Food for Thought

“The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself.” —Franklin D. Roosevelt

The Salt of the Earth

Human activity has become a geological event. At present, some 12% of the world’s land surface is used in crop production, which is over one-third of the land estimated to be suitable for agriculture. Inefficient modern agricultural practices leave large swaths of land barren, and most of this is due to a misunderstanding of the relationship between how plants and herbivores evolved together.

An estimable 25 to 35 million bison once roamed the North American grasslands. They would migrate within an area that covered most of central North America and stretched from Mexico to Saskatchewan. Before their population was decimated to less than 100 back in the late 1880’s, the relationship between the bison and the grass on which they grazed was so beneficial for the soil, that the grass grew to 1.5–3 meters in height and the nutrient-rich soil that supported the grass was estimated to be several meters deep. Most herbivores and plants have coevolved together for the benefit of all species. However, human activity—considered to be the latest addition to the five previous global mass extinction events—has disrupted nature’s balance.

Today, much fertile soil is lost due to overexploitation and erosion. It takes approximately 500 years to replace 25 millimeters of “topsoil”, and, from this perspective, productive fertile soil can be considered a nonrenewable, endangered ecosystem. Topsoil is the upper layer of soil—the “skin” of the earth—that has the highest concentration of organic matter and microorganisms. Without it, little to no plant life is possible and the earth becomes infertile. Also, when soil—which contains three times more carbon than the atmosphere—is overworked and consequently erodes, its stores of carbon, trapped underground through chemical reactions with minerals, are exposed to the air and react with oxygen to create vast amounts of carbon dioxide gas. Soil carbon losses to the atmosphere may represent 10-20% of the total 450 billion tons of CO2 emitted by human activity since the Industrial Revolution.

Land of Milk and Honey

The methodology of modern industrial agriculture has been using up topsoil at an unsustainable rate for decades. Humans eat, on average, 450 kg of food per year, and it takes about 10 tons of soil to produce that amount of food; “10 kilos of topsoil, 800 liters of water, 1.3 liters of diesel, 0.3g of pesticide and 3.5 kilos of carbon dioxide – that’s what it takes to deliver one meal, for just one person.” With each person eating approximately 1,000 meals per year multiplied by a steadily increasing world population of 7.7 billion (as of October 2018), it becomes quite clear that food is fast becoming the challenge of our time.

Most of the crops grown are not reserved for human consumption. Worldwide, ca. 50% of grain produce is fed to farm animals and, in 2016, an estimated 74.1 billion animals (88% of which were chickens) were slaughtered—an average of 2,352 animals per second; not including male chicks and sea animals—in the global meat industry; an industry that is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all planes, cars and ships combined. It might not come as much of a surprise then, that the world’s biggest farms pollute more than any of the big oil companies.

The world currently loses 75 billion tons of soil per year, a UN report warns that global demand for water could exceed supply by 40% by the 2030’s, and, without intervention, problems will get worse. In “Surviving the 21st Century”, author Julian Cribb writes, “In coming decades, there will be a boom in local food production both in the cultivation of thousands of novel crops, in the recycling of water and nutrients in cities, in urban agriculture […] in the design of novel foods and diets. Food production will have to move indoors because of global climate disruption – heat waves, droughts, floods and fires. If key governments backslide on their climate commitments, global temperatures will hit 2.5 to 5 degrees Celsius above the levels that traditional farming can tolerate. With water and fertilizer running low, food production will have to shift back into the cities, to use recycled water and nutrients. Megacities that do not plan for this may starve. All this sounds like a big threat – and it is. But only if we are unprepared for it. Reinventing food will in fact create vast new industries, jobs and opportunities for communities around the world – and the smart ones will be leaders in this.”

Permaculture & Regenerative Farming

At Ridgedale farm in Värmland, Sweden, a new approach to farming is in practice. Richard Perkins (Director and Co-owner) founded the “Permaculture” farm to produce food locally and to serve as an education center for a new generation of farmers. Farming today is vastly different from what it was only a generation ago and most agriculture schools don’t include the importance of soil life and care, or how to work along with the ecosystem in their curricula.

While on most farms cattle that are bothered by flies and pests and are inoculated with drugs to alleviate symptoms, on Ridgedale they synchronize the hatching of fly larvae with allowing their chickens to peck and feed on the pastures for the insects. The small 10-hectare farm, which is expanding, runs like a well-oiled machine and is one of the most productive farms per square meter in Europe. Soil building is fundamental to regenerate and put nutrition back into the soil. They use special plows that don’t disturb the topsoil but blast the deeper ground open, and till in patterns likened to those of rice terraces for optimal groundwater distribution. They also plant perennial, rather than annual, crops that can live for many years and don’t require tilled soil to grow.

Their model works by allowing animals and ecosystems to express their true functions and behaviours according to the co-evolutionary properties of the animals and their environments; e.g. by rotational grazing, using pigs to effectively “recycle” organic material, etc. The rule of thumb is simple: if you’re doing something that is far-removed from how it is done in nature, then it is counterproductive. By allowing the processes of nature to work with them, Ridgedale farmers have automated much of their workload. It is all very efficient, and very profitable.

“The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

Local and regenerative farming will be important for the future. Increased pressure is going to be placed on industry to feed an increasing population on less land. A functional model is needed. One that goes beyond sustainable and organic farming—farming that still subscribes to the modern industrial model of agriculture to alleviate symptoms rather than address the core disabilities of a failing system—and is economical, productive, and works with ecosystems rather than against them. History has shown that civilizations that failed to replenish and care for the soil of their arable lands became destabilized and suffered famines and wars. The world is changing and local farmers are going to be in high demand in the not too distant future. Innovation starts with the producers. The questions are whether we will have modified our habits of consumption before we’ll have to adapt by necessity, and whether or not the transition will be desperate.

by Oliver Osmark

Photo credits:

Wheat Harvest Wasco County, Jim Choate, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

JH-ZA070828_0172 World Bank, World Bank Photo Collection, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Jardin permaculture pédagogique, Alôsnys, CC BY-SA 4.0