The sixth World Congress on Conservation Agriculture is now taking place in Winnipeg, bringing together “conservation agriculture” experts from across the globe.
Lots are farmers, which is a nice recognition of the pioneering role farmers played in evolving the farming systems that are allowing farmers to produce food on a finite amount of land without destroying the soil itself.
No-till farming is widespread on the Canadian Prairies and prairie farmers might assume most farmers in most places are using various forms of minimum till and reduced tillage. But in many parts of the world no-till is still a mostly foreign concept and very few farmers employ it. In other areas it’s spotty. And in most of the world Prairie-still zero-till isn’t done at all.
Here’s a video of some of what I saw Monday.
It’s been great to hear perspectives and observations from across the globe about conservation agriculture, no-till and other farming practices designed to preserve and improve soil. I’ve been hearing the Canadian Prairie perspective for decades now, because no-till has been such a big deal here, but the foreign view offers a lot more depth to the subject.
Here are some of the biggest themes that have jumped out and struck me now after two days of the congress:
NO-TILL AND CONSERVATION AGRICULTURE TECHNOLOGY NEEDS TO BE CUSTOMIZED AND FITTED TO EACH FARMING AREA
Time and again speakers have noted the unique local challenges to get farmers and the agriculture industry to adopt conservation agriculture (CA). The general underlying concepts of CA apply everywhere, but applying them can’t be done in the same way everywhere. The gigantic machinery used – and designed – on the Canadian Prairies won’t do much good for the tens of millions of smallholder farmers who often only farm a handful of acres. The same applies within micro areas of big regions. In some parts of the North American plains and Midwest strip tillage and vertical tillage works, in other areas it doesn’t seem to. Every pocket of farming needs to find its unique combination of tools that will work in its soils, topographies and climates.
FARMERS CAN BE REALLY, REALLY STUBBORN
Many CA advocates, including most of the farmers who have spoken, have noted that it is generally very difficult to get farmers in any area to start embracing the CA practices. Farmers are traditional and skeptical, and CA is not what their families have practiced over the generations. If they don’t see other farmers using CA and being successful, they aren’t likely to gamble on attempting to do it. So a chicken-and-egg situation often arises. But if a few farmers can be convinced to adopt CA and it appears to be working, farmers will become much more open to thinking about it.
SHORT TERM THINKING AIN’T GREAT FOR SOLVNG LONG TERM PROBLEMS
Soil degradation is a long, long, long term problem. And except in dramatic situation, it often can’t really be seen. Fields can lose tiny amounts of soil every year without much being visible, but if one millimetre of soil per year is lost, within decades all the topsoil – and even all the soil entirely in areas with thin soil cover – can be lost. Soil that took thousands of years to build up can be washed away quickly – in geological terms.
That’s the problem: people live lives much shorter than the soil, they farm it for periods of time that don’t always reveal the ongoing loss of soil, and some people don’t care too much about problems that are occurring that will only hurt people long after they are dead. Many simply don’t realize it’s happening because it is so gradual, and modern fertilizers make up for the dramatic losses in soil that are occurring almost everywhere.
The problem can be exacerbated when farmland is not owned by the people farming it. Absentee landowners, who dominate large parts of U.S. and other nations’ farmland, often don’t have a clue about soil, farming or what they really own or how it should be managed. People paying large amounts of money to farm somebody else’s land often aren’t willing to think about multi-decade, multi-century impacts of how they’re farming the land. So there’s a divorce between land ownership and management and that can equal poor stewardship in many cases.
POLARIZED POSITIONS AND EXTREME STANDS WEAKEN THE DRIVE FOR THE SUCCESS OF CONSERVATION AG
The ongoing war between “organic” agriculture and chemically-dependant, technologically-advanced farming has broken out a few times at the conference, especially with no-till advocates expressing outrage and frustration with anti-pesticide and anti-genetically-modified-organisms activists, campaigns and government policies in some parts of the world like the European Union. Most true no-till relies on herbicides to kill weeds that would otherwise need to be tilled, and GMO technology offers hope that future crop varieties can be even more efficient, drought-tolerant and contain improved nutritional values than today’s crops. Yet much of the world’s public has been turned against modern crop farming practices even though there is little science to back the hostility. How can no-till and CA spread if many of the basic tools that support them can’t be used or are difficult to use?
Organic advocates have had a rough ride on this issue, because organic agriculture in most crops and most areas still relies on much tilling of the soil, which is the main cause of soil degradation. And there aren’t many ways to do CA without using at least some herbicides.
It’s distressing within agriculture to see some of the fractiousness over these issues, which really should just be practical matters that can be tested. Farmers should be able to come together and promote CA and not get caught in harsh divides. (That goes as well for no-till extremists who condemn anyone who ever tills a field, even if intractable management problems have arisen after many years of no-till. A couple of farmers have urged no-till advocates to accept that sometimes a field or part of a field might need to be tilled once to just reset a problem that has arisen within it because of the constraints of no-till.)
My hope, which I’ve expressed in this blog on previous occasions, is that over the long-term robust crop rotations can be developed that effectively suppress weeds and promote soil fertility that eliminate much – but probably never all – of our present reliance on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. That’s the kind of work that has been done for decades by researchers like Martin Entz of the University of Manitoba. It’s much more efficient to have plants and livestock fertilizing and building soil than bringing in inputs from far away – as long as there’s no great productivity loss. I’m hopeful that can be achieved in coming decades with continuing research into sophisticated rotations and management. Everybody should support this sort of research.
But for now let’s all get behind CA, whether it uses fertilizers and herbicides or not, and save our planet’s soils, because if we don’t, we’re destroying much of humanity’s future.