"FOOD FOR LIFE"*
Worldwide agribusiness is depleting our soils, contaminating our water, and, despite huge inputs of fertilizers and pesticides, yields are stagnating and sometimes unexpectedly plunging. Vast amounts of grain are used for intensive cattle feeding. Confinement of animals results in disease and the widespread use of antibiotics, which are becoming ineffective for both the animals and for sick people, who need them.
In Natural Capitalism the authors describe vividly these deleterious effects of modern agriculture and the so-called "green revolution," which has vastly decreased biodiversity and replaced it with a few hybrid crops that require artificial inputs of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. These production policies create vast amounts of toxic waste.
Fortunately, abundant food can be grown while enriching the soil and creating no waste whatsoever. First, we need to understand the wonderful and mysterious organisms that grow in healthy soil. They are almost unbelievably diverse and numerous. Four thousand distinct genomes have been discovered in a gram of soil. "We can no more manufacture a soil with a tank of chemicals than we can invent a rain forest or produce a single bird." To continue our existence on this planet, we need what the authors call "natural capital." They speak of soil as "the ultimate natural capital (the Chinese call it the mother of all things.)"
Worldwide soil loss is occurring, especially the loss of humus with its wonderful biodiversity and amazing capacity for retaining water compared to the mineral content of soil. The living microflora in the humus naturally contain large amounts of carbon. Under modern monoculture with its mechanization, most of the living organisms die and release their carbon into the atmosphere, thus exacerbating global climate change. In the United States and Germany conversions to organic practices have "demonstrated that after a few years reequilibration, these carbon losses can actually be reversed—protecting the earth’s climate and the farmer’s soil simultaneously. . . . Worldwide the potential is far greater. . . . Increasing degraded soil's carbon content at plausible rates could absorb about as much carbon as all human activity emits."
Many examples of excellent practices are given. In Kansas perennial prairie grasses have been grown. They are more productive than the usual annual crops, need no irrigation because they have very deep roots, and are not killed by violent hail storms.
"In Asia there is a rich tradition for combining many kinds of food production—vegetables, fish, rice, pigs, ducks, et cetera. . . . A recent Bangladeshi adaptation stopped applying pesticides to rice in order to grow fish in the wet paddy fields—whereupon the fish flourished and the rice yields increased by one-fourth, because without interference, both crops could benefit each other."
*Chapter 10 in Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory and L. Hunter Lovins (Little Brown and Company, 1999).
Article from NOHA NEWS, Vol. XXV, No. 2, Spring 2000, page 5.