Why modern agriculture is not sustainable, why we desperately need to adopt alternatives, and why you are not hearing this message.

At first glance it seems that the way we do agriculture has only improved. That in the past 200 years the methodology of agriculture has become more efficient, less physically demanding, more productive, and thus its products have become more affordable. The true cost of these so-called improvements, however, is rarely brought to the light. The business of modern agriculture is very lucrative to the few, pretty tyrannical to the many, and very destructive to the planet. What is our evidence to prove this? Whilst mechanisation, industrially-produced fertilisers and pesticides, genetically-modified seeds, and monocultures[1] have increased the overall amount of food produced worldwide, the equal and opposite deterioration of food quality and environmental destruction is also as evident. 

How is modern agriculture so harmful? Firstly, modern agriculture labels itself as “conventional” or “traditional” – giving the illusion that this is how humanity has been farming for thousands of years and that the agri-tech industry that lies behind this agriculture is merely improving on what has been practised before. Furthermore, since this industry is a highly profitable one, it has the buying power to perpetuate this saintly image of continuing to feed the humanity “as it has always done”. It has had the power to deeply insert itself into the collective unconscious and to make us believe that enormous fields of a single crop, ploughed, fed with fertilisers, sprayed with herbicides and pesticides, and sowed with carefully genetically engineered seeds is a healthy and prosperous image. 

Theresa May admits 'running through fields of wheat' is the naughtiest  thing she ever did
A monoculture field of wheat

In the example above I am describing modern arable farming and here is why, in the long-term, in doesn’t work. Monocultures by nature have very low tolerance to pests and disease. There are no examples in the natural world of vast swathes of a single organism living together. In Nature, ecosystems pervade. Every single living being is always surrounded by many other species – including humans, who often think they live in total isolation. We are quite literally enveloped by an entire ecosystem of different bacteria, fungi, and often viruses. These microorganisms live on our skin and inside our organs, but fear not; as research continues to unfold, we increasingly understand the importance of the often-beneficial symbiotic relationships[2] with our microbiome[3]. In fact, the more we discover and the more we understand how essential for our health it is for us to live in harmony with our micro biotic guests. One of the main reasons that research has found is our immune health. Thus, is it the same with plants or animals who live as a monoculture. When you have a field full of a single species, and it is attacked by a pathogen[4], disease is likely to spread like wildfire, as there is no diversity to help confer immunity[5]. What does this lead to? It leads to the ever-increased use of industrially-produced chemical herbicides and pesticides. These, although manufactured to kill off only a select few species, will, over time, accumulate the toxicity to kill, or certainly do damage, to a greater number of species – notably also to the people who come into close contact through spraying. Moreover, they leak into the surrounding landscape and have known deleterious effects downstream[6]

Of course, the other issue with continually planting a single crop on any patch of land is one of fertility. Annual crops don’t allow for the nutrient cycle to be completed, as the nutrition of the soil is bound up and carried away. Often the same crops are planted again and again, meaning that there is little chance of the soil fertility to recover by itself as it is always the same nutrients that are in high demand. So, what is the modern agricultural solution to keep yields high? Why industrially-produced fertiliser of course. Why is this not such a good idea? Well, firstly the production of industrial fertiliser is very energy demanding (which we now know is not environmentally sustainable). Industrially-produced fertiliser also progressively acidifies the soil (which little by little makes it harder for plants to absorb the nutrition), and disrupts the mineral cycles of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. With irrigation and rain these elements are carried downstream with the flow of water, and, as with the “-cides”, have a tendency to disrupt the natural balance of things. A very serious and well-documented consequence of such industrial pollution is oceanic dead zones. These are areas of very low water oxygen levels which can no longer support marine life. 

It is easy to miss these downstream consequences of modern agriculture, as often their destructive effects happen relatively far away from the farming itself, but not always. There are many documented examples of how the spraying of herbicides and pesticides also causes direct harm to the people who spray them, and the people who live downwind of the spraying. There is also the issue of social and economic justice. The package of modern agriculture also includes the sale of specifically chosen genetically modified seeds (and animals). These are often selected to be the most productive and consistent, but not necessarily the most well-adapted, or the most resilient, and therefore farmers find themselves tied into a forced relationship of reliance to the entire package needing not only to purchase seeds, fertilisers, “-cides”, but also antibiotics in the case of livestock and having to stick to the carefully prescribed regimes of the agri-tech companies that make modern agriculture possible. 

This leaves people feeling choiceless in their demise. The sentiment often becomes something of the sort, “I know that this is not ideal, but it’s necessary, and there isn’t really another realistic way to accomplish feeding the world population at this point”. This is perhaps most epitomised in the concept of ploughing. The practice of ploughing in many human cultures is indeed a lot older than modern agriculture, however, previously it was always at a much smaller scale compared to the scale at which it can be carried out with heavy machinery. Again, as our understanding of microbiology has expanded, and as we have been able to study soils in greater depth, we have come to understand one truth that is very difficult to reconcile with agriculture as we know it – it is very bad to plough the earth. Why? Because soil is a living organism in itself, and it is composed of many tiny living beings who contribute to the structure of the matter under your feet. When we plough the soil, we break up the structures that hold it together, we make it more fragile and much more prone to erosion. When soil is fractured, it doesn’t take much rain or wind to blow a lot of it away. Therefore, we are left to resort to the methodology of modern agriculture to have an appropriate substrate on which to grow our food as our soil doesn’t seem to stay in place or build fertility by itself.  

This begs the question – well then what are the alternatives and why have we not heard about them before? The answer is – there are many great alternatives that have been widely tried and tested, if not in peer-reviewed scientific literature, as they take a systems approach that aims to benefit many different variants at once. In other words, these systems mimic entire ecosystems, and are therefore not easy to study with linear scientific methodology which can only study one variant at a time. Moreover, these alternatives go by many different names including; Permaculture, Agroforestry, Holistic grazing, Agroecology, Regenerative Agriculture, Organic, Biodynamic, to name but a few. This list is not only dizzying, but also conducive to getting lost in the noise of everyday life. Modern agriculture has such a hold on our understanding and our imagination of what it is to grow food. To be told that you can grow food without ploughing or digging into the soil can sound too fantastical and alien to be widely understood and adapted. The methodology that exists for ecologically-minded agriculture is very adaptive, and situation dependent. It urges you to learn about your local biology, and to re-imagine your relationship with food. 

The road to this more holistic view of farming is, in practical terms, pretty simple. The real challenge is to show more people how well is works, how much more satisfying it can be, and how many more benefits you can reap from being ecologically-minded. My advice would be – become unashamedly curious. 

What is Regenerative Agriculture | reNature
An agroforestry system incorporating coffee (a shade-loving plant), and trees for timber.

[1] Monoculture: the cultivation or raising of a single species (i.e., a field full of one type of wheat, or a pen full of one type of cow). 

[2] A symbiotic relationship is one where both parties benefit from living closely together.

[3] The human microbiome is the summation of all the microorganisms living both outside and inside the human body. 

[4] Pathogen: a microorganism that can cause disease.

[5] How does diversity help to confer immunity? In a field of plants, as in our bodies, having many different species present, allows for 1. The slow-down of the spread of an attacking organism as there are physical barriers (like in the spread of a fire), 2. Allows different species to respond in their own way – one plant may have no immune response to a certain pathogen, but another next to it might – and so it might spread some anti-pathogenic molecules that will help the plant with less immunity to fight back. 

[6] As these chemicals move with the flow of water, they end up leaching into the water system and cycle and will flow downstream into streams, rivers, and eventually the seas and oceans. 

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