February 10, 2010

Buffett Foundation taps SIUC for farming study

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Researchers at Southern Illinois University Carbondale will receive nearly $2 million from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to study the environmental impact of fertilizers, pesticides and transgenic corn, with an eye toward pinpointing large-scale cropping practices that are both profitable and environmentally friendly.

The work will take place on Foundation-owned land in Christian and Macon counties. While the $1.75 million grant runs for six years, Buffett anticipates donating additional funds to support research there through 2029.

“The biggest mistake people make in agricultural research is to try to do it quickly -- the minute you talk about anything less than a 10-year time frame, you’re talking about results that are not adequate,” said Buffett, who got SIUC researchers for the project “on his radar screen” after an appearance at the University last April, sponsored by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute and the SIU Foundation.

The initial project focuses on three areas.

• Using a set of watersheds, researchers from the Department of Forestry first will determine how fertilizer and pesticides move through ground and surface waters, then will look at the effects of changes in fertilizing, crop rotation and tillage practices.

• Researchers from the Fisheries and Illinois Aquaculture Center will look for traces of transgenic corn varieties and their associated pesticide residues in soil and water, then analyze the effects on land- and water-dwelling invertebrates and, in the case of the pesticides, on the corn plants themselves.

• Researchers from the Department of Plant, Soil and Agricultural Systems will evaluate how results of the other two studies affect crop development, yield and profitability.

“This grant gives us the opportunity to use numerous research tools and crop production practices to learn how to improve traditional crop production in the Midwestern United States, but we have to make those improvements in a sustainable manner -- considering the environment, crop productivity and particularly economics -- because if improvements aren't cost-effective, they're not sustainable for long,” saidSIUC agronomist Bryan G. Young, who will conduct the third study and is overseeing the project as a whole.

Buffett, who set up his foundation in 1999 to address sustainable agriculture and clean water issues, said he invited the researchers to develop their grant proposal because he believes America’s production agriculture must adapt to a changing world.

“The focus in this country has been on increasing yields, and as a result, U.S. farmers produce a huge amount of food globally, but we have to be better at what we do in terms of water quality, pesticide residue and soil health,” he said.

“We rely a lot on technological fixes, but technology doesn’t do you any good if your soil is depleted. We have to be concerned about making production more efficient and better for the environment at the same time.”

The project’s scale -- it involves nearly 500 acres of arable land -- makes it unique, Young said.

“Very rarely are you able to find the field space to do this type of research, particularly in terms of the watershed work,” he noted. “You can’t just go to a grower and borrow 500 acres for 20 years,”

Hydrologist Karl W.J. Williard, who heads the watershed study with colleague Jon E. Schoonover, said analyzing and comparing conditions and treatments of neighboring watersheds on Buffet’s land will let them evaluate how an entire agricultural ecosystem, not just some of its component parts, affects water quality.

“This will yield practical information farmers and the agricultural community can use concerning the water-quality impacts of popular and emerging management practices, such as continuous corn (as opposed to a corn/soybean rotation) and the use of slow-release fertilizers,” he said.

Aquatic toxicologist Michael J. Lydy said because his part of the project includes an assessment of the use of pesticides with transgenic corn, his findings might save farmers some money.

"If the addition of pesticides doesn't result in increased yields, it may not be worth doing, especially when you factor in the ecological costs," he said.

Buffett said the researchers also will look at how knowledge gained from the Illinois project might apply to work the foundation is funding in Africa. In addition, they will assist in designing experimental protocols and guiding the analysis of large-scale cover crop research Buffett himself is overseeing on the Illinois farms.

Ultimately, Buffet hopes the project overall will help establish “best practices” for growers farming a thousand acres or more and that the knowledge it uncovers eventually could help guide national farm policy.

“We have had short-term policies that negatively impacted our long-term sustainability,” he said.

“We have the most dynamic agricultural system in the world, but the question is how do we keep it that way in the next 40, 50, 60 years. We need to be thinking about that.”