Notes from Growing A Revolution: Bringing Our Soils Back to Life

p. 27 “By my reckoning, we’ve already experienced four major revolutions in agriculture, albeit at different times in different regions. The first was the initial idea of cultivation and the subsequent introduction of the plow and animal labor. This allowed sedentary villages to coalesce and grow into city-states and eventually sprawling empires. he second began … as farmers adopted soil husbandry to improve their land. Chiefly, this meant rotating crops, intercropping with legumes … and adding manure to retain or enhance soil fertility. in Europe, this helped fuel changes in land tenure that pushed peasants into cities… Agriculture’s third revolution – mechanization and industrialization – upended such practices and ushered in dependence on cheap fossil fuels and fertilizer-intensive methods. Chemical fertilizers replaced organic matter-rich soil as the foundation of fertility. Although this increased crop yields from already degraded fields, it took more money and more capital to farm… The fourth revolution saw the technological advances behind what came to be known as the Green Revolution and biotechnology breakthroughs that boosted yields and consolidated corporate control of the food system through proprietary seeds, agrochemical products, and commodity crop distribution – the foundation of conventional agriculture today…. A recent study coauthored by hundreds of scientists from around the world concluded that modern agricultural practices must change again if society is to avoid calamitous food shortages …Those at the vanguard invoke a variety of names — agroecology, conservation agriculture, regenerative agriculture and the Brown Revolution…. the common ground they share in placing soil health at the heart of their practices.”

p. 35 Myth 1: Industrialised Agrochemical Agriculture Feeds the World Today According to the UN Food and Agrculture Organization, family farms produce 80% of the world’s food and almost three-quarters (72%) or farms worldwide are smaller than one hectare.

Myth 2: Industrialized Agrochemical Agriculture Is More Efficient Most industries have economies of scale that lower production costs per unit output for larger-volume operations. But efficiency can also be viewed in terms of input use per unit of production. An authoritative 1989 National Research Council study concluded that ‘well-managed alternative farming systems nearly always use less synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilisers and antibiotics per unit of production than conventional farms.’.. Farms that grow a diversity of crops produce more food per hectare overall. “.. we burn ten calories of fuel to grow one edible calorie. Because of this, it has been said we are eating oil. But it would be more accurate to say we are eating natural gas. For industrial fertiliser production not only depends on the ready availability of cheap energy, it also consumes a lot of natural gas as feedstock… It is axiomatic that for any organism to be viable over the long run, it must get more energy from eating than it expends acquiring food. That modern societies don’t hold to this simple test of biotic viability should concern anyone with an interest in the future.”

p. 39 The GMO sidewhow “A 2016 report from the National Research Council Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops found that ‘nation-wide data on maize, cotton or soybeans in the United States do not show a significant signature of genetic engineering technology on the rate of yield increase”… overall pesticide use in the United States increased by about 7% as a result of adopting GM crops, according to a 2012 study”.

p. 46 “Roots are not simply straws. They are two-way streets through which carefully negotiated and orchestrated exchanges occur. Plants release into the soil a variety of carbon-rich molecules they make, and which can account for more than a third of their photosynthetic output. For the most part, these exudates consist of proteins and carbohydrates (sugars) that provide an attractive food source for soil microbes. In this manner, plant roots feed the fungi and bacteria that pull nutrients from the soil – from the crystalline structure of rock fragments and organic matter. .. with the help of soil-dwelling bacteria certain mycorrihizal fungi use their thread-thin root-like hyphae to seek out and scavenge particularly biologically valuable elements, like phosphorus, from rocks or decaying organic matter.”

p. 47 “rhizosphere-dwelling bacteria are most effective at promoting plant growth once a critical microbial density is reached, triggering a process known as quorum sensing. When enough individual bacteria of the right kind are present, they coordinate the release of compounds that aid in promoting plant growth. But if the population of soil microbes drops too low, they turn off the tap. … where are the most bacteria-eating protists and nematodes? Around the roots, where the bacteria are. .. after sacrophytic fungi and bacteria consume organic matter, they become enriched with nutrients. Predatory arthropods, nematodes and protozoa feast on them, then release those nutrients bac into the soil in plat-available forms. … rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and micronutrients, it makes excellent micromanure.”

p. 49 “even when standard soil chemistry tests say you need to add fertilizers, the right soil life – if present and abundant – may be able to supply what plants need. Growing evidence shows that synthetic fertilizers work like agricultural steroids, propping up short-term crop yields at the expense of long-term fertility and soil health.”

p. 57 Since colonial times, the average amount of soil carbon held in North American agricultural oils dropped from around 6% to below 3% .. by 1980 roughly a third of the carbon humanity had already added to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution came from plowing up the world’s soils, primarily in the Great Plains, Eastern Europe and China. Overapplication and overreliance on nitrogen fertilizers accelerated the loss of soil organic matter…. [which] feeds the microbial life that helps make and keep soils fertile”.

p. 81 Lal had worked on soil problems in 14 countries on four continents … his experiments all pointed to the value of ground cover and mulch for preventing destructive erosion and for keeping soils fertile… funders and aid agencies wanted breakthroughs and rapid revolutions, not gradual improvements of the soil. Commercial interests pushed to develop solutions that could be commodified: they wanted agrochemical products, not practices that anyone could adopt for free. No modern, forward-looking foundation or agency wanted to hear about mulching and growing a diversity of crops. Such simple answers did not – and still don’t – fit the technophilic narrative of progress.”

p. 83 “Globally conservation agriculture was practices on less than 3 million hectares in the early 1970s. By the early 1980s, it had more than doubled … and by 2003 it increased another twelvefold to 72 million hectares. By 2013, it had doubled again, to 157 million hecatres. And yet, despite the rapid pace of adoption, only about 11% of  global cropland is under conservation agriculture .. about 3/4 in the Americas… just a few percent of cropland in Europe, Asia and Africa.

p. 87 On the Great Plains undisturbed prairie … secret to productivity lay in a mix of warm- and cool-season grasses, legumes and members of the sunflower family.”

p. 105 “Consider the case of the western bean cutworm and corn earworm. A mother earworm feeds on pollen and lays her eggs on an ear of corn. Only one of her darling cannibalistic babies survives – the one that eats all of the others. When Pioneer, a subsidiary of DuPont, developed Bt corn that killed the corn earworm.. it created a golden opportunity for the western bean cutworm. [previously eaten by the earworms] .. the new technology to control one pest created a new, even more problematic one.”

p. 147 “Consider a direct side-by-side comparison of organic corn grown under a conventional plow-based system and his no-till system. In a field previously planted with hairy vetch, growing no-till corn took a total of just two passes of diesel-fed machinery: one to simultaneously roller-crimp the cover crop and plant the corn, and another at harvest time.. conventionally without a cover crop involved multiple lasses across the field to plow, disk, pack, plant, rotary-hoes, cultivate and finally harvest. The conventional plot produced 143 bushels per acre, the no-till 160.

p. 149 “The Rochdale Institute’s Farm Systems Trial is America’s longest-running side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional farming…in addition to measuring crop yields, the standard measure of agronomic success, the study also tracked economic returns, energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and soil health. The organic systems consistently performed better by all measures, except for yield, which was comparable after an initial several-year period of lower corn yields in the organic plots. Averaged over the full duration of the trial, including the transition years wen organic plots went ‘cold turkey’ off chemicals, there were no statistical difference between organic and conventional yields…. but there was no initial loss in yield on the plots where the rotation started with soybeans.”

p. 159 glomalin … a protein that mycorrhizal fungi make in the walls of their hyphae and exude out into the soil … hyphae need it to work properly. .. it seems to ‘weather seal’ the porous walls of fungal hyphae, which are otherwise like pipes full of holes. The glomalin acts like a polymer coating, sealing leaks where necessary. This allows hyphe to transport material over long distances in the soil across pressure changes in pockets of air and water. Glomalin also helps aggregate the soil. It’s sticky, glue-like qualities bind small particles together. And its wax-like property that seals up hyphae makes some soil pores impermeable to water, but not to air.. stablises the passages through which water moves and can be stored… the physical structure of fertile soil depends on its biology. This is what conventional agroncomists missed.”

One comment

  • Chika Nwosu
    October 8, 2017 - 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Very very insightful.
    Thank you.

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