Growing a Revolution coverEd. note: This post is an excerpt from Chapter 13: the Fifth Revolution from Growing a Revolution: Bringing our Soil Back to Life by David R. Montgomery, published by W.W. Norton. You can find out more about the book here.

The biggest barrier to agricultural progress is between the ears. —Kristine Nichols

As I started working on what would become this book, my wife, Anne, and I visited the Eden Project in southern England—the world’s largest greenhouse, made of enormous geodesic domes built in the open pit of an abandoned clay mine. One exhibit featured a twenty-foot-tall nutcracker designed by an industrial absurdist. Scrap-iron pulleys, chains, cranks, and levers launched big metal marbles down tracks to turn gears that slowly hoisted a wrecking ball into the air before dropping it onto a carefully positioned hazelnut. Kids competed to power the thing, turning a crank on the side of the enclosure that held the device. We joined an enthralled crowd and watched the intricate dance of parts designed to solve the problem of cracking a nut.

Upon leaving the pavilion, Anne pointed out plenty of perfectly good rocks lying around that could do the same job with little effort in a fraction of the time. Here was the exhibit’s broader lesson. Even with simple solutions in plain sight, complex ones attract our attention—and interest.

But simple ideas that solve problems do catch on. And visiting farmers around the world who were doing well putting regenerative agriculture into practice convinced me that building soil health offers a practical, cost-effective way to restore degraded land and maintain or increase crop yields with less oil and agrochemicals. Seeing how these innovative farmers restored their soil, their farms, and their bank accounts convinced me that we could avoid the fate of past civilizations. It’s not a question of if we can, but whether we will.

Conventional wisdom says that fertile soil is not renewable, that it can’t be replaced. But that’s not really true. Fertility can be improved quickly through cover cropping and returning organic matter to the land. Soil-building is about getting the biology, mineral availability, and organic-matter balance right, rolling with the wheel of life instead of losing ground pushing against it. As we’ve seen, restoring fertility to the world’s cropland is not an either-or choice between modern technology and time-tested traditions. We can update traditional wisdom and adopt new agronomic science and technology. Solving the problem of land degradation is devilishly simple from a practices standpoint. The difficulty lies in marshaling the political wherewithal to stop subsidizing conventional farming and start promoting practices that build soil fertility.

The principles of conservation agriculture offer flexible, adaptable guidelines for restoring soil health, feeding the future, and ensuring that farmers can make a living without damaging the environment. Everywhere I went, from the tropics to the plains, I found that farmers who minimized soil disturbance and adopted practices to increase soil organic matter and cultivate beneficial microbes could build fertile soil on both conventional and organic farms.

Of course, the specifics vary. Every farm is unique to some degree. What works well in temperate grasslands may not work so well in tropical forests. We need to tailor practices to the land and be mindful of geographic and social context, as we seek to optimize the use of land, labor, chemical and organic inputs, and machinery to increase farm profitability and soil health.

The way to meet this challenge is to figure out how to get farmers to adopt practices covering all three principles that work for them on their farms. For it does take all three—minimal soil disturbance, growing cover crops, and devising complex rotations that work together as a system. Leave one piece out and it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to, just like a stool that needs all three legs to stay upright. The farmers I visited are not pushing ideas to sell other farmers anything, land their next grant, fatten their reelection coffers, or please a funder or employer. They share a deep sense of community and want to pass on knowledge of a system that works well for them—and could for others too. And while they came to this viewpoint via their own experiences, they are not alone.

Both the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Bank recommend the three elements of conservation agriculture as the key to sustainable development for small farms in the developing world. The World Bank promotes these same principles as the basis for “climate-smart” agriculture to increase crop yields, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, sequester carbon in soils, and bolster agricultural resilience to climate change. Even agrochemical giant Monsanto now advertises soil health as central to the future of agriculture.

If organizations across the ideological, political, and industrial spectrum agree on the need to adopt practices that enhance soil health, why aren’t we promoting this with all the tools in society’s policy toolkit? Such a fundamental realignment of agriculture means big change across the board. There will be supporters and resisters. Who has the most to lose? Those who make and sell the agrochemical inputs on which conventional agriculture now relies. Curiously, many of the arguments about conventional versus organic agriculture break down when viewed through the lens of soil health.

Organic farms that adopt practices to boost soil health become more productive and conventional farms become more profitable. Recent reviews of nutritional studies report that organic foods not only have lower pesticide residue but higher phytochemical, antioxidant, and micronutrient density as well. What if we could get these health benefits through minimal fertilizer and pesticide use, without going completely organic? Conservation agriculture offers such a possibility.

Converting conventional farms to lower-input practices also would help address problems of soil erosion, water retention, energy use, and nitrate,phosphate, and pesticide pollution. If improved soil health became a consequence of agricultural production, this would not only solve agriculture’s oldest problem but help address some of the most pressing issues humanity now faces.

For soil restoration offers a triple harvest of societal benefits, along with better farm profitability. It simultaneously builds soil fertility to help feed the world and improve food quality, stores carbon to slow climate change and boost agricultural resilience to it, and conserves biodiversity on agricultural land. As a bonus, taxpayers could save money through reduced subsidies.

Restoring fertility to the world’s degraded agricultural soils would reduce our dependence on energy-intensive practices and help sustain high crop yields in a postoil world. The farms I visited showed that yields under fully established conservation agriculture systems can meet or exceed those from conventional agriculture. And while the transition may take several years to pencil out, it makes far more sense over the long run.

A 2006 assessment of low-input, resource-conserving agricultural practices in 57 countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia evaluated 286 development projects that used cover crops for nitrogen fixation and erosion control, applied pesticides only when crop diversity and rotations were not effective for pest management, and integrated livestock into farming systems. For a wide variety of systems and crops, the mean increase in yields was 79 percent, not quite a doubling of harvests but enough to feed the world of tomorrow if achieved globally. For projects that had data on pesticide use, yields grew by 42 percent, while pesticide use declined 71 percent. Many of these changes were attributed to practices that improved soil and crop health, and thereby allowed effective pest control with minimal pesticide use.

This is evidence that more diversified, low-input farming can work for many subsistence farmers. As a general rule, ecologists find that systems with greater diversity are more resilient. Monocultures rarely exist in nature. If they do arise, ecosystems with a single dominant organism don’t tend to persist. On farms they are just as unstable and vulnerable to pests and pathogens. In contrast, greater on-farm biodiversity is a recipe for resilience against pests and pathogens that’s been field-tested in nature for hundreds of millions of years.

We have rules and regulations to prevent industries from polluting rivers and streams. Farmers shouldn’t be allowed to either. No one—least of all farmers—should be satisfied with agricultural practices that degrade and pollute our waterways. Using less fertilizer would go a long way toward addressing pollution problems, like the one that recently led the Des Moines Water Works, which supplies the city’s drinking water, to sue three Iowa farm counties over the nitrates contaminating the water supply. It’s safe to say that something is wrong with our agricultural system when neighbors collectively sue those who feed them for poisoning their water. Widespread adoption of conservation agriculture would help solve nitrate, phosphate, and pesticide pollution problems writ small and large, from individual on-farm water wells to the great dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

And it is worth considering the inestimable value of soil biodiversity to human health in light of the fact that most modern antibiotics came from soil-dwelling microbes. We are far from knowing all the mircoorganisms that live in native soil communities. Who knows which one may next prove transformational for agriculture or medicine? We need to stop relying on tillage and intensive fertilizer use that bankrupts nature’s stores. The accompanying alteration of soil biota reduces diversity and shifts bacterial and fungal community abundance and compositions. Restoring organic matter to soils and adopting practices with less physical and chemical disturbance can counter these problems.

The promise of conservation agriculture to bring life back to the land and support biodiversity both above and belowground should appeal to environmentalists and farmers alike. For like it or not, a large part of nature will be what lives on farms, because we now use more than a third of the world’s ice-free land area for growing crops and raising animals.

But just because we can restore degraded land rapidly doesn’t mean we will. Under conventional practices, an individual farmer often faces a choice between prioritizing short-term profit or conserving soil and its fertility over the long run. Yet as a practical matter, conservation cannot come at the expense of economic viability—any truly sustainable agriculture needs both to align. One of the most promising things about practicing all three elements of conservation agriculture as an agronomic system is that it can save conventional conventional farmers both time and money.

Unlike the fertilizer-intensive Green Revolution practices that developed top-down through government agencies and corporate research, conservation agriculture has largely evolved and spread through bottom-up farmer-led initiatives. Why? A key attraction is the opportunity to improve a farm’s bottom line by lowering input costs.

But it’s not just farmers who are interested. A number of prominent foundations have adopted soil health as a central theme of their efforts. Chief among them are the Howard G. Buffett Foundation in Illinois, the Noble Foundation in Oklahoma, and the Regenerative Agriculture Foundation in California. And dozens of nonprofit organizations around the world now promote soil health and restoration, including the recently established Soil Health Institute in North Carolina. Even corporate titan Shell Oil is supporting a major test to assess the potential for large-scale carbon sequestration in rangeland soils…

…Change will not come easy. Agribusiness is now as much about selling products to farmers as selling what farmers produce. One person I interviewed for this book told a story about one of his graduate students who’d gone back to the family farm one summer. The student worked out that, between higher input costs and lower crop prices, his father and brothers harvested a net profit of just 50 cents an acre the prior year. They would have been better off buying a single packet of pumpkin seeds and hand-planting them, forgoing the cost of inputs. Assuming a single pumpkin survived to harvest on each acre, they could have sold it for six times what they actually ended up earning—and saved themselves all the work of plowing, fertilizing, and harvesting. This story illustrates how the people making most of the money from farming are not the farmers. It’s those who sell stuff to farmers who are doing really well under the current system—the companies who sell the inputs on which conventional farming rests.

Today, the margin between losing the farm and staying on the land is pretty tight for most farmers. They can’t choose the price they pay for fertilizer, diesel, and all their other inputs, or set the price they get for their corn, wheat, or soybeans. But they can change their practices to reduce their need and expenses for inputs. As I was writing this chapter, I came across a study projecting that 27 percent of row-crop land in Iowa would lose more than $100 an acre in 2015, due to high input costs and falling grain prices. Something is seriously wrong with our agricultural system if hardworking Iowans growing crops on some of the best agricultural soil in the world can’t make money farming.