Founding research leader of the Sustainable Agricultural Systems Lab.
When the USDA decided the time had come for research on organic farming methods, John Teasdale was already out in the field doing it. Teasdale was a USDA Agricultural Research Service scientist stationed at Beltsville, MD, for 34 years. His research focus has been sustainable agriculture and he was the founding Research Leader of the Sustainable Agricultural Systems Lab. He has conducted long-term systems research demonstrating that a reduced-tillage organic cropping system could improve soil productivity more than a conventional no-tillage system, and has documented the importance of longer, more phenologically diverse rotations. We’re honoring Teasdale as one of our Organic Pioneers on September 14th, 2012, but we caught up with him in advance to chat about how he ended up researching organic methods and what he sees as the next research revolution.
How did you end up researching organic and sustainable agricultural methods?
Rodale has influenced my career both at the beginning and now at the end. When I was in between undergraduate and graduate school in the late 60s/early 70s, I was living out in Seattle. One of my wife’s friends was getting Organic Farming and Gardening magazine and I started reading it. I got very interested in gardening and began raising rabbits. That was really what got me interested in agriculture. At the time I was starting to study molecular/cell biology, but the idea of spending 14 hours a day in the lab was not all that appealing. I was much more of an outdoors person but I still wanted to stay in the sciences. So I went on to get a PhD in agronomy at the University of Wisconsin. The degree program was a traditional weed science program. I did my research on peas, but it was more oriented toward conventional agriculture and herbicide work.
I was hired by the USDA-ARS at Beltsville, Maryland, to work on weed control for horticultural crops. There weren’t many good herbicides for vegetable crops and we had to look at cultural practices as well. Trying to understand how to use herbicides in a way that killed weeds but didn’t injure cops really made me focus on cultural practices. I started to work with cover crops in the late 80s and 90s. And, since cover crops affect all phases of the cropping system, my research gravitated away from weed research and towards cropping systems. In the 90s the sustainable ag program got started at Beltsville and we set up some long-term cropping systems experiments that included organic, low-input and conventional methods. The more the organic movement grew, the more involved I became in the cropping systems research. Agro-ecosystems research was really needed in the organic community. During the past decade, I have focused primarily on organic farming research. We developed a very productive collaboration between ARS, Penn State, and Rodale Institute that has advanced our understanding of ecologically-based weed management and has supported the development of no-till organic grain production, which Rodale is well-known for.
Was it just the organic community that was demanding this agro-ecosystems research?
Because of their interest in building soil fertility, organic farmers gravitate towards cover cropping and soil-building methods, but they can be applied to conventional systems and I think they need to be. That has certainly been a part of our research focus. People still ask me at field days, “Why is the USDA spending so much effort on organic farming when it is such a small percentage of the agricultural landscape?” Putting aside the fact that total research dollars spent on organic farming research is minuscule’ the answer is really that it will help us better manage agro-ecosystems and lead to applications for both conventional and organic. This research is applicable across all farming systems; it was simply driven more by the needs of organic farmers.
I think it will take time to adopt cover crops. I always compare this to the adoption of no-till methods. The research demonstrating the viability of no-till farming was around for a couple of decades before it was finally adopted by conventional farmers. And now it is considered mainstream. The adoption of cover crops will probably follow the same path. The research has shown the countless advantages, but it will take about a generation to adopt. And the central and southern parts of the country will most likely lead the way as it is more challenging for northern farmers to fit them into rotations, given their shorter growing season.
Tell me about the development of the Sustainable Agricultural Systems Lab.
Back in the 80s (the first decade I was at the USDA) there was a trend toward molecular biology research. By the end of the 80s, many researchers had quit their field work and had changed their focus to more basic research. That left me and a few other researchers out in the field, so to speak. We started work on weed suppression by cover crops and using cover crops in tomato and vegetable production.
In the 90s, it became apparent that not only was sustainable agriculture not going away, but that it was important. The USDA administration discovered us out in the fields actually doing this work already! For my career, the timing was very fortunate. The administrators started providing more funding, which gave us the opportunity to buy equipment and set up our longer-term studies.
I never really intended to become a research leader as a career goal. As we started developing these new programs with new funding streams, I found myself coordinating a lot more of the activities. I was functioning as a research leader by the late 90s when the USDA decided it wanted to give more visibility to sustainable agriculture. We were part of a massive reorganization in 2000 at Beltsville that created the Sustainable Agricultural Systems Lab (SASL) and a few other high-visibility labs. Much of the sustainable ag research scattered around Beltsville at various labs was consolidated into SASL. And it was a diverse group: we had soil microbiologists, researchers from vegetable labs working on mulches; we got an economist and some disease and weed biocontrol folks; and, of course, soil scientists working the long-term studies.
We formed a good core. There is strength in a cross disciplinary approach that mixes practical developmental research with a process-oriented understanding of basic mechanisms. Combining molecular biology, soil microbial research and whole plant studies under one team means the basic research is always connected to real life problems, but the practical research is supported and explained by the deeper understanding of the molecular mechanisms.
The only challenge is that scientists from various disciplines don’t speak the same language—it is really hard to get a molecular biologist interested in the field and hard to get a field guy interested in the molecular work. But I firmly believe the key element in today’s research is the development of teams that have an appreciation for each other’s research. The only way for us to make progress on a systems approach is to learn each other’s language.
What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced and what was the key to overcoming that challenge?
When I first started at Beltsville, everyone had their own projects. The state of research in the 70s and the 80s was that each scientist had his or her own project and funding. Scientists would get a technician and a lab and develop their own project. For example, the first year I was at Beltsville, I was asked to participate in a small farms program. I thought, “Great! This will be an opportunity to interact with some breeders and entomologists and pathologists.” Instead, they passed out money to each member of the group and everyone continued doing what they were doing as a piece of their own research with no interaction at all!
I mentioned earlier about most change taking a generation to come to fruition and that is basically what I saw within the research community—a whole generation retired and the new generation of scientists was more interested in collaboration. We were finally able to create within SASL what I was hoping to participate in that first year I started.
How has the agricultural community changed over the last 10 years?
The appreciation for the broader ecological impacts of farming has been a major change. I feel lucky to have been working while this change was happening. When I started there was a mentality of trying to circle the wagons and protect conventional chemical-based ag. This mindset persisted until the 80s when soil scientists discovered pesticides in groundwater and there really were problems. The groundwater issues were real and unavoidable. People within the conventional ag community had to acknowledge there were issues that needed to be dealt with. People started realizing they had to be more aware of the cropping systems. No-till farming arose and there was more sensitivity to water quality and groundwater issues. That awareness has continued to grow until now.
The focus of sustainable agriculture at that time was really balancing yields with environmental issues. Today, the focus of sustainable agriculture has become broader. There is a much wider range of issues now than back then, from energy efficiency to greenhouse gas emissions to food safety. People are taking notice of the entire food system rather than just looking at agricultural production in the field.
What do you think is the most important thing for consumers to understand about where their food comes from?
The broader understanding of the food system itself. I would like to see consumers come to a more robust understanding of the total food system. It isn’t just a matter of how do you make the current commodity cropping system better, but how do we redesign that system to really meet the challenges today and into the future.
What do you see as the next research revolution?
We need to work on both the molecular process and agronomic end of the system. This includes developing germplasm and understanding environmental interactions to allow germplasm to express its maximum potential. The two can’t happen in isolation—it is a combined process. I do see biotechnology as a part of the answer. I think the organic community may be short-sighted on this. A lot of the antagonism to biotech isn’t so much against the technology as it is against the biotech companies who have fostered it and who have consolidated the means of productions into the hands of a few large corporations. I’m not entirely convinced the technology itself is inherently the problem, but the way the technology has been packaged and marketed to the agricultural community. As we move forward, I do think there is a place for developing crops with more resource-use efficiency and nutritional traits. If these had come along first rather than pesticide-related genes, there might have been less antagonism to them.
Molecular biologists have shown that the expression of genes is modified by the environment in which they are growing. The opportunity to develop crops with a favorable genetic background but at the same time really understand how the environment affects the expression of those genes is very important. But it is a complex process. The need to have both agronomists and molecular biologists working together is essential for better understanding how best to maximize the traits we want in our crops. That leads back to the development of cover crops and organic farming practices—rotations, soil amendments, soil microbial populations—all of which are involved in the signaling of gene expression in the crops, and that needs to be managed in coordination with the crop genetic potential.
A new kind of math will be required, too. When you start dealing with thousands of gene transcripts, enzymes, and metabolites within the cell and then the multitude of interactions among physical, chemical, and biological factors in the agro-ecosystem, it becomes difficult for the human brain to comprehend how it all is controlled and regulated. We will need new computer routines that can process large amounts of information and that simulate these systems to really be able to understand them. The development of calculus was required for us to really understand Newton’s laws of motion; likewise we’re going to need a new systems calculus to understand ecosystems from the molecular to the whole plant level.
Can organic farming feed the world?
That’s not the right question to really ask. That makes the assumption that organic agriculture will just be substituted for conventional agriculture. If you substitute organic practices in the current conventional system, the answer is probably no. A better question is, “How do we design the food system in order to feed the world?”
I think creating a more diverse food system that doesn’t depend as much on meat production is probably going to do more to solve our problems than trying to crank up the technology that we already have. By diversifying our cropping systems away from the emphasis on commodity crops, the majority of which are used for feed or bioenergy, to crops that are channeled directly for food, we can more efficiently use our crop land to feed the world.
Some of the dialog about the current droughts can inform the broader discussion of how to meet the needs of a growing population. The solution isn’t just creating a new drought-tolerant GMO corn. That puts a demand on genetic engineering the technology just can’t meet; we can marginally improve drought-tolerance, but we can’t create a corn that doesn’t need water. The solution is creating more diverse cropping systems so we are less dependent on the drought response of any single crop, much as we would diversify our investment portfolio.
While I don’t see it as realistic that every acre in the world would be grown under organic practices as they are currently defined, I do see that a lot of the rotational practices within organic farming would allow us to develop a more diverse agriculture, reduce the resources required for growing food, and, essentially, help develop a more sustainable system that could feed more than we do now.
Were there any organic pioneers who inspired you when you were starting out?
As I mentioned before, Organic Farming and Gardening magazine really got me interested in agriculture early on. There were articles from wood lot management to composting to rabbit production, but, for some reason, one author whom I recall to this day was Ruth Stout. She used to write articles about putting a lot of mulch on the surface of the soil and avoid doing a lot of digging, a form of what we call no-till today.
When I first started at USDA, conventional vegetable production was very tillage-intensive. Organic matter content and fertility were declining and we needed to maintain more organic matter in the soil. Aref Abdul-Baki and I started looking at ways of using cover crops and we developed a system of growing cover crops in place on beds, mowing it and leaving the residue on the soil surface. It was amazingly successful. I ran into one of the old magazines a few years ago and saw one of the articles by Ruth Stout. Her method of accumulating organic matter on the soil surface was a no-till mulch-based system. It was essentially the kind of system we developed at Beltsville using vetch with vegetable production. It wasn’t anything I consciously thought about at the time we were doing that research, but there must have been something about her method that remained at work in my mind subconsciously.
What tool couldn’t you live without?
Math and statistics. I’ve always had an interest in and a love for math. Being able to digest complex field behavior with equations can be incredible. It’s one of the reasons I became a researcher rather than a farmer. Early in my career I spent most of my days out in the field like a truck farmer. I was doing the kinds of things a small farmer does, but rather than harvesting produce to sell, I harvested produce to generate numbers we could analyze. That was the part of science I found most interesting and got the most satisfaction from.
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