Solving Soil Loss is Simple, But Requires a Mindset Change

Natural farming, permaculture, regenerative agriculture, agroecology – there are many versions of sustainable agriculture, but the common thread they all tackle is the need to take better care of our soil and the environments in which we grow food. Why is this the least bit important to you?

By accounts of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, we have less than 60 years of farming left if we continue our modern chemical-industrial based farming processes.

“This is what topples civilisations” wrote Geroge Monbiot recently in an article for The Guardian. “War and pestilence might kill large numbers of people, but in most cases the population recovers. But lose the soil and everything goes with it. Now, globalisation ensures that this disaster is reproduced everywhere.”

Abandoned tractor in California's Central Valley (photo: P.M. Lydon, Final Straw)

Abandoned tractor in California’s Central Valley (photo: Patrick M. Lydon / Final Straw)

Monbiot is referring to the process by which we ignore the health of the soil in order to grow food easily, cheaply, and on large scale. To achieve these things, the modern farming process – which uses deep tilling (digging up) of the soil along with huge amounts of oil and mined minerals to produce crops – is both killing the soil and stripping it from the surface of this earth.

A Japanese natural farmer named Yoshikazu Kawaguchi recently explained to us during the filming of the Final Straw documentary “When you till the soil, you create a world of death.”

Kawaguchi’s statement is a rather intense way of explaining that the delicate world of life in the soil of a farm needs to be well taken care of, because this soil life plays a huge role in ensuring that the soil can produce crops — without the need for external fertilizers or synthetic chemicals.

Yet modern agriculture treats the soil’s most critical lifeforms as ‘pests’ to be destroyed, rendering the soil itself as a nothing more than a non-living material meant to hold roots in place so they can be fed with petrolium-based fertilizers. Such a mentality has seen our society, without question, lay waste to the soil, to the environment in, around, and downstream from that soil, and ultimately to the earth’s ability to provide food for humanity in the long term.

The positive note that needs to be made here, and one which curiously absent from conversations about health, food, and ecology these days — with Charles Eisenstein and Michael Pollan as a few shining exceptions — is that around the world, small scale farmers have been putting into practice the kinds of regenerative farming that can both reverse ecological destruction, and feed the world. And they have a track record that far pre-dates industrial agriculture, if you know where to look.

Yoshikazu Kawaguchi at his Akame Farm School in Japan (photo: Patrick M. Lydon | Final Straw)

Yoshikazu Kawaguchi at his Akame Farm School in Japan (photo: Patrick M. Lydon | Final Straw)

My partner Suhee Kang and I looked directly to the source, spending the past four years with natural farmers dotting the globe, but most especially in Japan where the natural farming movement took root in the late 1940’s with revolutionary farmers such as Masanobu Fukuoka and Mokichi Okada. The surprise for us — and for viewers of our upcoming documentary Final Straw: Food, Earth, Happiness — was in finding an abundance of practical farmers today who are proving that sustainable food production does not require chemicals, does not require heavy machinery, nor plowing, pesticides, inorganic fertilizers, GMO seeds, hormones, antibiotics, cages, or really anything from outside the area where the farm itself is.

Many are indeed surprised to learn that we don’t need industrial agriculture to feed the world. Yet what we do need, might also seem like a tall order.

What we do need is a fundamental, foundation-level change in how we interact with the world in which we live, and a change in how we achieve that most basic human need for nourishment.

Everything modern science — and common sense — tells us points to the fact that what the giant chemical, food, oil, and seed monopolies are fighting for is an impossibility. “Short-term growth at the expense of public protection compromises long-term survival” says Monbiot.

There’s little room to improve on such a concise statement of our current state of affairs, a state which extends far beyond agriculture. Most economists, ecologists, farmers, and generally anyone and everyone who has put their mind to our ecological issues – whether its food or anything else – has come to some form of agreement that we’ve become far too obsessed with ‘growth’ at a rate which is impossible to maintain in any socially or ecologically viable way.

Yet, not only do we have solutions in hand, we’ve have had them all along, mostly by way of our world’s indigenous cultures and their keen awareness of and connection to the environment that goes far beyond even our natural farming heroes from 1940’s Japan.

In our modern world we’ve mostly written off such small-scale practices. In the last few decades however, a slow building renaissance in the public presence of regenerative agriculture — which builds healthier environments while producing food — has spread in concept and execution to communities around the world.

Rice harvest instruction at 최성현 Seonghyun Choi's natural farm in South Korea (photo: Patrick M. Lydon | Final Straw)

Rice harvest instruction at 최성현 Seonghyun Choi’s natural farm in South Korea (photo: Patrick M. Lydon | Final Straw)

This solution will take hard work, it will take a fundamental change in mindset, and it will take determination of individuals and communities, but it is both necessary and possible.

The benefits, too, are overwhelming…

If the world switched to regenerative agriculture tomorrow, we could:

It sounds like a lot to be accomplished with such a simple change, yet it’s not just a change in our buying habits, or production habits, it’s a fundamental, foundation-level change in how we interact with the world in which we live, and a change in how we achieve that most basic human need for nourishment.

For the sake of our own survival as a species, we can and must shed our most destructive agricultural practices, and we have the alternative already in place. This alternative is centered around small-scale, local, and human-powered operations; which, agriculturally speaking, translates to natural farming, permaculture, regenerative agriculture, and agroecology, and these are the places where we can start today, to build truly equitable and resilient communities for the future.

Patrick M. Lydon
Co-Director, FinalStraw.org

References:

[1] – http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil-degradation-continues/
[2] – http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/25/treating-soil-like-dirt-fatal-mistake-human-life
[3] – http://www.finalstraw.org/
[4] – http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-09-03/permaculture-and-the-myth-of-scarcity
[5] – http://rodaleinstitute.org/reversing-climate-change-achievable-by-farming-organically/
[6] – http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/2247895/low_input_farming_diversity_is_the_key.html
[7] – http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/events/reith_2000/lecture5.stm

4 Comments on “Solving Soil Loss is Simple, But Requires a Mindset Change

  1. And how do you propose that small-scale farmers make a living? For example, how did Fukuoka make a living? How much did he get in subsidies? How much did his free labor (from interns and acolytes) contribute to his income? How much did he pay for his land? How much capital did he have to start with? How much did local markets (which are far different from those in the US) contribute to his ability to sell his products. How much did he rely on fossil fuels for his transport? Where there low-cost public transport infrastructures in place to help him get his products to market.

    Get my drift? You have just written another vapid piece that does not actually address the problem as it exists.

    • THANK YOU for bringing up these points, Walter, and while I can’t speak for Fukuoka (he passed away years ago and I did not know him) let me take the time to respond to each one in terms of how these farms, in general (in USA, JAPAN, KOREA, etc…) get along, as well as where there are issue in the current system.

      HOW DID FUKUOKA MAKE A LIVING?
      These farmers, generally make a living through “Community Supported Agriculture” or CSA, where locals who live close to the farm sign up for a box of food each week. With around 30 families, a farmer can make a decent living. Fukuoka himself, made most of his income from an orchard.

      HOW MUCH DID HE GET IN SUBSIDIES?
      None. None at all. And none of the farmers we’ve seen who farm this way take or accept subsidies from government. Interestingly, almost all industrial farms are subsidized.

      HOW MUCH DID HIS FREE LABOR CONTRIBUTE TO HIS INCOME?
      Many of the farms are simply family farms. Many are husband and wife teams with no ‘free labor’ as you speak of. Certainly, Fukuoka and some other farms are a community effort, but it is done in the spirit of giving and sharing labor, and all of those involved happily partake. If you haven’t personally worked on a natural farm, it is impossible to know what this means, so I do invite you to give it a try.

      HOW MUCH DID HE PAY FOR HIS LAND?
      Fukuoka farmed on his family land. Others aren’t so lucky, right? Yet communities throughout the world (not only Japan, but also USA) are beginning to see the importance of local harvests, and the rules are changing. California recently enacted a law that nearly eliminates property tax for urban farmers, making it very possible to run a profitable farm on a small piece of urban land. Ask yourself, why is it financially impossible to start and run a small farm near a city? The answer is that we’ve places economic priorities incorrectly, and these priorities are now changing through local and regional lawmakers.

      HOW MUCH CAPITAL DID HE HAVE TO START WITH?
      Of the type of farming possible, natural farming requires the least capital. Little equipment, no chemicals or fertilizers. Seed is mostly free or very low cost.

      HOW MUCH DID LOCAL MARKETS (DIFFERENT FROM US) CONTRIBUTE TO HIS ABILITY TO SELL HIS PRODUCTS?
      Again, many local farmers rely on CSA, as noted above. It’s a local system of distributing food which utilizes farmers markets and the existing postal system to distribute food locally. Heck, some farms in urban areas even DISTRIBUTE BY BIKE! Amazing, no fossil fuel! Right? Is it perfect? Well no. But like any ‘new’ concept, this will only improve as we gain more small farmers.

      HOW MUCH DID HE RELY ON FOSSIL FUELS?
      See above, re local customers and bike transport. Not perfect, but certainly getting better. A question you might ask, is how much fossil fuel does a conventional farm use to produce food? The modern farm is based on fossil fuel inputs, from fertilizers to petro-chemical pesticides, etc… none of which are necessary on a natural farm.

      WHERE ARE THE LOW-COST PUBLIC TRANSPORT INFRASTRUCTURES IN PLACE TO HELP HIM GET HIS PRODUCTS TO MAKET?
      The kind of network you are talking about will become more viable as more small local farms come into being, and in reality, it is completely possible, especially in urban areas (again, see above) to provide delivery of food without fossil fuel. NYC at a time when it had a population of one million people, met all its food needs from within seven miles. As local farms grow in number (which they are) this will become easier.

      Now, take your questions, and these answers, and measure it against our current system and our current way of doing things. Think about this Walter. Think really deeply about the situation we are in as human beings.

      The current system leads to a dead end very quickly, 60 years if the United Nations estimates are correct. Think about that, and then think about the option laid out in this article. Can you honestly say that it is best to discount what Fukuoka did, and what other natural farmers are currently doing?

      Can you honestly tell youself that we should continue to produce food in a way that is so abominably destructive to our ecosystem, and to discount the most ecological way of producing food we’ve ever known.

      Can you call ecological actions vapid, because they don’t meet your economic centered world view?

      I understand, these are tough questions to ask oneself, Walter. But I do hope you can look more deeply with me into the issue! We need people like you who are passionate to put on a positive mindset, to investigate, and to find the solutions.

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