How traditional agriculture is destroying our future

How traditional agriculture is destroying our future

Our soil is sick and we can’t afford to ignore it any longer.

Think about this. 95% of the world’s calorific intake comes from the soil but some scientists warn that because of our mistreatment of it, we only have a number of harvests left. In the UK this is around 100 but in other parts of the world, the number is lower.

I’m going to ask you to read that again.

The source of our food is failing and if we carry on as we are, it’ll be gone, forever.

Soil in your hands

A world in your hands

Pick up a handful of earth and look at it closely. It might contain the odd worm or a few tiny insects. It might crumble in your fingers or clump into clay-like blobs. What you can’t see with the human eye is the world of microorganisms, cohabiting with each other. Their job is to break down organic matter, putting nitrogen, carbon and other vital substances back into the ground. It’s part of a crucial cycle that supports life on our planet.

What other jobs does soil do?

  • Soil retains water and can help guard against flooding, it’s also a natural filtration system.
  • Healthy soil has structure, protecting the landscape from erosion.
  • It releases carbon into the atmosphere in a controlled manner.

The lie we’ve been fed

Farming isn’t new – there’s evidence that grain cultivation goes back as far as 9500BC. What is new is the way that we’re doing it. Growing populations require feeding, and techniques, chemical use and mechanisation have swung in favour of reducing cost while increasing yield.

The soil has paid the price.

There is a common misconception that this kind of farming is necessary to feed hungry nations, but according to the Sustainable Food Trust, the hidden cost of this sprouts up elsewhere. The real price is being “passed on to the public through taxation, lost income due to ill health, and the price of mitigating and adapting to climate change and environmental degradation”. This results in the UK public paying twice for their food, which doesn’t represent much of a saving.

What’s in my food?

Non-organic farming gives better yields, so I get more for my money, right?

Think again.

A U.S. study in 2004 compared the nutritional data from 1950 and 1999 of 43 different vegetables and fruits and found ‘reliable declines’ in key nutrients. This is one of those instances where more is less.

According to the Soil Association, UK regulations allow 300 pesticides to be used in non-organic farming and, in 2016, over 16,600 tonnes of it were used to control pests, kill weeds and protect crops from disease. In 2017, government testing found pesticide residues in 47% of British food. In comparison, organic farmers only have 300 pesticides in their arsenal (all derived from natural sources) and must rely on a combination of traditional methods and innovation to keep their crops safe.

Better for everyone

We’re told that soil depletion is a by-product of intensive farming, that it’s a necessary evil that we can outrun. Considering it can take 500 to 1,000 years for soil to form from its base material, namely rock, it seems like a foolhardy attitude to have. If we’re this reliant on healthy soil, should we not be taking better care of it? Particularly as the financial case against slower, more considerate farming isn’t really one at all?

Organic agriculture is a frame of mind as much as a methodology. It involves observing and working in harmony with nature, harnessing its mechanisms and respecting its natural cycles. It’s about sustaining that which sustains us – which seems like a far more reasonable idea.

In order to support the soil, rotating crops, using more land to produce less, allowing the soil to rest, and planting trees and other non-cropping plants makes sense. Natural forms of pest control, including breaking lifecycles and bringing in natural predators, takes care of the land while taking care of the nuisance.

It’s not just a financial decision, it’s a moral one. It’s the right thing to do.

Feed the soil, not the plant...

One of the basic rules in any kitchen garden handbook. Preparation for next year’s crops starts this autumn, just like the preservation of our precious, fragile soil for future generations has to start now. It’s about understanding the wider picture, respecting the wider cycles and greater power of nature, and making plans accordingly.

Cheap food production has made our food cheap. Although food waste has fallen in recent years, UK households still get rid of 4.5m tonnes a year, the equivalent of £700 for each family with children.

If we valued our food more, would we take better care of it?

I’m sure the soil would thank us. I bet our children will too...

1 comment

  • Harriet Smith

    Hi, thank you for the timely article on decreasing soil fertility.. I am much more careful now about saving soil in our garden. I had certainly read about the number of harvests left which is shocking.
    In the ’what’s in our Food’ section, I was confused by the no of pesticides used in both non-organic and organic farming, quoted as 300? I think this is a typo? I looked at the Soil Association article, and it seems the no is 20 pesticides used?
    All the very best for your continuing work promoting organic growing.

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