Agroforestry: Ethically Securing Our Food Supply For Today and Tomorrow

Don S
10 min readFeb 11, 2019

The answer to keeping our food supply safe, our environment pristine, and our farmers disease free isn’t an impossible equation. Part of the answer is in our genes, as we peel back the layers of time and understand how mankind stayed healthy before the agricultural revolution, and part of the answer is in nature, as we see forests and other natural systems provide a nurturing ecosystem that grow plants without external inputs.

The way food is grown today is killing our children tomorrow.

THE ETHICAL DILEMMA: HOW TO SECURE TODAY AND TOMORROW

The way we grow our food is killing us, killing our planet, and will be impacting future generations; hence, the only moral choice is regenerative agriculture. In the same unethical way we overuse our finite fossil fuel supply now to drive our cars and pollute the environment, the agricultural industry over utilizes non-renewable resources called agrochemicals that’s also causing harm to ecosystems. In regenerative agriculture, we can address these moral deficiencies by utilizing inputs that are renewable, utilize inputs that can build up the soil, and in doing so, respects intergenerational ethics, that is a social contract to make a better world for future generations.

Regenerative agriculture is broadly defined as a farming methodology with specific goals on retaining soil fertility, water retention, biodiversity, ecosystem health, and carbon sequestration. (Elevitch 2018)

While it can be argued that growing food the easiest way possible is a moral good for our human civilization to survive, we are effectively robbing our future generations and polluting an environment that they can’t use and successfully live in.

Currently, the bulk of the world’s farming practices are indefensibly flawed. For instance, we are expeditiously using fossil fuels that have a finite, limited supply to mine phosphate rock which are also in limited quantity to grow our crops. We then spray nutrients from those rocks onto our soil which leeches into our watersheds, impacting our water supply and aquatic ecosystems. At the same time, farmers who work the land to feed the masses end up suffering with fatal illnesses like end-stage renal disease (ESRD) and various types of cancers due to continuous use of pest control products recommended by agricultural chemical companies. And because these agrochemicals inadvertently kill beneficial microbes and insects that drive fertility naturally, cultivated land continues to be infertile which starts the cycle of a farmer needing artificial substances in the first place.

We must ethically demand as consumers that our food supply chains be sustainable and as for farmers, they must demand a better way of life that requires no exposure to harmful chemicals.

THE DANGERS OF PESTICIDES AND SOLUTIONS

Pesticides for our purposes is a generic term for artificial agrochemicals meant to control pests such as insects and weeds. Around the world, we use roughly 3 billion kg (6.6 billion pounds) of pesticides every year, with the United States accounting for more than 17% of that total use. Our population compared to the world is only 4.4%; hence, we are disproportionally one of the largest users of agrochemicals.

Decades of studies have shown that pesticides can cause acute poisonings with roughly 300,000 events occurring in the United States occurring annually. Worldwide about 3 million cases of hospitalizations occur every year, of which there are 220,000 fatalities. (Pimentel 2005)

Despite these horrific numbers of known acute poisoning events, the scariest number is the one that’s unknown. Supermarkets randomly audited in 2003 for pesticides in the produce isle reported that 73% of all crops tested had chemical residues; furthermore, in certain fruit crops tested like apples, peaches, pears, and strawberries, over 90% of the crops had residues.

Because pesticides can metabolize faster in children than adults, children have the greatest risk of cancers due to these types of exposures. This is especially true in places like Brazil where persistent use of pesticides and lack of hygiene in rural areas have resulted in a significant increase of colon cancer occurrence (Martin 2018). While eating foods with residues is a risk, those that sprayed it at the farm site are not without consequence. Farmers who spray pesticides are susceptible to kidney failure and end-stage renal disease (ESRD), a heavy price to pay for an act that they’ve been taught as an absolute necessity to grow food in their fields. (Lebov 2015)

If the dangers to farmers and consumers are so high, why are pesticide use not reduced or stopped altogether? One true benefit of pesticides is that it does kill all sorts of bugs, worms, and insects effectively, and allows better growth of plants which means greater yields. In general, for every $1 that’s spent on killing pests with chemicals, you get a $4 return on yield (Pimentel 2005), though every year that return on investment gets scarce as more and more pests are starting to show signs of immunity to a plethora of chemicals.

The best ethical approach that would yield the same results in reducing pests and increasing crop yield is through the usage of sustainable, regenerative agricultural systems like agroforestry, which develops natural habitats for predatory insects. Agroforestry is a land use management system that can also manage pests since it intentionally combines trees and shrubs with crops, interplanting them together to decrease the speed and impact of winds to protect crops in between alleys. The effect will reduce evaporation, increase moisture, reduce weed seeds from proliferating, and increase natural predatory insects like ladybugs and wasps. (Elevitch 2018) Additionally, insect netting can be applied in new fields temporarily until trees and habitats are fully mature. The fact that most insect nets last up to 10 years, farmers can easily calculate the return on investment (ROI) compared to constant spending on agrochemicals, especially considering the health benefits of not having to apply any pesticides every season. In 2005, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers the value of a healthy human life at $3.7 million for ROI purposes (Pimentel 2005).

THE DANGERS OF ARTIFICIAL FERTILIZERS AND SOLUTIONS

Before the 20th century, farmers used composted manure and dead organic material to feed nutrients to their crops. In 1902, Willhelm Ostwald and his other contemporaries developed methods of producing nitric acid (HNO3) which paved the way for chemical fertilizers.

Since then the knowledge behind soil biology and how it’s impacted by constant application of chemical fertilizers and tillage has exploded exponentially. Scientists are finding new discoveries on the interactions of organisms in what is called, the soil food web. The web is the community of organisms primarily living in the soil and the web interacts with the environment, plants, and root systems. Because agrochemicals can kill beneficial soil microbiology (Bonanomi 2018), conventional farmers rely on having to constantly till their land to be able to mix chemical fertilizer nutrient loads and ensure that their chemicals are accessible to the root systems. The act of tilling has catastrophic impact to the web and its network of organisms that typically provides nutrients to the plant, such as mycorrhizal fungi that serves as a gatherer of nutrients, of moisture, and act as a defender of roots against soil pathogens (Sikes 2010).

Additionally, because the over use of fertilizers leech into waterways and rivers, they also cause dangerous algae blooms that impact states on the Gulf Coast of Mexico such as Florida. These algae blooms typically start offshore but when heavy rains bring excess nutrients through the waterways caused by overuse of agrochemicals by homeowners and farms, they quickly bloom uncontrollably, killing fish and causing respiratory problems in humans that are near the coast. (Persaud 2016)

The negative consequence of a tilled and artificially fertilized land is not only the lost of nature’s army of miniature farmers in the form of bacteria and fungi, and the lost of beaches and marine life along the coastlines, but also soil erosion, or more specifically, the erosion of topsoil. This phenomenon is a real danger that can cause flooding down stream and is also one of the main causes of sea levels rising. (Zhang 2013)

Topsoil is the upper most layer of soil from 2 to 8 inches in depth and has the greatest amount of organic matter. Because of rain events and constant tillage in conventional agriculture, approximately 60 billion tons of topsoil is eroded every year, or 100,000 tons of fertile soil per minute. The United States loses about 5 billion tons of top soil annually, most of these are deposited in lakes, rivers, and flood plains, which raises flooding risk and is a factor in increasing the bottom of seafloors. (Zhang 2013)

In short, the dangers of artificial fertilizers and the practices of conventional farming that comes in consequence of such usage, results in lost of soil fertility, environmental impacts against watersheds and marine wildlife, and the erosion of topsoil.

Thankfully, there are land use systems that can naturally combat these problems. Leveraging agroforestry incorporates trees and cover crops in a no-till soil management system that protect the soil food web. Additionally, by adding clover or other legumes, the soil can be naturally fertilized by nitrogen fixing bacteria that develops at the root systems with legume plants, thereby further reducing the need to purchase chemical fertilizers. Cover crops, trees, and other plants also adds to the soil structure of the soil food web and increases greater absorbability of moisture to prevent flooding. (Elevitch 2018)

THE DANGERS OF OUR TASTE BUDS AND SOLUTIONS

In the last 500 generations, our human genome have relatively remained the same but our diets have substantially changed due to the agricultural revolution.

The human race consisted primarily of foragers and hunters, with diets mainly of fruits, nuts, vegetables, fish, and lean animal meat. The change of our diet from naturally sourced produce to our current staple of grains and cereals, is a fundamental reason why illnesses like diabetes and heart disease are so prevalent. In addition, the change in habits from actively gardening in the past and exercising through foraging has currently devolved to a lifestyle of convenience, with most foods pre-packaged to support a sedentary existence. (O’Keefe 2004)

In fact, the primary cause of human death today is stroke and heart attacks according to the World Health Organization. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease claimed 3 million lives in 2016, and diabetes claimed 1.6 million in that same year.

In a 2004 study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, called “Cardiovascular Disease Resulting From a Diet and Lifestyle at Odds With Our Paleolithic Genome”, lead researcher Dr. James H. O’Keefe, MD, contends that the “…mismatch between our modern diet and lifestyle and our Paleolithic genome is playing a substantial role in the ongoing epidemics of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.”

In short, the food we are eating today is not what we were built for in terms of genetic disposition. We require a fair amount of vegetables and fruits. We are unhealthy because we are eating monoculture crops, and not being active enough.

The U.S. government is certainly not blind to these findings. The National Institute of Health funded a study from 1976 to 1988 of a group of 34,000 Californian Adventist Christians to understand why they lived four to ten years longer than the average Californian. The study revealed the diet of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and minimal red meat consumption correlated with reduced heart disease and cancer rates. (Buettner 2005)

As consumers, we must change our diets to improve our personal health and of our environment. By effectively reducing processed foods from our households and not purchasing anything made of corn syrup, we are changing the demand and letting farmers know we want more sustainable, nutritious food. Additionally, buying as close to the farm as possible such as farmers’ markets, allows consumers to reduce their food miles, which is the average number of miles their food travels from farm to table.

USDA’s example of corn as an alley crop between walnuts trees.

THE CONCLUSION: SUSTAINABILITY

Agroforestry is one of the most exciting new regenerative systems currently being developed by permaculturists and organic farmers.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines it as the “intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to create environmental, economic, and social benefits”.

The basic configuration involves essentially creating micro climates and mini-forests that have perennial plants that can perpetually produce a harvest while annual crops can then be planted in between alley ways, or lanes in between the trees. (Elevitch 2018)

Regenerative agricultural systems such as agroforestry and the solutions it brings to combat soil erosion, pest prevention, and increases in yields makes it a viable solution to address the needs of our generation and the future.

Additionally, such systems could introduce new selections for our taste buds at local farmers’ markets, as more fruit trees develop and are planted in conjunction with annual crop products.

Ultimately, the success of agroforestry and the future of regenerative agriculture is dependent on us and our insistence to our producers and our government officials to develop policies and systems that ensures our food chain is sustainable, protects the farmers and protects our planet.

REFERENCES

Bonanomi, G., Cesarano, G., Antignani, V., Di Maio, C., De Filippis, F., & Scala, F. (2018). Conventional farming impairs Rhizoctonia solani disease suppression by disrupting soil food web. Journal of Phytopathology, (9), 663. https://doi.org/10.1111/jph.12729

Buettner, D. (2005). The Secrets of Long Life. National Geographic, 208(5), 2–27. Retrieved from http://bakerezproxy.palnet.info/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ofs&AN=504106383&site=eds-live

Chappell, B. (2011, November 03). Along With Humans, Who Else Is In The 7 Billion Club? Retrieved December 16, 2018, from https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2011/11/03/141946751/along-with-humans-who-else-is-in-the-7-billion-club

Craig R. Elevitch, D. Niki Mazaroli, & Diane Ragone. (2018). Agroforestry Standards for Regenerative Agriculture. Sustainability, Vol 10, Iss 9, p 3337 (2018), (9), 3337. https://doi.org/10.3390/su10093337

Lebov, J. F., Engel, L. S., Richardson, D., Hogan, S. L., Sandler, D. P., & Hoppin, J. A. (2015). Pesticide exposure and end-stage renal disease risk among wives of pesticide applicators in the Agricultural Health Study. Environmental Research, 143(Part A), 198–210. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2015.10.002

Martin, F. L., Martinez, E. Z., Stopper, H., Garcia, S. B., Uyemura, S. A., & Kannen, V. (2018). Increased exposure to pesticides and colon cancer: Early evidence in Brazil. Chemosphere. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2018.06.118

O’Keefe, J. J. H., & Cordain, L. (2004). Review: Cardiovascular Disease Resulting From a Diet and Lifestyle at Odds With Our Paleolithic Genome: How to Become a 21st-Century Hunter-Gatherer. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 79, 101–108. https://doi.org/10.4065/79.1.101

Persaud, A., Alsharif, K., Monaghan, P., Akiwumi, F., Morera, M. C., & Ott, E. (2016). Landscaping practices, community perceptions, and social indicators for stormwater nonpoint source pollution management. Sustainable Cities and Society, 27, 377–385. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scs.2016.08.017

Pimentel, D. (2005). ‘Environmental and Economic Costs of the Application of Pesticides Primarily in the United States’. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 7(2), 229–252. https://doi:10.1007/s10668-005-7314-2

Sikes B. A. (2010). When do arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi protect plant roots from pathogens?. Plant signaling & behavior, 5(6), 763–5.

Zhang, R. , He, J. , Zhao, Y. , Peng, Y. and Fu, L. (2013). Another Important Factor of Rising Sea Level: Soil Erosion. Clean Soil Air Water, 41: 174–178. https://doi:10.1002/clen.201200127

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