Category Archives: Soil

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 Hydroponic Threat to Organic Food

Counterpunch – Jun 26, 2019 – DAVE CHAPMAN

Real Organic Demonstration photo: linley_dixon.

In the last 7 years there has been a quiet redefinition taking place in the USDA National Organic Program that oversees organic standards. Large scale industrial producers have insinuated themselves into organic certification to transform what the green and white label stands for.

Original organic was based on a simple equation:

Healthy soil = healthy plants = healthy animals = healthy planet.

This equation leaves out the discussion of WHY these things are true, but it is a good roadmap for what organic agriculture is all about. The first given is always “healthy soil.” As we look deeper, we cannot study these parts separately, because plants and animals are integral parts of healthy soil system. No plants means no healthy soil. The same is true with animals. Soil and plants coevolved for 350 million years, and neither can be healthy in isolation from the other. The dance between plants, microbial life, and animal life in the soil is necessary for all.

Western soil science got started with the work of Justus von Liebig (1803-1873). From Liebig’s perspective, soil was a passive storage bin for plant nutrients. However, in Charles Darwin’s 1881 book The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, these ideas were challenged by a vision of the soil as a living ecosystem. But Liebig’s viewpoint dominated Western soil science until the 1980’s when the role of organisms in soil formation became better understood. Liebig himself even turned away from his “storage bin” paradigm in the later part of his life, but our agricultural sciences continued to follow his earlier writings.

If we take away plants, soil can no longer be living. Plants provide the energy via photosynthesis for all animal and microbial life in the soil. These photosynthates are provided first as root exudates that feed the fungi and bacteria in exchange for which they gain the minerals that in turn feed the plants. The visible life forms are as important as the invisible microbial community. Soil animals go from burrowing woodchucks and gophers to snails, slugs and elongate animals such as earthworms, flatworms, nematodes, soil mites, springtails, ants, termites, beetles and flies. All of these species together create a community that is often called the soil food web.

Organic farming is based on protecting and enhancing this web of life. By cultivating the diversity of life, we create a stable ecosystem in the soil. Diseases or pestilence are symptoms of a loss of balance. So the organic farmer’s first job is to enhance the diversity of life in the soil community. This is done by providing materials and techniques to help build a soil carbon sponge.

Conventional agriculture is based on a very different strategy of control and simplification. By making systems that are as simple as possible, it becomes easy to control the inputs and outputs. The inputs are processed offsite to provide plant available nutrients. “Soil” becomes a device for holding roots. It is thus easier to make these systems replicable, much like the model of a McDonald’s restaurant. McDonald’s simplifies their systems as much as possible to serve the same hamburger to every customer around the world. In such a system the expertise is contained in the corporate staff who design the processes and provides the raw materials. The problem is a loss of nutrition in the final product. McDonald’s serves lots of calories that soothe customers’ cravings, but they fail at providing a healthy diet. The end result is the phenomena of customers who are simultaneously malnourished and obese.

Similarly, in a conventional agriculture system, the yields are high per acre, but, as Vandana Shiva has said, the yield of health per acre is low. As it turns out, we are part of that co-evolution of soil and plants and animals. Human nutritional needs are complex and beyond our full understanding at this point. But organic farmers believe that by embracing those natural systems, we can feed ourselves well, even if we never fully understand why.

As Einstein once said, there is a simplicity that comes before complexity that is worthless, but there is a simplicity beyond complexity that is priceless.

These simplified conventional systems have been promoted by an industry that profits by selling remedies to the unintended consequences of such crude simplicity. Their high yields are unsustainable without the liberal use of poisons. Plants grown in a soil devoid of biological complexity are very vulnerable to disease and insect attack. And of course, the more we use such poisons, the less healthy the soil becomes, so more pesticides are needed, and on and on.

In livestock production, the epitome of conventional agriculture is a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) where animals are isolated from the land. Their food is grown far from where they live, so their manure is lost to the production system. There is no honoring of Albert Howard’s Law Of Return.

In vegetables and berries, the epitome of conventional agriculture is hydroponic production. Hydroponics is a system that relies entirely upon processed inputs to feed the plants. The old organic adage is, “Feed the soil, not the plant.” The guiding principle of conventional agriculture is: “Feed the plant, not the soil.” Obviously, hydroponic production is the most extreme example of this philosophy.

The practices of organic farming are ancient, but not all traditional farming systems could be called organic by the definition of such pioneers as Albert Howard. Some traditional agriculture was not sustainable and ultimately led to the downfall of civilizations. But organic principles have been practiced in the intensive farming of southeast Asia for over 4000 years. They were learned by Howard in India and subsequently taught in the West. Since then, soil science has confirmed Howard’s ideas to an astonishing degree. Every day we learn more and more about how soil communities function and about why such a system need not depend on pesticides to thrive. Every day we learn more about the connections between the soil microbiome and our own microbiome.

From this logic we derive a conclusion that is important to remember: that the absence of pesticides in a successful organic system is the result of how we farm, not the definition of it.

The organic movement has long believed that food grown in a healthy soil is the foundation of human health. In recent years it has become clear that agriculture is also deeply involved in the climate crisis, both as the problem and as the solution. Conventional agriculture contributes directly to the destruction of the living soil, leading to the spread of deserts and the warming of the planet. We have the skills and understanding to farm without chemicals in a way that will build a soil carbon sponge that can cool our warming planet. Our impediment to achieving this is social and political, not technical.

The inclusion of hydroponics in organic certification is thus not an example of innovation and improvement. It is an example of conquest and colonization. It is simply a hostile takeover of organic by economic forces. It has been widely resisted by the organic community, but the USDA continues to embrace hydroponics as organic just as they embrace CAFOs as organic. Their redefinition of organic is in opposition to the law and to international norms. The US once again becomes the rogue nation throwing away our mutual future so somebody can make a buck.

At this time, huge quantities of hydroponic berries, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and greens are being marketed as “Certified Organic” in partnership with the USDA. And there is no way of identifying what is hydroponic in the organic label.

The Real Organic Project was created to challenge this process. Our efforts include the creation of an add-on label so that real organic farmers and eaters might be able to find one another in a deceptive marketplace.

To learn more, please visit us at realorganicproject.org.

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Organic Farming Curbs the Spread of Foodborne Pathogens – New Study

Sustainable Pulse – Apr 19, 2019

Organic farming promotes natural resistance to common food-borne human pathogens, according to a study that evaluates the benefit of soil organisms. By protecting valuable species of dung beetles and soil bacteria, organic farming systems naturally act to clean up and decompose potentially pathogen-bearing animal feces.

Source: beyondpesticides.org/

While these natural systems suppress pathogens on organic farms, coventional chemical-intensive farms are left with higher levels of fecal residues and are therefore significantly more likely to yield produce carrying such foodborne pathogens as E. coli. The authors emphasize that curbing the spread of common foodborne pathogens could save thousands of lives and prevent millions of illnesses each year.

The study, “Organic farming promotes biotic resistance to foodborne human pathogens,” published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, compares dung beetle populations, soil bacteria diversity, and feces removal rates on 70 organic and conventional broccoli farm fields across the west coast of the U.S. In addition to studying field conditions, authors conducted additional microcosm studies to directly test the effects of dung beetles and soil microbes on the suppression of introduced E. coli.

Results from field analyses show that organic management practices lead to greater biodiversity among dung beetles and soil microbes, which translate to higher rates of feces removal. Microcosm results confirm that by removing fecal matter, the beetles and microbes retained by organic management reduce potential E. coli contamination. These new findings add to the list of ecosystem services unique to organic farms, further bolstering the case for organic as not only an ecological but an economical solution to global food production.

In the context of recently reviewed insect declines worldwide, this study also serves as a warning of yet another key ecosystem service that will certainly be lost unless a major agricultural transformation to organic systems is mobilized. Dung beetles, whose actions in soils not only protect against pathogens, but also unlock critical nutrients, are in decline. The impacts of dung beetles on soil fertility are vital to the sustainability of farms and pastures used to maintain livestock. By burying and processing feces on cattle farms, dung beetles introduce 80% more nitrogen into the soil than would otherwise remain. By increasing soil organic matter, dung beetles simultaneously increase water infiltration, thus stabilizing farms and heavily grazed areas against erosion, flooding, and drought.

Findings from the present study highlight the need for dung beetle diversity in addition to abundance, since some dung beetles bury feces more effectively than others. Notably, researchers find that the commonly introduced species O. nuchicornis, which tends to dominate over other species and reduce overall diversity, is less effective at burying feces, with consequences for both E. coli contamination and soil fertility. Similarly, previous work attests to the importance of soil microbial diversity for maintaining ecosystem services. The key to healthy produce and fertile soils, across the board, is diversity.

Due to agrochemical use, that precious diversity is in decline. Monitoring in Europe, according to the 2019 review of insect declines, shows the greatest terrestrial loss of insect biodiversity on record to date: more than 60% of documented dung beetle species are in decline. Soil microbial diversity, too, is threatened by continued application of pesticides in industrialized agriculture. Highly toxic gases known as “soil fumigants” are used on a wide range of high-value crops to control nematodes, fungi, bacteria, insects, and weeds. Soil fumigants wipe out entire soil communities, thus necessitating the use of other chemicals  to provide the fertility and pest control services that soil  organisms provide. In addition to fumigating soil, which intentionally kills all  living things in the soil, other chemical-intensive practices also threaten soil  life. Glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide, is also an antibiotic. Glyphosate-tolerant plants release glyphosate into the soil, where it has a continued impact on soil microbial diversity.

Beyond Pesticides holds the position that these patterns carry a lesson. Insects and microbes that act to control crop pests and fertilize the soil reduce the need for pesticide and chemical fertilizer use. Reliance on chemical controls creates a vicious treadmill: pesticide use kills natural agents of pest control, thus creating a demand for more pesticide use, which kills more of the beneficial organisms, and so on.

Join Beyond Pesticides in getting off the toxic treadmill and instead working to build a sustainable food system based on natural control systems. Be a model for your community by creating a pesticide-free zone in your home yard, neighborhood, or even jurisdiction. Add your pesticide free zone to the map by taking our Pesticide Free Zones Survey. Show your neighbors and beyond that a world free of pesticides is both desirable and achievable.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

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Biosludged feature film launched at Biosludged.com and BrighteonFilms.com – watch it now

Natural News – November 28, 2018 by: Mike Adams

Two years in the making, the film that’s sure to send shock waves through the “environmentalism” movement has now been launched. The feature documentary Biosludged is available to watch now at Biosludged.com or BrighteonFilms.com.

This powerful, hard-hitting documentary features EPA whistleblower and scientist Dr. David Lewis, author of Science For Sale – How the US Government Uses Powerful Corporations and Leading Universities to Support Government Policies, Silence Top Scientists, Jeopardize Our Health, and Protect Corporate Profits.

Biosludged reveals how the EPA is committing science fraud to allow the ongoing poisoning of our world with toxic sewage sludge that’s being spread on food crops. The criminality and fraud of what’s exposed in this film is truly mind-blowing.

The film also features many other scientists, researchers and citizen activists who are all working to shine the light on the grotesque practice of cities spreading toxic sewage sludge on farms, crop lands, city parks and forests.

Watch the full film at this link now.

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From Bankrupt Dairy Farm to Profit: How Compost Saved a Dairy Farm 200K Per Year.

Raleigh Latham – Vimeo Notes: Saturday, April 21, 2018

Vimeo  (12 min) – Australian dairy farmers

I got a chance to interview Elaine Ingham back in January, and she went over one of her most remarkable stories…helping Dairy Farmers on the brink of collapse and suicide flip their operations from bankruptcy to being profitable within a year.

By composting their manure, they were able to save 200K a YEAR on inputs, reverse an environmental hazard(gross manure lagoons), and restore their soil beyond what was seen in generations. While the neighbors could only graze their cows once a season, the ranchers and dairies who used compost were able to graze their cows once every 10 days. What’s extra interesting was hearing how this spread from 3 farmers to 175 within 3 years!

I feel like this is so powerful because it’s simple, scalable, and scientific. Monitor the biology, create the right compost and compost teas, and any landscape can be restored to full productivity, regardless of scale, or damage.

Junk Planet: Is Earth the Largest Garbage Dump in the Universe?

February 22nd, 2018

Commentary on pollution of our air, ocean, water, soil, antibiotic,  GMO,  nano-particles, space junk, military waste.

As noted by Baher Kamal in his commentary on this study: ‘Though some forms of pollution have been reduced as technologies and management strategies have advanced, approximately 19 million premature deaths are estimated to occur annually as a result of the way societies use natural resources and impact the environment to support production and consumption.’ See ‘Desperate Need to Halt “World’s Largest Killer” – Pollution’ and ‘Once Upon a Time a Planet… First part. Pollution, the world’s largest killer’.

And that is just the cost in human lives.

So what are the main types of pollution and where do they end up?

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