A look at the future of farming

November 5, 2017

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Industrial farming has fed the world for decades, and with the current situation of rapidly increasing global human population, intensive farming may seem like the only way to feed the world in the future.

There are, however, many shortcomings of the current model of industrial farming. These issues may become increasingly problematic to the point where they could threaten the well-being of humans, the very opposite of what farming is meant to do. Thus, I feel it is imperative that we look at possible solutions or improvements that could be implemented or integrated into the current system.

What are some problems of the current system of farming?

1) For one, the current farming system encourages the use of high amounts of chemical pesticides and herbicides to control pests and weeds. These toxic chemicals, while effective in the short-term, probably do more harm than good in the long run. Most pesticides kill indiscriminately, meaning that beneficial insects such as bees, wasps and lacewings are killed even though they do not harm plants. As the predatory insects are killed off, the pests that said predators are meant to control will recover more quickly which could increase the probability of future outbreaks, and subsequently, more toxic pesticides being sprayed. This results in an endless cycle of trying to fend off hoards of increasingly resistant pests with chemicals that could also harm the humans that are supposed to benefit from their use.

This brings us to the next point, where the constant use of pesticides results in an increased resistance to the toxins by the target species. When a farmer sprays his field with a chemical pesticide, more often than not, he does not kill every single pest. The individual pests that survive the chemical warfare will have an increased resistance to the chemicals sprayed. They will then proceed to procreate and produce offspring that similarly have a heightened tolerance to the pesticides. In a sense, the overuse of pesticides results in a hastened selection process of ensuring the future population of pests will be better suited to combat farmers’ conventional weapons.

Lastly, the excessive use of toxic pesticides and herbicides could also lead to adverse effects on humans and the environment. Many pesticides and herbicides are neurotoxins which can and will harm the nervous system of humans who are constantly exposed to them. As mentioned earlier, the toxic chemicals also kill indiscriminately, meaning animals and plants which may play important roles in the garden may be adversely affected by the careless application of herbicides and pesticides. The highly soluble chemicals may also be washed into aquatic systems where they would then kill the aquatic animals and plants crucial to the ecosystem. Pets may also be affected by the use of such chemicals.

2) Next, the excessive use of fertilisers is an increasingly problematic issue that needs to be addressed one way or the other. Fertilisers are an important part of any agricultural system, and the advent of modern fertilisers (both organic and inorganic) has allowed the current agricultural system to effectively feed the majority of the world’s human population. Ever since the industrial revolution, farmers have applied copious amounts of fertilisers to their fields every time they cultivate their crops. This has led to increased yields and profits. However, the accumulative ecological and environmental effect this practice has caused over the years is indeed very scary. Increased algae blooms in aquatic ecosystems (due to eutrophication) causing ‘dead zones’ to be formed and increased production of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide are just some of the more pronounced consequences of using too much fertilisers.

The excess amounts of nutrients that are not used by the soil microbes and the plants are washed into waterways where they allow algae to form dense mats on the surface of the water. When they eventually run out of available nutrients, the algae will start to die off, using up oxygen in the process. This leads to the death of the aquatic organisms like fish as they are deprived of oxygen. A “dead-zone” like this can take a very long time to recover, especially if the source of eutrophication is not controlled. In the case of nitrogen fertilisers, excess nitrogen may produce nitrous oxide, which is a greenhouse gas that traps about 300 times the amount of heat energy per 100 years compared to carbon dioxide.

It is important to note that using organic fertilisers like manure can have just as deleterious an effect on the environment as compared to using chemical fertilisers. The quantity of excess nutrients is what needs to be controlled.

Other major problems or consequences in agriculture include erosion of topsoil due to repeated tillage and lack of soil cover, production of methane as a result of enteric fermentation in lifestock, production of chemical fertilisers by burning of fossil fuels, drainage of wetlands to irrigate farms in arid areas, as well as salinisation of soils, specifically in arid areas.

It seems like modern agriculture needs to improve in these aspects:

-Generation of greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide

-Imbalance of nutrients in surrounding habitats

-Introduction of toxins into environment

-Erosion of topsoil (which is also linked to eutrophication)

-Habitat destruction (wetlands, forests, grasslands etc.)

A Sustainable Model

The current agricultural system is in need of a revamp. However, creating a sustainable model is no easy task to come up with. The revamped system needs to be able to feed the world, while ensuring that the environment is protected from further destruction.

A blend of practices from both the pre-industrial age and the current technological age would probably be necessary to come up with such a system. The following are perhaps some potentially useful practices that could be integrated into the current system, if not already done so, to create better sustainability.

1) Mulching and cover cropping. Although already practiced pretty widely around the world, there is still a lot of room for improvement. The potential benefits to the environment of this practice are aplenty. By shading the soil with organic matter, weed growth is slowed or inhibited, resulting in less competition from weeds, and increased yield. The surface organic matter also adds some nutrients to the soil overtime and reduces erosion, leading to richer soil in the long run. Cover crops, in addition to adding organic matter to the surface, also aerate the soil with their roots, and provide even better erosion control by holding soil together. Both mulch and cover crops also encourage beneficial soil life, which may include detritivores such as woodlice, earthworms and millipedes, as well as important pest-control in spiders and centipedes. The use of organic mulch in the garden also means that organic material that would originally be sent to landfills or incinerators as waste would be diverted to the farmland to serve a better purpose; the destruction of waste at landfills and incinerators generates a lot of greenhouse gases such as methane.

This practice may seem unattractive because the mulch may attract pests such as slugs and snails, and the investment in cover crops may require too much manpower and cost to manage (to kill the cover crops), but the long-term benefits of mulching and cover cropping can be very rewarding to the farmer, and to the environment.

2) Reduced tillage. Tilling is the process of turning over soil at the start of every growing season to reduce growth of weeds and improve drainage. However, repeated tillage can lead to some serious ecological issues. For one, tilling makes soil (especially bare soil) particularly prone to erosion by wind or rain. Next, constant and repeated tilling will expose the organic matter in the soil to increased heat, leading to increased rates of decomposition and long-term depletion of organic matter in the soil, which can in turn lead to decreased fertility of the soil.

By reducing the frequency of tilling, erosion and loss of organic matter can be controlled significantly. The long term health of the soil will also not be compromised, and the soil food web, not constantly disrupted.

There are some shortcomings of reduced tillage, however, particularly if the farmer decides to refrain from using herbicides. A practice known as no-till, where there is no tillage at all, has shown to increase the prevalence of weeds in the field. Perhaps the use of good mulching techniques can potentially curb this issue without the need for herbicides, but as of now it seems that weed control seems to be a problem with organic no-till. However, organic reduced till may be the compromise that a sustainable model could use in the future.

3) Integrated pest management (IPM). This practice has been around for a long time, it involves the use of biological pest control, in conjunction with other methods like intercropping, in the garden or farm setting. This can be done by attracting the beneficial animals to the farm by creating attractive habitats, introducing the biological control into the farm or garden, or both. Biological control does not completely eradicate the target pest, but instead aims to create a strong foundation against said pests. Akin to how a strong immune system knows to fight infections, but doesn’t prevent pathogens from entering the body, biological control ensures that predators will keep the pests in check but does not prevent the entry of pests into the garden. This practice reduces or even eliminates the use of toxic pesticides, resulting in a healthier environment for humans and animals to reside in. Examples of biological control include the use of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to combat Aedes mosquitoes and the use of various parasitoid wasps to tackle common pests such as caterpillars, beetles and ants.

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Above: Biological control might be the future of pest control. 

There are some concerns and drawbacks of biological control, however. The introduction of predators could potentially cause more ecological harm than good, especially if the predators are not native to the region. The invasive cane toad (Rhinella marina) in Australia is a prime example of biological control gone wrong. Furthermore, biological control may not be as effective in areas that are frequently exposed to destructive human activity (such as fogging).

A possible way IPM may be used more effectively in the future could be to retain some patches of native wildflowers or forests in or around the farm to serve as a magnet and reservoir for beneficial predators, especially the native ones.

4) Alternative sources of fertility, and controlled applications of fertilisers. The production of many commercial fertilisers currently involves mining from the earth or burning fossil fuels. Alternative sources of fertility may be essential if we are to create a sustainable farming model. Perhaps active composting to recycle nutrients in the garden could provide a large percentage of the required nutrients. Using cover crops, specifically nitrogen-fixing legumes, and mulch could also contribute to the fertility in a garden. Human urine could also be a potential source of fertility due to its high nitrogen content, high accessibility and low price (essentially free).

These sources may prove insufficient in terms of providing nutrition to plants. Thus, a more realistic approach would be to compost, mulch and cover crop, and apply fertilisers to only the plants which require them.

5) Growing only plants suited to the local environment. Growing cool-weather plants such as Brassica oleracea in a hot, tropical region like Singapore will result in a plethora of issues. Ditto for trying to grow heat loving plants like basil (Ocimum basilicum) in a constantly cold place like Copenhagen, Denmark. The plants may still grow, but trying to produce such unsuited plants in bulk would be a nigh impossible task without extremely high investments in technology. This means the use of temperature controllers, humidity controllers and maybe even artificial growlights, all of which may be unrealistically costly.

Thus, by sticking to plants suited to the local conditions, yield may be maximised and manpower reduced. To take things even further, by growing native species, one could conceivably obtain better pest management, as the native species would have evolved better measures to combat the pests that exist in the local area. Another reason to use local plants would be to prevent salinisation.

6) Rainwater collection and irrigation. Collection of rain may be very helpful for when periods of extended dryness occur. The use of rainwater irrigation also prevents long-term accumulation of salts (due to high salt content in some irrigation sources) in the soil, which could lead to soil salinisation. This is especially prevalent in dry, arid areas. The switch to rainwater irrigation also means that wetlands may be preserved, and these ecological wonders do contain a high density of wildlife.

Why permaculture is not the answer.

Permaculture, or agroecology, is a design system where chemicals are not used, perennials are preferred over annuals, and biotechnology is lambasted. While there are certainly useful practices in permaculture, such as mulching, cover cropping and IPM, the design system sorely misses out on one crucial aspect: yield. Permaculture-based systems often require a much larger land area to obtain the same yield as a conventional system, which in the big picture, may be even more debilitating to the environment since more land has to be cleared to make way for the farm. One reason for the drop in yield is the favouritism for perennials over annuals. While perennials are certainly reliable sources of food, annuals form the bulk of agricultural production, what with rice, wheat and maize being known as the “Big 3” of agriculture for a reason. Another reason could be polyculture or guild planting. This aspect has been much romanticised, but certain studies have shown disappointingly low yields from such systems, as very often the most competitive crop in such a system would cause yield decreases in the less competitive crops, and in that case you are much better off growing a monoculture to maximise yield.

Here are some articles/sources on why permaculture may not work, but how some aspects of it can and should be integrated into the modern model of agriculture:

Why food forests aren’t the way to go

Polyculture increases multifunctionality, but dilutes the beneficial effects each plant species would have in a monoculture

Polyculture requires tradeoffs

Summary

To summarise, my idea of a sustainable agricultural system would include integration of aspects from many existing systems. A system that would derive fertility from recycled food waste and cover cropping, prevent soil erosion with mulching, cover cropping and reduced tillage, make use of biological control by having patches of wildflowers within the farm and by reducing or even eliminating the use of toxic pesticides.

-Wide array of microhabitats, such as a pond, a log pile and wildflower patches within or around farm

-Rainwater collection on buildings and in ponds

-Solar panels on buildings

-Soil covered with cover crops or mulch. (No soil is left bare)

-Crop rotation

-Reduced tillage

-Fertilising with composted food scraps, urine and animal waste, as well as by growing nitrogen fixers. Fertilising only when necessary to reduce chances of excess nutrients causing ecological and environmental problems.

-Having nutrient ‘sponges’ (wildflower patches) to sap up any excess nutrients.

-Perhaps growing GMOs that have useful properties such as drought resistance (This is a very controversial topic, which I would like to talk about in a future post)

 

 

 

 

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