June 29, 2021
6 minutes to read
Opinions expressed by Contractor the contributors are theirs.
Ask a member of the agrochemical industry and he will proudly tell you that without the invention of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, we could never have successfully fed our rapidly growing planet. In fact, nitrogen fertilizers alone are now believed to support about half of the world’s population.
Although synthetic inputs continue to be critically important tools for global food security, the long-term effects of using chemical inputs at our current rate are detrimental to soil health and our capacity. to support global food production.
A negative feedback loop
Soil and crop health are complex issues; however, a basic understanding of the role of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) in soil – with some surprising data points – outline the challenge that awaits us.
Soil organic matter (SOM) contains the greatest amount of C and N in all terrestrial ecosystems. In soil, most of the nitrogen is not immediately available and is bound to SOM as organic nitrogen. Soil microorganisms, which thrive on C and nitrogen, are the engine that breaks down nutrients bound to a plant for absorption.
The more N added by chemical fertilizers, the more C is needed for decomposition. If C is not properly replaced after decomposition, more N is needed to achieve the same effect with lower C values each year. Without replenishing organic matter, more nitrogen is needed to achieve the same yield result as excess nitrogen is leached out, fouling our groundwater and atmosphere.
Another negative effect of fertilizers and pesticides is the impact they have on microorganisms, decreasing the activities of soil enzymes and causing unwanted changes in SOM and a toxic effect on the microflora. This results in poor soil quality and the need for more chemicals.
Related: How Agritech Enables Environmentally Friendly Agriculture
How we became addicted
American agriculture has learned some hard lessons over the years.
The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, where unsustainable farming practices combined with severe weather stripped the top soil of over 100 million acres of farmland, resulting in the largest migration of people in state history -United.
However, the great wars of the first half of the 20th century resulted in significant advances in synthetic chemicals. Pax Americana also caused the biggest population boom in human history, requiring more food to produce, and chemical companies intervened with the use of synthetic nitrogen which quintupled over a period of 50 years from the 1960s.
To complicate matters, in 1973 California regulated that the sale of pesticides is done only through a licensed Pest Control Adviser (PCA). Although created as a result of growing public concern about the side effects of pesticides, the regulation resulted in a pseudo-monopoly of the chemical companies being not only the ones who supplied the materials, but also the “expert consultants” for everything. a farmer’s soil, water and plant needs.
And while there are some trustworthy PCAs we’ve worked with, industry experts have started calling them faults of this system, noting that there is “a long-standing gap between growers and consultants” and, “over time, farmers have started asking their PCAs for advice on many topics outside of pest management, such as fertilizers and irrigation “. In response, the Certified Crop Adviser (CCA) program was created to cover these additional areas. However, today in California, PCAs outnumber CCAs in a report of greater than 10 to 1.
The result? To maintain yields, farmers buy more fertilizers and pesticides, recommended by companies that benefit the most from their production. The market capitalization of agrochemicals in the world in 2021 is estimated at $ 233.71 billion, the top three companies representing two thirds of the market.
This vicious circle of chemical dependence ultimately weighs on farmers’ balance sheets and degrades our soils.
Related: The 8 Lessons Entrepreneurs Could Learn From Farmers
Life beyond addiction
While we would have to reduce our romance with synthetic chemicals, removing them would be ruinous. Instead, the answer lies in something farmers know to be inherently true: Take care of the soil, and the soil will take care of you.
There are three fundamental pillars of soil health (structural characteristics, chemical properties and biological activity), and all three can be changed, often by organic and sustainable means.
The use of cover crops and other regenerative agricultural practices can improve soil health and provide a cost-effective alternative to chemicals.
Bulk and natural soil amendments can also solve many macro issues affecting a crop, greatly improving soil health. For example, applications of compost to replace SOM in a net positive manner; gypsum to help structure the soil, leach sodium and chlorides, and add calcium; and adjust the pH with lime or sulfur.
However, chemical companies do not sell these products because their bulk nature reduces margins and delivery is a challenge across a large supply chain. Even more tragically, because of their role as “knowledge consultants” to farmers, chemical companies often recommend a synthetic product that costs up to 10 times the equivalent of a natural amendment.
Another unintended consequence is that it is “easier” to simply hook up a highly concentrated chemical to the irrigation system than to move and apply natural amendments. Instead, hook the plants up to the IV irrigation system, and the chemical companies have the medicine for you.
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A global paradigm shift of growers consulting agronomists, as well as ACPs, is essential to improve soil health and feed our growing population.
Finally, moving towards a balance between the N and C ratio with soil-oriented and regenerative practices will also have a huge advantage. Finding ways to encourage and inspire farmers to sequester C in their soil could even put agriculture at the forefront as a solution provider to climate change.
We’re not there yet, but we can move to a more sustainable way of farming if we change our focus and make soil management as high a priority as our spray management programs.
Continue to overlook the importance of long-term soil health, and we have a much more difficult road ahead.