Just Rub Some Dirt On It: Sowing Seeds in the Desert – Psychology Today


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(Continued from
Just Rub Some Dirt On It, Part II

Unsurprisingly, the plants we grow for food are as dependent on healthy soil, with its network of fungi and bacteria, as we are on our own healthy gut microbiome. In the wry Balance of Nature, it seems that the well-being of the most complex creations of both the Animal and Plant Kingdoms hinge upon the smallest and what is often regarded as the simplest life forms on the planet. As the Law of Unintended Consequences is ever in effect when we upset that delicate equilibrium, there is a cost to the ‘McDonaldization’ of Agriculture.

Source: Copyright Red Tail Productions, LLC

Modern agriculture, which has grown into the global agribusiness of today, did not exist prior to World War II. After the end of World War II, companies that had been contracted to produce huge amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus for munitions to serve the war effort needed to get rid of the leftovers. It turns out that when you dump them on the soil, plants grow more quickly. And thus the creation of artificial fertilization was born.

Because artificial fertilizers encouraged indiscriminate growth, that meant that farmers were confronted with weeds that could grow faster and choke out cash crops. In an effort to combat the side effects of artificial fertilization, chemical herbicides and pesticides were developed. With the breakthroughs in science and genetics, GMO (genetically modified organisms) plants were developed to be resistant to applied herbicides like glyphosate, or as it is more commonly known, Roundup.

The original concept and approval were based on the hypothesis that Roundup only affected plants by targeting their unique shikimate pathway. The idea was that the end result would kill off just the weeds, leaving only an abundant cash crop to be harvested. The latest GMO plants being cultivated around the globe are resistant not only to a single pesticide like Roundup but have been engineered to be resistant to several different pesticides at once so that the fields can be treated with multiple agents.

That is necessary, because as Dr. Ian Malcolm had warned us long ago in 1993 (
Jurassic Park
), “Life, uh, finds a way.” There are currently over 15 different weed species, present in every state in America, that are resistant to Roundup. It is estimated that the “Total acres of row crop agriculture that have been infested with glyphosate-resistant weeds include about 90 to 95 million acres and more than 50 percent of the 82 to 83 million soybean acres, in the U.S. We are up to 16 glyphosate-resistant weeds in soybeans,” according to Jason Norsworthy, Professor and Endowed Chair of Weed Science at the University of Arkansas.

He concludes, much like the fictional professor that, “Resistant weeds are smart and can evolve, so we’ll never spray our way out of this problem.” And to add to the problem, it turns out that herbicides like Roundup affect microorganisms and fungi. The cumulative effect of intensive mono-crop agriculture with the industrial use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides is to destroy the living network of the soil. The soil becomes a barren desert in which the only way to grow anything is to inject it with ever-increasing amounts of artificial fertilizer and keep the weeds at bay with ever-increasing amounts and types of pesticides. When we understand this basic truth of how our food is grown, we can understand that, of course, it affects the character and quality, the taste and texture, the very nutritional composition of what we eat.

But how do we sow seeds in the desert?

We have been told for many years that such industrial agricultural practices and extensive mono-crop methods are the only way to obtain the yields necessary to feed the world.

But what if that wasn’t necessarily true?

Current practices and current conventional wisdom, according to Fabio Sakamoto who along with Pedro Diniz runs
Rizoma Agro
in Brazil, is being funded by large multinational industrial concerns like Monsanto. Sakamoto observes that in many areas around the world; the advice, the technology, and perhaps most importantly, the financing for the average farmer is provided by these companies.

Rizoma Agro
is a product of
Fazenda da Toca,
the family farm of Diniz that has become a model for large-scale sustainable agriculture and the largest organic egg producer in Brazil. In such a model there are many interconnected parts. Citrus and grain are grown using regenerative farming that includes no till methods. These areas provide places for chickens and cattle to feed and graze. The natural droppings and manure in turn provide fertilizer. It becomes a self-sufficient concern.

In terms of sustainability and net climate effects, it was reported by Imaflora, a Brazilian think-tank dedicated to environmental research, that from 2018–2019
citrus agroforestry systems can offset up to 50 tons of carbon per hectare and
organic grains offset up to 8 tons of carbon per hectare. The soil of the corn and soy crops is sequestering 1.9 tons of carbon per hectare per year. In contrast, worldwide conventional farming produces an average carbon balance from corn and soy crops of 6.2 tons of carbon
per hectare per year. In summary, farming in this method allows the soil to offset (versus producing net carbon emissions) a total 8.1 tons of carbon per hectare annually. If such practices were adopted globally, the estimate is that they would offset
percent of the CO
produced by humans in one year.

And while all this is lovely, compelling, and brings the warm fuzzies to the surface; it returns us to the fundamental question of whether we can feed the world utilizing these methods, and if so, can we do it economically? In the US, farmers like Kelly and DeAnna Lozensky of Guardian Grains located in central North Dakota, are answering those questions.

The regenerative farming approach that Kelly and DeAnna practice is not some New Age throwback to the paleolithic. They use the latest technology and resources with the understanding that the soil, the earth, is the basic building block for healthy plants. It was in fact, by paying attention to the results of technical soil assessment that they began to see the benefits. Kelly explains:

Our soils tests were calling for various degrees of fertility based on soil type. We were also trying to manage input expenses by applying only what each soil was “needing”. Some of our soil types called for no Nitrogen on ground with +4 percent organic matter (OM). This began a shift in our mindset where we began to consider a “more is less” approach when it came to synthetic fertilizer applications.

We observed that the soil types that didn’t receive fertilizers, actually had less disease and pest issues. We were very surprised by this and began to consider what was going on under our feet was way more complex than we had known. We began to ask questions: Why are our plants more resistant on soils with no synthetic amendments? Could our other soil types be capable of this same resilience? The answer was yes, but it took us five years to wean the “junk”. Our soils were addicted, and we slowly took away the “drugs” until we were completely free of synthetic fertilizer in spring of 2019.

Such a transition is a critical time. Organic practices and the inclusion of regenerative techniques such as “no till,” mean less addition, but more attention, to the soil. Abandonment doesn’t work. However, after a period of recovery and rehabilitation, Mother Nature is ready and willing to do the work with proper guidance. According to recent studies of organically produced fruits and vegetables, a single serving of organics may pack the nutritional punch of two servings of conventionally produced offerings. This has implications beyond superior taste and texture profiles in terms of the average person having access to adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables at reasonable prices.

Many organically produced fruits, vegetables, and grains currently cost more than their conventionally produced counterparts. Fabio Sakamoto acknowledges that their grains currently cost approximately 20 percent more to produce than their industrial counterparts. However, while that is currently competitive, he adds that by using the regenerative approach he expects this to rapidly drop. Their forecast is that by using regenerative farming techniques in the future vegetables, grains, and fruits will cost less to produce than it currently does using industrial mono-crop methods. Current conventional technologies demonstrate plateau yields and the ever-increasing usage of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that increase production costs and shrink profit margins.

The Lozenskys have also seen comparable yields emerge through their efforts with regenerative farming. DeAnna recounts that:

Honestly, when we began our journey to soil health, yield concerns took a back seat. That being said, we fully believed that if we took care of the soil the yields would follow, and they have. We have seen our soils produce average to above average yields without the use of soil amendments. The difference on our return? Huge. First, there is no price you can put on knowing what we are doing not only heals our soils but human health. Another benefit is that we no longer are held back in our decisions based on the cost of inputs. So our margins are much broader than they were when we were spending countless hours treating sick plants.

Fabio Sakamoto believes that the widescale adoption of regenerative farming techniques requires “selling the science, not the ideology.” And the science to date suggests a sustainable farming method that works successfully by working in concert with Nature. Diniz declares that:

We now have research to back up our results. There is … a 30-year trial of comparisons between conventional and organic agriculture, concluding that yields can be similar or better. That goes to show what we’ve been seeing on a large-scale now. So, yes, we can feed the world with regenerative organic agriculture, while also having all of its fantastic impacts….We learned that it doesn’t make any sense to fight nature by trying to dominate it. On this journey, it became apparent for me that if we can team up with nature and cooperate with it, the results are much better.”

The Lozenskys add:

It doesn’t cost more to produce regenerative grains, but the RISK during transition is very high. Not all regenerative grains will be grown equally. We are hoping that Guardian Grains will set the standard. No Tillage, No synthetic fertilizer, no pesticide, no fungicide and no pre-harvest desiccant. So initially, price will be of course be based on supply and demand. This will hopefully entice more farmers to convert their growing practices if they see there’s a premium in the market. Once regenerative grown grains are more widely available, the price for consumers would definitely come down. I will note that the end goal is to have grains grown using a natural approach become the standard and won’t need to draw a premium price.

The Japanese visionary, Masanobu Fukuoka, documented his innovative return to a balance, cooperation with Nature, over a half-century ago in his seminal work,
One Straw Farming
. When he began his journey nearly a century ago, he wrote upon a simple scroll:

Wishing to cultivate the earth,

I cultivate understanding.

Or as my mother put it; "Just rub some dirt on it."

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