Healthy soil is the real key to feeding the world

6 04 2017

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Planting a diverse blend of crops and cover crops, and not tilling, helps promote soil health.
Catherine Ulitsky, USDA/Flickr, CC BY

David R. Montgomery, University of Washington

One of the biggest modern myths about agriculture is that organic farming is inherently sustainable. It can be, but it isn’t necessarily. After all, soil erosion from chemical-free tilled fields undermined the Roman Empire and other ancient societies around the world. Other agricultural myths hinder recognizing the potential to restore degraded soils to feed the world using fewer agrochemicals.

When I embarked on a six-month trip to visit farms around the world to research my forthcoming book, “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” the innovative farmers I met showed me that regenerative farming practices can restore the world’s agricultural soils. In both the developed and developing worlds, these farmers rapidly rebuilt the fertility of their degraded soil, which then allowed them to maintain high yields using far less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.

Their experiences, and the results that I saw on their farms in North and South Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ghana and Costa Rica, offer compelling evidence that the key to sustaining highly productive agriculture lies in rebuilding healthy, fertile soil. This journey also led me to question three pillars of conventional wisdom about today’s industrialized agrochemical agriculture: that it feeds the world, is a more efficient way to produce food and will be necessary to feed the future.

Myth 1: Large-scale agriculture feeds the world today

According to a recent U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, family farms produce over three-quarters of the world’s food. The FAO also estimates that almost three-quarters of all farms worldwide are smaller than one hectare – about 2.5 acres, or the size of a typical city block.

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A Ugandan farmer transports bananas to market. Most food consumed in the developing world is grown on small family farms.
Svetlana Edmeades/IFPRI/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Only about 1 percent of Americans are farmers today. Yet most of the world’s farmers work the land to feed themselves and their families. So while conventional industrialized agriculture feeds the developed world, most of the world’s farmers work small family farms. A 2016 Environmental Working Group report found that almost 90 percent of U.S. agricultural exports went to developed countries with few hungry people.

Of course the world needs commercial agriculture, unless we all want to live on and work our own farms. But are large industrial farms really the best, let alone the only, way forward? This question leads us to a second myth.

Myth 2: Large farms are more efficient

Many high-volume industrial processes exhibit efficiencies at large scale that decrease inputs per unit of production. The more widgets you make, the more efficiently you can make each one. But agriculture is different. A 1989 National Research Council study concluded that “well-managed alternative farming systems nearly always use less synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics per unit of production than conventional farms.”

And while mechanization can provide cost and labor efficiencies on large farms, bigger farms do not necessarily produce more food. According to a 1992 agricultural census report, small, diversified farms produce more than twice as much food per acre than large farms do.

Even the World Bank endorses small farms as the way to increase agricultural output in developing nations where food security remains a pressing issue. While large farms excel at producing a lot of a particular crop – like corn or wheat – small diversified farms produce more food and more kinds of food per hectare overall.

Myth 3: Conventional farming is necessary to feed the world

We’ve all heard proponents of conventional agriculture claim that organic farming is a recipe for global starvation because it produces lower yields. The most extensive yield comparison to date, a 2015 meta-analysis of 115 studies, found that organic production averaged almost 20 percent less than conventionally grown crops, a finding similar to those of prior studies.

But the study went a step further, comparing crop yields on conventional farms to those on organic farms where cover crops were planted and crops were rotated to build soil health. These techniques shrank the yield gap to below 10 percent.

The authors concluded that the actual gap may be much smaller, as they found “evidence of bias in the meta-dataset toward studies reporting higher conventional yields.” In other words, the basis for claims that organic agriculture can’t feed the world depend as much on specific farming methods as on the type of farm.

Cover crops planted on wheat fields in The Dalles, Oregon.
Garrett Duyck, NRCS/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Consider too that about a quarter of all food produced worldwide is never eaten. Each year the United States alone throws out 133 billion pounds of food, more than enough to feed the nearly 50 million Americans who regularly face hunger. So even taken at face value, the oft-cited yield gap between conventional and organic farming is smaller than the amount of food we routinely throw away.

Building healthy soil

Conventional farming practices that degrade soil health undermine humanity’s ability to continue feeding everyone over the long run. Regenerative practices like those used on the farms and ranches I visited show that we can readily improve soil fertility on both large farms in the U.S. and on small subsistence farms in the tropics.

I no longer see debates about the future of agriculture as simply conventional versus organic. In my view, we’ve oversimplified the complexity of the land and underutilized the ingenuity of farmers. I now see adopting farming practices that build soil health as the key to a stable and resilient agriculture. And the farmers I visited had cracked this code, adapting no-till methods, cover cropping and complex rotations to their particular soil, environmental and socioeconomic conditions.

Whether they were organic or still used some fertilizers and pesticides, the farms I visited that adopted this transformational suite of practices all reported harvests that consistently matched or exceeded those from neighboring conventional farms after a short transition period. Another message was as simple as it was clear: Farmers who restored their soil used fewer inputs to produce higher yields, which translated into higher profits.

No matter how one looks at it, we can be certain that agriculture will soon face another revolution. For agriculture today runs on abundant, cheap oil for fuel and to make fertilizer – and our supply of cheap oil will not last forever. There are already enough people on the planet that we have less than a year’s supply of food for the global population on hand at any one time. This simple fact has critical implications for society.

So how do we speed the adoption of a more resilient agriculture? Creating demonstration farms would help, as would carrying out system-scale research to evaluate what works best to adapt specific practices to general principles in different settings.

We also need to reframe our agricultural policies and subsidies. It makes no sense to continue incentivizing conventional practices that degrade soil fertility. We must begin supporting and rewarding farmers who adopt regenerative practices.

Once we see through myths of modern agriculture, practices that build soil health become the lens through which to assess strategies for feeding us all over the long haul. Why am I so confident that regenerative farming practices can prove both productive and economical? The farmers I met showed me they already are.

David R. Montgomery, Professor of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.





Food for thought…..

1 07 2016

I recently published an item about the jetstream crossing the equator. At the time, I said I didn’t know what to make of it, and now it turns out to be bogus…… so I’ve pulled it.

Two bloggers have made a stunning claim that has spread like wildfire on the Internet: They say the Northern Hemisphere jet stream, the high-altitude river of winds that separates cold air from warm air, has done something new and outrageous. They say it has crossed the equator, joining the jet stream in the Southern Hemisphere. One said this signifies that the jet stream is ‘wrecked‘, the other said it means we have a “global climate emergency.”

But these shrill claims have no validity — air flow between the hemispheres occurs routinely. The claims are unsupported and unscientific, and they demonstrate the danger of wild assertions made by non-experts reaching and misleading the masses.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-weather-gang/wp/2016/06/30/claim-that-jet-stream-crossing-equator-is-climate-emergency-is-utter-nonsense/

Just goes to show, you cannot believe everything you read on the internet, and frankly, I’m relieved as someone who staunchly believes the only place to live is as far away from the Northern Hemisphere..!

Below is Mark Cochrane’s latest offering…..

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Mark Cochrane

Having just come back from a new region of agricultural development in Brazil and seeing some new research just out on related issues in other regions I thought I´d illustrate some of the climate-related issues in our global food production that we are facing.

Here in Brazil, agricultural expansion has been a large part of the regional economy and is the only actual growth sector in a country mired in political chaos and economic contraction (link). That said, much like the search for new energy sources, new agricultural lands are cut from the landscape on increasingly marginal lands.

With the development of soybean cultivars that could survive short day lengths near the equator and expanding global markets, this crop first spread through the Brazilian Cerrado and then into the southern Amazon, converting native vegetation to agricultural lands and even pushing cattle operations out of the way as pasturelands were bought up. Corn, cotton, sorghum and coffee have also spread to lesser degrees. Soils, climate, pests and infrastructure (or lack thereof) have provided challenges all along the way.

Despite this, the industry has thrived and land prices have soared to the point that new frontiers have opened up including the so called Matopiba region, which is an acronym for an amorphous area at the junction of Maranhâo, Tocantins, Piaui, and Bahia states. The region was originally passed over because it was considered unprofitable to farm but high commodity prices, technological breakthroughs and cheap land prices have driven exponential growth of farming and whole cities to spring up in the last 15 years that are impressive, if tenuous.

Nobody mentions the soils because they are uniformly poor and acidic. Lime applications are needed to lock up the toxic aluminum and fertilizers are needed to get decent crop growth. The region is dry, and though irrigation has not always been needed, it has proven critical over the last five years of unprecedented drought. There were 10 good years of production but now many are losing money with drought stunted crops and low production. Planted crop varieties are GM variants of Bt cultivars. Trying to plant anything else has proven a monetary disaster. Despite this built in biological pesticide, repeated applications of chemical pesticides are necessary as well, with 10-15 applications per growing season common! One farmer needed 30 applications in a single six-month season. It is safe to say that the insects are building up resistance rapidly and the local aquifers will not be pure for long. Interestingly, water is less limiting than the cost of actually pumping it for irrigation purposes.Energy is expensive and unreliable.

I mention all of this because these sorts of regions and problems are inherent in all ´new´ lands being brought into production to try to feed our planet´s exploding population. These areas are incredibly vulnerable to changing climate, commodity prices, energy prices, pests and pathogens. It takes a lot of effort to bring them into production but they could dry up and blow away all too easily. Management of production in these sorts of areas is necessary and difficult to mitigate and adapt to climate changes.

New research  (Challinor et al. 2016) indicates that breeding, delivery and adoption of new climate appropriate variants of crops (maize in this case) may not be able to keep up with the changing conditions likely in the coming decades. Much like conversion to a new energy source can take decades to implement after development, planting new variants of a crop or more appropriate crops for a changing climate can take decades to permeate a region, especially in developing countries. The upshot being that productivity levels are likely to fall over time with changing climates.

On the front of dubious good news, a large ´water windfall´ has been discovered underneath California´s Central Valley. Up to three times as much water as was previously estimated may reside under this region which sounds like a great thing until you realize that much of this new water resource resides between 300 and 3,000 meters below the surface (Kang and Jackson 2016). These water reserves may not be economically accessible for irrigation purposes and are complicated by the numerous (35,000!) oil and gas wells that currently perforate it (link). Never mind the fact that the land itself has been sinking rapidly with groundwater pumping.

When you are contemplating the viability of pumping water from more than a mile beneath the surface in order to water your crops, it is clear that the battle to maintain production is being lost. If power cannot be generated extremely cheaply then this region, the most productive in the United States, will fall out of production in the not too distant future for anything but dryland agriculture.

The take home message here is that it will become increasingly difficult to maintain current agricultural production levels at a time when we need to dramatically increase them to feed rapidly growing human populations. There may never have been a better time to take up gardening to ensure a modicum of calories for your family…





Confessions of a CSG Drill Rig worker (22nd April 2014)

27 06 2014

[This article did the rounds on the interweb yesterday, but seems to have been pulled from the source site. We’ll retain the anonymity of the author and the source site – but you MUST read this one!]

 

I contacted the Gasfield Community Support group after hearing Laurence Springborg saying on the radio that no workers in the CSG industry had become sick, and the air and water tests were good quality.

I started in the industry in 2008, and worked for 3-½ years on a mobile drill rig. Initially I was employed by Mitchell drilling who were taken over by AJ Lucas. With the exception of one well, at all other times Mitchell drilling /AJ Lucas were contracted to Santos. I was employed as the “offsider” initially, graduating to senior drillers assistant.

One of the tasks was mixing chemicals into the mud pits to pump down the drill string. There were different polymers used. They pumped “mud” down the drill string. (Salt water, KCL and polymer JK261, (a lubricant)). On an average lease, if they were not taking losses, you would use an average of 12 tons of KCL and 15 pallets (720 drums /10,800kg of polymer) to keep the viscosity up and lubricate the drill bit. The polymer was mixed in the pits through a hopper. The polymer had to be sprinkled into the hopper and it was blowing in the face, in the eyes; we were constantly breathing it in. This happened for hours at a time. We had masks, with a diaphragm sometimes, otherwise paper.

The masks were also used when mixing the cement for the casing if Halliburton did not come in and we were doing the cement job ourselves.

When drilling down, going through the Permian or Jurassic riverbeds which were very permeable, sometimes the drilling muds would disappear.

They could take huge losses We took core samples when Santos told us to. They took core samples on every drill hole, usually about 600 metres in depth. 80% of the time they got pretty good returns – getting most of the returns back up the drill into the pits. But 20% of the time, especially in Fairview, east of Injune, they couldn’t stop the losses.

They could use approximately 20 tons of KCL (semi-trailer loads full) with water. There was 50,000 litres of water in each of three pits. On one rig, in a 12 hour shift we used 27tons of KCL along with 100,000 litres of water and multiple other chemicals.

The next 12 hour shift would then come on and this could go on for days doing exactly the same thing until the losses were stopped. They would use 9.4 heavy – saturation point- lots of KCL, JK261, CR650-polymer. The KCL was to “weigh down” the gas bubble. When they were taking losses they would use ‘frac seal fine’, composed of silver paper, coarse saw dust, trying to fill the hole, to block it.

They tried to stop the loss by plugging the hole. They would use maybe 10 different chemicals including bentonite, they would keep pumping down, trying to fill the losses. If the muds were going disappearing) gases could be coming in; they had to try and block it off with a different medium, and keep pumping it down the drill string to seal the hole. They tried to weigh down the gas bubble. They were worried about gases coming back in and the risk of explosion; it was a very dangerous time and happened often (maybe 20% of the time)

In the Gunnedah basin south of Coonabarrabin, they drilled a hole and hit the fresh water aquifer.

Fresh water was pouring out of the hole, diluting the salt content. They had to bring trucks in to take the water away; they put the casing in and tried sealing it off with cement on the outside of the drill string. There were problems in the Gunnedah basin because the aquifers were close to the surface, they had to get through the aquifers and keep drilling to get to the coal seam. They got a drill string stuck in one particular hole. They brought in black stuff in a 1000 litre container, called “pipe free”. I’m not sure how it worked. I think they pumped it down the drill string to try to free up the soil and recover the expensive equipment from the hole. It stunk to high heaven. It was very smelly, dangerous: we were told not to get any on our skin. It happened in a hole in Fairview; Santos owned the property near Injune.

On every fifth hole or so they got stuck but could get the tool free without major problems apart from patience and time. But if the tool sheared off they fished for the tool or cemented the hole up and moved on a couple metres, cutting their losses and started drilling again. (This happened about three times when I was there but there was only one time they used “pipe free”.) It is a big problem for them and expensive if they lose tools down the hole.

Weatherfords did the logging. They used radiation sources. I heard that they had lost tools down the hole, but not at the time I was there.

At times there were problems with the end plug with gas bubbling through the cement, they couldn’t stop it. There were bubbles coming up through the water that was sitting over the cement in the cellar. I saw it three or four times.

On Fairview, there were lots of drill holes, it was like a porcupine. Drill holes could be as little as 150 metres apart at times, at other places kilometres apart. There are now a lot of production wells there.

I started getting sick, with nose bleeds on a regular basis in 2011. I had never had a nose bleed in my life before. My work schedule was– out for 18 days, home for 9 with 2 days travelling out of it. (I am an organic farmer, totally self-sufficient and solar powered, and I was trying to set myself-up for older life. I was working out there for the money. I was cautious about saying anything- I had lost a job before for speaking out). I was better when got home on days off; when I went back out, again there was blood dripping from my nose. I had nose bleeds in the shower.

We broke up earlier than expected at the end of 2011 because of wet weather. I was coughing and couldn’t clear my chest. I went to the doctor in late November/ early December. He listened to my lungs and sent me for a CXR.

I had a terrible feeling of anxiety and just felt terrible. The anxiety was there all day from the minute I woke up to when I went to bed. I was sent for a CT scan and told I had moderate emphysema. I had only smoked for a couple of years, age 19 and 20, not since. I looked up the internet and seen Dr Roger Allen near the Wesley. I did a test lasting 6 hours and had a lung biopsy. I was told I had inflammation, lung infection, bronchitis. I wanted compensation, adamant that the cause was what I had been using at work. Dr Allen wouldn’t commit to what was causing it. I had sickness benefit for a couple of months – I was off for a couple of months then they told me I was fit to work. I wouldn’t go back to mixing chemicals; they told me there was nothing else for me – got nothing for me. They wiped their hands of me.

Now I am back on the farm. I am not coughing as much. I still haven’t 100% capacity in my lungs. I have cough and phlegm and loss of lung function. When I was working on the rigs I would have spasm of my hands. I would grab a set of stilsons to do up a drill joint, when trying to let go I couldn’t open my hand. I had to use the other hand to open the knuckles back up.

There was lead based grease, real thick grease, used on the drill joints, also a zinc based grease called ZN50. The young fellows I was working with here getting it all over themselves. It is carcinogenic.

They were using 20kg buckets in a 10 day period. The other driller, age 27, had bad skin. It looked like dermatitis. He had red skin around his eyes and hairline. It would look better each time he came back from break. We lost contact.

A lot of people are out of work, with a downturn in the industry. It was a 24 hour rig, 12 hour shift, 4 on crew, driller, and senior offsider, 2 junior offsiders. There was always a crew on break. Apart from the people you work with you don’t know other people.

There were big camps. We lived in camps or hotel accommodation, up to 80% of the time in camps.

People complained about the water at times. The truck just didn’t look hygienic. The water was next to the septic tank which overflowed several times. People were getting stomach bugs. I am unsure if the drinking water was bore water.

Santos took the drinking water away a couple of times because of complaints.

The water in the mud pits was recycled to the next lease for drilling. The drill cuttings went back into the pits. When in the Gunnedah basin they started lining the pits with big plastic liners. They didn’t tend to line them in Queensland. There were hundreds of tons of cuttings. It was a problem. I’m not sure what happened to the pits, or the plastic or the cuttings.

When we were out there, if there was 4 inches of rain the salt water in the pits started flowing over.

If they knew the rain was coming, they would try and pump the mud out and dump it somewhere else like in new pits Santos planted fodder trees, not Australian natives. I think they planted them to get rid of coal seam gas water by using it for irrigation. There were maybe 10,000acres that Santos planted. That then became a problem. Now seeds have washed out and are growing on the sides of the road, in waterways. They have become a pest now.

The industry took off very quickly; it went from a controlled Australian industry with a few different Australian companies and rigs, to overnight rigs coming in from Canada, Mexico, everywhere.

Whatever controls they went through in the past seemed to have disappeared over night.

When I worked in the Gunnedah basin, there was lots of protest by the locals, and road blocks to go through. There were also open cut coal mines being licenced to overseas buyers (particularly the Chinese) who were buying the land up. The farmers didn’t like it. Because of the protest our image had to be squeaky clean and there was a lot more control on the industry than in Queensland. Problems with farmers were not such a problem in Western Queensland. There was an occasional well on their property, maybe up to 10 wells on big properties. Santos was building a big airport. I didn’t see any protest by farmers in Queensland. It was not a problem on big properties. Santos and Origin own some big properties.

Arcadia Valley, north of Injune is a magic pristine country of big aboriginal significance. It is a rift valley, with a huge escarpment and caves. It shouldn’t have been touched, it should be heritage listed.

AJ Lucas had one rig in the Arcadia valley and disturbed sacred aboriginal sites. There were maybe six holes. There was no more or no less care than in Fairview. I think it was a shame. The wastage was immense. In a 12 hour shift 2000 litres of diesel was used just for an exploration rig. (For the production rig to get the gas out of the ground, the fuel usage would be astronomical.) In addition to the drilling there were air conditioners and generators running all the time. There were 100’s of rigs in the area. There were diesel spills and leaks.

Other waste, Industrial bins full of plastic drums were emptied twice a week; there was a huge amount of food wasted.