Healthy soil is the real key to feeding the world

The Conversation – Apr 3, 2017

David R. Montgomery – Professor of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington

Planting a diverse blend of crops and cover crops, and not tilling, helps promote soil health. Catherine Ulitsky, USDA/FlickrCC BY

One of the biggest modern myths about agriculture is that organic farming is inherently sustainable. It can be, but it isn’t necessarily. After all, soil erosion from chemical-free tilled fields undermined the Roman Empire and other ancient societies around the world. Other agricultural myths hinder recognizing the potential to restore degraded soils to feed the world using fewer agrochemicals.

When I embarked on a six-month trip to visit farms around the world to research my forthcoming book, “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” the innovative farmers I met showed me that regenerative farming practices can restore the world’s agricultural soils. In both the developed and developing worlds, these farmers rapidly rebuilt the fertility of their degraded soil, which then allowed them to maintain high yields using far less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.

Their experiences, and the results that I saw on their farms in North and South Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ghana and Costa Rica, offer compelling evidence that the key to sustaining highly productive agriculture lies in rebuilding healthy, fertile soil. This journey also led me to question three pillars of conventional wisdom about today’s industrialized agrochemical agriculture: that it feeds the world, is a more efficient way to produce food and will be necessary to feed the future.

Myth 1: Large-scale agriculture feeds the world today

According to a recent U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, family farms produce over three-quarters of the world’s food. The FAO also estimates that almost three-quarters of all farms worldwide are smaller than one hectare – about 2.5 acres, or the size of a typical city block.

A Ugandan farmer transports bananas to market. Most food consumed in the developing world is grown on small family farms. Svetlana Edmeades/IFPRI/FlickrCC BY-NC-ND

Only about 1 percent of Americans are farmers today. Yet most of the world’s farmers work the land to feed themselves and their families. So while conventional industrialized agriculture feeds the developed world, most of the world’s farmers work small family farms. A 2016 Environmental Working Group report found that almost 90 percent of U.S. agricultural exports went to developed countries with few hungry people.

Of course the world needs commercial agriculture, unless we all want to live on and work our own farms. But are large industrial farms really the best, let alone the only, way forward? This question leads us to a second myth.

Myth 2: Large farms are more efficient

Many high-volume industrial processes exhibit efficiencies at large scale that decrease inputs per unit of production. The more widgets you make, the more efficiently you can make each one. But agriculture is different. A 1989 National Research Council study concluded that “well-managed alternative farming systems nearly always use less synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics per unit of production than conventional farms.”

And while mechanization can provide cost and labor efficiencies on large farms, bigger farms do not necessarily produce more food. According to a 1992 agricultural census report, small, diversified farms produce more than twice as much food per acre than large farms do.

Even the World Bank endorses small farms as the way to increase agricultural output in developing nations where food security remains a pressing issue. While large farms excel at producing a lot of a particular crop – like corn or wheat – small diversified farms produce more food and more kinds of food per hectare overall.

Myth 3: Conventional farming is necessary to feed the world

We’ve all heard proponents of conventional agriculture claim that organic farming is a recipe for global starvation because it produces lower yields. The most extensive yield comparison to date, a 2015 meta-analysis of 115 studies, found that organic production averaged almost 20 percent less than conventionally grown crops, a finding similar to those of prior studies.

But the study went a step further, comparing crop yields on conventional farms to those on organic farms where cover crops were planted and crops were rotated to build soil health. These techniques shrank the yield gap to below 10 percent.

The authors concluded that the actual gap may be much smaller, as they found “evidence of bias in the meta-dataset toward studies reporting higher conventional yields.” In other words, the basis for claims that organic agriculture can’t feed the world depend as much on specific farming methods as on the type of farm.

Cover crops planted on wheat fields in The Dalles, Oregon. Garrett Duyck, NRCS/FlickrCC BY-ND

Consider too that about a quarter of all food produced worldwide is never eaten. Each year the United States alone throws out 133 billion pounds of food, more than enough to feed the nearly 50 million Americans who regularly face hunger. So even taken at face value, the oft-cited yield gap between conventional and organic farming is smaller than the amount of food we routinely throw away.

Building healthy soil

Conventional farming practices that degrade soil health undermine humanity’s ability to continue feeding everyone over the long run. Regenerative practices like those used on the farms and ranches I visited show that we can readily improve soil fertility on both large farms in the U.S. and on small subsistence farms in the tropics.

I no longer see debates about the future of agriculture as simply conventional versus organic. In my view, we’ve oversimplified the complexity of the land and underutilized the ingenuity of farmers. I now see adopting farming practices that build soil health as the key to a stable and resilient agriculture. And the farmers I visited had cracked this code, adapting no-till methods, cover cropping and complex rotations to their particular soil, environmental and socioeconomic conditions.

Whether they were organic or still used some fertilizers and pesticides, the farms I visited that adopted this transformational suite of practices all reported harvests that consistently matched or exceeded those from neighboring conventional farms after a short transition period. Another message was as simple as it was clear: Farmers who restored their soil used fewer inputs to produce higher yields, which translated into higher profits.

Soil building practices, like no-till and composting, can build soil organic matter and improve soil fertility David Montgomery, Author provided

No matter how one looks at it, we can be certain that agriculture will soon face another revolution. For agriculture today runs on abundant, cheap oil for fuel and to make fertilizer – and our supply of cheap oil will not last forever. There are already enough people on the planet that we have less than a year’s supply of food for the global population on hand at any one time. This simple fact has critical implications for society.

So how do we speed the adoption of a more resilient agriculture? Creating demonstration farms would help, as would carrying out system-scale research to evaluate what works best to adapt specific practices to general principles in different settings.

We also need to reframe our agricultural policies and subsidies. It makes no sense to continue incentivizing conventional practices that degrade soil fertility. We must begin supporting and rewarding farmers who adopt regenerative practices.

Once we see through myths of modern agriculture, practices that build soil health become the lens through which to assess strategies for feeding us all over the long haul. Why am I so confident that regenerative farming practices can prove both productive and economical? The farmers I met showed me they already are.

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The Seattle 1999 WTO protest was a battle for food sovereignty – Video 3:47

Democracy Now – Vandana Shiva – Dec 1, 2019 – Video 3:47

Twenty years ago, tens of thousands of activists gathered in Seattle to protest the World Trade Organization and stop executives from signing a global trade deal that many felt was harmful to environmental and workers’ rights. Indian scholar and environmental activist Vandana Shiva reflects on the WTO’s threats to food sovereignty — stripping farmers of their autonomy through corporate seed patents. The WTO “has given control to the poison cartel over our seed and food.” She also says the WTO has contributed to today’s global wealth inequality, consolidating the power of billionaires. “Bill Gates … got rules written so he would not have to pay taxes in transport or transfer. Jeff Bezos shipping goods around and pay no taxes anywhere — these trillionaires are children of the WTO rules,” Shiva says, arguing that the uprisings against neoliberal austerity all over the world today are a part of the legacy of the WTO protests. “The brutality and limitless greed of the handful of corporations and billionaires is now really reaching ecocidal and genocidal limits.”

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Changing climate is affecting how we feed ourselves – CBC Radio Ideas – AUdio 53 min

CBC Radio – Nov 29, 2019 – IDEAS – Audio 53 min

UN advisor says climate change is forcing us to rethink how our food systems work

Listen to the full episode 53:59

David Nabarro is hopeful. That may be an odd way to describe someone who deals specifically with the issue of food sustainability and security in a world awash in conflict and destabilized by climate change. He says he sees promise in the young generation that is keenly aware of the problems it is inheriting and is refusing to sit by and watch.

Nabarro began his career as a physician nearly five decades ago. He worked in a tiny clinic in the Himalayas treating poor and sick parents and children. As a young doctor he began to see how the lack of nutritious food kept his patients in a cycle of poverty and poor health. Today, he is in a position to talk about food — its production, storage, transport, distribution, and consumption — at a global level and engage with a variety of stakeholders and bring them together to confront both scarcity and abundance in the face of climate change.

Nabarro says governments are focused, understandably, on the need to make lots of food cheaply available. He points out that when food prices rose drastically in 2008, governments the world over felt vulnerable. “There were riots in 34 countries and a number of governments fell because people just didn’t get the food that they needed and they were demonstrating in the streets. And I realized that food security, having enough to eat, is not just an issue for your health, but it’s also an issue that has profound political consequences to the point where governments put ensuring that people get the food they need when they need it at a price they can afford, very high up the ladder of political imperatives.”

A demonstrator holds a terrestrial globe in Lisbon during a worldwide protest demanding action on climate change, Friday, Nov. 29, 2019. Students worldwide are skipping class Friday to take to the streets to protest their governments’ failure to take sufficient action against global warming. (AP Photo/Armando Franca) (The Associated Press)

This imperative often stands in the way of strong policies around mitigating the impact of food production on the climate. Nabarro points out that unused food, which could otherwise feed millions of people, has a negative impact on the climate as it begins to rot.  Up to 30% of food is wasted. And when it comes to perishable foods, that figure is even higher — about 50%. This is where David Nabarro steps in. He says it is possible to bring governments, corporations, farmers, activists, and other stakeholders together and work in a cohesive way to address concerns and make better policy. 

Nabarro says that unfortunately governments will put their own domestic political realities ahead of global concerns. But he adds that the insistence of large numbers of young people in keeping climate change at the forefront has forced the powerful to take the issue seriously. And it’s that involvement of younger people that inspires hope. He sees a desire to build a global consensus around food and food-related issues — a consensus that is strongly informed by the need to confront the very thing — climate change — that could make all other issues moot.

++ This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa.

Open Door to GMO? Britain Faced with EU-US Biotechnology Dilemma Post-Brexit

Global Research – Nov 29, 2019 – Natasha Foote

The question of whether the UK will open its doors to GMOs after Brexit has become more pertinent after EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told MEPs on Tuesday (26 November) that in order to secure a trade agreement, the UK would have to agree to maintain a ‘level playing field’ and not undercut EU regulation.

Barnier said that if a new UK government sought to diverge from EU regulatory standards that would weaken environmental standards there will never be a free trade agreement, MEPs at a meeting in the European Parliament revealed.

The discussion over science-based policymaking in the EU, in general, has been heating up in recent years, with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) front and centre of the debate.

Concerns have been raised particularly regarding the unknown impact of the release of GMOs into the environment and the food system, with critics citing a lack of adequate and sufficient risk assessment.

In July 2018, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that organisms obtained by new mutagenesis plant breeding techniques should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive.

This ruling is one in a long line of resolutions against approvals of the use and import of GMOs that the EU has adopted in recent years.

However, there could soon be a shift of thinking about GM crops in the UK, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledging to “liberate” the UK’s bioscience sector from the EU’s anti-GM regulation post-Brexit.

Opening Britain’s doors to GMOs has also been suggested as key to allowing the UK to draw up a quick trade agreement with the United States.

Speaking at a recent plant breeding conference in Brussels, Dr Thorben Sprink from the Julius Kühn-Institute in Germany said he thought the UK would “make the most” of the opportunity Brexit presented for the country to reject Europe’s “very tight regulation” and encourage more GMO research.

At the event, Secretary-General of Euroseeds Garlich Von Essen said that neither breeders nor farmers want to be in the “second league” and that Brexit would allow the UK to implement “science-based regulation”.

Liz O’Neill, director of GM Freeze, a UK non-profit organisation which campaigns against GM, told EURACTIV that GM regulations have already been identified as a non-tariff barrier to trade, citing that Donald Trump signed an Executive Order in June, aiming to force the UK (and the EU) to open the door to GM crops from the US.

She said that there will undoubtedly be pressure on the UK to accept GMOs, and that Brexit has the potential to “change everything with food and farming and open the floodgates to unregulated GMOs”.

UK National farmers union (NFU) chief science and regulatory affairs adviser, Dr Helen Ferrier, told EURACTIV that biotechnology and GMOs “have the potential to offer multiple benefits to the public, farmers and the environment, and could help tackle some intractable issues in the production and consumption of food”.

She said “there may be opportunities to look at different regulatory approaches after Brexit to the way technologies are developed and used.

The potential impact on trade with key partners, whether the EU or the US, needs to be kept in mind, as well as the need for access to the full toolbox of innovations to help find solutions to major challenges such as climate change and diet-related illness.“

However, she highlighted that the use of biotechnology “must be regulated using sound science in terms of its environmental and health impact”.

The UK department for environment, food and rural affairs (DEFRA) said they were unable to comment on future policy decisions during the pre-election period.

Low consumer acceptance 

However, NGOs and anti-GM campaign groups say that public support for GM remains low in the UK.

O’Neill told EURACTIV that “the UK public consistently rejects the use of GM in food and farming, both in polls and at the checkout” and that they “simply do not sell”.

In April 2018, an IPPR poll found that only 8% of the public thought the UK should lower food safety standards to secure a trade deal with the US, with 82% preferring to keep standards as they are.

O’Neill said that UK politicians will, therefore, have a “very hard time” persuading the electorate that a “US trade deal is more important than the high food standards they consistently support”.

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Genetically Engineered Animals: From Lab to Factory Farm

Friends of the Earth – Nov 13, 2019

This report, provides a scientific overview of the concerns with genetically engineered food animal experiments that are underway, and reveals the risks to human health, the environment and animal welfare. It sheds light on the unintended consequences of genetic engineering techniques known as gene editing, and considers the implications for U.S. regulations. The report also highlights the gaps in what scientists know about the effects of editing DNA to confer certain desirable traits.

The report summarizes peer-reviewed research on genetically engineered animals in development, including super-muscly pigs, hornless cows and disease resistant chickens and pigs. Studies show that, far from being “precise,” gene editing can cause genetic errors, even if only a genetic “tweak” is intended. Genetic errors can lead to unexpected effects in gene-edited animals, such as enlarged tongues in rabbits and extra vertebrae in pigs. Studies also suggest that common gene editing traits, such as hornless cows and disease resistance, will perpetuate the poor animal management, such as crowding, often found in animal factory farming. Rather than creating genetically engineered animals to fit into factory farming systems, the report recommends it is critical to develop sustainable and ecological animal agriculture systems that support preservation and restoration of biodiversity, public health and animal welfare. 

The report was co-authored by Dana Perls, senior food and technology campaigner, Friends of the Earth and Dr. Janet Cotter, Logos Environmental.

Press release
Full report
Executive summary
Op-ed

Key Findings:
  • Studies show that, far from being “precise,” gene editing can cause genetic errors, even if only a genetic “tweak” is intended. Genes can be changed at additional locations and gene editing can interfere with gene regulation.
  • Common gene editing traits, such as hornless cows and disease resistance, will perpetuate the poor animal management, such as crowding, often found in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). This will magnify the current ethical, health and welfare concerns for animals housed in CAFOs.
  • Genetic engineering of animals often involves cloning, which leads to birth defects, spontaneous abortions and early postnatal death. Genetic errors can lead to unexpected effects in gene-edited animals, such as enlarged tongues in rabbits and extra vertebrae in pigs. These raise concerns for animal health, welfare and consumer safety.
  • Unexpected effects include the production of abnormal proteins in gene-edited animals. Allergens are proteins, so abnormal proteins could create new food allergies and have significant implications for food safety.
  • There are significant gaps in research about how genetic errors at the cellular level manifest as unexpected effects and how these unexpected effects may impact the animal’s health, interact with complex environmental factors and affect food safety.
  • Although still at the hypothetical stage, gene drive systems could drive a specific trait through a herd or population of farm animals and could accidentally spread to the natural population, potentially affecting biodiversity and even an entire ecosystem.
Recommendations:
  • Rather than creating genetically engineered animals to fit into factory farming systems, it is critical to develop sustainable and ecological animal agriculture systems that support animal welfare, preservation and restoration of biodiversity and public health. 
  • All genetic engineering techniques should fall within the scope of government regulatory oversight of genetic engineering, including gene editing, using the Precautionary Principle to protect human health and the environment.
  • Oversight and regulations for GMOs, including gene-edited animals, should include independent assessment for environmental and food safety and long-term impacts before entering the market or environment. Products of all genetic engineering should be traceable and clearly labeled as GMOs.

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