Welcome back to Envirobytes, the blog that crosses the intersections of climate change, food, technology, and storytelling. Last week, I reviewed the award-winning documentary, The Biggest Little Farm and praised its cinematography, emotional heart, and vision of a more harmonious agricultural future. This week, I dig to uncover the rotted roots of the modern agricultural industrial complex. Initially meant to feed a growing global population, the well-intentioned work of scientists during the Green Revolution has led to a new reality of waste and environmental harm.
The first key issue of modern agriculture is soil degradation. The YouTube channel Our Changing Climate notes that degradation is accelerated by monocropping and intensive tilling in their video “Why Soil Matters.” Monocropping is the agricultural process by which a single crop is grown season after season on the same land. In theory, monocropping greatly increases food supply more readily. The growth of plants requires nutrients from the soil and in turn, the plants natural processes renew nutrients as well. For example, legumes have formed relationships with bacteria that convert nitrogen in the air into ammonia for the plant’s use and the bacteria receive carbohydrates from the legume. Monocropping contributes to degradation by draining the soil of nutrients and does not consider cultivating plants with symbiotic relationships to regenerate those nutrients.
This stands squarely in opposition to some Indigenous people’s practice of planting corn, beans, and squash together to support each other’s health. The corn gives the beans a structure to grow on, the beans contribute nitrogen back to the soil, and the squash leaves provide shade that prevents the soil from drying out. This relational approach to agriculture can similarly be seen in The Biggest Little Farm where the whole farm played a key role in rejuvenating the soil and replenishing its nutrients. They key ingredient in harmonious farming are the microorganisms that form symbiotic relationships with plants to generate new nutrients for the soil. Though tilling the land with a huge combine introduces oxygen back into it, this process overworks the land and kills the bacteria crucial to supporting soil health. These two practices, monocropping and over-tilling, severely undermine the productivity of the plants and subsequently harm future generations that have fewer and fewer nutrients to grow. Without a healthy foundation to build on, agriculture will fail at any scale, as seen in The Biggest Little Farm.
Plants need nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to aid in their growth and various biochemical processes, but soil degradation has led to a problematic solution: artificial fertilizers. It seemed simple enough. If the soil is lacking in a handful of chemicals, we can cheaply mass produce them and use them in all circumstances of degradation. I used to applaud fertilizer’s ability to promote plant growth in arid foreign countries that stand to benefit tremendously from more efficient agricultural production, however, fertilizer became far more widespread than the developers initially intended. The University of California Cooperative Extension of El Dorado County covers the most important reasons why fertilizer is harmful in this brief paper. The first issue with artificial fertilizer is that it stunts the growth of plants which can lead to the insufficient development of a root system, hindering its ability to take in water and nutrients. The second is that the application of fertilizer is temporary and does not rebuild relationships between plants and microbes, instead raising salt concentrations which kills some microorganisms. This continued reliance on artificial fertilizer means farmers have less control of their crop and livelihood. In The Biggest Little Farm, natural manures are used to great success to revitalize the soil with nutrients. Manure based fertilizers release nutrients more slowly, encouraging regular plant development, and reintroduce microorganisms to the soil. Again, for the sake of convenience modern agricultural production seeks out one-time solutions rather than creating relational systems that proactively maintain soil health.
Finally, as global temperatures increase, record droughts require an increased reliance on irrigation, leading to tremendous water waste and toxic runoff. As seen in The Biggest Little Farm, soil recovery is not possible without water. Water dissolves and distributes nutrients to plants and is itself a vital chemical component in the biochemistry of plants. What the documentary also highlights are that irrigation systems are fragile and can lead to significant waste. In the case of arid farming environments like southern California, water cannot absorb into dry, degraded soil because of its compaction and because semi moistened soil has water particles evenly distributed throughout their porous structures that promote absorption. If water is not absorbed into the ground, it sits atop the soil, exposed to sunlight which exacerbates evaporation. This means that dry soil leads to flooding and waste, as experienced by the farms neighboring the Chester’s. In addition to the loss of water, flooding washes away artificial fertilizer, removing it from plants that need it and concentrates it in toxic quantities.
The nutrients found in fertilizer have fantastic benefits for many forms of life, particularly plankton and algae. However, they are so high in their nutrient density that when further concentrated through flooding, they can kill marine ecosystems. An overwhelming influx of nutrients via runoff can trigger algae blooms in marine ecosystems that lead to greater growth. In lakes, for example, algae blooms cover the surface of the water which prevents sunlight from reaching freshwater plants. This massive growth in algae also leads to increased respiration as they produce energy without the presence of the sun. Respiration requires oxygen and so the algae consume more oxygen, killing all life in the lake. Not only does industrial agriculture harm the soil but its downstream effects have serious repercussions for anyone that relies on the health of marine ecosystems.
While this post is more science than storytelling, these three key issues are incredibly important when considering the impact of industrialized agriculture. From a purely ecological perspective, Western approaches to industrialized farming are flawed. This analysis has neglected aspects of carbon emissions, human rights violations within the industry, the global system of food waste, food insecurity, and the larger economic forces that govern food production. With so many avenues to criticize global food production, it is incredibly important how narratives around sustainability and climate are shaped to condemn and uplift. This week, some key facts on the ecological damage of industrial farming but next week is a glimpse into the world of climate storytelling and the role it will play in creating a brighter, greener future for all. Thanks for reading and stay hungry for more Envirobytes!
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