How to Wean Your Farm Off Chemical Inputs

Regenerative Agriculture

Author: Liri ShabtaiFeb 19, 2021

Chemical inputs became the basis of giant, industrial farms. And as a result, the system we’ve designed to feed the planet has taken a serious toll on the health of our soils, our waters, our environment, and our population. For these reasons, it is imperative that farms begin to wean themselves off of chemical inputs over the next 10 years.

There are few anthropogenic pursuits that have changed the world’s landscapes more than farming. Cropland and rangeland take up nearly half of the planet’s land surface. But with our current agricultural paradigm, we are turning the world’s fertile soils into malnourished, inhabitable lands. The third agricultural revolution in the sixties, also known as the Green Revolution, was highly focused on technological intensification in the field. Above all, production was most important, and as yields grew— the land began to suffer. Chemical inputs became the basis of giant, industrial farms. And as a result, the system we’ve designed to feed the planet has taken a serious toll on the health of our soils, our waters, our environment, and our population. For these reasons, it is imperative that farms begin to wean themselves off of chemical inputs over the next 10 years.

The Industrialized Farm

The industrialization of agriculture began after World War II, as a way of addressing global hunger and as a geopolitical tool to prevent the uprising of a communist revolution within the U.S.  Nevertheless, the global shift towards this model of farming in the last sixty years has come with many costs. For Americans who lived through the Great Depression— or witnessed the devastating effects of hunger when fighting abroad — industrializing food production seemed not only like a good idea but essential for feeding a growing population. Industrialized agriculture is highly consolidated, putting the power and responsibility of food production in the hands of only a few very large corporations who heavily rely on chemical inputs like synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and non-therapeutic antibiotics (and immense government subsidies) to achieve their margins.

As large, mechanized farms and fields replaced medium-sized family farms— farming methods changed too, moving towards specialization, mechanization and an increasing dependence on fossil fuels. Tractors and other equipment gained traction; chemical inputs revolutionized crop yields; animals were moved into controlled confinement; new irrigation methods forced dry land into “productive” land (TerraThought: can we really consider native habitats “unproductive”?); and seeds were bred to be super-soldiers.

 How do Chemical Inputs Impact The Environment?

Chemical Inputs in farming refer to agrochemicals such as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides (TerraThought: the rootword -cide comes from Latin, which means “kill; killing, such as genocide. Is killing a proper mechanism for growing food or a disruption to nature’s processes?). Needless to say, these substances are used to potentiate crop productivity, but the impacts on human and environmental health are calling for a transition to a system that cooperates with the natural world.

Pesticides: A pesticide is any substance used to kill, repel, or control certain forms of plant or animal life that are considered to be pests (TerraThought: can we really consider any aspect of the natural environment fulfilling its role a “pest”?). This includes herbicides for destroying weeds, insecticides for controlling (killing) a wide variety of insects, and fungicides used to prevent the growth of (kill) mold. Are they efficient? Not completely. Each year approximately 5.6 billion pounds of pesticides are used worldwide, however, a large quantity of pesticides are lost via spray drift, off-target deposition, and run-off, which can have undesirable effects on some species, communities, or ecosystems as a whole. Unfortunately, less than 1% of the total amount of pesticides applied for weed and pest control reach the target pests. Moreover, repetitive pesticide use is causing a “superbug” phenomenon by increasing the proportion of less-susceptible “pests” in a population. Through this process of selection, the population evolves to develop resistance to the pesticide. Currently, over 500 species of insects, mites, and spiders have developed some level of pesticide resistance. The long-term effects of this catastrophe? An ongoing economic battle to control the human-induced evolution of bugs. Something is evidently broken and it needs to be fixed.

 Fertilizers: A fertilizer is a substance, be it synthetic or organic, which is added to the soil in order to increase the supply of essential nutrients that boost the growth of plants and vegetation in that soil. The problem is that humans tend to use too much synthetic fertilizer in the soil because they have to cater to the global demand of food. Much like anabolic steroids used in athletic competition, synthetic fertilizers push crops beyond their natural limits, creating stress, which ultimately affects the entire ecosystem, trading short-term gains for long-term health. The extraction of minerals for fertilizers through strip-mining violently transforms the environment, irreparably changing the character of the natural landscape. These fertilizers containing nitrogen, phosphorus, and oxygen molecules make their way into our water bodies, fertilizing blooms of algae that deplete oxygen and leave vast “dead zones” in their wake—  debilitating aquatic ecosystems. Our irrigation systems often fertilize the land by adding nutrients, such as salts of potassium and magnesium, which accumulate in the soil profile and toxify the land, resulting in desertification and lower crop yield.

Why Can’t We Stop Using Chemical Inputs Overnight?

The massive changes that shifted our agricultural paradigm toward mechanization, led to the pollution of our food system, as well as our entire biosphere. Yet, it was not an intentional vendetta against our Earth’s systems, but rather a movement toward feeding the world. But now that we are aware of the toxicity that industrialized agriculture evokes, why can’t we eradicate it overnight? Or even in the near future? Well, market systems encourage the adoption of mechanical techniques because they lower current costs and boost yields in the short-run, but eventually lower yields and raise costs of production in the longer term. In other words, farmers not using pesticides may be forced to use agrochemicals to ensure economic survival, even if that survival is short-lived. Furthermore, chemical companies selling the pesticides have an incentive to push their use by advertising and promotion and this may create a bias in favour of their use. Loans obtained by farmers for the purchase of inputs may also be a barrier to switching to other strategies, in addition to massive government subsidies (paid by taxpayers) encouraging their use.  And the damage to agricultural land from the use of pesticides occurs over a period of time, so long term costs arising may not initially look serious. Would these chemicals be economically viable if the total economic cost of their impact to the system was incorporated into their price? Probably not.

What are the next steps toward Regenerative Agriculture Worldwide

Regenerative agriculture is among the most urgently needed work globally, for at least three reasons: we face an environmental crisis, a health crisis, and a rural economic crisis.

 “Ultimately, we need to transform finance and shift the flow of investment capital to perpetuate a Regenerative Economy that serves humanity and is a steward of Earth’s ecosystems. […] The transition to a Regenerative Economy is about seeing the world in a different way — a shift to an ecological world view in which nature is the model. The regenerative process that defines thriving, living systems must define the economic system itself.” — John Fullerton & Hunter Lovins (2013)

 Transition Capital

Addressing pressing agricultural crises through a regenerative transition will require growing our agricultural workforce: because the current farm population is aging, and because regenerative agriculture is knowledge-intensive work that substitutes experiential knowledge of farm ecosystems for harmful industrial inputs. Given its social, environmental, and economic value, regenerative agriculture ought to be a welcoming profession. The majority of obstacles facing new entry farmers are rooted in an economic system favoring industrial agriculture. We need policy to push toward smart financiers to see the picture that farmland is the key to our survival, thus creating financial instruments that will simplify the process for farmers transitioning to regenerative agriculture.

Policy & Community Education

Changing government policy is critical for wide-spread transition to regenerative agriculture. In the US, current policy is a complex web of infrastructure that incentivizes chemical-dependent agriculture and makes it challenging for regenerative farmers to transition. By implementing crop insurance, conservation programs, research and extension, and trade policy— the government can support farmers to transition to agroecological practices. Overall, benefiting communities, health, and the environment. New regenerative and organic farmers also need social networks to transmit knowledge, pool resources, and decrease the transaction costs of farmer-to-farmer collaboration. Some assets are physical, others are socio-economic, and others are cognitive or experience-based. Whereas some established farmers have been building human, social, organizational, political, and economic capital for generations, new farmers generally do not have these assets to begin with. Ideally, such assistance would be delivered through policy networks that provide assistance for new sustainable farmers. These networks pull together resources and assets to create meaningful, equitable access.

 Biomimicry Technology

Human civilization has long used nature to inspire technological innovation. By using biomimicry and following patterns within nature, we can create intuitive, timeless solutions that we can benefit from for generations. Biomimicry is a mindset shift towards a movement that promotes balance, regeneration, and the amplification of indigenous wisdom. Our goal is to use biomimicry technology to facilitate a scalable transition to regenerative agriculture, while acknowledging the current struggle to go completely regenerative.

Next: How The Ag Tech Industry Can Support Water Conservation in Food Production

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