Sustainable Agriculture:

Program Management Accomplishments and Opportunities

RCED-92-233: Published: Sep 16, 1992. Publicly Released: Sep 16, 1992.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) efforts to encourage sustainable agriculture, focusing on the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program.

GAO found that: (1) nine USDA agencies manage numerous programs and activities that address various aspects of sustainable agriculture, but management is fragmented, and non-USDA agencies participate in some of the activities; (2) the USDA sustainable agriculture policy expired in 1989, and activities are operating without a departmental policy to guide their efforts or resource use; (3) some SARE goals conflict with the goals of other agriculture programs; and (4) the legislatively mandated National Sustainable Agriculture Advisory Council has not yet met, and the Agricultural Council on Environmental Quality has met primarily on organizational issues. GAO also found that: (1) SARE has funded 183 projects with about $39 million in combined federal and public and private matching funds through 1991; (2) USDA was slow to request SARE funding, and its funding requests have continually been lower than the amount Congress allocates; (3) SARE has successfully involved farmers, nonprofit organizations, agribusiness, and public and private research and extension institutions in project review and selection activities, and has increased interest in and acceptance of sustainable agriculture; (4) there is effective information dissemination at the local, but not the regional or national, level for SARE projects, but USDA is establishing a uniform system for reporting SARE program activities; and (5) SARE grant and audit procedures for funds control may not be sufficient to ensure that SARE funds are used as intended.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In August 1994, the Deputy Administrator for Special Programs, CSRS, reported that in May 1994 the advisory council's charter was extended and 14 public sector members were appointed. The council has met twice since the GAO report, in June 1993 and June 1994.

    Recommendation: To provide clearer direction to and coordination among USDA sustainable agriculture activities and to more effectively utilize USDA resources, the Secretary of Agriculture should ensure the active participation of the: (1) National Sustainable Agriculture Advisory Council in providing coordination of sustainable agriculture programs; and (2) Agricultural Council on Environmental Quality, which is to direct and coordinate environmental policies and programs, as mandated by the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Secretary of Agriculture is signing a new policy that specifies that USDA is committed to supporting sustainable agriculture. In addition, a USDA interagency working group completed a report on sustainable agriculture that addresses the same policy issues GAO raised. This report contains 33 recommendations that are now being addressed by numerous working groups in USDA.

    Recommendation: To provide clearer direction to and coordination among USDA sustainable agriculture activities and to more efficiently utilize USDA resources, the Secretary of Agriculture should establish a departmental policy on sustainable agriculture and instruct under and assistant secretaries to develop goals to implement that policy for sustainable agriculture. This policy should consider sustainable agriculture's interrelationship with other departmental programs and acknowledge the trade-offs that may be necessary as agriculture becomes more productive, competitive, and environmentally sound.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the Deputy Administrator for Special Programs, CSRS, the reporting was developed and continues to be strengthened. Each SARE project is required to contain an educational component to disseminate results. In addition, CSRS developed a new coordination process to further enhance dissemination of SARE information from the national headquarters.

    Recommendation: To increase the impact of the SARE Program, improve its effectiveness, and help ensure its integrity, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct SARE Program management to establish guidance and systems to collect, evaluate, synthesize, and report the results of SARE research projects at regional and national levels.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the Deputy Administrator for Special Programs, CSRS, the agency reviewed the standards for monitoring SARE projects in response to this GAO recommendation and made appropriate changes. These corrections to the standards are to strengthen CSRS monitoring of SARE projects and increase the impact of the program.

    Recommendation: To increase the impact of the SARE Program, improve its effectiveness, and help ensure its integrity, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct SARE Program management to establish national standards for regional monitoring of SARE projects.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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