In our quest to boost agriculture in order to ensure food security for an ever increasing global population as well as mass production of cheap animal feedstocks, we seem to be forgetting or overlooking some basic concepts of sustainable use of our natural capital. As pointed out in his book “Dirt – The Erosion of Civilizations“, American geologist David R. Montgomery considers the soil as a fundamental resource for the maintenance of life. According to Montgomery, how we treat land ultimately determines how the land will treat us, and for how long. It is well known that the twin problems of soil degradation and erosion have plagued humanity since the dawn of agriculture.
Life makes soil. Soil makes more life. Put simply, that is the story of the past half billion years. The evolution of plants and the rise of life and land fed the soil and the soil, in turns, fed more and bigger plants that nourished increasingly complex communities of animals. Life and soil were partners until modern agriculture changed the game.
So, it would seem intuitive that we can avoid the common fate of ancient societies as long as we do not repeat their grand folly or stripping off fertile topsoil at an unsustainable rate, right? Wrong. Unfortunately, “that is exactly what we are doing, only this time on a global scale”, says Montgomery. How long can modern agriculture keep all of us alive by breaking the soil-life bond? Viewed over any geologically meaningful time scale, an agricultural civilization that degrades the soil will be transient – it cannot last if is destroys its own foundation. Not to mention loss of key biodiversity in the process.
But all is not lost. A new green revolution may be unfolding. Ernst Gotsch, a Swiss born agricultural researcher, practitioner and an international reference in ‘Successional Agroforestry Systems’ has developed a refined technique of planting with principles and practices that can be applied to different ecosystems. “Amazon, Cerrado, the Bolivian Altiplano, Caatinga, all those places can be paradises when properly worked.” With a vision of agriculture that reconciles human beings with the environment, Gotsch concludes that “there is nothing to be said, because it is so obvious”, he says – absolutely confident that things work, naturally. The reader may be wondering that there is not such ‘simple’ solution to the sustainability dilemma in agriculture”. Think again, after watching one of Gotsch’s latest videos: Life in Syntropy.
Looking at Nature as both an ally and inspirer?! Makes sense to you? My takeaway is that a more ‘systems perspective’ is needed for modern agriculture production, as an integral part of a dynamic landscape that can be managed to maximize all potential ecosystem services.
Sure, agricultural economists would be right in asking how the economic returns of the ‘Gotsch model’ measure up to the more traditional, intensive agriculture. Or whether agricultural yields are comparable between the two (or more) models. It begs statistical analysis. But even the most robust economic comparison may fail to fully factor in the economic returns of protecting and/or restoring ecosystem services – simply because such ecosystem services have characteristics that challenge the economic theories of value articulation and value aggregation. And how about the need to also factor in the economic cost of environmental externalities that are brought about by business as usual, unsustainable agriculture? To name a few: pollution, erosion, nutrient loss, etc.
Lets the same economists refine their economic assessment methods, we may never truly know. Regardless, it is difficult to remain unmoved after being exposed to Ernst Götsch systems and his world view. But skeptics need not be concerned: the application of the Götsch technique is neither dogmatic nor raises any red flags. It simply appeals to common sense.
And that is the new paradigm shift.
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