Since the concept of industrialized agriculture began to form about the end of World War II agricultural producers have been subjected to constant harangues urging them to increase production.
The US government, seeking export dollars, and companies selling farm supplies have sung loudly out of the same hymn book. The pitch most commonly takes the form of "more production is needed to feed the world."
All civilized people are concerned about hungry children, but while shipping grain into a famine stricken area can relieve hunger in the short term, it is destructive to the local agricultural economy and counterproductive to bringing about long-term reliability in the local food supply.
Furnishing modern technology to areas struggling with food shortages would seem to be a logical approach to the problem, but as Mexico, Russia, India and others will attest, there are severe dangers in this action. Technology developed in the US Midwest, where deep fertile soils and reliable moisture are the rule, can wreak havoc on thin soils prone to drought. As we are finally recognizing (or admitting) these practices are ecologically damaging where ever they are applied.
We don't like to admit it but much of the production in an industrial-style agriculture (most modern agriculture) is produced by trading natural resources for agricultural products. For example, several years ago Texas A&M reported that the carrying capacity of Texas rangelands was decreasing by about 5% each year and had been doing so since before 1900. It also has been widely reported that soil loss in the US is about two bushels of soil lost for every bushel of corn harvested. Figures from Australia are the same or worse.
Industrial agriculture, with its heavy reliance on inputs – tillage, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and fuel – where applied has shut down and/or reversed the natural processes that for eons maintained health and productivity in the soil-plant-animal complex.
With all of the intellectual effort, time and money that is devoted to agricultural research, it would seem that we could come up with programs that are productive and profitable without degrading our natural resources.
Is it possible that our problem lies in approaching agriculture as an industrial process rather than as a biological process?
Let me explain: Industrial processes are, by and large, straightforward. If you want more widgets, you can buy more widget-making machines and hire more widget makers. Increased inputs equals increased production.
Applying the same reasoning to biological processes is where we get into trouble. Adding more fertilizer or irrigation is not the same as adding more widget machines. While adding widget machines will have effects beyond creating more widgets – more energy use, stimulation of the local economy, more waste created – the effects are slight compared to what happens to the complex, highly interrelated local ecosystem with widespread application of modern agricultural technology.
Work done at Mississippi State University found that as little as 16 pounds of actual nitrogen, applied as water-soluble fertilizer, would kill all nitrogen-fixing bacteria associated with legumes on an acre of sandy land.
Tillage and/or keeping land free of plant growth destroys soil structure and water holding ability by disrupting the mutually beneficial relationships between plants and soil life.
These practices are especially harmful to mycorrhizal fungi, which are critical in maintaining good soil structure.
Moving from pasture-based to confinement housing animal production radically changes all aspects of animal production. The byproducts once valuable to soil productivity become waste with disposal costs. Capital expenditure increases dramatically, profit margins narrow, and money at risk goes up.
I have painted a rather bleak picture that, I am sorry to say, is pretty accurate. The industrialization of agriculture has failed ecologically, financially and sociologically. The one area noted as successful -- increased crop yields -- has come at tremendous cost.
All is not doom and gloom, however. There are numerous people beginning to practice what is being called regenerative agriculture. This is agriculture that enhances natural resources rather than degrades them. The enhancement is ecological, but it is also financial.
Conversely, production that is not profitable is not sustainable, much less regenerative.
Many changes are underway in this regenerative movement, but they all share a common base: The understanding that agriculture is a biological pursuit and is most successful when life is increased rather than destroyed.
Techniques being used include:
- Animals back on the land with good grazing management
- Cover crops
- Reliance on management rather than poisons
There are some amazing success stories out there that can be repeated by thinking people nearly anywhere. You can read more of my ramblings on the subject at http://waltdavisranch.com.