Healthy soil is the real key to feeding the world

6 04 2017

Image 20170329 8557 1q1xe1z
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.

Enter a caption

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.





HOME

23 02 2015

Be prepared to be regaled by truly stunning photography, even when it’s ugly…..  A must watch film.  Anyone who enjoys their cushy lifestyle needs to know at what cost.  Share widely.

We are living in exceptional times. Scientists tell us that we have 10 years to change the way we live, avert the depletion of natural resources and the catastrophic evolution of the Earth’s climate.

The stakes are high for us and our children. Everyone should take part in the effort, and HOME has been conceived to take a message of mobilization out to every human being.

For this purpose, HOME needs to be free. A patron, the PPR Group, made this possible. EuropaCorp, the distributor, also pledged not to make any profit because Home is a non-profit film.

HOME has been made for you : share it! And act for the planet.

Yann Arthus-Bertrand

HOME official website
http://www.home-2009.com

PPR is proud to support HOME
http://www.ppr.com

HOME is a carbon offset movie
http://www.actioncarbone.org

More information about the Planet
http://www.goodplanet.info





Reality Check….

13 07 2014

Just found this, written by Tovar Cerulli who is the author of The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance. He lives in Vermont in the northeastern US.  Originally published at http://aeon.co/magazine/nature-and-cosmos/tovar-cerulli-vegetarian-food-production-hunting/

Once upon a time, I believed in the tidy taxonomy of the grocery store.

In the meat coolers, near the back of the store, I could find Animalia: beef steaks, pork chops, chicken legs, and fish fillets. In other coolers, along a side wall, I could find gentler products from that same kingdom: eggs, milk, yogurt, and cheese. In other sections, I could find all things Plantae: vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains.

The realms seemed clear and separate, each kind of food carrying a distinct meaning. When I ate meat, that meant animal death. When I ate dairy products, that meant animal confinement. When, inspired by the compassionate teachings of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, I turned to veganism — that meant harm to nothing but plants. My conscience seemed clear.

Eight years later, this fairy tale began to unravel. In the garden my wife and I tended, for instance, I began to see that squash and green beans were not just the fruit of plants. They were also the fruit of animals.

Like all living things, our garden plants had to eat. As their hungry roots drew sustenance from the ground, nutrients had to be replaced. So each year I drove our pickup truck a few miles down the road and brought home a cubic yard or two of compost: rich, dark, dense material made from the manure of cows and other animals, and from their bodies as well, as farmers sometimes compost carcasses.

Squash and green beans owe their existence to the lives and deaths of animals

I could have insisted on supplementing our own kitchen-scrap compost with fertilisers made from nothing but plants. Such products were certainly available. Most, though, were imported from out of state in bright plastic bags. Depending on them to feed our soil would, I reflected, be like subsisting on grocery-store tofu made from soybeans grown a thousand miles away, instead of eating chicken from a neighbour’s backyard or venison from nearby woods. These choices would keep animal products away from our garden and plates, but they made no ecological sense.

And even if I found a local source of animal-free fertiliser, would it make a difference? Though crops can be grown without manure, such approaches typically require more acreage than do integrated plant-animal systems. Why till more land, and perhaps displace more wildlife habitat, for the sake of excluding domesticated creatures from the agricultural landscape? Though this might help shore up my own conceptual categories, would it serve any other purpose, any greater good?

Plant-animal integration is, I realised, the norm in nature. It is how prairies and savannahs and all manner of ecosystems have been sustained for countless millennia. It is the most natural, ancient, and sustainable of systems — flora and fauna feeding one another in endless cycles. But our participation blurred boundaries I had taken for granted. If the squash and beans we grew were fed by local dairy farms, were we really eating just plants?

In his book Peace Is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us to attend to interconnections, to look deeply into the origins of the materials of everyday life, including food. The more I looked, the more complex things became.

In our own garden, I saw the earthworms we accidentally cut in two with our shovels whenever we turned the soil. I saw the beetles I crushed to protect tender young plants. I saw, too, that the compost we imported linked our garden not only to dairy products but also to meat: to give milk, cows must be impregnated. Pregnant cows give birth to calves. And virtually all male calves end up as veal.

In larger-scale crop production, I saw prairie and forest habitats disrupted across North America. I saw birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects maimed and killed by machinery and pesticides. Even in produce from small-scale organic farms, I saw rodent burrows cleared by deadly smoke bombs and deer populations kept in check by hunters and farmers alike.

When I visit the grocery store these days, I realise we have a choice, but it is not simply the choice I once made between the purity of veganism and its alternatives, based on suffering. Walking down the aisles, we can let the orderly bins and shiny packages cultivate our forgetfulness. We can let ourselves believe in all the tidy separations: plants and animals divided into neatly compartmentalised kingdoms, food severed from earth, our shopping disconnected from others’ farming. We can let ourselves be comforted by our own ignorance, by everything we neither see nor want to see.

Or we can remind ourselves of just how intertwined everything really is. Uncomfortable though it might be, we can remind ourselves that lettuce is not as innocent as it appears, that squash and green beans owe their existence to the lives and deaths of animals. We can remind ourselves that pastoral landscapes are not just backdrops for recreational hikes or idyllic rides through the countryside. They are not an ‘environment’ that exists around us. They are the places that feed us, the soil in which we are rooted. They are us.

We can remind ourselves, too, of all the people who work the land for a living. Day in and day out, they draw sustenance, theirs and ours, directly from the earth. They know the nature of the places where they live and work — the soils and waters and climates and non-human inhabitants — more intimately than most of us do. They know the nature of living and eating more deeply, too. They know it’s a messy business.

We can remind ourselves that our lives are not separate from theirs. As a teenage omnivore, I never thought seriously about the connections between my living and eating and the gritty realities of agriculture. Nor did I think about those connections as a twentysomething vegan, up on my ethical high horse, wanting nothing to do with the confinement, let alone the deaths, of fellow creatures. I assumed I could remain aloof from all of that. Only later did I begin to see more clearly.

Those connections are, in the literal sense of the word, vital. They keep us alive. The teacher and the student, the artist and the office worker, the doctor and the attorney, are all utterly dependent on the farmer. Whatever romantic notions we might have about ourselves and our ethically or environmentally motivated food choices, the boundaries between vegans, vegetarians and veal eaters are somewhat ambiguous. We are all part of the same food systems.

We can — and should — advocate changes in those systems, promoting both animal welfare and ecological health. Our efforts, however, will be most effective if people of all dietary persuasions can collaborate, remembering that we, like the foods we eat, inhabit an integrated whole, not isolated kingdoms. My wife and I, for instance, don’t buy beef or veal, yet we applaud the local farmers who produce those meats in humane, ecologically sound ways. And we recognise that the yogurt we eat is linked to the lives and deaths of cows, just as our garden is.

It is easy to forget, of course. I know I do. In the bustle of everyday life, the interconnections slip my mind. I eat a bowl of salad and see nothing but greens.

Then the phone rings. It’s a neighbour calling. Woodchucks have begun to obliterate her garden, in spite of the electric fence. I’m one of the few hunters she knows. Would I be willing to lend a hand?

Ah, yes, I think. Hidden costs.

Taking a deep breath, I fetch my .22 rifle.

17 September 2012