It’s no under-estimation to say that food is an essential aspect of human life. The challenge of ensuring that a global population, which is predicted to reach nine billion by 2050, has access to an affordable and nutritious food supply is not a simple one. Food production that provides the right nutrition levels and is economically viable depends upon access to water and the health and richness of soil. Discussions about the ‘health of the earth’ may usually carry spiritual connotations, but there is a growing body of evidence that a significant economic opportunity exists in altering our agricultural and farming paradigms, and gearing them more towards the preservation and restoration of soil.
In their book, Natural Capitalism, Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins suggest that “the superficial success [judged by raw agricultural output] of America’s farms masks other underlying problems”. The key challenge identified by Hawken, Lovins and Lovins was that one third of the original topsoil in the United States has gone and that a subtler soil degradation is impacting the nutrition of what remains, and consequently the quantity and quality of the crops that can grown in it. There are signs that the era where seemingly endless improvements in the size of crop yields may be over.
A combination of petrochemicals, inorganic fertilisers, pesticides and monocropping has created farmland that doesn’t hold nutrients, has become eroded and has high salinity. Dr Elaine Ingham, the president of Soil Foodweb Inc, has pointed out that rainforest habitats typically have immeasurably low nitrate and ammonium levels, no inorganic fertilisers are used, and yet there is a productivity in terms of plant life that is unmatched by any farm. Ingham’s work is focused on the importance of soil in restoring agricultural productivity. She argues that there is a microbiology in the growing of healthy crops and plants that is under-appreciated in farming and gardening and that monocropping and fertilising of land has disrupted the ecosystem balance exist naturally. Moreover, the application of fertilisers is has been found to be highly in effective. A recent study of Europe found that 70% of the fertiliser applied on farms was not taken up by crops .
There are some examples of modern farming techniques adjusting to take into account soil health, for example, the utilisation of Internet of Things data technology to irrigate more effectively. However, Ingham’s work suggests that there are also opportunities to do farming differently, in a way that has positive outcomes for both producers and consumers.
Leontino Balbo Jr is an obvious example of a sugarcane farmer who has pioneered a farming method that he calls “ecosystem revitalising agriculture”. Balbo’s sugarcane farm is most often associated with the idea of organic farming that doesn’t utilise fertiliser. However, its real focus is actually on soil health. Balbo believes that by restoring and revitalising soil, a number of favourable agricultural benefits can be achieved including; greater productivity and resilience to pests, increased biodiversity and a reduction in the resources needed to farm. His two sugar mills in São Francisco and Santo Antonio (Brazil) are a testament to the fact that a different approach can work.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s recent report, “Growth within: a circular economy vision for a competitive Europe”, suggests an alternative vision for a “regenerative food system”. In “Growth within”, six levers that could reshape the food system are identified, including the development of new regenerative farming practices and the preservation and restoration of natural capital. It highlights the increase is in organically cultivated land and no-till farming techniques as farmers aim to conserve and protect soil, aim to optimise long-term yields and improve the economics of their business. It emphasises the commercial viability of these project, using the example of the Loess plateau in China, where 1.5 million hectares of degraded land was restored increasing grain output and the availability of water, biodiversity and carbon absorption, all while lifting more than 2.5 million people out of poverty.
The 21st century challenges for agriculture are just beginning to be explored, but there is enough encouragement from current examples and research to conceive of a positive future. At its core, an abundant farming system must focus in some way on preserving and regenerating the nutrition and richness of soil, and natural capital more broadly. In that sense, the work done by the likes of Lovins, Ingham, Balbo Jr., and the vision presented in “Growth within” come together.
The topic of regenerative food systems and agriculture will be explored in detail during the Disruptive Innovation Festival 2015. Hunter Lovins and Leontino Balbo Jr. will be providing headliner talks, while Elaine Ingham will be doing a presentation and there will also be an opportunity to explore the “Growth Within” findings in detail with the project lead Ashima Sukhdev. Register to be a part of the DIF at thinkdif.co.
 Statistic taken from chapter 3 of “Growth within: a circular economy vision for a competitive Europe”
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