Growing food — Respectfully and Abundantly
In these times of pandemic, which experts have been warning about for years, one has to wonder what other problems, with potential to change life as we know it, are we ignoring. Climate change along with its harmful effects definitely rank at the top of the list.
The coinciding of increasing population, rise in sea levels, increase in warming along with degraded soil and depleted underground water table, could result in a perfect storm; food and water security being the primary concerns. There is a way to alleviate this, to a significant degree, by adopting sustainable agriculture practices. A system that respects the wisdom of nature, acknowledges the importance of diverse life-forms and works holistically to restore nature’s delicate balance. While there are several terms used with their subtle differences, there’s one common goal — to reach a point of natural equilibrium where different life-forms can flourish and in the process create abundance.
This target state is quite clearly visible in any old-growth forest with its developed ecosystem; place with enriched soil, varied lifeforms, high water table and abundant food, where sun’s energy is utilized to fullest extent. When our farms begins to mimic these characteristics, that’s how we know that we are on the path to restoration. Reaching this target state of self-sustaining natural equilibrium is a long journey albeit one that we all collectively will have to take to ensure and food and water security for all.
A sustainable farming system, apart from providing us with food, also acts as a carbon sink. Agriculture sector that currently contributes ~11% of GHG globally has a potential for not only becoming net neutral but also becoming a sector that sequesters carbon while giving us healthy foods.
There are five pillars that form basis of sustainable agriculture, which are briefly described here:
Healthy soils are alive
Most crucial parameter for any farmer is the medium in which she intends to grow healthy crops — soil. Rich soil is home to billions of life forms that work in their intricate networks to keep the soil alive and healthy . While some life forms help the human goal of maximizing yield, others, on first glance, might hamper it. Our goal, like with anything, should be to reach the natural equilibrium; realizing that every organism has a role to play. Without this life, soil is nothing more than desert sand— devoid of nutrients.
Practices of reduced or no-tilling allows underground networks of bacteria and fungi to flourish. Wide-spread problem of soil compaction can also be dealt with without constant tilling. Practices of cover cropping and mulching help enrich the top soil while also preventing water evaporation. Constant presence of roots in the soil not only act as source of starch and oxygen for the microorganisms, but also prevents soil and water run-off. Rebuilding soil ecosystem has also shown to increase yield and reduce diseases. Healthy soil alive with native fungi and bacteria is naturally nutritious and resistant to diseases.
Fertile soil is an asset that should be treated as such — with respect and an attitude of protection.
Water abundance equals food abundance
Over time, conventional agriculture has continually depleted our aquifers and simultaneously our respect for the crucial resource. Places where once water could be found at 30 feet under ground, just in few decades, have gone dry till hundreds, in some cases, thousands of feet. The goal in any sustainable agriculture operation should be to remain net water-neutral.
A healthy tree and plant cover, micro ponds across the farm prevent excess soil and water runoff during the wet season while encouraging water percolation. At the same time, during drier months, water usage can be optimized by precise irrigation and mulching to prevent evaporation.
Keeping water at healthy levels season after season will be key to ensuring water security both for our crops and population.
Natural ecosystems are bio-diverse
While conventional farming is synonymous with mono-cropping, sustainable farming stands firmly on multi-cropping. A diverse system comprising of evergreen trees, shrubs, vines, native grass, and annuals provides a constant food source in the form of vegetables, fruits, medicinal herbs, grains, lentils and spices. This cropping pattern has three major benefits:
A. Efficient space utilization: Instead of farming on mere two dimensions, we begin to get production in three dimension starting from underneath the soil to tens of feet above the ground
B. Avoiding single-point of failure: A diversified crop plan results in a diversified food plan. Failure of single crop does not mean loss of all income for the farmer
C. Better micro-climate: Combination of diverse trees and shrubs also gives rise to a farm micro-climate that’s especially resilient to warming
By the same token, diversity by crop rotation also alleviates disease causing pests from establishing a stronghold at the farm.
This bio-diverse crop plan should also include seed diversity; strong native seeds could increase climate-resiliency. While crucial, diverse crop planning is difficult to implement. However, a skilled farm operator can start with a single parameter and gradually add others into the system.
A diverse crop plan (both inter-cropping and crop rotation) leads to a diverse population of insects, birds and bees, which not only helps in maintaining the natural food cycle but also helps us increase the yield by pollination. The humble honey-bee, in some cases, helps increase the yield by over 30%, not to mention the sweet nectar it leaves behind.
Sustainability includes profitability
For anything to be sustainable, it also should be profitable. Driven by simple economics there are two aspects to it:
Achieving high value production in the long run: A diversified crop plan of annuals and perennials, with a focus on soil health, water storage and pollinator health should help achieve consistent production over longer periods of time, especially when faced with climate change issues. An effort to mimic nature will help to achieve higher yields per cubic meter of space. Food grown with these natural processes also command higher premiums compared to their chemical-induced cousins available in the market.
Minimizing inputs and interventions: At target state a sustainable agriculture system should become just that — sustainable with minimal inputs and interventions. There will always be certain processes like sowing annuals, maintenance and harvesting that will require human labor, however, nature will mostly take over operations like and nutrient and pest management. While the farm will need more love in the initial part of the journey, the target state should be very fruitful.
There’s a very strong business model centered on sustainable agriculture and doing this at scale has never been more important than now.
People drive and sustain change
While the theory has existed for a while and is also operationalized in pockets, widespread adoption has remained lacking and a key success factor for that is engagement with different stakeholders.
A. Labor: The backbone of any farming operation, labor management, is key to any successful farming venture. Proper training and fair treatment prove helpful in retaining good farm labor
B. Consumer: Right customer segment is another key people segment to understand. Finding the right set of people who fully appreciate the natural practices as well as the fruits of its labor, will prove critical in initial stages of the journey
C. Farmers to carry the baton forward: This is the group required to really scale sustainable agriculture beyond certain progressive farmers. These could be farmers of the region or even other professionals looking for a better life and a lucrative business opportunity
While sustainable farming practices have been conceptualized recently, it has existed for a while and was practiced by many indigenous cultures implicitly long before the advent of modern, chemical-intensive agriculture. Combination of this ancient wisdom with modern technology and effective business practices will form the basis of next farming revolution — the one where our farms are unique ecosystems alive with diverse lifeforms and places of equity laden with abundance. With the right intention, respect and gratitude, the time is ripe for us to collectively embark on the journey of sustainable agriculture to restore the natural balance.