December 01, 2020
Eco-Ag, Day 1: Balancing Minerals, Sequestering Carbon and Saving Our Soils
The 45th annual Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference jumped right into the weeds on Tuesday with a graduate-level seminar from Dr. Don Huber on balancing soil minerals as a means of preventing disease and pest pressure.
Dr. Huber, a professor emeritus of plant pathology at Purdue University, said that it is the available mineral nutrition in the soil — and not synthetic fertilizers and pesticides — that will best support a successful farming system over time. Using glyphosate to control weeds, for example, will have a negative impact on a crop’s mineral uptake, resulting in weaker and less nutrient-dense foods. This is because glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup-brand weedkiller, is a chelating agent that ties up crucial soil minerals such as manganese.
As Dr. Huber pointed out in his presentation, the weak link in any farming system is often found underground. Having the wrong proportion of minerals will inevitably affect crop yield and quality.
Gary Zimmer, an organic farmer and founder of Midwestern BioAg, built upon Dr. Huber’s foundation of mineral balance in the soil, outlining a farming system based on biological exchange.
He said a true system should not be based on what the farmer isn’t doing — no-till, for example. While ultimately not an opponent of the no-till philosophy, Zimmer said the farmer must first set the stage by working in the right balance of mineral nutrition, feeding microbial life with organic matter, and building an aerated structure in the soil.
“Don’t till if you don’t have to,” he said.
To Zimmer, soil health means “the capacity of the soil to function without intervention.” That’s a goal, he said, but not always the starting point. He said that a diverse mix of cover crops and strategic plowing could put a farmer on a path that ultimately won’t require tillage.
“You have to earn the right not to till,” he said.
The crux of Zimmer’s talk — largely based on his magnum opus The Biological Farmer — was about sequestering carbon in the soil and keeping it there. That is accomplished by building an ecosystem of underground biology that fosters deep and fugally rich root systems that can properly access the minerals in the soil.
“I want you to grow roots! Roots are the secret to the whole thing,” he said.
While he isn’t against light chiseling through the top few inches of farmland, he urges farmers to leave the middle root zone alone. He explained that it is the structure of the soil —ideally that of a black and crumbly chocolate cake — that is the secret to sequestering carbon in the form of complex macromolecules such a suberin.
The takeaway from Zimmer’s presentation was to sequester carbon in your soil because it creates a more resilient farming system — not just because you want to get a carbon credit payment from the government.
Keynote Panel Discussion
An all-star panel capped the day’s speaker line-up, with Dr. Vandana Shiva, Dr. Rattan Lal, Bob Quinn and John Ikerd gathering together to discuss the essential connection between soil health and planetary peace and security.
Dr. Shiva, an India-based activist and author (most recently of Oneness vs the 1%: Shattering Illusions, Seeding Freedom), took aim at the Green Revolution, which she said has taught the world that soil is an empty container for industrial chemical inputs. The result of that thinking, she said, has been increased poverty, a decline in plant nutrition and degraded soils the world over. She called industrial farming “violence against the earth” that is based on “a war mentality and war chemicals.”
She cited her fellow panelist Dr. Lal’s words when she declared that, “soil is living and therefore has rights.”
Ikerd, an agricultural economist from the University of Missouri (and author of the book Small Farms Are Real Farms), said that while the Green Revolution may have been well intentioned, it didn’t work — not for the farmers who went broke, not for the rural communities that depend on agriculture, and not for the consumers who eat a poor diet that results in disease.
Dr. Lal called malnutrition a “weapon of mass destruction” that kills nearly 30,000 people a day, a horrifying reality people in positions of power rarely talk about.
Along with access to healthy food, the restoration of soil health must be a top priority globally in order to prevent catastrophe, he explained. “If soil health goes down, everything else goes down with it,” he said.
Although the United Nations has estimated that the world has 60 harvests left if we maintain our current agricultural practices, the panelists on Tuesday don’t believe that fate is inevitable.
But to reverse that alarming trend, the panelists argued we must realize that “soil isn’t just something that props up the plant.”
Ikerd said we cannot have healthy food without healthy soil, despite what industrialists might claim about hydroponics and lab-grown meats.
Quinn, a Montana farmer and author who pioneered the production of ancient khorasan wheat under the Kamut brand (see his book Grain by Grain), said that the lack of nutritious food will ultimately lead to the United States’ downfall. He said an epidemic of so-called “life-style” diseases could soon end up breaking the country.
“We have a very high cost for food, but we don’t pay it at the checkout counter,” he said. We pay it in farmer suicides, he explained, and in the erosion of soil, the breakdown of communities, the degradation of ecosystems and in declining health.
Dr. Shiva said this is the result of an industrial mindset that turns food into a commodity that is judged not on its nutrition, but on how much it weighs.
And a large percentage of that weight, Dr. Lal pointed out, is trashed. Food waste, the panelists agreed, is one of the most preventable tragedies of our current food system. It isn’t that there is a lack of food, it’s that it isn’t getting on the right tables or back into the soil of the rights farms. It’s going into the landfill.
In the end, the panelists were optimistic that we can transform agriculture worldwide in the next few generations. Ikerd even estimated that significant change could occur within the next 2 or 3 farm bills. But much of the change will begin with the farmers, who Dr. Lal characterized as the most important stakeholders in shaping the future of land use and ecological health. The panelists also pointed to soil health as a crucial component in reversing climate change through the sequestration of carbon.
— Ben Trollinger, Acres U.S.A. editor.
All Eco-Ag Conference Highlights
The 2020 Eco-Ag Conference ran from Dec. 1 to Dec. 4. Here are the highlights of each day below: