On Loam

Nearly all of the world’s arable farming depends on the health of a thin layer of topsoil, which intensive chemical processes have critically damaged.

Words Peter Guest
Illustration Medeea Lascar

Illustration by Medeea Lascar

Mount Agung rises out of Bali’s spine, a column of dark smoke tethering it to a great ring of storm clouds that are a near-constant presence during the island’s rainy season. That rain, which comes down in hot, tropical sheets, sends black mud rushing perilously down the mountainside to feed the land below.

Since September 2017 the volcano has been rumbling and spewing ash over the dozens of small villages and farming communities clustered on its flanks. This has left tens of thousands of people poised to flee, unsure of whether it is safe to stay in their homes and work in their fields.

100 kilometres away, in the lush, sheltered garden in Gianyar that houses the sustainable development organisation IDEP, Ade Andreawan, its executive director, muses darkly that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if Agung did go up, as long as everyone gets out in time. The volcano, he says, might provide the kind of ecological reset that Bali needs, and replenish soils that have been stripped bare by decades of intensive chemical fertilisation and pesticide use.

On the surface, Bali may look like an organic paradise. That, though, “is the Bali in the brochures”, an idealised version that has been gradually disappearing since the 1970s, says Andreawan, who works with farmers to help them adopt sustainable agricultural practices. Back then, the Jakarta government pushed the island’s farmers into chemically intensive agriculture that has stripped the soil, reducing its fertility and locking them into a cycle in which soil quality decreases and requires greater input to maintain economic yields. “Every year they ask for more fertiliser and pesticide. If this year they need 50 kilos of fertiliser, next year they’ll need 75, because the chemicals kill the organic matter,” says Andreawan. “And after that, the farmer is dependent on the fertiliser and pesticide. That stuff is destroying the soil.”

IDEP is trying to convert farmers back to organic techniques and crops that will, over time, help to replenish the nutrients in the soil. They often push traditional ideas that were widely used a generation ago, and which stand in sharp contrast to the promise of quick-fix, high turnover agriculture that is understandably attractive to farmers — and governments — in the developing world.

Bali’s struggles are a microcosm of a profound and disturbing global problem. A combination of chemically intensive farming, deforestation, and climate change has degraded the world’s reserve of usable soils. Experts worry this could presage a catastrophic food crisis unless drastic action is taken. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN has warned that at current rates of degradation, there may be only 60 years left of usable topsoil around the world. 95% of human food production is dependent on soil.

“We talk about extinct species… nobody talks about extinct soil. We have soils that have gone extinct,” says Rattan Lal, professor of soil science at Ohio State University and president of the International Union of Soil Sciences. “We have soils that are in danger of going extinct. They have gone to the point of no return. They are irreversibly degraded.”

The problem began with the Green Revolution — the massive investments in agriculture in the developing world from the 1960s onwards. That revolution was based on a formula that persists today; farmers were encouraged or forced to adopt high-yielding hybrids of grain, mainly wheat and rice, that responded well to chemical fertilisers. Fertilisers and pesticides were often highly subsidised, allowing small farmers to access new technology, while governments and charitable foundations pumped money into rolling out modern equipment, infrastructure and techniques.

Crop yields grew prodigiously, heading off the oft-prophesied ‘Malthusian catastrophe’, whereby the population of the earth outstrips the land’s capacity to feed it. Norman Borlaug, the American agronomist who led the research on some of the new crop varieties and worked to disseminate them, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. World cereal yields doubled in 20 years. Between 1970 and 1990, use of fertilisers in developing countries increased by 360%, and use of pesticides quadrupled. Over the next 25 years, production nearly doubled again.

“But there was a very large environmental footprint of this technology. For example, the very rapid depletion of soil organic matter,” Lal says. “I’m glad it happened; it saved millions of people — hundreds of millions of people — from starvation. But we ignored soils. We took soil for granted.”

Soil organic matter is, as the name suggests, the accumulation of plant and animal matter within the soil. It provides nutrients and structure; without it, soil becomes barren and prone to erosion by water or wind. This organic matter has other important properties, such as the sequestration of carbon and the suppression of some pests and diseases.

“Bali’s struggles are a microcosm of a profound and disturbing global problem. A combination of chemically intensive farming, deforestation, and climate change has degraded the world’s reserve of usable soils.”

In some parts of the world, the huge monocultures of high-yield grains, combined with massive use of fertilisers and pesticides have stripped the organic matter back to the point where the soils are unusable without ever-increasing doses of chemicals. This has often been compared to drug addiction; every year the effect of the fertilisers falls, and every year the dose has to increase.

The consequences of this are visible around the world. In China, two-thirds of the country’s agricultural land is being affected by soil erosion. In the US, according to a study by Cornell University, soil is disappearing ten times faster than it is being replenished, and the economy loses around $37 billion per year from soil loss. In critical agricultural regions, like the Punjab in India and Pakistan, grain yields have stagnated or even declined, while inputs have increased.

“The solution is to go back to the issue of soil health,” Lal says. “If you need soil organic carbon… Let’s put the [organic matter] back.”

Lal, along with many of his peers, advocate for a new, more soil-centric ‘conservation agriculture’ approach, which uses techniques that will not only prevent further damage but begin to restore the soils. That means using old techniques — such as crop rotation and ‘cover crops’ that reduce the exposure of soils to the elements and fix nitrogen in the soil — and combining them with new methods of precision irrigation. He is not against chemical fertilisers, he says, just their indiscriminate use.

“We need to be talking about sustainable intensification. Producing more from less. Less land area. Less irrigation. Less input of fertiliser and pesticide. High efficiency of utilisation,” he says. “Our goal should be optimum sustainable yield, not the maximum possible yield. And there’s a difference between the two.”

The challenge is less around technology and techniques, and more the structure of global agriculture. At an economic level, the Green Revolution bound farmers and nations to the large agribusinesses that produce their seeds and inputs. As Francisco Szekely, adjunct professor of leadership and sustainability at IMD Business School and the former deputy minister of environment in Mexico, says: “Agribusiness has tried to convince the world that without them we would not be able to produce enough food for a growing population. They have made enormous efforts to market their products by saying that. They have infiltrated the highest policy bodies... by trying to convince people that this is the only way. I don’t think that this is the only way.”

Many of the world’s largest companies in the food supply chain, from the input giants, like Monsanto and Syngenta, to consumer goods giants, like Unilever and Nestlé, have made substantial commitments to ‘sustainability’. The problem, according to Szekely, is that most have done so using a fairly narrow definition of the term.

“The focus of most companies who are starting to pay attention to sustainability is in diminishing harm,” he says. “The focus should be on how we can create value with a different kind of agricultural model… We have to ask the big questions.

The present economic business model we have is not sustainable. So what is, and how can we develop a new business model for sustainability?”

In Bali, finding that business model is proving challenging. Farmers, Andreawan says, have been “indoctrinated” by years of government dictats and subsidies. That financial support has been withdrawn, leaving many locked in a cycle of debt as they struggle to pay for next year’s inputs with this year’s crop. IDEP’s approach is spreading as farmers see the attraction of stepping out of the downward spiral, but the change is too gradual to prevent severe, and potentially irreversible, damage being done to the island’s ecology. What they need, according to Andreawan, is a complete change in mindset.

“Our challenge,” he says, “is to change the paradigm from a chemical farming system to a sustainable agriculture system.” Maybe a whole new layer of volcanic soil might help.


What now?

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