDA, corresponding to its Conservation Innovation Grant program, and “makes it work for the kind of work we want to do,” stated Cindy Daley, professor and director of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture & Resilient Systems (CRA) at Chico State. “If we call it regenerative or organic, it’s less fundable from USDA,” she stated, “but if we call it sustainable it’s more fundable.”

Several foundations which can be a part of California FoodShed Funders additionally present analysis {dollars} for Chico State’s work. The OVP additionally runs a three-acre community-supported agriculture operation, which educates and feeds its subscribers whereas elevating funds for the challenge as they run subject trials and supply native natural farmers with information to assist them turn into extra aggressive.

A System Stacked Against Organic Research

USDA funding for agricultural universities has lengthy been outpaced by personal sector funds, which come largely from typical agribusinesses with strings hooked up. But the stability shifted much more within the personal sector course after the passage of the 1982 Bayh-Dole Act.

A significant change to U.S. patent legislation, Bayh-Dole incentivized universities to accomplice with the personal sector on analysis by permitting them to gather royalties for patents and different forms of mental property they developed. The shift got here at a time when public funds have been diminishing.

Bayh-Dole, defined Clif’s Dillon, paved the way in which for agribusinesses to method researchers and say, “Let’s identify corn genetics that can improve nutrient use efficiency, and let’s patent our new understanding of the genetics, and together we can collect royalties any time varieties with these genetics are used.”

Companies’ stepped-up funding for agricultural analysis at land-grant universities led to public establishments more and more serving personal pursuits on the expense of the general public good, in line with a 2012 report by nonprofit advocacy group Food & Water Watch.

The impression, stated Rodale’s Martin, is “we’ve seen a lot of scientists get bullied into not publishing results that aren’t favorable to the funder or the industry.” Scientists have additionally been discouraged from conducting analysis on organics.

As Clif Bar, a small, privately owned B Corporation, started shifting to sourcing natural components within the early 2000s, the folks behind the corporate couldn’t assist however notice this affect. “We could see big chemical companies endowing chairs or being on the boards of public universities, and we thought, ‘Wow, we could never do that,’” due to their extra restricted sources, Elysa Hammond, Clif’s vice-president of environmental stewardship, informed Civil Eats. But, finally, the corporate management determined to make it a precedence.

Endowment Ripple Effects

Bill Tracy, a plant breeder specializing in candy corn on the University of Wisconsin Madison, stated that the endowment he acquired from Clif Bar and Organic Valley created a “teachable moment,” as many colleagues each inside and outdoors the college questioned its necessity. “A gift of this magnitude” he stated, “shines a very bright light on the need.”

As a results of the endowment, the college established its first everlasting graduate program for plant breeding of natural crops, and curiosity in natural plant breeding has boomed on the UW-M Tracy stated. There are actually a minimum of 5 school members breeding natural crops, whereas earlier than there was just one. The college is now attracting a gradual stream of graduate college students fascinated with natural plant breeding and is creating a certificates in natural agriculture.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Jones stated the endowment exhibits leaders on the college that there’s nationwide curiosity in what he does and in addition helps create native curiosity and help. An area honey producer, for instance, donated 800 kilos of honey to assist the lab step up manufacturing of the approachable loaf in the course of the pandemic.

But he’s most appreciative that the endowment permits for “unhindered” inquiry and science for the general public good. “We help students go out in the world with a doctorate who will be better people and make for better communities,” he stated.