April 22, 2014 Pat Beaujot
Earth Day Blog: Imagine...We Have Come So Far
As most people who follow me know, I am passionate about soil. I care about preserving the quality of the soil we grow our food with, the air we breathe and the water we need to survive. These are issues that are important in my daily life, and that concern me all year round. So for my Earth Day blog this year, I wanted to do something a bit different; something that would stand out a bit from my other blogs on the subjects of no-till farming, reducing our carbon footprint, and observations from my travels around the world.
I’ll start with some of the history that got us to where we are in present-day agriculture. In 1900, scientists and experts were concerned with feeding 1.7 billion people on Earth and the population was growing rapidly as they saw it back then. The major concern at the time was the risk of starvation caused by depleted soils. The crops that were growing in Europe at the time were increasingly poor, and the only method that science offered to improve yields was to search everywhere for deposits of manure that could be mined and shipped back to be placed on agricultural land. The farmers and scientists knew this wasn’t sustainable, but it was the only method they had to feed the ever-growing demand. Scientific innovation came at around the time of WWI, when a scientist called Fritz Haber developed a way to extract nitrogen from the air and convert it into plant-available nitrogen. Air is 78% nitrogen, and by synthesizing it into ammonia, he enabled fertilizer production that led to massive improvements in crop production, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1918. Though Haber is also known for his more destructive contributions to science, his remarkable development changed agriculture permanently so that we are now able to produce food on a scale to feed over 7 billion people and counting.
Fast forward to the 1970s (roughly 3.6 billion people), and scientists began to realize that the way farming had developed was now destroying our soils. Tillage on a grand scale was robbing the soil of organic matter. Even though we could now provide some nutrients with fertilizer, using tillage to control weeds, and to warm the soil in cooler climates was depleting topsoil at an alarming rate. Continuing on this path would surely result in disaster.
By 2000 science had advanced again, providing a multitude of safe pesticides that rendered tillage unnecessary to control weeds and pests. In an attempt to preserve that vital topsoil, seeding equipment technology had improved to such a degree that farmers were able to place a seed and fertilizer with minimum or no soil disturbance, while maximizing efficiency.
So now, with all of the many advances of farming science and technology, we are able to feed 7.2 billion people whilst improving our soils, at least in the areas where zero or minimum tillage has been adopted (I estimate that this is about 10 to 15 per cent of the world’s arable land). This is still a small percentage but it is significant and it is growing. So what is the next challenge for agriculture today? I think we can safely say that in order that the Earth’s population be able to live in comfort and peace, they need to have an adequate and reliable supply of food and water. Soon the population will increase to 9 billion. Most experts can agree that in about 25 years, Earth’s population will reach that number, and so we need to plan in advance in order to be able to feed that number of people. How do we produce 30% more food in 25 years. How do we produce 30% more food while reducing our carbon footprint? How do we produce 30% more food while fighting climate change? How do we do this, while the well-fed people in the developed world are losing trust in science and agriculture, and asking farmers to go back to farming in the methods of the early 1900s, which is essentially an organic farming method. I argue that this last issue is our greatest challenge.
When the developed world doesn’t trust their scientists, then less money goes into funding advancements in order to improve our practices. Fewer bright young minds take up the science of Agriculture. This is a major crisis facing agriculture today, and I’ll deal with this in a future blog. In the meantime, I want to suggest an initial solution to this challenge, and it has to do with the approach we take to our thinking on these issues. Those of you who know the great musician and writer John Lennon may recognize the following:
“Imagine all the farmland, covered in zero-till.
Imagine all the world’s soil, protected with cover crops year round.
Imagine no more erosion, no more soil blowing, or washing into the rivers.
Imagine clean water above and below ground, because of plants protecting the soil.
Imagine climate change slowing, because our crops and cover crops are taking carbon dioxide from the air and storing it in the soil.
And because the sunshine is absorbed by plants, instead of reflecting off of bare soil.
Imagine all the people, fed and watered because of good science and good farming.
Imagine good scientists developing crop and cover crop varieties, to nourish the Earth’s soil and the Earth’s people as one.
So we can all live as one.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. (Many good farmers and good scientists believe this also).
I hope someday you’ll join us, and believe in modern agriculture,
so the people and the Earth can live as one.”
Not an exact cover, but I hope you get the message. Happy Earth Day.