Is the Future of Organic Just About Short-term Environmental Benefits and the Pleasure of Eating, Or is It About a Regenerative, Resilient Food and Agriculture System for the Future?
by Frederick Kirschenmann, member of the NOSB, January 1995-2000
While the current, intense, debate regarding a soil-based organic agriculture, versus inclusion of practices like hydroponics in certified organic agriculture, has made some important points, I think it has largely failed to include a more fundamental issue that we need to address----namely what kind of agriculture will we need to meet our future challenges!
I think it is clear to all of us that the agriculture of the past century has been based largely on an intensive input system. Anthropologist, Ernest Schusky, (Culture and Agriculture: An Ecological Introduction to Traditional and Modern Farming systems, 1989, Bergin & Garvey Publishers) referred to this “era” of our food system as the “neo-caloric era,” because it is entirely based on “old calories”----in other words, on non-renewable inputs. Furthermore, since these inputs are non-renewable, and we are rapidly using them up, the “neo-caloric” era, Schusky argued, will of necessity be a “very short period of time” in the time-line of human history. In fact, as Ugo Bardi has pointed out in his well-researched analysis of the depletion of the non-renewable energy and mineral resources of the planet (Extracted: How The Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet, 2013, Chelsea Green Publishing) ----which is now a new Club of Rome Report----we are rapidly reaching a point that will require us to design an alternative way of living on the planet, a way that recycles our “wastes” and regenerates our resources. A concept that Sir Albert Howard called “the law of return.”
Michael Klare describes a similar scenario but warns that if we do not transition to a more regenerative system of agriculture we will likely end up in a series of “resource wars,” with each country attempting to lay claim to the few diminishing resources on which we will continue to be dependent. (The Race For What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources, 2012, Metropolitan Books).
This era of input intensive agriculture has its roots in the seminal work of Justus von Liebig, the brilliant German scientist who created the discipline of organic chemistry. He demonstrated that through that discipline we could develop chemical, synthetic inputs which would provide us with incredible, efficient resources, resources that could indeed enable us to become the “masters and possessors of nature,” as Rene Descartes earlier described our goal as humans. (1641)
Liebig was driven by the goal of “the law of the minimum”---in other words how could we obtain the maximum output for the minimum input? And in 1840 he applied that principle to agriculture in his game-changing work, Organic Chemistry in Its Application to Agriculture and Physiology. It was in that publication that he came up with the simple principle of applying NP&K to soil, which would dramatically increase production and serve as a substitute for the humus theory----the theory that plants needed decade soil organic matter supplied by various “manures.” The NPK approach, Liebig argued, would free us from the “laborious” practice of manuring our soils. NPK represented the application of “the law of the minimum” to agriculture, which quickly dominated the evolvement of modern agriculture.
Ironically, twenty-three years later, Justus von Liebig published another book in which he clearly contradicted his own concept, namely the concept that soil fertility could be sustained by simply adding NPK inputs. As David Montgomery points out in his new book, Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life, 2017, W.W. Norton & Company---Liebig, in this second book, “recommended returning organic matter to the fields to provide crops with a full complement of nutrients.”
I would argue that the difference between input-intensive agriculture and regenerative agriculture is the important context we need to consider as we make our decisions concerning the future of organic agriculture! The industrial, input-intensive, era of agriculture in which we convinced ourselves that we humans were in charge, that we could “control” nature, and that our “human cleverness” (Wes Jackson) could always find ways to successfully continue our control management of nature, is a deeply flawed and increasingly dysfunctional strategy.
Perhaps another resource that can help us to appreciate, and rethink, our relationship to nature, in the interest of our own future as humans, is Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker’s recent book, Journey of the Universe, 2011, Yale University Press. In this creative story of our evolution on the planet, in the context of the billions of years of evolution of the cosmos, they point out that when we analyze our role on planet earth in that context, we can no longer assume that we are “in control.” Consequently, we must now focus our attention on resources that are the most self-renewing and self-regulating, and with which we can cooperate and to which we can adapt, rather than continuing to assume that we are in charge and that we can “control” all our outcomes with our technologies.
From the perspective of an increasing number of scholars---and even a few farmers---that is where the role of soil in our future, emerges in a very compelling way.
In an effort to get beyond the “food fight” debates, some of my farmer friends are now framing this with an interesting new question: “however you are farming now, can you still do what you are doing once crude oil is $300 a barrel, phosphorous is $2500 a ton, we only have half the fresh water we are currently using, the water quality in our communities is no longer safe to drink, and we have twice the number of severe weather events?”
Perhaps that strikes us as a radical statement, but it is actually quite relevant to the ultimate results of our input-intensive, control-nature culture. Certainly, we can no longer ignore many of the unintended consequences that our input-intensive culture has created. Almost daily now we see reports of how the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone” is the largest it has ever been, and in many communities in the corn belt water in our water wells is no longer safe to drink, and in places like Des Moines, Iowa, it is collectively costing citizens over $7,000 a day to extract enough nitrates to make their local water safe to drink! And the increasing costs of inputs----due to the need to constantly develop new technologies to overcome nature’s evolutionary “resistance” to our existing technologies----is making it impossible for farmers to make any profits from their farming operations.
None of this scenario can be a “blame the farmer” issue---this is a future we all helped to create by our illusion that we were not a part of nature, but that we could be its “masters and possessors”!
On the good news side, there are now a growing number of farmers who are discovering that partnering with nature and adapting to “nature’s wisdom” (Wes Jackson) they can actually be much more profitable in the long term---and managing for “soil health” is inevitably a key equation of this emerging scenario.
The farmer examples which David Montgomery includes in his Growing a Revolution book serve as important examples that, I think, organic agriculture might pay attention to, especially if we are interested in keeping organic agriculture “sustainable” in our future world! Ironically, most of Montgomery’s examples are NOT certified organic farmers! Gabe Brown in North Dakota is but one example. Like the other examples in David’s book, Gabe has transitioned to a system of “conservation agriculture” that includes reduced tillage, cover crops and complex, diversified, regenerative farming practices. The essential result of these practices is dramatically improved soil health, which significantly reduces the need for any external inputs, and significantly reduces costs, increasing net profits.
In fact, Gabe now can produce corn for $1.41 a bushel in input costs---compared to roughly $4.00 a bushel in conventional synthetic, input-intensive, corn and soybean commodity operations. And the health of Gabe’s soil has now increased to a point where his soil absorbs 8 inches of rainwater an hour, compared to conventional absorption rates of ½ inch an hour. Furthermore, none of the farmers in Montgomery’s examples, are any longer interested in “getting bigger” since the regenerative, resilient nature of their mid-sized farms, managed in this “soil health” manner, is so successful that getting bigger is no longer an economic incentive.
There are, of course, other examples of such “agro-ecological” farming systems evolving around the world which are experiencing similar ecological and economic benefits from such “soil centered” practices. A good resource of such stories is Steve Brescia’s (editor) new collection of stories, Fertile Ground: Scaling Agroecology From the Ground Up. 2017, Food First.
These examples are ultimately grounded in additional research that David Montgomery and his wife, Anne Bikle discovered and published in an earlier book, The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health, 2016, W.W. Norton and Company. In this volume, they make a strong case for the beneficial connections between the microbes in soil and the microbes in our guts. Not only does their work help us to understand that soil is not “dirt’ but a dynamic living community of microbes---with more microbes in a tablespoon of soil than there are humans on the entire planet! And ignoring this living community and its benefits, as input-intensive agriculture often does, has simply put us on the wrong path. As David and Anne put it in a concluding paragraph of The Hidden Half of Nature: "So where does this evolutionary new perspective leave us? Put bluntly, many practices at the heart of modern agriculture and medicine---two arenas of applied science critical to human health and well-being---are simply on the wrong path. We need to learn how to work with, rather than against, the microbial communities that underpin the health of plants and people."
Such potential human health and soil health connections may lead us to an additional reason to consider soil health-based scenarios as the core of the future of organic agriculture. Two additional examples from health care professionals worth exploring are Dr. Daphne Miller, and Maya Shetreat-Klein, MD. Dr. Miller, a family medicine specialist in California, who teaches family medicine at the University of California, has published an intriguing book, Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing, 2013, William Morrow. She also published an interesting article in Yes Magazine, “The Surprising Healing Qualities . . . of Dirt.” Based on her own experience as a health care practitioner she has discovered that when she puts patients on whole food produced on healthy soil, it has significant health promoting results.
Similarly, Maya Shetreat-Klein, MD, who operates a children’s clinic in the Bronx in New York is seeing similar health promoting qualities, and she has also published a book based on her experience, The Dirt Cure: Growing Healthy Kids with Food Straight from Soil, 2016, Atria Books. Given that the costs of our current health care system have now reached almost 18% of GDP, it may be time to more fully explore the soil health and human health connections. And organic agriculture has a history grounded in proper soil management, going back to Sir Albert Howard, (An Agriculture Testament, 1943) which made the soil health connection essential to organic’s future, and he also published a second book on The Soil and Health in which he already assumed the soil health and human health connections back in 1947!
There are, of course, many other resources that describe these important soil health connections to agriculture, among them are David Dent (editor), Soil as World Heritage, 2014. Springer. This collection of essays demonstrate that, among other things, our modern, input intensive, agricultural practices, have caused such land degradation that we have now reached a time when we are reaching the point of “peak soil” resulting in water shortages and water quality problems, climate change and loss of biodiversity that makes any kind of practical sustainability impossible, and since all of the cheap inputs that “sustained” the green revolution are now in a state of depletion, and crop yields in some places even falling, we cannot realistically continue on the input-intensive path.
Of course, proponents of growing organic food hydroponically, argue that hydroponics is resource-efficient because it can use less water than growing food in soil---something that can be important under desert conditions, like the western United States, where most of the country’s hydroponic production is located. However, what that argument for resource efficiency overlooks is that such hydroponic production is the antithesis of a regenerative agriculture system because it requires all crop fertility needs to be imported into the production system, often from great distances. For example, many hydroponic producers use hydrolyzed soybean meal to feed their hydroponic crops. Such hydrolyzed soybean meal is usually produced thousands of miles away in the middle or eastern parts of the country and transported westward for the industrial hydroponic production in the desert.
In other words, hydroponic systems have no regenerative soil management practices, like the ecologically complex farming systems designed by Gabe Brown, which has demonstrated that soil fertility is increased without the addition of outside fertility inputs. It is largely a self-renewing system. Most of the agro-ecological examples featured in Fertile Ground are similarly self-renewing! Furthermore, hydroponic production systems are also highly dependent on plastic materials and the importation of peat or coconut materials for their artificial rooting substrate. As the costs of all these non-renewable inputs continue to spiral upward we need to question its “sustainability.”
Consequently, I would argue that the kind of regenerative, resilient agriculture which an agriculture grounded in soil management for soil self-renewal and self-regulation is essential to the future of organic agriculture, and is the reason that organic agriculture should not even consider transitioning to a system that was dependent on external inputs, as hydroponic agriculture is!
Born on a North Dakota farm during the Great Depression and in the grips of the worst drought in U.S. history, Fred Kirschenmann has spent most of his life working to change how we farm, as well as our relationship to the land.
For more than four decades, Fred has been a champion of agricultural resilience, an articulate advocate for soil health and a pioneer of organic farming.
Fred currently serves as President of the Board for Stone Barns Center For Food And Agriculture. A longtime national and international leader in sustainable agriculture, Fred is Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and a professor in the Department of Religion and Philosophy. He also continues to manage his family's 1,800-acre certified-organic farm in south-central North Dakota.
Fred holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Chicago. He has held numerous appointments, including the USDA's National Organic Standards Board and the National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, operated by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
He served on the NOSB from 1995 to 2000, including a year as NOSB Chair.
He is universally respected in the organic community.