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Soil Health: The Next Agricultural Revolution
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By adopting three practices—no-till farming, cover crops and diverse crop rotations—farmers worldwide can help preserve the world's soils, feed a growing global population, mitigate climate change and protect the environment.
This was the key message of a presentation by David Montgomery, professor of geology at the University of Washington, at the Iowa Organic Conference in November.
Eroding Soil 20 Times Faster Than Building It
Montgomery, author of several books including his most recent, Growing a Revolution, began his talk by describing how the earth's soils are being degraded by agriculture and the catastrophic impacts that result.
"Humanity is losing 0.3 percent of our global food production each year to soil erosion and degradation and 30 percent every 100 years," he said, referring to a United Nations report on soil.
Montgomery said soil degradation and loss has been a problem since the beginning of agriculture and played a major role in the demise of past civilizations including Mesopotamia, classical Greece and ancient Rome. It also caused the downfall of the Piedmont region of the southeastern U.S. as a leading agricultural producer, which it had been in colonial America.
Montgomery said the "villain" in soil degradation is the plow and not deforestation.
"The invention of the plow fundamentally altered the balance between soil production and soil erosion, dramatically increasing erosion," he said. "Nature clothes herself in plants, and the invention of the plow left soil unprotected to erosion."
Based on a number of studies, Montgomery estimated that 1.54 millimeters (mm) of soil are lost each year worldwide, while only 0.01 to 0.02 mm are being built each year.
"We are eroding soil 20 times faster than we are building it," he said. "We've drawn down the batteries of farmlands. This is a global problem, and agriculture has to change."
Visited Farmers Worldwide Practicing Conservation Agriculture
Despite the potentially catastrophic consequences this problem presents, Montgomery said: "I'm very optimistic we can solve this problem and do it quickly and economically."
In the research for his book, Growing a Revolution, Montgomery traveled around the world visiting farms that are building soil and soil organic matter. The practices these farms had in common were no plowing or no-till, keeping the ground covered year round using cover crops, and growing diverse crop rotations to reduce weeds and insects. Together he calls the three practices "conservation agriculture."
"There was minimal or no disturbance to the soil, maintaining permanent ground cover and diverse crop rotations," Montgomery said of the farms he visited.
Conservation agricultural practices stimulate soil microbial activity, the "soil food web" as Montgomery describes it, to build fertile soils, which in turn produce healthy plants.
He visited Duane Beck, a conventional farmer in South Dakota, who has adopted all three practices. As a result, Beck has reduced the use of pesticides, diesel fuel, and synthetic fertilizer and increased crop yields.
Kofi Boa, a farmer in Ghana, who operates the No-Till Center, was able to stop soil erosion while tripling yields of corn and cowpea and reducing herbicide use.
David Brandt, a farmer in Carroll, Ohio has practiced no-till farming for 44 years. His farming costs are $320 per acre while his corn yields 180 bushels per acre. He also uses only 1 quart of Roundup herbicide per acre. By contrast, Brandt's neighbor plows his fields, pays expenses of $500 per acre, and uses five times as much Roundup. His corn produces yields of only 100 bushels per acre.
"David's secret is the soil," Montgomery said. "His soil is 8 percent organic matter."
Montgomery describes Brandt, who farms conventionally, as an "organicish" farmer.
"I would love to see conventional farmers move closer to organic but not organic farmers move to conventional practices," he said.
Another "organicish" farmer Montgomery visited was Gabe Brown in North Dakota, who has built a growing reputation as a leading advocate of "regenerative" farming. Brown also uses all three soil-building practices as well as grazing cattle.
Montgomery initially thought cattle were responsible for soil degradation but after visiting Brown's farm he said, "Cattle can be a tool of soil regeneration instead of degradation."
Brown's soil is 10 percent organic matter, according to Montgomery.
He also uses no insecticides and synthetic fertilizers and so little herbicide that Montgomery said he is "essentially an organic farmer."
"Soil Health as the New Foundation of Agriculture"
In summarizing, Montgomery said the keys to building soil are to "ditch the plow, cover up, and grow diversity."
The benefits of such conservation agriculture practices, according to Montgomery, are higher profits, comparable yields, less fossil fuel, fertilizer and pesticide use for the farmer, increased soil carbon and water retention and less pollution.
"Using agriculture to improve the land is a total game changer, but needs a different way of thinking," he said.
The need to build soil goes beyond the debate over conventional and organic farming methods. "It centers on a different perspective on how soil health works in both systems," Montgomery said. "It's about how to build soil and look at soil as an ecological system."
Montgomery sees soil health with its focus on building soil biology as the new agricultural revolution supplanting the green revolution and its focus on chemicals and biotechnology.
"We are poised to unleash the idea that soil health should be the newest foundation of agriculture," he said. "It can help us feed the world and mitigate climate change and environment degradation."
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
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By Jennifer Molidor
One million species are at risk of extinction from human activity, warns a recent study by scientists with the United Nations. We need to cut greenhouse gas pollution across all sectors to avoid catastrophic climate change — and we need to do it fast, said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
This research should serve as a rallying cry for polluting industries to make major changes now. Yet the agriculture industry continues to lag behind.
"The Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism wishes to inform the public that following extensive consultations with all stakeholders, the Government of Botswana has taken a decision to lift the hunting suspension," the government announced in a press release shared on social media.
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In a big victory for animals, Prada has announced that it's ending its use of fur! It joins Coach, Jean Paul Gaultier, Giorgio Armani, Versace, Ralph Lauren, Vivienne Westwood, Michael Kors, Donna Karan and many others PETA has pushed toward a ban.
This is a victory more than a decade in the making. PETA and our international affiliates have crashed Prada's catwalks with anti-fur signs, held eye-catching demonstrations all around the world, and sent the company loads of information about the fur industry. In 2018, actor and animal rights advocate Pamela Anderson sent a letter on PETA's behalf urging Miuccia Prada to commit to leaving fur out of all future collections, and the iconic designer has finally listened.
If people in three European countries want to fight the climate crisis, they need to chill out more.
"The rapid pace of labour-saving technology brings into focus the possibility of a shorter working week for all, if deployed properly," Autonomy Director Will Stronge said, The Guardian reported. "However, while automation shows that less work is technically possible, the urgent pressures on the environment and on our available carbon budget show that reducing the working week is in fact necessary."
The report found that if the economies of Germany, Sweden and the UK maintain their current levels of carbon intensity and productivity, they would need to switch to a six, 12 and nine hour work week respectively if they wanted keep the rise in global temperatures to the below two degrees Celsius promised by the Paris agreement, The Independent reported.
The study based its conclusions on data from the UN and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) on greenhouse gas emissions per industry in all three countries.
The report comes as the group Momentum called on the UK's Labour Party to endorse a four-day work week.
"We welcome this attempt by Autonomy to grapple with the very real changes society will need to make in order to live within the limits of the planet," Emma Williams of the Four Day Week campaign said in a statement reported by The Independent. "In addition to improved well-being, enhanced gender equality and increased productivity, addressing climate change is another compelling reason we should all be working less."
Supporters of the idea linked it to calls in the U.S. and Europe for a Green New Deal that would decarbonize the economy while promoting equality and well-being.
"This new paper from Autonomy is a thought experiment that should give policymakers, activists and campaigners more ballast to make the case that a Green New Deal is absolutely necessary," Common Wealth think tank Director Mat Lawrence told The Independent. "The link between working time and GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions has been proved by a number of studies. Using OECD data and relating it to our carbon budget, Autonomy have taken the step to show what that link means in terms of our working weeks."
Stronge also linked his report to calls for a Green New Deal.
"Becoming a green, sustainable society will require a number of strategies – a shorter working week being just one of them," he said, according to The Guardian. "This paper and the other nascent research in the field should give us plenty of food for thought when we consider how urgent a Green New Deal is and what it should look like."
- Reduced Work Hours as a Means of Slowing Climate Change ›
- How working less could solve all our problems. Really. | ›
- Needed: A shorter work week – People's World ›