A considerable part about striving for sustainability in agriculture may involve having conversations we do not necessarily want. We like to do things the way we already do them. But what if there was a way to improve yields, wealth, and the environment?
A couple of weeks ago, I listened to the Ag News Daily podcast, where their interview consisted of the writers talking about their upcoming documentary, “Kiss the Ground.” It was a research project that has been going on for approximately nine years. I had a lot of interest in watching this film as actor Woody Harrelson narrated it, and I was finally able to watch the film after its release on Netflix last week. It aims to bring awareness to consumers and producers regarding sustainability practices to improve farming, by providing a compelling call to action to those who view it.
One reference the documentary takes note of was the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, a direct result of the over-cultivation in America and Canada’s prairies. Modern farming practices have altered the course of the Earth’s soil. Thirty-three percent of the world’s topsoil has disappeared since the worldwide usage of chemicals began in the 1970s. When the ground becomes damaged, it causes the land to desertify due to its inability to absorb water and carbon.
Conservation services were established to conserve the world’s most precious asset. Among these is the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), formally known as the Soil Conservation Service, established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The goal of NCRS is to reduce the number of chemicals used in conventional farming practices, claiming the method degrades the soil immensely over time. Unfortunately, it does not go into detail about the degradation of the soil. It also does not further support its claim that three pounds of chemicals are sprayed for every American, not addressing what chemicals and how long they survive in the soil.
A trending practice that “Kiss the Ground” praises is Regenerative Agriculture. Its goal is to repair the damages that we have done through conventional farming. The four principles it encompasses includes:
- No tilling of the soil
- Cover crops
- Perennials and trees
- Compost/mob grazing
These principles provide optimal conditions for regenerative agriculture to improve the soil.
Research has conducted over the years has proven that tilling the soil before planting there can be some severe side effects. The soil structure can be damaged, making it more susceptible to the soil becoming compact. In response, the ground cannot hold water, leading to water runoff and, eventually, drought. Therefore, no-till planters created a way to combat soil erosion. Less herbicide runoff and higher crop yields have been a couple of results of this practice.
Soil does better when it is continuously covered. My agronomy professor would always say plants do not need soil to grow, but the soil needs plants to grow. Cover crops promote biodiversity, creating a manager for soil erosion, weed control, and soil fertility.
Perennials and Trees
The documentary highlighted a tree farmer that heavily diversified in fruit that is grown on trees. His operation does not only take from the soil, but it gives back nutrients from the trees planted. The trees also promote carbon sequestration, taking carbon dioxide from the air and giving it to the soil’s roots. The trees produce fruits containing macronutrients and micronutrients critical in the human diet. This form of agroforestry is vital to developing countries around the world. It promotes the sustainable production of nutrient-rich products at the cost of an improved environment.
Differing from rotational grazing, mob grazing focuses on putting a high concentration of grazers on a minuscule paddock for a short period. The process disturbs the pasture for the time it is grazed. Then, it is given a long time to recover and grow. The manure that was produced becomes an ample fertilizer for the soil during the recovery time. The key is to avoid overgrazing and allow the paddock enough time to recover before it is grazed again. This practice has improved the soil tremendously in some parts of Africa.
Some regenerative producers claim they have seen an impeccable difference in their economic sustainability. Farm subsidies are no longer a needed asset. Through his operation, Gabe Brown, a regenerative rancher, has eliminated help from the taxpayer that almost seems like a prerequisite for conventional farming. Every year, the American taxpayers pay approximately $25 billion to go towards farm subsidies. Retaliation to regenerative agricultural practices has come from the reliance of a guaranteed fixed rate for some commodities. Advocates for regenerative ag believe that “by switching to regenerative agriculture, farmers could increase their profits by $100 billion annually and virtually eliminate their subsidies.” The advocates for regenerative agriculture have high hope for these practices.
While regenerative agriculture offers seemingly outlandish solutions, it opens the door for discussion that presents a massive paradigm shift in modern agriculture in America and worldwide. As advocates of the agricultural industry, we like to throw out the statistic that projects the global human population to grow to approximately 9 billion people by 2050. Is it possible to revive our soil while keeping up with addressing food security?
For those interested in learning more about regenerative agriculture, I encourage you to to watch the “Kiss the Ground.”