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Conservation agriculture is changing how farmers in many countries grow crops. It costs less and restores the soil at the same time.


“No Plow” Conservation Agriculture Movement Gaining In Popularity

Conservation agriculture is changing how farmers in many countries grow crops. It costs less and restores the soil at the same time.

21st century farming is a miracle of modern science. Every year, farmers around the world pour millions of tons of pesticides and fertilizers on their fields. Giant corporations like Dow and Monsanto employ flotillas of researchers to create more chemicals they can sell at tremendous profits to the farming community. And every year, the ability of the land to support agriculture declines, leading to a call for even more chemicals.

conservation agriculture farming

Credit: Pixabay

But the land we rely on to grow our crops has a problem. It is rapidly approaching a point of no return. Michael Gove, the environment secretary for the UK government warns his country is 30 to 40 years away from “the fundamental eradication of soil fertility. Countries can withstand coups d’état, wars and conflict, even leaving the EU, but no country can withstand the loss of its soil and fertility,” he tells The Guardian.

Insects are gross, disgusting things. Just the thought of them makes us shudder. But they are essential to growing the food we eat. Dang! Why does the Singularity bedevil us with such contradictions? A study published earlier this month in the journal Biological Conservation warns that the insect population worldwide is plummeting. It speaks of a coming “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems.”  The researchers place much of the blame on the use of the pesticides the farming community uses to — wait for it — kill insects. D’oh!

In a recent statement, the United Nations warned that at the current rate, farmers will not longer be able to grow food in as little as 60 years. Maria-Helena Semedo of the Food and Agriculture Organization says it takes 1,000 years to generate three centimeters of topsoil. Industrial farming has already destroyed about a third of all the available topsoil in the world and in another 6 decades the rest could be degraded to the point where nothing grows any more.

The conservation agriculture movement began in the United States but is spreading rapidly to other countries. It basically turns its back on industrial farming methods and reverts to agriculture as it used to be practiced centuries ago. That means no plowing or turning the soil. Instead the ground is covered with crops all year round with a wide variety of plants.

The process requires more planning, but the benefits are remarkable. Farmers like John Cherry of Hertford switched to conservation agriculture 8 years ago. He claims it has created significant financial rewards for him, from lower costs of machinery and labor to a drastic reduction in the use of fertilizer and other chemicals. In turn, it has led to a large increase in insects, birds, and wildlife, as well as fewer floods and more resilient crops during droughts.

“I have always been interested in soil, which in the end is the most important thing about farming,” Cherry tells The Guardian. “I went to see a farm where it was being done and when you see someone who is farming without moving the soil it is mind-blowing.” He invited a few neighbors to come to his farm to learn more about conservation agriculture. 700 showed up the first year. The following year, 1,200 came. This year he is concerned his 2,000 acre farm won’t be large enough to hold all the farmers who will attend his Groundswell Festival.

“This whole thing is farmer-led,” says Cherry. “It is coming up from below, with farmers talking to each other and seeing the benefits, then adapting that to work on their own farms. It is a groundswell of farmers doing it. That is where we got the name. We are using fewer chemicals and less fertilizer year on year as the soil recovers. Our aim is to get to using no fertilizer or sprays at all.

In addition to benefits for farmers, healthy soil could play a key role in controlling climate change because it absorbs massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. It also does a better job of retaining water than depleted soil, an important consideration in a world where floods are happening more frequently.

Just as burning fossil fuels has led to dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, factory farming driven by the pursuit of profits for chemical companies is threatening the food supply we all depend on. Human beings seen to have an unlimited capacity to ignore the long term consequences of their actions as they seek to maximize their short term interests.

The climate crisis will not be resolved unless and until that counterproductive behavior is eradicated or substantially reduced. Don’t hold your breath.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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