“Global soil degradation is one of the big environmental problems that we face that is not very well recognized,” and which is dramatically impacting food production, said David Montgomery, a professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington.
He explained that a 2015 UN report on the global state of the soil “had the shocking statistic that we are losing 0.3% of our agricultural production capacity at a planetary scale. … And 0.3% doesn’t sound like a really huge number, until you think about playing that over the next century because it implies we are on track with modern conventional agriculture to degrade a third of the world’s … production capacity for food over the course of the century we are living in now.”
He added that “this is at a time when the human population is projected to rise by about 50% and those trends are working against each other.”
Three solutions to improve soil fertility
While the problem is massive in both scale and impact, Montgomery found in the course of researching his recently published book “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” some farmers are rebuilding the fertility of their land through farming practices that are based on the philosophy of regenerative agriculture.
“I went to visit farmers who’d already restored degraded land into really productive land, and that I stood back and tried to look at what are the commonalities between these different examples around the world, and it boiled down to really three simple principles,” he said.
The first is minimizing soil disturbance, such as through the practice of no-till agriculture.
The second is planting cover crops to help reduce soil erosion and also return organic matter back to the land.
The third is growing a more diverse rotation of crops on the same land, he said, explaining, “Don’t keep growing corn, corn, corn or corn, soy, corn, soy. Diversify it up.”
These techniques not only improve soil organic matter but, Montgomery said, they also can boost crop yields with fewer inputs, creating a more profitable farm and more affordable food.
Support for regenerative agriculture
Montgomery’s research supports the emerging regenerative agriculture movement, which relies in part on roaming animals to fertilize and aerate the soil.
“Many of the farmers who I met and interviewed who had been conventional had adopted these regenerative methods to cut the plough, cover, and grow diversity plus or minus adding livestock … to their fields to manure them,” Montgomery said.
As a result, he added, “They had reduced their input use, their fertilizer use, their pesticide use, their diesel use, their herbicide use as a consequence of restoring health and fertility to their land. So, those things all sort of work together in ways that improve the bottom line for farmers.”
Montgomery also said he believes that consumers will actively buy more products from regenerative farmers as they become more familiar with the techniques thanks to certifications such as from the Rodale Institute or the Savory Institute.
“You will see greater consumer demand and it will be a real selling-point that the land is being treated well in the production process, and that we can have confidence that the food that is being grown is better for us as well,” he said, adding: “When you look at the underlying idea behind regenerative agriculture it is that healthy fertile soil leads to healthy nutrient dense crops and livestock, which leads to better health maintaining foods for people.”