Living In Harmony With the Earth
Farmers have an intimate relationship with nature. They spend their lives outdoors, they know every contour of their farm’s ground, they know when their crops or animals need extra attention.
Yet there is a common refrain in farm country – and the broader public – that farmers are at odds with the environment. Industrial farming practices dictate that nature is to be controlled. Large machinery is designed to tame unruly terrain, while pesticides make the soil sterile and indiscriminately kill off beneficial bugs along with pests. Headlines pit farmers against environmentalists in battles over endangered species or water quality.
This narrative is false.
The farmers who lead our work at NFFC strive to work in harmony with nature rather than subduing it. To do so, they must contend with pressures from industrial agriculture and its friends in government that instead incentive farm practices that kill the very ecosystem they rely on.
Industrial Farming Is Destroying the Environment
Farmers rely on the environment, but by every measure, industrial agriculture is having a devastating impact. For example:
- Nearly one-quarter of all global greenhouse gasses come from agriculture, including the production of farm chemicals and livestock emissions. With their reliance on sun and rain, farmers are also more directly affected by global warming than most of the population.
- Due to intensive farming practices, nearly half of all productive topsoil has disappeared in the last 150 years. In the US, topsoil is eroding 10 times more rapidly than it can be replaced.
- Fertilizers, with voluminous untreated animal waste from factory farms, are polluting ground and surface water across the country. In the Gulf of Mexico, a “dead zone” the size of several New England states forms every year as a result of fertilizer and other nutrient runoff from the Mississippi River watershed. In communities from North Carolina to Wisconsin to California, the water is undrinkable because dangerous chemicals and bacteria from factory farms have contaminated residents’ wells.
- Pesticides are a major contributor to the decline of insects, which are an important part of the food chain and play an indispensable role in pollination, water, and soil health.
- The common overuse of herbicides, fungicides, and antibiotics in agriculture has led to an evolution of weeds, pests, fungi, and bacteria that are resistant to these very treatments, leaving us with fewer tools to manage them.
Farming with Nature
At the same time, the potential exists for agriculture to be a great environmental benefit, through practices based in agroecology – the science and practice of sustainable farming with nature rather than against it. In agroecology, which is also a social movement, farms are viewed as ecosystems of interacting elements (soil, water, plants, and animals) that can be managed together to conserve resources and produce healthy food.
Sustainable farming practices include: using compost, cover crops, and rotational grazing to build healthy living soil; rotating crops and using companion planting to attract beneficial organisms to fight pests; integrating crops and livestock; planting trees and shrubs to increase biodiversity; working with land contours when planting; and other measures.
In comparison to conventional chemical-based farming, sustainable agriculture builds fertile soils, causes less pollution, and does not contribute to pesticide and antibiotic resistance. In addition:
- Healthy soil absorbs and stores water effectively, reducing runoff and making crops more resilient in periods of drought.
- Soil is one of the largest carbon sinks on the planet, potentially able to sequester tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.
- Diversified farms offer habitat for birds, animals, insects, and other organisms.
In terms of yields, research shows that sustainable agriculture can be just as productive as chemical-based methods; in times of stress, such as drought, yields can even be higher and more reliable. Research and development of agroecology has been hugely underfunded in recent decades in comparison to research on agricultural chemicals and technology, so these initial yield results may be just the beginning.
Investing in Sustainability
Current US farm policy encourages farmers to produce as much as possible – indeed, large-scale production is the only way most farmers can make a living.
There is also a myth in farm country, promoted by agribusiness corporations, that US farmers must “feed the world.” In truth, the world can feed itself if we let it, but the message is so strong that many farmers see it as their responsibility to produce large harvests. Use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, heavy farm equipment, genetically modified crop systems, and other environmentally damaging practices are relatively easy ways to increase production in the short term, even if the long-term impacts are disastrous.
There is little incentive not to use these practices, because the negative consequences often appear downstream or are delayed and only experienced over time. In fact, there is little enforcement or accountability at all for causing harm to the environment or to public health. For example, no one is being held financially responsible for the dead zone in the Gulf or the decline of pollinators, even though there are very real costs for these crises.
In this context, it can be difficult for an individual farmer to shift towards more sustainable techniques. There is a steep learning curve to do something entirely new, and the first couple of years of transition can be financially challenging. Making a change could mean loss of income or loss of standing in the community.
This is why NFFC farmer members use a wide variety of practices. Some follow “conventional” chemical-based methods. Many make changes where they can: planting cover crops in the fall so their fields won’t be bare all winter; not using genetically-modified seeds and their accompanying pesticides; establishing a few acres of prairie grass on ground that was inconsistently too wet for a good harvest. We have farmers who have transitioned to organic certification, and still others who consider themselves to be “beyond organic.”
Policy Solutions for a Sustainable Future
Farmers can make a huge difference on their land and in their communities by moving away from chemical-based methods, but the nationwide shift to sustainable farming that we need must not be borne by the individual only. We need federal policy that promotes and incentivizes reasonable production, agroecology, and conservation, including:
- Reinstatement of supply management provisions, removing incentives for overproduction and creating new incentives for conservation and sustainable practices.
- Federal research funding for and investment in agroecology, soil science, classical plant breeding, biodiversity, and more. Federal funding must be increased to the land grant universities, to move them away from reliance on corporate research dollars.
- Enforcement of the so-called “polluter pays” principle, requiring large operations to pay for damages they cause to public lands, the environment, and neighbors’ private property.
- Increased funding for core conversation programs, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative.
- Prohibition of conservation funding for concentrated animal feeding operations.
- Upholding organic standards, including fair enforcement of livestock pasture rules, so that all organic farmers operate on a level playing field.
- Federal assistance to farmers, ranchers, and fishermen dealing with economic and environmental stress from climate change.
- Big Facts: Food Emissions, CGIAR, no date.
- The World Needs Topsoil to Grow 95% of its Food – but It’s Rapidly Disappearing. The Guardian, May 30, 2019.
- Large ‘Dead Zone’ Measured in Gulf of Mexico. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, August 1, 2019.
- What the Insect Apocalypse Has to Do with the Food We Eat. Civil Eats, April 17, 2019.
- Weeds Are Willing the War Against Herbicide Resistance, Scientific American, June 18, 2018
- What’s Causing an Outbreak of a Mysterious Fungal Infection? America’s Farms Offer a Clue. Mother Jones, April 11, 2019.
- What’s in the Water [PDF], Food and Water Watch, February 2011.
- Most Nitrate, Coliform in Kewaunee County Wells Tied to Animal Waste, Wisconsin Watch, February 2019.
- Soil as Carbon Storehouse: New Weapon in Climate Fight? Yale Environment 360, March 4, 2014.
- The Farming Systems Trial: Celebrating 30 Years. Rodale Institute, no date.
- Final Report: The Transformative Potential of the Right to Food [PDF]. Olivier de Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, January 24, 2014.
- US Stories from the Field. Pesticide Action Network North America.
- Diversification Practices Reduce Organic to Conventional Yield Gap. (Lauren Ponisio et al.) Proceedings of the Royal Society B, January 22, 2015.