It's Time to Put Our Soils First. Long-Term Global Food Production Depends on It.
The agricultural industry needs to prioritize soil health and limit dependence on synthetic chemicals.
Ask a member of the agricultural-chemical industry, and he or she will proudly tell you that without the invention of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, we would never have been able to successfully feed our rapidly growing planet. In fact, it's estimated that nitrogen fertilizer alone now supports approximately half of the global population.
Although synthetic inputs continue to be critically important tools for global food security, the long-term effects of using chemical inputs at our current rate is detrimental to soil health and our ability to sustain global food production.
A negative feedback loop
Soil and crop health are complex subjects; however, a basic understanding of the role that carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) play in the soil — along with some startling data points — outline the challenge before us.
Soil organic matter (SOM) contains the largest amount of C and N in all terrestrial ecosystems. In soil, most N is not immediately available and is bound within SOM as organic N. Microorganisms in the soil, which thrive off C and N, are the engine that break down bound nutrients for a plant to absorb.
The more N added through chemical fertilizer, the more C is needed for decomposition. If C is not adequately replaced after decomposition, it takes more N to get the same effect with lower C values each year. Without replenishing organic matter, it takes more N to get the same result in yield, with excess nitrogen getting leached away, fouling our groundwater and atmosphere.
Another negative effect of fertilizers and pesticides is the impact they have on microorganisms, decreasing activities of soil enzymes and bringing about undesirable changes in SOM and a toxic effect on microflora. This results in poor soil quality and the need for more chemicals.
How we became dependent
American agriculture has learned some hard lessons over the years.
The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, where unsustainable farming practices combined with severe weather events, stripped the top soil from over 100 million acres of farmland, leading to the largest migration of people in U.S. history.
However, the big wars of the first half of the 20th century brought about significant advances in synthetic chemicals. Pax Americana also brought about the largest population boom in human history, requiring more food to be produced, and chemical companies stepped in with synthetic nitrogen use increasing over five fold in a 50-year period starting in the 1960s.
To compound matters, in 1973, California regulated that the sale of pesticides occur only through a licensed Pest Control Adviser (PCA). Though created because of mounting public concern over the side effects of pesticides, the regulation resulted in a psuedo-monopoly of chemical companies not only being the ones that supplied the materials, but also the "expert consultants" for all of a farmer's soil, water and plant needs.
And while there are trustworthy PCAs that we have worked with, industry experts have started to call out the flaws in this system, noting there has "long been a gap between growers and consultants," and, "over time, farmers began to ask their PCAs for guidance on multiple subjects outside of pest control, such as fertilizers and irrigation." In response, the Certified Crop Adviser (CCA) program was created to cover those additional areas. However, today in California, PCAs outnumber CCAs at a ratio of greater than 10 to 1.
The result? To maintain yields, farmers are buying more fertilizers and pesticides, recommended from the companies that profit the most from their production. The market capitalization of agrochemicals worldwide in 2021 is estimated at $233.71 billion, with the top three companies representing two-thirds of the market.
This vicious cycle of chemical dependency ultimately stresses the balance sheets of farmers and degrades our soils.
Life beyond dependency
Although we need to reduce our romance with synthetic chemicals, cutting them out cold turkey would be ruinous. Instead, the answer lies in something that farmers know is intrinsically true: Take care of the soil, and the soil will take care of you.
There are three basic pillars of soil health (structural characteristics, chemical properties and biological activity), and all three have ways to be amended, often through organic and sustainable means.
Using cover crops and other regenerative farming practices can improve soil health and be a cost-effective alternative to chemicals.
Bulk, naturally occurring soil amendments can also solve many macro issues affecting a crop, thus drastically improving soil health. For example, applications of compost to replace SOM in a net positive way; gypsum to help soil structure, leach away sodium and chlorides, and add calcium; and adjusting the pH with lime or sulfur.
However, chemical companies do not sell these products, as their bulk nature makes margins slimmer and delivery a challenge over a vast supply chain. Even more tragically, because of their place as "knowledge consultants" for farmers, chemical companies will often recommend a synthetic product that costs as much as 10 times the equivalent of a naturally occurring amendment.
Another unintended consequence is that it is "easier" to simply hook up a highly concentrated chemical to the irrigation system than it is to move and apply natural amendments. Instead, hook the plants up to the irrigation IV system, and the chemical companies have the drug for you.
An overall paradigm shift of growers consulting agronomists, along with PCAs, is critical to improve soil health and feed our growing population.
Finally, pivoting toward balancing the N and C ratio with soil-first and regenerative practices will also have a huge benefit. Finding ways to encourage and incentivize farmers to sequester C in their soil could even put agriculture at the forefront as a solution provider to a changing climate.
We're not there yet, but we can get to a more sustainable way of farming if we shift our focus and make soil management as much of a priority as our spray-management programs.
Continue to overlook the importance of long-term soil health, and we have a much more challenging road ahead of us.
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