Since the introduction of industrialized farming methods, the percentage of fertile soil has dramatically decreased. While the amount of cultivated land globally has increased, it’s lost nearly 70% of it’s original carbon stock and only 3% of American Tall Prairie Grass remain. What does this all mean?
Let’s take a step back. There are a few reasons why soil fertility has been decreasing. Soil is a host to basic, macro, and micro nutrients that help support plants with necessary nutrients as well as the microbial life found there. Over time, those nutrients are used up by plants as food and at times washed away due to erosion.
At the rate we are farming and cultivating soil today, natural cycles cannot keep up with replenishing the soil with those necessary nutrients. What conventional farming methods propose is to add synthetic chemicals and fertilizers to the soil to account for the lack of nutrients, mainly in the forms of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. In turn, this has created some problems. When a foreign agent is introduced in large amounts into nature it creates disequilibrium. Over time, this creates a downward spiral effect and a feedback mechanism. Farmers cultivate more land to grow food. That soil is then fed fertilizers and chemicals in order to continually grow food at the rate in which we need. Each sequential harvest requires more fertilizers due to chemicals stripping the soil of it’s nutrients and rendering it sterile. When the microbial life is absent, the soil loses it’s ability to retain moisture, nutrients, and most importantly, carbon.
There is another feedback mechanism at play. With these practices, it is not possible to feed and supply the global population with food. Poor soil fertility decreases yields and available land to cultivate crops. The increasing population rate coupled with disappearing topsoil plus the added pressure put on conventional farmers to use these methods results in more and more soil turning sterile and more CO2 being released into the atmosphere.
With these practices, soil has lost up to 70% of it’s stored carbon stock (the carbon stored in soil through plant roots) which turns into atmospheric carbon. What scientists and researchers have found is the practice of regenerative soil can transform soil to being much more productive for plants, become more resilient against droughts and floods, and limit the amount of CO2 that’s in the atmosphere. Instead of using chemicals and fertilizers, planting cover crops such as alfalfa or clover in between seasons can dramatically improve soil fertility and store more carbon under the ground. It also improves moisture content in the soil which defends crops during times of extreme weather while cutting down on the water bill.
Most importantly, practicing regenerative soil techniques help regain equilibrium in nature again. Far too long have we approached issues or opportunties at singular points, failing to step back and observe the entire system as a whole. Nature is an entity that has perfected it’s cycles and systems for billions of years. Count on humans to barge in within the last 100 and tell it how to conduct business. Learning to work with nature to harness it’s power instead of introducing an over-simplified and instant-gratified ‘solution’ is the only path forward.
Sustainable on Netflix does an excellent job at showcasing the struggles of traditional family farms who’ve grown up in the industrialized farming system and advocates a sustainable, responsible course ahead. Marty Travis, who is a seventh-generation family farmer, lays out real world solutions both people and industry can achieve, despite the enormity of this challenge.