The future of farming: How global crises are reshaping agriculture
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10 Oct, 2022 02:00 AM12 minutes to read
Surging costs of inputs such as fertiliser and the growing threat of climate change are driving a return to pre-industrial methods
From little wild orchids to the sound of warblers, nothing much gets past Jake Fiennes as he surveys a strip of wildflowers that borders a field of spring barley on the 25,000-acre Holkham estate in the east of England, where he is conservation manager.
Creating such buffer zones, known as “hay meadows”, around a field reduces its acreage but boosts its biodiversity and improves the quality of the underlying soil. A smaller field might mean less crop, but with fewer input costs and a small uptick in yields, he says it also means more profits.
The system of land management practised by Fiennes, and several like-minded farmers, is about “bringing farming and nature closer” he says. His methods fall under the wider umbrella of the regenerative agriculture movement, which aims to restore natural ecosystems that have been depleted by traditional farming methods — and, ultimately, to produce food more sustainably. “Food that’s produced working with nature rather than working against it,” as Fiennes puts it.
From restoring wetlands to bringing back endangered bird species, wildflowers and insect populations, the practices aim to make agriculture a solution to the environmental crisis rather than a leading contributor.
Regenerative agriculture’s highest priority is to protect the soil as a habitat for a rich ecosystem of microorganisms and a storage sink for carbon. Its aim is to make the soil more productive and more resilient to climate shocks, such as high temperatures, drought and flooding, which are recurring with rising severity and frequency. To achieve that end, the movement promotes practices such as reducing soil degradation caused by tillage, improving the water cycle and rotating crops.
Having long been relegated to the margins of discussions about farming, Fiennes and his fellow evangelists have found a growing mainstream audience in recent years. The surging cost of agricultural inputs such as fertiliser and pesticides due to the war in Ukraine, as well as the growing threat posed by climate change, has put pressure on farmers to look for alternatives to conventional farming methods.
There is also renewed interest from consumers. The Covid-19 pandemic not only highlighted the weaknesses in global food supply chains but also raised awareness about food’s health and environmental impacts. Some leading agritech investors and venture capitalists see an investment opportunity, while food companies, including General Mills and Danone, have embraced a more regenerative way of farming — albeit amid accusations of greenwashing from critics.
Yet moving away from industrialised farming is not straightforward. Over the decades, the global acceptance of intensive methods of production, which chase efficiency and yield using powerful machines over vast areas of land with the help of plenty of synthetic fertiliser and pesticide, has allowed countries such as the US, Brazil and Russia to become food-exporting powerhouses. This kind of farming has long been regarded as the backbone of globalised food supply chains and a necessity to reduce world hunger and support growing populations.
And despite the rising enthusiasm for more nature-led approaches to farming, Sri Lanka’s botched attempt to become the world’s first entirely “organic” country in 2021 has underlined the risks of sudden shifts in practices without adequate preparation while highlighting the importance of training and knowledge among growers.
Still, Fiennes emphasises that he is not trying to reinvent the wheel. The 52-year-old is instead in the business of advising policymakers, farming leaders and environmental organisations. “In the past 50 years, we’ve been driven by production and productivity and cheap commodities,” he says. “What we had and what we lost is the device and knowledge exchange in this rush to be productive.”
Farming using minimum disturbance to the soil has been around since long before the advent of the modern plough, led to increased harvests that became a symbol of food security around the world.
Conventional tillage, where farmers plough the soil to dislodge and destroy weeds and release their nutrients, works well to enhance yields in the short term. Still, over longer periods, it breaks down the structure of soil and depletes it of the microorganisms that are essential to support plant life. Ploughing also diminishes a soil’s ability to hold nutrients and water, leading to increased chemical run-offs, erosion and the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
“Tillage is to agriculture like fracking is to petroleum,” says Dwayne Beck, a no-till pioneer. He, as the recently retired head of Dakota Lakes Research Farm in South Dakota, has spent the past 30 years studying the effects of ploughing and the potential benefits of crop rotation. “What we’re doing with tillage is to break the soil apart to extract from it.”
The “dust bowl” era of the 1930s, when excessive cultivation of soils in the US — coupled with severe droughts — caused degraded top soils to blow away from the land in storms that could block out the sun, prompted a questioning of the conventional wisdom that tillage was the best way of growing crops. But it took until the 1970s for “no-till” principles to gain traction among American farmers. Interest has grown over the past few years as the relationship between soil, and the carbon it harbours has become clearer.
The arguments for action are becoming harder to ignore. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, one-third of the world’s soil has already been degraded.
In central South Dakota, Beck says, no-till methods have been shown to lead to a dramatic jump in the production of some crops from previously depleted soils, with corn production rising fivefold and soybeans 13 times between 1990 and 2017.
Likening the momentum for change to a slow-moving cargo ship, Beck feels that the transition is not happening nearly fast enough. “Can we turn it in time?” he asks, noting that when he started no-till practices in the 1990s, he thought changes would happen quickly. “It took 30 years for the whole community to change,” he says, referring to the farming regions running through the central part of the South Dakota state. “If that’s the case, then, then it’s going to be a long time in Europe and in places like France and Germany where they’re still using an immense amount of tillage,” he says.
And although growth in the global adoption of regenerative methods has been rapid, less than 15 per cent of the world’s cropland is cultivated along those principles, according to research by Amir Kassam, visiting professor at the UK’s University of Reading, and his colleagues. In the decade to 2009, that area almost doubled to 205mn hectares. But uptake remains low in Europe, Russia, Asia and Africa.
The debate is complicated by subtle but important differences among advocates of regenerative farming. Many blame wrong incentives from governments and agribusiness for entrenching the belief that soils need chemical nutrients. But critics of the movement (in particular proponents of organic farming, which bans all use of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides) retort that regenerative farming still uses herbicides to kill weeds.
Farmers who rely on steady yield targets may also be wary of regenerative farming’s reliance on experimentation and a medium to long-term ability to withstand the risk of poor harvests.
In 2021, an experiment on a national scale in Sri Lanka showed not only the speed at which a radical overhaul of a country’s farming methods can be achieved but also the danger of embarking on such a project without adequate preparation. The government’s abrupt decision to ban imports of all chemical fertilisers and pesticides caused paddy yields to fall 40 to 50 per cent across the country, says Mafaz Ishaq, a landowner who cultivates rice paddy in the east of the island.
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By Emiko Terazono, Benjamin Parkin and Nic Fildes
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Post available in: English