This is The ChangeUnderground for the week ending 22nd of February 2021.
I’m your host, Jon Moore
Decarbonise the Air, Recarbonise the Soil!
More than a third of farmland in the U.S. Corn Belt — nearly 100 million acres — has completely lost its carbon-rich topsoil due to erosion, according to a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The loss of topsoil has reduced corn and soybean yields in the Midwest by 6 percent, resulting in a loss of nearly $3 billion a year for farmers, and increased runoff of sediment and nutrients into nearby waterways, worsening water quality.
Let that sink in for a moment.
A third of the US corn belt has lost its topsoil. 100,000,000 acres which is, coincidentally the same number of acres affected by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. [Link in the show notes.] The causes of which were extensive ploughing, rapid mechanisation and droughts. The current situation can be likened to the 1930s but with the added layer of broadscale hydroponics, in effect.
With the development of artificial fertilisers, the need for healthy soil to feed the crops diminished in importance. Once useful crops for concentrating nutrients, like buckwheat, fell from favour. It became possible in the US corn belt to grow two crops, corn and soybean. Given that these are the easiest to obtain crop insurance for and the increasing levels of debt and hence the insertion of bankers into agriculture, reduced the tolerance of risk.
We ended up with the current situation I recently heard described thusly: People are planting $800,000 and hoping to harvest $850,000. Throw in a drought or storm or flood which are occurring more often as the effects of global warming start to bite and the need for crop insurance becomes critical for the survival of individual farming enterprises.
Specialisation, the key to Henry Ford’s system of production works well enough for widgets, it is far more problematic in biological systems. So cropping became a specialisation, then corn/soybean took that notion to its logical conclusion. No room for animals in that system. Even with no-till, the lack of animals, who co-evolved with plants to increase soil biological activity, leads, eventually to soil losses. Cover cropping as we have discussed, ameliorates this and recreates, to a degree, the natural systems agriculture replaced but those systems create about 2.5cm or an inch of soil every century. The greatest benefit of cover cropping is the anti-erosional effects. The extra biological activity from adding these to the soil profile takes much more time than feeding the cover crops to ruminants in particular.
A part way through the argument summary might be useful here.
Mixed farming, rotational grazing, cropping and cover crops helped to maintain the health of the soil. The incentives introduced in various farm bills and other subsidy systems over time drove, through perverse price signals, agriculture into over specialisation. Leading to corn/soybean specialisation and stock, cattle in particular being confined in feedlots and corn shipped to the cattle.
Traditional corn growing leaves a lot of soil bare for a lot of the year, the soil, thereby becoming exposed to wind and water erosion. As the soil health declined, the nutrients required for crop production have been increasingly supplied by artificial fertilisers accelerating the death of soil life. This, driven by the increasing costs of production, subsidy systems, the increasing impact of debt and an obsession with yield numbers over profitability has destroyed 100,000,000 acres of the US corn belt by the removal and loss of topsoil.
And don’t be too smug if you live outside the US. Australia gets its dust storm events where Melbourne in particular is covered in topsoil every few years. The EU spotted the problem with corn and its tendency to level soil exposed for much of its life cycle but the answer has been to have fields covered in plastic with holes burnt into it for the corn to grow through. Even if the plastic is biodegradable its effect is to suffocate soil life, overheating the soil and then creating a post harvest plastic mountain. Strip tilling into clovers, no-till applications and so on alleviate these problems but only on a biologically sensitive enterprise.
Most of the corn grown in the US is GMO and this leads to applications of glyphosate into the soil, exposing both farmers and soil biota to bizarre side effects and, of course, the evolution of glyphosate resistant weed species that can only be dealt with by…. Cultivating the soil.
Can this be reversed?
Of course it can! It will take time and a paradigm shift.
Paradigms shifts happen or rather appear to happen quickly. A long slow build up of little changes leads to a tipping point. And all of sudden things are different.
Think about IT. I can remember my father, who was a programmer, that’s coder for the younger listeners out there, bringing home a small suitcase. The lid opened to reveal two rubber cups. Into these the handset of rotary dialing phone was inserted and a number dialed. It was one of the first modems. It connected to a printer and lines of programming could be printed off and read for errors. This was about 1972. Now I write this script at the kitchen table, send the audio file out to the other side of the planet and individuals anywhere with a mobile phone or wifi access can listen to my words. Things changed very slowly with IT until the smartphone. Nowadays we struggle when the system is down.twenty years ago an SMS was the weight of instant communication. Compare that with a Zoom meeting and you’ll see the paradigm shift.
In the same way the spread of the turnip changed livestock production across Europe, allowing stock to be kept alive through winter and better selective breeding choices to be made, so too the need to maintain soil as the oil based inputs become prohibitively expensive. The paradigm shift is here or here abouts, we just need to look about us. The small numbers of damn hippies and their “look after the soil” story from the 1960s and 1970s are now considered a normal, even if in a minority view in ag departments, colleges and private farms. Those ideas are spreading. There is research confirming the productivity of these methods, the permanence of these methods and the incredible recuperative powers of natural systems.
The renewal through different methods, based not upon oil and Henry Ford’s methods but upon the growing knowledge of free, natural systems to heal and repair themselves in quick time are the coming paradigm, if not already so.
A third of topsoils gone from the US corn belt is but one of the many canaries in the many coal mines of our current lives. Very few of us manage farms in any corn belt or bread basket yet we all need to eat. We can all influence the move to this new way of being in the world.
We might not have great swathes of land to demonstrate a better way of doing things, I certainly don’t but we can all grow our gardens and while we and others are growing our food in our no-dig gardens we will be growing soil, we will be living the new paradigm and those farmers who have made the change will lead the fellow farms to decarbonising the air, recarbonising the soil!
Thank you all for listening and I’ll be back next week!
The ChangeUnderground Academy No-Dig Gardening Course:
One-Third of Farmland in the U.S. Corn Belt Has Lost Its Topsoil