The Scoop On Dirt (Part II) Why We Should all Worship the Ground We Walk On

Factory Farming and Feed Lots

Another side effect of modern agribusiness is that instead of raising livestock and crops together, animals are now raised on enormous Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), while crops are mass-produced on separate farms. Concentrating so many heavy-hoofed animals in a relatively small space wreaks havoc on soil health, ruining its porous structure. Excess animal waste over-fertilizes soils, and pollutes the environment.

Once upon a time, small farms used the manure generated by their animals to naturally fertilize their crops. Today, however, it is too costly to transport the mass quantities of manure generated on CAFOs to the big crop-producing farms. As a result, these farms make heavy use of synthetic fertilizers in order to support high-intensity monocrops, while the CAFOs generate huge amounts of animal waste, which eventually pollutes the surrounding land.

Some would argue that commercialized agriculture has been necessary to feed the world’s growing population, and that as a result, it has been beneficial to society. While this is true in some respects—particularly in our ability to supply starving people in developing nations with food, and in our ability to allow cities to grow even as farmland has been shrinking—agribusiness has, on the whole, fostered some disturbing social and environmental trends. In the long run, dramatic increases in crop yields may have disastrous implications.

Minowa likens the current state of modern agriculture to speeding up on the highway. “People have their foot on the pedal and don’t see how much gas they’re using,” he says. “But intensive agriculture is disrupting the microorganism and nutrient ratios in soil, and causing a build-up of pesticides.” At some point, the system may run out of gas and crash.

Some Solutions

Fortunately, there are measures we can take today to help save our soil. Educating farmers in the U.S. and abroad about the damaging effects of intensive agriculture and over-application of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is a good place to start.

Sustainable Farm Management

Progressive farmers can reduce damage to soils by reducing tillage, managing irrigation to minimize water loss (and hence salt build-up from evaporation) and planting cover crops. Planting wind barriers on hillsides (also known as “shelterbelts”) and maintaining healthy grass cover on pastures can help prevent erosion. If streams run through a farm property, planting grassed waterways along the stream banks can help trap eroded sediment and bind it up, keeping it from entering and polluting larger water bodies.

Tillage, a standard procedure during planting season, is extremely damaging to soils over time. While it has historically helped increase plant yields, it also fosters erosion and breakdown of organic matter by killing worms, chopping up residual root and plant parts, and disrupting the microbe community. Ultimately, farmers are forced to make up for declining soil fertility by relying on synthetic fertilizers.

No-till has been touted as one alternative, but it has drawbacks of its own. Hepperly says that no-till often leads to greater rather than less pesticide use (about four times as much, he says), and ends up costing farmers more money. Because of this, the pesticide industry is one of the bigger proponents of no-till. “Is tillage the lesser evil, or reduced pesticides the lesser evil?” Hepperly asks. He argues that a combination of no-till for some crops and tillage for others will help reduce both damage to soil structure and use of synthetic chemicals.

Pesticide use can be greatly reduced by adopting an integrated pest management system, which relies on such practices as crop rotation (which deters plant-specific pests from taking up long-term residence in soil) and natural biological controls. Planting marigolds around tomato plants in gardens to discourage pests is one such example. Many other plants or insects have similar beneficial pest-deterring properties when intermixed with agricultural crops. Jerry Bisson, an environmental compliance officer with USAID, says his agency promotes developing world farmers using simple technologies to improve land management. “Farmers can be taught to use string, rock and wood as barriers, for example. They can see how they benefit.”

The Organic Revolution

Even without becoming organic farmers ourselves, we can do a lot to help soils. Buying organic food is one of the first actions consumers can take to support sound conservation practices. Organic agriculture is based on the principle that healthy soil is the foundation of the food chain. In order to be certified “organic” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), stringent requirements must be met. As a result of these standards, organic farms employ only natural fertilizers. Healthy populations of soil microbes thrive on organic farms, and effects of erosion and soil compaction are greatly minimized.

Supporting organic farming also tends to support strong local communities. Mega-farms have no obligation to circulate their profits back into local communities, and often don”t. Buying locally has the double effect of encouraging investment in healthy towns and a healthy environment. Even if organic goods aren’t from a local farm, buying them still sends a powerful message that sustainable soil is a national priority. That message seems to be getting through: in March 2006, statistics showing a leap in organic food sales caused Wal-Mart to announce plans to stock more than 400 organic items in its stores (see Currents, “High-Volume Organic,” this issue).

While industrial agriculture currently dominates the market, it may not remain king of the hill indefinitely. As the costs of oil and natural gas go up, the price of fertilizers, a majority of which are fossil fuel based, is also increasing. According to Yoder, the price of nitrogen fertilizer has almost doubled in the last two years. Because mega-farms rely so heavily on fertilizers, and then must pay for transport to supermarkets scattered around the country or globe, these farms are seeing costs skyrocket.

Organic farming is the fastest growing sector of the farm industry, and is becoming increasingly profitable. Can organic farming achieve the same high yields as conventional agriculture? For 25 years, the Rodale Institute has been conducting a continuous experiment on its Pennsylvania farm, comparing organic and conventional methods. Throughout the study, the organic plots have repeatedly performed better than the conventional plots, especially during severe weather events.

The Big Picture

There are deeper societal issues that need to be addressed when looking at soil conservation on a global scale. First, urbanization needs to be better managed. The wholesale conversion of rural lands to concrete jungles consumes and degrades vast amounts of soil. In many places, particularly much of the developing world, the roots of mass migration to cities—poverty, war, desperation—need to be addressed. Franklin suggests, “The more small farmers have control over their land, the less likely they”ll be to mine the soil.” In addition, cities can mitigate damage to soils by supporting low-impact development and construction of eco-roofs and integrated parking lots.

Fundamentally, Hepperly believes people need to reestablish their connection to the land. “We need people to grow something—tomatoes, raspberries, flowers—so they understand why the land, returning soil to its rightful place in the very center of our lives.


Animal Rights National Conference 2018