January 10, 2017 by Dr. Mercola
It is indisputable that we are negatively affecting our air, soil and water in a way that is drastically impacting the earth itself.
If you look down while on an airplane, you can’t help but notice the vast exposure of soils into perfectly-carved squares below. These exposed soils are a tragic sign of an unsustainable practice that leads to erosion, runoff pollution and lack of vegetation to cleanse our air and keep a proper balance of carbon in the ground.
Agriculture has undergone massive changes over the past several decades. Many of them were heralded as progress that would save us from hunger and despair. Yet today, we’re faced with a new set of problems, birthed from the very innovations and interventions that were meant to provide us with safety and prosperity.
For decades, food production has been all about efficiency and lowering cost. We now see what this approach has brought us — skyrocketing disease statistics and a faltering ecosystem.
Fortunately, we already know what needs to be done. It’s just a matter of implementing the answers on a wider scale. We need farmers to shift over to regenerative practices that stops depleting our soil and fresh water supplies.
Frustratingly, farmers are often held back from making much needed changes by government subsidy programs that favor monocropping and crop insurance rules that dissuade regenerative farming practices.
Will American Farming Create Another Dust Bowl?
The Great Depression of the 1930s was tough for most Americans, but farmers were particularly hard hit. Plowing up the Southern Plains to grow crops turned out to be a massive miscalculation that led to enormous suffering.
Three consecutive droughts (1930 to ’31, ’33 to ’34 and 1936) turned the area into an uninhabitable and unworkable “dust bowl.” As the natural winds that cross the Plains picked up the dry soil, dense clouds of dust called “black blizzards” covered the region in an unprecedented years-long “storm.”
“Researchers Michael Glotter[, Ph.D.,] and Joshua Elliot[, Ph.D.,] from the University of Chicago ran computer simulations to predict the effects of a Dust Bowl-like drought on today’s maize, soy and wheat crops.
‘We expected to find the system much more resilient because 30 percent of production is now irrigated in the United States, and because we’ve abandoned corn production in more severely drought-stricken places such as Oklahoma and west Texas,’ noted Elliott in a press release.
‘But we found the opposite: The system was just as sensitive to drought and heat as it was in the 1930s,'” Dvorsky writes.
Massive Changes Could Decimate Agriculture
Is the U.S. about to face another dust bowl episode? According to simulations, if the U.S. were to experience the same kind of drought as in 1936, we’d lose nearly 40 percent of the commodity crops grown today.
The best-case scenario? If rainfall remained normal, a 4-degree increase would result in the same kind of losses experienced in the 1930s, meaning we’d lose 30 to 40 percent of our crops.
“Given recent predictions3 that parts of the U.S. could soon experience ‘megadroughts’ lasting for as long as 35 years (yes, you read that correctly), these results should serve as a serious wakeup call,” Dvorsky writes.
Industrialization Versus Regenerative Agriculture
Regenerative agriculture that makes use of cover crops, no-till and herbivore grazing can help solve many of our most pressing problems, including reducing atmospheric Co2 levels and normalizing weather patterns.
For example, an interesting study that highlights the importance of grazing animals found that reindeer grazing on shrubs on the Arctic tundra actually help combat global warming by increasing surface albedo (the amount of solar energy being reflected back into space). As noted by the Climate News Network:4
“The effect reindeer grazing can have on albedo and energy balances is potentially large enough to be regionally important. It also points towards herbivore management being a possible tool to combat future warming.
Most of the Arctic tundra is grazed by either domesticated or wild reindeer, so this is an important finding.”
Even if regenerative agriculture cannot completely solve all of our issues, it’s still the only way forward, as factory farming makes everything worse. It’s important to realize that agriculture has a significant impact on life on Earth.
Not only does it provide us with food, it’s also an integral part of the ecosystem as a whole. Done correctly, it supports and nourishes ALL life, not just human life.
Drawbacks of Industrialized Agriculture
The drawbacks of industrialized farming are many, including the following:
Degrades and contaminates soil
Grains account for about 70 percent of our daily calories, and grains are grown on about 70 percent of acreage worldwide. The continuous replanting of grain crops each year leads to soil degradation, as land is tilled and sprayed each year, disrupting the balance of microbes in the soil.
Top soil is also lost each year, which means that, eventually, our current modes of operation simply will no longer work. Soil erosion and degradation rates suggest we have less than 60 remaining years of topsoil.5
Forty percent of the world’s agricultural soil is now classified as either degraded or seriously degraded; the latter means that 70 percent of the topsoil is gone.
Soil degradation is projected to cause 30 percent loss in food production over the next 20 to 50 years. Meanwhile, our global food demands are expected to increase by 50 percent over this span of time.
As explained in Peter Byck’s short film, “One Hundred Thousand Beating Hearts,” farm animals form symbiotic relationships where one species helps keep parasites from overwhelming another.
It is the separation of crops and animals into two distinctly different farming processes that has led to animal waste becoming a massive source of pollution rather than a valuable part of the ecological cycle.
Contaminates water and drains aquifers
Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of our fresh water use. When the soil is unfit, water is wasted. It simply washes right through the soil and past the plant’s root system.
We already have a global water shortage that’s projected to worsen over the coming two or three decades, so this is the last thing we need to compound it. On top of that, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are a major water polluter, destroying what precious little water we do have.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has noted that U.S. states with high congregations of CAFOs report 20 to 30 serious water quality problems each year.6 According to a report7 by Environment America, corporate agribusiness is “one of the biggest threats to America’s waterways.”
Tyson Foods Inc. is among the worst, releasing 104.4 million pounds of toxic pollutants into waterways between 2010 and 2014; second only to a steel manufacturing company.
Contributes to greenhouse gas emissions
While fertilizer production produces its share of greenhouse gases, most of the emissions occur upon application.
According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 1 out of every 100 kilos of nitrogen fertilizer applied to farm land ends up in the atmosphere as nitrous oxide (N2O), a potent greenhouse gas (300 times more potent than CO2) known to deplete the ozone.8
In 2014, the amount of N2O created by nitrogen fertilizer spread on American farmland was equal to one-third of the N2O released by all cars and trucks in the U.S. More recent research suggests the real number is three to five times higher than that.
The efficiency model of large-scale industrialized agriculture demanded a reduction in diversity. Hence we got monoculture: farmers growing all corn, or all soy, for example. Monoculture has significantly contributed to dietary changes that promote ill health.
The primary crops grown on industrial farms today — corn, soy, wheat, canola and sugar beets — are the core ingredients in processed foods known to promote obesity, nutritional deficiencies and disease.
According to a report by the Royal Botanic Gardens in the U.K., one-fifth of all plants worldwide are now threatened with extinction, primarily through the expansion of agriculture.9
Ethanol and corn sweetener subsidies have also led to farmers abandoning conservation measures designed to preserve fragile lands and protect biodiversity in the natural landscape.10
Worsens food safety and promotes pandemic disease
Agricultural overuse of drugs, especially antibiotics, has led to the development of drug-resistant disease,11 which has now become a severe health threat. Pandemic outbreaks are also becoming more prevalent in CAFOs, revealing the inherent flaws of industrialized animal farming.
In 2015, an avian flu outbreak spread across 14 states in five months. The year before that, a pig virus outbreak killed off 10 percent of the American pig population. As noted by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy:12
Threatens food security by decimating important pollinators such as butterfly and bee populations.13
Promotes nutritional deficiencies and poor nutrition
Industrial farming is set up and subsidized to grow ingredients used in processed foods. This is the cheapest way to feed the masses. However, what people really need more of in order to thrive is fresh produce.
According to research14 presented at the 2016 American Heart Association’s Epidemiology meeting, reducing the price of fruits and vegetables by 30 percent could save nearly 200,000 lives over 15 years by lowering rates of heart disease and stroke.
If people added just one additional serving of fruits and vegetables a day, up to 3.5 million deaths from heart disease could be prevented in just two years.
Necessitates the use of toxins, poisons and harmful mechanical farming methods
Industrialization led to the separation of crops and livestock farming into two different specialties. That change alone has done tremendous harm, as livestock are actually a core component of regenerative agriculture.
As a result, a whole host of land maintenance services that animals serve for free have had to be replaced with chemical and mechanical means — all of which have detrimental effects on human health and the environment.
Regenerative Agriculture Can Help Solve Many of Our Problems
Around the world, farmers are waking up to the many adverse effects of industrialized agriculture. While chemicals and machines have allowed farms to expand and increase production, there’s growing awareness about how these strategies harm the soil, ecology and, ultimately, human health.
As a result, a growing number of farmers are transitioning over to more sustainable and regenerative methods that do not rely so heavily on chemical and technological means. While regenerative strategies may appear “novel” to born-and-raised city slickers, it’s really more of a revival of ancestral knowledge. In the video above, Dr. Joel Gruver demonstrates sustainable agriculture techniques taking place at Allison Farm, the largest organic research farm in Illinois.
Regenerative agriculture — which includes strategies such as crop rotation, diversification, cover crops, no-till, agroforestry and integrated herd management — can help rehabilitate land turned to desert, improve water management and protect water quality. It also eliminates the need for toxic fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.15 Importantly, by improving soil quality, regenerative farmers can produce more nutrient-dense foods.
You can also consider attending a Regernation International event of webinar. Regeneration International is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving soil fertility and biodiversity through regenerative agriculture techniques. Click below for a list of upcoming events.
Fear of Losing Crop Insurance Holds Many Farmers Back From Using Cover Crops
Crazy enough, certain valuable regenerative practices such as the use of cover crops are discouraged by the current crop insurance system. One example of how a regenerative farmer was financially punished by doing the right thing is detailed in a recent article by the Food and Environment Reporting Network.16
Insurance rules require cover crops to be completely killed off before the market crop is planted. In this case, high winds had prevented Gail Fuller, a farmer in Texas, from successfully killing off the cover crops before planting his corn, soy and barley.
When a serious drought in 2012 destroyed a good portion of his crops, the insurance refused to pay because he’d failed to destroy the cover crop. Indeed, fear of losing their crop insurance is a major reason why many farmers don’t use cover crops, despite the environmental benefits.
Some Crops Are More Sustainable Than Others
Besides cover crops, certain food crops can perform similar functions. Pulses, such as peas, beans, chickpeas and lentils, are among the most sustainable crops on the planet, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.17
They have much deeper root systems, which help keep carbon sequestered in the soil, thereby improving the organic matter content while simultaneously reducing atmospheric Co2. This in turn helps support the entire ecosystem. As noted by the Organic Consumers Association:18
“Pioneers in soil regeneration, or carbon farming, bear proud testament to a substantial list of potential benefits of carbon-rich soils. Such lands are more drought-resistant, they mitigate flooding when those around them are under water, support more wildlife and beneficial insects, restore natural stream flows, retain nutrients, reduce the number of pests, weeds and crop diseases and produce more nutritious food, all at lower input costs, which means higher profits.
If we continue with our chemically-dependent farm business as usual, we can expect crop productivity to fall as soils are depleted and as raw resources become more costly, more scarce and more undependable, as overall production costs rise in concert with oil prices … It’s time to start demanding support for carbon farming to rescue our agricultural and privately owned natural resource lands from systemic collapse.”
Creating Carbon Capture Gardens
Science Daily19 recently reported how brownfield sites, “those unloved areas of stony rubbish usually dismissed as wasteland,” could be a valuable tool in the effort to lower atmospheric Co2 levels. As explained in the article, soil is a major reservoir for carbon. In the soil, carbon promotes soil fertility and health; in the air, it is a greenhouse gas thought to contribute to global weather alterations.
Brownfield sites contain a lot of calcium. When combined with atmospheric CO2, it forms calcite (calcium carbonate). What makes brownfield sites so useful for sequestering atmospheric Co2 is that inorganic carbon in calcite forms much more rapidly than in other soils. A single hectare (2.47 acres) can sequester up to 85 tons of atmospheric carbon per year. According to Science Daily:
“The U.K. has 1.7 million [hectares] of urban land. If only 700,000 [hectares] of this was managed proactively it could meet 10 percent of the U.K.’s annual CO2 reduction target.
They also surveyed the sites’ plant and animal life, as well as their potential for recreation, education and food production — and again came up with fascinating findings … ‘We found that carbonation is widespread on brownfield soils, and that these soils can also support a diverse range of plants. We recorded more than 180 plant species on the 21 sites,’ Goddard says.
The results have important implications for how we develop our gardens — as well as our towns and cities. The SUCCESS project team is now engineering artificial soils to capture as much CO2 as possible, and conducting experiments to find out which plants are best at channeling carbon from the atmosphere into the soil via photosynthesis.
If successful, they will be able to recommend designer plant communities that maximize carbonation as part of ‘carbon capture gardens’ — urban green spaces that soak up CO2 as well as being places for recreation and wildlife.”
Applying crushed silicate rock to their land is another method farmers could use that would encourage greater carbon sequestration.20 The rock would also release phosphorous, potassium and silica, which are important minerals for healthy plant growth. There are serious drawbacks to such a scheme, though.
For starters, it would require major mining operations and transportation. In addition to the environmental destruction associated with mining, it would also add to carbon emissions. What we really need are environmentally friendly carbon neutral or carbon negative solutions, and regenerative farming fits the bill, solving not just the problem of carbon sequestration but also many others.
What You Can Do to Promote Positive Change
One way to improve your diet and promote a more sustainable food system is to grow some of your own food. During World War II, 40 percent of the produce in the U.S. was grown in people’s back yards in so-called “victory gardens,” and this trend has started taking root once again. If you’re unsure of where to start, I recommend starting out by growing sprouts. Broccoli, watercress and sunflower sprouts are foods that virtually everyone can and would benefit from growing.
It’s inexpensive, easy and can radically improve your overall nutrition. If you’re fortunate enough to have your own home and some land, you can start to rebuild your own topsoil. Simply applying biomass will convert to soil in a few years. Over the past three years, I have added about a million pounds of wood chips on my property from local tree removal services, and plan on doubling that.
The chips need to be finely ground and ideally have some leaves in the mix to balance the carbon to nitrogen ratio. Even then it will take a few years for the chips to convert to soil with high levels of humates. It is also important to never plant directly into the chips, only below them. The chips and mulch help retain the moisture and decrease water requirements. My interview with Paul Gautschi, master arborist and gardener for more than half a century, goes into even more details.
Another way is to join a community supported agriculture (CSA) program. As a CSA member, you basically buy a “share” of the vegetables the farm produces, and each week during growing season (usually May through October) you receive a weekly delivery of fresh food. Joining a CSA is a powerful investment in your local community and economy, as well as your own health.
Thriving CSAs can help revitalize a community and allow residents to form strong bonds with the farmers who grow their food. It’s also really helpful for the farmer, who is able to collect money needed to seed, sow and harvest up-front. Alternatively, buy as much food as you can from your local farmers or farmers market. If you live in the U.S., the following organizations can help you locate farm-fresh foods:
EatWild.com provides lists of farmers known to produce raw dairy products as well as grass-fed beef and other farm-fresh produce (although not all are certified organic). Here you can also find information about local farmers markets, as well as local stores and restaurants that sell grass-fed products.
Weston A. Price has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can easily purchase organic foods, including grass-fed raw dairy products like milk and butter.
The Grassfed Exchange has a listing of producers selling organic and grass-fed meats across the U.S.
This website will help you find farmers markets, family farms and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
A national listing of farmers markets.
The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, hotels and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.
The FoodRoutes “Find Good Food” map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs and markets near you.
The Cornucopia Institute maintains web-based tools rating all certified organic brands of eggs, dairy products, and other commodities, based on their ethical sourcing and authentic farming practices separating CAFO “organic” production from authentic organic practices.
If you’re still unsure of where to find raw milk, check out Raw-Milk-Facts.com and RealMilk.com. They can tell you what the status is for legality in your state, and provide a listing of raw dairy farms in your area.
The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund21 also provides a state-by-state review of raw milk laws.22 California residents can also find raw milk retailers using the store locator available at www.OrganicPastures.com.