Soil scientist goes myth-busting about feeding the world with fewer chemicals

Three big myths that impede our ability to restore degraded soils and feed the world using fewer chemicals are tackled in an essay in The Conversation, an online publication covering the latest research.

The essay, written by David R. Montgomery, has been reprinted in Scientific American (HERE).

Montogmery is a Professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he is a member of the Quaternary Research Center. Wikipedia

One of the biggest modern myths about agriculture he now confronts is that organic farming is inherently sustainable,

It can be, but it isn’t necessarily.

Montgomery then addresses other issues which he says must be recognised to restore degraded soils to feed the world using fewer agrochemicals.

He embarked on a six-month trip to visit farms around the world to research his forthcoming book, “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life.

The innovative farmers he met showed him that regenerative farming practices can restore the world’s agricultural soils.

In both the developed and developing worlds, these farmers rapidly rebuilt the fertility of their degraded soil, which then allowed them to maintain high yields using far less fertiliser and fewer pesticides.

Their experiences, and the results that I saw on their farms in North and South Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ghana and Costa Rica, offer compelling evidence that the key to sustaining highly productive agriculture lies in rebuilding healthy, fertile soil.

But the journey also led Montgomery to question three pillars of conventional wisdom about today’s industrialised agrochemical agriculture:

MYTH 1: LARGE-SCALE AGRICULTURE FEEDS THE WORLD TODAY

Not so. He cites a recent UN Food and Agriculture Organization (report which says family farms produce over three-quarters of the world’s food. The FAO also estimates that almost three-quarters of all farms worldwide are smaller than one hectare – about 2.5 acres, or the size of a typical city block.

Of course the world needs commercial agriculture, unless we all want to live on and work our own farms. But are large industrial farms really the best, let alone the only, way forward?

MYTH 2: LARGE FARMS ARE MORE EFFICIENT

While mechanisation can provide cost and labor efficiencies on large farms, bigger farms do not necessarily produce more food. Large farms excel at producing a lot of a particular crop – like corn or wheat – but small diversified farms produce more food and more kinds of food per hectare overall.

MYTH 3: CONVENTIONAL FARMING IS NECESSARY TO FEED THE WORLD

The most extensive yield comparison to date, a 2015 meta-analysis of 115 studies, found that organic production averaged almost 20 per cent less than conventionally grown crops, a finding similar to those of prior studies.

But the basis for claims that organic agriculture can’t feed the world depend as much on specific farming methods as on the type of farm.

Moreover about a quarter of all food produced worldwide is never eaten. Each year the United States alone throws out 133 billion pounds of food, more than enough to feed the nearly 50 million Americans who regularly face hunger.

So even taken at face value, the oft-cited yield gap between conventional and organic farming is smaller than the amount of food we routinely throw away.

In the upshot, Montgomery says he no longer sees debates about the future of agriculture as simply conventional versus organic.

He now sees adopting farming practices that build soil health as the key to a stable and resilient agriculture.

And the farmers he visited had cracked this code, adapting no-till methods, cover cropping and complex rotations to their particular soil, environmental and socioeconomic conditions.

Whether they were organic or still used some fertilizers and pesticides, the farms I visited that adopted this transformational suite of practices all reported harvests that consistently matched or exceeded those from neighboring conventional farms after a short transition period.

Another message was as simple as it was clear: Farmers who restored their soil used fewer inputs to produce higher yields, which translated into higher profits.

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