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The Many Stripes of Sustainable Agriculture

Industrial farming vastly expanded the world’s food supply, but it’s also based on a fossil fuel economy that is slowly running out of juice. Maybe alternatives like this "permaculture" operation in Wisconsin are finally ready for prime time.

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At some point, will farm laborers have to dodge mechanical bugs like this one? The drone is being used to monitor the health of a cornfield in a Precision Agriculture system. Photo by


Was Jared Diamond right to call agriculture the worst mistake of the human race? Ever since industrial techniques were developed in the late 19th century, the earth’s soil, water and air has steadily degraded. It’s often argued that all this damage is simply the price we must pay for agriculture’s rising productivity. Maybe. Maybe not. Whatever the case, it’s become clear that industrial agriculture—even its organic little cousin—is based on a fossil fuel economy that is slowly running out of juice. Which points us to an obvious question: Are any of the other alternatives vying to replace this system ready for prime time? Well, it depends on your budget, and your belief system.

The USDA has permitted 20 organically derived chemicals for use by organic farmers as pesticides. Many of these are as ecologically damaging as some of Monsanto’s synthetics.

At this point, there are almost as many different camps of “sustainable agriculture” as there are food crops. We have Agro-forestry and Agro-ecology; farming methods called Biodynamic, Bio-intensive and Bio-nutrient; Organic Agriculture, Conservation Agriculture, Precision Agriculture, even Permaculture. Some of the newer members of the group go by still heavier names, such as Sustainable Intensification or Integrated Nutrient Management. Despite the varied implications of these labels, their distinctions often pivot on only one key practice, or blur at the edges. Some of these approaches are also ideologically driven, which only adds to the muddle, causing conflicts that are not only factual but also cultural.

Whatever identities they go by, all of these systems seek to re-integrate farming with the earth’s natural processes; some even aim to restore agriculture to its pre-industrial state. To the extent they share a goal, it’s to rebuild soil health–a concept that is both obvious and long neglected. “Most agrarian societies have lasted less than 500 years, due to degradation of the soils,” said Dwayne Beck, a professor of agriculture at South Dakota University and a highly respected advocate of soil conservation. “We are on track to beat that 500 year cycle because of our ability to degrade the soil faster,” he said.

On a small plot of 5 acres in Northern India, a farmer produced more than 10 tons of rice per acre through a purist method of organic farming method called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). By comparison, the average paddy yield worldwide is about 2 tons per hectare. Photo by AgriCultures Network.

To avoid such an ominous future, each of these camps advocate some combination of the following measures: cutting back or even eliminating the use of chemicals, and the habit of plowing or turning over the ground (called tilling); fertilizing with animal manure or decomposed plant matter (called compost); and expanding the use of “cover” crops—plants grown not to eat but to protect the soil and feed it. The purpose of these ideas is to create a loop of fertility that is as closed and efficient as possible, so that few if any outside materials are necessary. As organic farming adviser Amigo Bob Cantisano is famous for saying, “You’ve got to replace what you take out.”

So let’s start with what we know: Organic farming. All farming was effectively “organic” before the introduction of man-made fertilizers and pesticides after World War II, and most farms were no-till or low-till before the 18th century’s industrial innovations. The term “organic” as an alternative to chemical-based agriculture was first promulgated by Sir Albert Howard in the 1940s. Howard had studied traditional Bengali farming methods in the ‘20s and his subsequent books and teachings inspired many to experiment and perfect organic methods, most notably in California, which was and still is the vanguard of organic agriculture. But the organic movement wasn’t just a Western revival. Independent of any European influence, Masanobu Fukuoka pioneered a no-till, cover-cropping “natural” farming method in 1930s Japan that produced yields similar to his conventional farming neighbors. Much of what he developed influences organic farming to this day.

In the years since then, organic farming has both grown and lost much of its meaning. A USDA organic label today is mostly an assurance of what’s missing—no chemicals; no antibiotics, irradiation, or genetically modified organisms; and no traces of sewage sludge. Those restrictions do matter—according to a recent study by Newcastle University, organic crops offer substantially higher levels of antioxidants than conventional crops. And their productivity is gaining on conventionally raised crops. Beyond that, organic certification offers little assurance that the land or crops are managed in a fashion that could be called sustainable.

“The organics have exploited the soil’s minerals, leaving it saline, so it will get increasingly hard to grow anything in it,” says Geoff Lawton, who runs the Permaculture Research Institute in New South Wales. “Just because it is organic doesn’t mean it’s good for the environment.”

Geoff Lawton, who runs the Permaculture Research Institute in New South Wales, came to this very conclusion when he recently toured the Cuyama Valley in California’s Central Valley. “Going through an organic carrot farm, the plants are all grown on aquifer water which is pumped from underground,” Lawton said, in a public presentation during his visit. “Its level is now dropping dramatically. The organics have exploited the soil’s minerals, leaving it saline, so it will get increasingly hard to grow anything in it. Just because it is organic doesn’t mean it’s good for the environment,” he said.

Lawton believes that the increased demand for organic food has just reproduced the mono-cropping industrial methods of conventional agriculture, but without the chemicals. There are even questions about that benefit, because the USDA has permitted 20 organically derived chemicals for use by organic farmers as pesticides. And many of these are as ecologically damaging as some of Monsanto’s synthetics. No wonder conscientious farmers sometimes describe their operations as “beyond organic.”

All of which suggests that it’s time for yet another alternative to what many farmers now call “Conventional Organic.” So what are the options?

Among the various approaches to building soil health, the most heavily debated is the practice of tilling. And the system most dedicated to tilling’s elimination is Conservation Agriculture, a methodology that has rapidly grown in popularity among farmers, agriculture scholars, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, even the United Nations. Conservation Agriculture focuses on cover cropping, and crop rotation, to keep the land fertile, increase water retention, stimulate pest-resistance and increase a plant’s nutritional quality. To avoid tilling, however, farmers who follow this method often use synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides, making the philosophy anathema to organic adherents.

On Biodynamic operations, farmers fill cow horns with manure and bury then to stimulate fertilization. The process is typically timed with the cycles of the moon, and brings in other elements, such as crystals, to draw energy from the earth. Crazy as it sounds, many farms have seen tremendous effects. It’s acquired the most cachet among winemakers. Photo by Thea Maria Carlson.

To some no-till advocates, any harm that chemicals cause pales in comparison to what tilling does to the land. So why do farmers use these machines?

Farmers till their fields for two simple reasons—first, to kill weeds and leftover crop roots, so they can start the next planting season with a clean slate; and second, to more easily mix in fertilizers, synthetic or organic. In recent decades, however, scientific evidence has been mounting that tilling is a catalyst for lost nutrients, dead soil, and an even warmer world. (See “The Carbon Gatherer,” by Charlie Siler.) For every acre farmed in the U.S., Beck says, we have lost an amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to the burning of 20-40 tons of coal. “Tillage is to agriculture as fracking is to petroleum,” Beck says. “In both cases, the goal is to increase the speed and extent with which things (nutrients, and oil or gas) can be extracted from a resource. It leaves the resource degraded.”

Yet more than half of the nation’s farms—conventional as well as organic—still operate with the idea that more tillage means more yield. This has been proven false on farms across much of the East and Midwest, thanks in large part to the research efforts of the Rodale Institute, the nation’s oldest organic farming research lab. “We use biology to do the work of weed management,” says Jeff Moyer, Rodale’s farm director. “Cover crops mulch out weeds, and suppress them from germinating and growing.”

No-till methods work relatively easily in states with harsh winters, where frozen ground also helps suppress weeds. But it’s been a hard sell in California’s vast farming valleys, where the warmer climate presents a fertile, year-round seedbed for weeds. (Rodale insists that climate is no excuse. In field trials, Rodale’s primary no-till system—a machine that knocks down old crops instead of plowing them up—has worked in Argentina and Italy, places with climates similar to California’s.)

As the farming community continues to devise ways to build up the soil instead of annually tearing it apart, it might find some ideas in some of those other “sustainable” models. To help the cause, here’s a brief survey, ranging from small visions to large ones:

Not coincidentally, the bio-intensive approach has been most successful in Third World countries, where labor is cheap.

Bio-intensive gardening: Drawing from ancient Greek, Roman and Chinese farming traditions, bio-intensive gardening became the model that small farmers outside the cities of France and England practiced at the end of the 19th Century. The rich, health of their soils inspired British master gardener Alan Chadwick to bring the philosophy to the U.S. in the 1960s, on a demonstration farm at UC Santa Cruz. The method is a great option for small-scale, localized food production (nicely summarized by the title of a classic book on this practice—“How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible in Less Space Than You Can Imagine,” by John Jeavons). It’s done in raised beds in small areas and requires a specific method of tilling the soil by hand (called double-digging), which enables quick root penetration, thereby boosting yields. The bio-intensive method aims to provide the maximum amount of calories, so root crops like yam, potatoes and parsnips are common. The method is intense, however, just as the name implies; it requires a high level of maintenance of soil fertility, using specific plants for optimal composting, so labor is demanding. Not coincidentally, the bio-intensive approach has been most successful in Third World countries, where labor is cheap and demand is intense for high-calorie crops. Strangely, it’s never been tried on a large-scale commercial operation. Bio-intensive advocates like Ecology Action don’t believe agriculture should be done on a massive scale because, they say, yields are always higher on garden-size plots.

While bio-intensive farming focuses on plants for human consumption, the biodynamic and permacultural systems apply to a larger ecosystem. They both incorporate animals for food and manure, set up individual zones for wide variety of crops. These tend to rely more on passive natural systems that require a large space for planting. In other words, the bio-intensive approach could be part of other methods, such as permaculture, biodynamic farming, and sustainable intensification.

Permaculture: Developed in the 1970s by a duo of Australian farmer activists, permaculture is often described as a design science. It may even have inspired Conservation Agriculture. If nothing else, Permaculture certainly offers a pastoral ideal. The system begins by using the target landscape—garden or farm—to replicate the services of surrounding ecosystems (where, for example, rivers purify water and transport sediment; insects pollinate; plants cycle nitrogen and nourish animal life). So in imitating nature, permaculture designs plant species in complementary “guilds” that serve specific ecosystem services: fixing nitrogen into the soil, attracting pollinators, and creating bio-mass for composting. Productive animals (ducks, sheep, horses, some cattle) are brought in to enrich the soil with manure and provide another human food source, and they are given free reign to roam and do their business on the pasture (the latter being a practice that many agronomists believe we should return to, and a number of human health experts are beginning to agree). The land itself is often contoured to maximize water retention, create strategic shade and wind breaks, and offer diverse habitats. Integrated pest management—a way of positioning plants and employing natural pesticides—is used to cut down on crop loss, as is cover cropping. If any tilling is done, the “keyline” method is used. This mechanism is far gentler than conventional tilling machinery. It does not invert soil layers, but rather makes deep grooves in the subsoil, allegedly to promote better water retention and aeration.

One problem with biodynamic farming is that fields are usually plowed. The process is somewhat gentle—done sparely and usually with horses, an image that many find soothing. But a plow is still a plow.

Biodynamic Farming: Permaculture is generally compatible with biodynamic farming, which was developed by the eccentric visionary Rudolph Steiner in 1920s Germany and modeled on pre-industrial European farming techniques. For many, the practice pushes the boundaries of credulity. Farmers certified in this method are required to use nine homeopathic preparations to treat compost, soil, and plants. They must also incorporate mystical practices of burying animal parts like cattle horns stuffed with crystals or manure at precise times of year to gather earth energy that will later be used in compost preparations. Lunar and planetary cycles are closely observed, and many rituals are proscribed for astronomical events, leading to the mainstream perception that biodynamic farming is one part grounded, one part fairy illusion. But the biodynamic model has been fast gaining cache, particularly in the wine world. A potential objection is that biodynamic fields are usually plowed. The process is somewhat gentle—done sparely and usually with horses, an image that many find soothing. But a plow is still a plow.

The main problem with all of these more holistic organic methods—which fall under yet another umbrella, called agroecology (see “Cuba’s Harvest of Surprises,” by Chris Cook)—is that few of them have been proven to work at the same scale as industrial agriculture. And many of them, says Dr. Dwayne Beck, are not based in science. Some of the exceptions have been some Permaculture operations, two of which have become quite exceptional indeed. One is the New Forest Farm, run by Mark Shephard, who has managed 106 acres of mostly nut trees in southwestern Wisconsin. The other is Joel Salatin of PolyFace Farms, who Michael Pollan made famous in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Salatin has successfully implemented permaculture on a whopping 500 acres of large livestock holdings in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Could any of these truly organic methods scale up? Why, for example, aren’t there more Polyface Farms? Kevin Bayuk, who teaches permaculture at several Bay Area institutes, including UC Berkeley Extension, says that a big part of the conundrum is an explicit ethic of permaculture: to pay a living wage. “Permacultural production tends to be higher in labor costs,” Bayuk says. But that expense is often offset by reduced costs elsewhere, such as commercial pesticides and herbicides, fertilizers and fuel. “The productivity per acre tends to be greater with permaculture,” he says, “but the economic margins tend to be lower.”

This is why many agronomists think the answer is in bigger innovations, such as the following.

Sustainable Intensification (SI) is a set of principles that could guide the future of food production. The theory is, given the expectation of 9-10 billion people in the world by mid-century, significant increases in food supplies will be necessary. But SI adherents focus in some different directions for new food supplies, food waste being one of them. (Right now, they note, nearly a third of the world’s food supply goes wasted—either in the field or on the way to the fork.) Furthermore, they believe that any additional production should take place on existing land by stepping up per acre production. This is critical, they argue, because today’s uncultivated lands—rainforests, tundra, temperate forests—must remain green if the planet is going to sustain healthy air, to say nothing of biodiversity. Whether the production method is organic should, in their view, depend on local conditions and the farmer’s needs. The key is to choose crops to feed people, not ethanol factories.

Although the practice of “Precision Agriculture” is high-tech, it has the potential to revive the natural. One can envision a future where farmers unleash armies of drones to monitor cover-cropped fields, plant new seed, deliver nutrients, and monitor the outbreak of disease. This could finally sideline agriculture’s Achilles heel: plows and other machinery that chronically tear up the soil.

Precision Agriculture: Touted as the ultimate, high-tech solution to the problems with industrial agriculture, Precision Agriculture utilizes GPS and aerial photography to map crop yields, soil nutrient levels, hydrology and topography, and to collect data sets on crops using mountable sensors and periodic sampling. After analysis, a crop’s needs can then be calculated and delivered precisely through machinery with pin-point accuracy. Although the practice of “Precision Agriculture” is high-tech, it could potentially revive the natural. One can envision a future where farmers unleash armies of drones to monitor cover-cropped fields, plant new seed, deliver nutrients, and monitor the outbreak of disease. This could finally sideline agriculture’s Achilles heal: plows and other machinery that chronically tear up the soil.

Initial outlay costs are obviously extensive, but farmers can quickly realize savings, averaging 15% over several harvests. A key part of Precision Ag that already has wide adoption and state subsidization is something called nutrient management planning—an accounting system for everything that farms put into their fields, and then take out. This includes fertilizers, manure, compost, pesticides, even water. The idea is, if agricultural waste can be spared, profits (and the ecology) can grow.

Agro-forestry: Standing gently over all of these ideas is an even simpler umbrella, an age-old practice that focuses on trees and shrubs first, crops second. The idea is to select non-food bearing plants based on what else they can bring to a given plot of land. Some are best for adding shade or vital nutrients such as nitrogen; others attract animals and insects that eat pests. Once the choices are made, the trees and bushes are interwoven among food crops. The practice has done wonders to bring back burned out soil in Third World countries, and it had a huge influence on the creativity of Paul Kaiser, the California farmer featured in the main profile in this issue.

In the decades to come, other camps will undoubtedly join agriculture’s struggle over its future. Eventually, whenever the era of oil comes to its end, we can only hope that the conflicts between “organic” and “conventional,” or between tillers and no-tillers will be resolved through open-minded, eclectic experiments. Ideally, farms will begin to develop detailed nutrient plans; they might even execute them with precision methods that draw first from time-honored, truly organic disciplines such as those now called Agro-ecology. There may well be times when chemicals prove helpful and benign (comparatively speaking, that is). The same goes for the occasional use of GMOs (once they’ve been well tested). But whatever combination rules tomorrow’s farms, let’s also hope that healthy soil and sustainability become redundant terms.

More stories from this issue:

The Drought Fighter

The Carbon Gatherer

Your Salad’s Difficulty with Sustainable Farming

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