Quality of Life

What Does “Quality of Life” Mean for Sustainable Agriculture Research Grants?

A Working Document Provided by the Administrative Council.

For over 30 years, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program has used the image of a three-legged stool to define what we mean by sustainable agriculture.  The definition comes out of the original 1990 Farm Bill that established the program.  The three legs of the stool include research that will enhance environmental quality of the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends; research that will sustain the economic viability of farm operations, and; research that will enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.  Or, as a shorthand: Sustainable places, profits, and people.

Thirty years of experience has shown us that there it is a wide understanding about what research that addresses environmental issues in agriculture generally focus on practices that make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrates, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls. Likewise, it is clear that when we talk about the economic viability of farm operations that research needs to include analysis that shows any new practice yields more economic benefits than costs. 

But what of quality of life?

As we have reviewed and funded thousands of grants over the course of the SARE program, we have little widespread agreement about not only what quality of life means, but how it is to be incorporated into a SARE grant that may deal with soil health (for example).  Not only do we not have a clear definition of this component of our program that fits inside environmental or economic studies, we offer little in the way of clear guidance for those social scientists who may want to study such issues as a principle investigator. This short article seeks to bring some clarity to what we are looking for when we talk about enhancing the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

So, let’s state the objective of the SARE program clearly: Our grants should improve quality of life for producers, communities, and consumers. 

To get to this objective, we should first look to the science we employ.  Most would agree that agricultural sustainability is a function of the resilience of a system and that resilience is a function of diversity (in all its forms).

Each of the four regional SARE programs has as a member of its Administrative Council a person who brings the quality of life perspective to the program.  In most cases, that person has been a social scientist with a rural sociology background. So what does the rural sociology literature say about how to affect the quality of life in rural communities?  The literature suggests that quality of life in rural America is better served with a middle-class system of family farmers rather than an industrial model that is bifurcated into two classes: Large farms that operate more along the lines of “investor owned enterprises” with farmers treated as hired workers in a vertically integrated company, and small farms operated as owner-owned farms. Over the past 70 years the tendency has been in the direction of vertical and horizontal integration – centralization and industrialization (Get big or get out).

In the dominant system, farmers act as lowest cost producers in (centralized) global value chains controlled by firms who maximize return on investment for investors and use their market power to extract wealth from rural America and transfer it to stockholders (mostly urban). It is well-documented that the amount of the total food bill that is captured by farmers represents the smallest in the food chain. Research underpinning the industrial agriculture model practices are ill informed by reductionist (instead of holistic) views of science regarding nature, socio-economic relations, and knowledge production and diffusion. 

Most agricultural field research is component research – analyzing a part of a system in isolation to the other system’s components to seek a solution to one problem. While good information has been gained from well-conducted component research, one of the shortcomings of a component view is that sometimes a solution to a problem creates new problems to be solved. In addition, component research provides results that often only offer short-term solutions to long-term problems.

As researchers dig deeper into the impacts of component research on other parts of the system – either because the research drives it or society demands it – the research agenda is becoming more complex. With this complexity in mind, we are finding that systems research is becoming more important to addressing the questions and finding the methods needed for a more balanced, long-term sustainable agricultural system. Systems research provides the opportunity to probe the interrelationships of all parts of a system in a long-term environment to answer questions related to profitability, environmental stewardship and community quality of life as the system changes over a long period of time.

This systems approach has pointed us to new ways of looking at the agricultural enterprise that looks to create decentralized Regional Fair Trade Value Chains (RFTVC’s) as a way to embed quality of life concerns into sustainable agriculture. From there, the research questions become:

What are the barriers and opportunities for creating Regional Fair Trade Value Chains?

What are the policies/regulations that hinder the creation of RFTVCs and what policy changes need to be made to create RFTVCs?

Much of this work is around proposals for regional food to identify how much of a population could be fed thorough a regional system. Southern SARE Large Systems Grant LS17-285, Growing Local, conducted by Charlie Jackson of ASAP is an example of such work.

So, to get more practical, how are these types of concerns embedded into sustainable agricultural research? In the area of soil health, for example it is well understood that healthy soils leads to healthy environments which leads to healthy farmers/ranchers (and livestock) which produces healthy communities and healthy eaters. Research on cover crops, no-till, management intensive grazing, or biodynamics can fill this role.

Other areas of inquiry that fill this need include biodiversity, diversified landscapes, polycultures, perennials, ecosystem services, reduced irrigation, dryland seeds/breeds, holistic/systems approaches, animal/crop integration, organic systems, heritage breeds, seed saving, and open source genetics, to name a few.

All of these activities also contribute to farmer and family quality of life by reducing their dependence on the industrial model.

Of course, creating RFTVCs is also an important marketing issue. Economists and others who do research on market issues often look at things like agribusiness concentration (market power) and the establishment of farmer cooperatives as well as farmer/eater cooperatives. Direct marketing and value added research would enhance rural quality of life including the farmers’ markets/Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Market research can also examine other value-added areas like farm to institution arrangements, supply chains, supply hubs, aggregators, and wholesale and retail arrangements.  More work is being done on issues of fair trade, slow food and local cuisines.

More directly, quality of life issues can be incorporated into SARE projects by looking at the social health of a system.  This is part of the notion of Food from Somewhere versus Food from Nowhere. These can include:

  • Civic agriculture; agritourism; alcotourism;
  • Beyond organics value chains;
  • Food sheds and food circles;
  • Local/regional processing/slaughter;
  • Farm to School/Institution;
  • Farmers’ markets; locavores; CSAs;
  • Terroir/denominations of origin/geographic indications;
  • Non-GMO movement; Slow Food; chef collaboratives;
  • Urban ag systems;
  • Food policy councils, governance structures; and
  • Local/Regional certification/branding.

Beyond these more traditional areas for quality of life research, social scientists are also examining issues of ethical health. Some topics include:

  • Good food as a right;
  • Fair reimbursement for value created by farmers;
  • Fair reimbursement for value created by farm workers;
  • Environmental externalities internalized;
  • Animal welfare externalities internalized;
  • Indigenous/cultural people’s rights to foodways;
  • Heritage breeds;
  • Open source seeds;
  • Human rights observed for all along the value chain;
  • People of color/women’s rights;
  • Processing plant workers’ rights (unions);
  • Food security and food sovereignty;
  • Fair and transparent regional agri-food value chains;
  • Human, animal, cultural, and ecological rights protected by law; and
  • Psychosocial indicators.

So while much is left to be done in including quality of life issues in the sustainable agriculture portfolio, there are numerous areas to explore. It is the SARE program, with its three-legged stool, that can be at the forefront of such efforts.