The 20th-century population boom put an enormous strain on the global food supply, and farmers needed quick fixes to meet demand. But why, decades on, are we still using these outdated and devastating techniques when people are still going hungry? Even worse, if soil degradation continues at its current rate, The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations revealed in 2014, we may only have 60 years of food-growing left.
Imagine a forest. Looking up, a canopy of trees absorb carbon to store below ground and feed to the microorganism in the soil. Dappled sunlight allows smaller shrubs and groundcover plants to grow, providing homes for wildlife and fungi. In the Autumn, the fallen leaves decompose to feed the soil ready for the following spring's blossoms and fruits. The earth is rich in a variety of nutrients, capable of supporting a wide variety of life. Every 3cm of 'topsoil', the earth layer with the highest concentration of nutrients, takes 1000 years to produce, and when ecosystems are balanced, it grows year on year.
Somehow, we decided that we knew better than nature. We agreed that the ideal growing system revolves around mono-culture fields that drain the earth of nutrients so voraciously, the degraded soil retaliates by sending up 'weeds' to draw nutrients back to the ground. A lack of biodiversity allows pests and disease to thrive by ridding them of their natural predators. So how do we combat these issues? We create chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. In the 1920s, arsenic was spread liberally across US fruit fields as a pesticide, encouraged by the government! And while this choice was quickly stopped (perhaps a lack of repeat customers), the chemicals we use today are equally toxic. We have seen the pictures of farmers spraying their fields while wearing hazmat suits, yet trust the food produced to be safe to consume. We need only look at India's chemical agriculture of the past 50 years to see its devastating effects.
But there is hope. In ancient times, the Loess plains in China were renowned for their fertility. Over centuries, the land became an arid desert through over-farming and deforestation, which led to mass poverty (it is home to 50 million people), and the loss of large scale ecosystems. In 1994, the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project launched to regenerate the land and reverse the destruction by teaching local people to rejuvenate the soil. Today, a large section of the plains has transformed back to ecological stability, and 2.5 million people have been lifted out of poverty as a result. In less than 30 years, a land most would think of as beyond repair has been saved from hundreds of years of poor practices and disregard.
Currently, we lose 30 football fields of topsoil every minute. We are yet to see the full extent of damage from the chemicals we have added to the ground; we simply haven't lived long enough to see them but do not lose hope. The Loess Plateau should prove that the land can be saved, not through good wishes or government interference, but as a community of thinkers and doers learning together. It is more important than ever before to take food sovereignty back from 'big Agra'; they destroy the earth's ability to create life without any thought for the devastation in their wake. Nature has the solution. Before now, many millions of species worked together to create an abundance of life without the need for pesticide or destruction.
Some fascinating thinkers and doers:
Masanobu Fukuoka - I would highly recommend Fukuoka's 'One Straw Revolution'. He spent years observing nature and perfecting gentle farming techniques through trial and error.
Bill Mollison and David Holmgreen - Together, they established an ideology of permaculture.
Charles Dowding - An excellent example of success without digging; check out his youtube channel for instant vegetable growing inspiration delivered in a friendly format.
Liz Zorab - Another British YouTuber, Liz began a thriving food forest in her back garden.
The Permaculture Magazine - An excellent resource all-round.