Our soiled, dirty necessities have made us virtuous

I felt really quite proud – indeed chuffed – to be an agriculturally connected Western Canadian as I covered the World Congress on Conservation Agriculture last week here in Winnipeg.

Farmers, scientists, researchers, United Nations food security officials and representatives of many agricultural organizations spent three and a half days discussing efforts around the world to save the planet’s precious soils, and the Prairies came out smelling pretty good.

We’re already doing most of the big things that can be done to stop our soils being washed, blown and dragged off our fields and into ditches, streams and non-agricultural areas where they do no good. Zero till farming is standard practice here, with few farms still turning the soil and exposing it to erosion. Farmers zealously try to build the agricultural strength of their land by carefully focusing on sustainable rotations. (Let’s hope farmers back away from heavy canola rotations of recent years and don’t adopt the U.S. corn-soybean-corn-soybean rotation that rules the Midwest.) Most hog manure is injected into the soil in order to keep it there and stop it washing away. Most synthetic fertilizer is also placed beneath the surface, ensuring it just doesn’t wash away with loose soil.

We’re already doing what most farmers in the world need to do in order to save the planet’s soils before they are too depleted to provide food for the world’s growing population. You don’t need to be a believer in Peak Oil Theology in order to be fervently committed to the crusade to save the world’s dirt. It truly is the world’s most precious commodity and the one that in many places is being most cavalierly wasted.

Prairie farmers aren’t alone in saving soils. Many farmers in U.S. great plains states, in much of Australia and many parts of advanced agricultural states are doing likewise. Farmers in technologically poor and challenged regions have found unique and innovative ways to do the same with primitive technology but sophisticated understandings of biology. However, I was surprised to hear at the Congress just how little is being done in most areas, including areas in advanced regions, like the U.S. Midwest and in France. (By the way, as I write this I’m wearing a French football jersey since I’m now cheering for them in the World Cup, England having lost. Boo hoo. Well, c’est la vie Albion, and Vive la France!)

Even in Ontario soil conservation practices are poorly followed in many areas.

This is sad, because soil is being depleted at an unsustainable rate and some of the worst offenders are in the most agriculturally rich areas. We’re used to criticizing farmers in Africa’s Sahel and other marginally-sustainable agricultural areas for damaging practices, but the ones in the rich zones mostly get ignored because we don’t see their production collapsing. Yet. They get a pass because we don’t see a crisis.

But a few more decades of yearly soil losses and these places too might end up looking like the threatened areas where the future of farming itself looks doubtful.

It’s hard to imagine, but the U.S. Midwest and much of Europe might come to look the way much of the Canadian Prairies looked by the 1940s: agriculturally ruined.

Which is where the hope lies. We humans seem to be unable to lovingly nurture the fertile riches the Good Lord, Gaia, Mother Nature, Huntokar, Joni Mitchell or whoever you worship has given us. We need to abuse them until we have a crisis, then we wise up, get schooled by experience and embrace sustainability. That’s what happened on the Prairies, after the 1930s showed us the error of our ways and we gingerly started down the long way that leads out of tillage and up into a sustainable farming that doesn’t destroy the soil base upon which it is based. Without the dustbowl we could have ignored the steady trickling away of our soils, but when that trickle became a sky-filling dust tsunami it was hard to avoid the conclusion that we were doing something wrong.

It took decades to evolve into anything approaching zero-till, but the attitudinal shift had begun and a slow group of believers and apostles began working the farming masses of the Prairies, converting farmers to the righteous path.

In many parts of the U.S. and Europe that hasn’t happened, and if one embraces a cynical view of humanity, why should it have? Their soils will last decades longer at present soil loss rates and most of the present farmers will be long gone before the fertile soil is completely gone. It took us a crisis to begin to think about sustainability, why would it be any different for them?

It’s really awful to see good soil washing away. I still see a little bit of that in patches of Manitoba’s Red River valley. That’s hard land to work and also rich land, so erring on the side of conservation isn’t always the default position for some. I see the same thing every time I travel down to Iowa each summer, with fields chronically tilled and lots of dirt in the ditches.

But things are changing. Less and less of the Prairies are conventionally tilled, to the point that it’s a pretty rare thing to see in some areas. In the U.S., most acres are still conventionally tilled, but cover crops are catching on and that’s a decent half-measure towards protecting to soil from total exposure. Farmers even in agriculturally rich and unchallenging territory are beginning to realize the land really can be abused into infertility.

I was proud of Prairie farmers while at the World Congress on Conservation Agriculture, but I don’t think it makes us morally superior to those who aren’t doing much for soil conservation. We were smart enough to see we had a problem when we had a chronic problem, so we have virtues born of necessity. With any luck, once farmers in other regions are equally aware of the problems they have inadvertently caused they’ll ease back on the conventional tillage and move towards our form of sustainability.

With any luck they’ll do it in time, before they face the kind of problems that confronted us in the decades before zero till took over and the farming future looked bleak.

About the author

Ed White — Ed White has specialized in markets coverage since 2001 and has achieved the Derivatives Market Specialist (DMS) designation with the Canadian Securities Institute.

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