A Brand New Idea for Commodity Exports
For years, a handful of enterprising grain farmers in the Midwest have been making huge strides--ecologically as well as financially--by managing to farm without plows and other invasive "tilling" machinery. Their achievements point to the possibility of a very different balance in global commodity trading markets.
By TODD OPPENHEIMER
For generations, the world has labored under a heavy imbalance of trade—not the kind we read about in the news but an invisible one.
The imbalance begins with what agronomists call “the yield gap”—in other words, the difference between the potential production of any given acre and what that acre grows today. Thanks to the creativity of agribusiness, synthetic as it may be, the U.S. closed its yield gap decades ago. In developing countries, however, much of the farmland has been so heavily overused and neglected that their yield gap has only widened. For nearly 50 years, this problem has possessed Rattan Lal, a professor of soil science at Ohio State University, who has spent his career working with subsistence farmers in India, Africa, Asia and South America.
Lal sees today’s food problems as a “trilemma,” with the following three vectors of pressure: climate change, increasing demand for energy, and a rising number of hungry people. “Do you realize,” Lal asked me, “that one billion people now go to bed hungry every night?”—a figure that is likely to only grow as global population rises from 7.2 billion today to a projected 9.2 billion in 2030, and 11 billion by this century’s end.
As this trend evolves, what ultimately worries Lal and a growing number of other agronomists is the pressure it will put on the world’s last expanses of uncultivated land, much of which comprise rainforests and other valuable ecosystems that communities are struggling to preserve.
“There may be one or two times every century when agriculture has the chance to redefine itself, and this may be one of those times,” says Garrison Sposito, a renowned professor of soil science at the University of California, Berkeley.
Crises also open new doors, however, and Lal’s crowd has found some big ones. In recent years, they’ve been feverishly promoting new approaches to farming under names such as “Conservation Agriculture,” “Sustainable Intensification,” and “Integrated Nutrient Management.” (See “The Many Stripes of Sustainable Agriculture” by Jessica Kraft.) Each varies slightly from the other, but they all begin with most of the soil-building principles practiced by Paul Kaiser, the Sebastopol farmer profiled in “The Drought Fighter.” They then add techniques more suitable to larger farms–especially the intense use of “cover crops” similar to the system practiced by Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer who raises livestock and some vegetables. (Cover crops are plants like grasses and unmarketable beans. They are grown not to eat but to protect and feed the soil with vital nutrients, especially nitrogen.)
In peer-reviewed scientific journals, Lal has repeatedly reported successes with these experiments, some of which suggest that these changes could more than double crop production in much of the Third World. This makes for an extremely timely opportunity. Garrison Sposito, a highly acclaimed professor of soil science at UC Berkeley and a fellow soldier in the campaign to revitalize the world’s soil, puts the situation this way: “There may be one or two times every century when agriculture has the chance to redefine itself, and this may be one of those times.”
If agriculture does manage to redefine itself, a curious consequence might ensue: a dramatic drop in export demands from U.S. farmers. Sounds like a disaster, doesn’t it? Not if our farmers adopt similar changes, aiming at soil health first and crop production second.
For more than a decade, Lal and Dwayne Beck, a professor of Agriculture at North Dakota State University, have been teaching these approaches to farmers in the Midwest, with surprising success. Lower yields have occurred sometimes, but not always. “You don’t get huge yields, you get stable yields,” Lal told me. “In good years, your production might be less than a conventional farmer’s. But in bad years, it will be much higher.” Most of Beck’s farmers have outperformed conventional farmers in both good and bad years. The irony in this is that, like most farmers, Beck’s protégés were not initially interested in the changes he suggested. Then, after multiple years of bad weather conditions, they started going bankrupt. “It was either change or die,” Beck told me. Now they’re more profitable than they ever were.
Many Midwestern farmers have now realized that the purpose to all their labors isn’t high yields. It’s net income. If Third World farmers get to the point where they don’t need our high yields either, real trade balance just might become a reality.
The advantages in Beck’s and Lal’s examples go far beyond crop yields. According to climatologists, bad years—especially the kind of droughts the U.S. suffered this summer—are likely to become the new norm. So our food system desperately needs systems like these, which are built for bad years almost more than good years. Equally important, the new, fertility-oriented practices these professors are promoting tend to lower farmers’ costs, just as they did on Kaiser’s farm. This has helped some Midwestern farmers realize that the point to all their labors isn’t high yields. It’s net income. If Third World farmers get to the point where they don’t need our high yields either, real trade balance just might become a reality.
As the farming world struggles toward whatever future it chooses, Lal believes that the system used on Paul Kaiser’s farm, which relies so heavily on the compost generated by urban dwellers, could help enormously. “Fifty percent of the world’s population lives in cities,” he pointed out. “If places like London, New York, Calcutta, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City could produce just 10 percent of their food this way, that’s a big breakthrough.”
One way or the other, the “trilemma” that Lal describes is fast becoming a reality. In the meantime, agribusiness can certainly choose to avoid the changes that Lal’s crowd has begun to showcase. If they do so, the only other way to feed a growing world on fewer natural resources will be through more high-tech innovations, similar to what brought us genetically modified crops. From all indications, most people would prefer a rather different future.