Changing Farm Practices
If we can agree that agricultural lands have the potential to provide significant value to wildlife, we next have to consider what shifts in current farming practices are needed to actually deliver that value. The science behind the farming strategies is critical, and the main two approaches discussed here are regenerative agriculture and organic. But equally important are the financial, legal, and policy structures established to drive implementation. We’ll focus on the science behind the farming practices in this article, but as this is written by a lawyer, not a scientist or a farmer, I will mostly refer to you the real experts.
The concept of “sustainable agriculture” has been around for a while now, but that term is somewhat broadly defined. It can cover everything from using drip irrigation (using less water) to humane treatment of livestock. Because it is so broad, we are going to drill down on two other, more specific types of practices: regenerative and organic. The mainstream public is generally familiar with “organic”, which can also be defined in many different ways. There’s alot of terminology, and quite frankly, it depends on who you’re talking to. For purposes of this article, by organic, I mean farmers who do not use synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers and meet the standards of the USDA Organic label. Farmers must follow and document organic practices for three years before they can become USDA certified organic. That three-year hurdle is one opportunity to harness--more on that later.
Recently, the concept of regenerative agriculture has taken the spotlight in the environmental community, mainly as a solution to address climate change. Even this term has disputed definitions, but when I refer to regenerative agriculture, think of farming with certain practices that retain topsoil and build soil nutrients without artificial amendments. In the case of row crop agriculture, this means cover cropping, complex crop rotations, and no-till (leave the soil intact without using a plow), and for livestock pasture, intensive rotational grazing. David Montgomery has written an excellent book on this topic, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking to learn more. Regenerative practices are compelling when it comes to climate change because these practices build soil carbon by pulling it out of the air and storing it in the ground. One conservative estimate projects these soil practices (if deployed everywhere) could amount to 13% of annual carbon dioxide emissions at current levels. Montgomery’s research (and other sources, see also the Marin Carbon Project) indicates that the trio of practices for cultivated crop farming can add 1-6 tons of carbon to the soil per acre per year, up to 5-12%. Even more carbon can be sequestered if livestock are integrated into the row crop cultivation cycle.
All that carbon enhances the fertility of the soil, and in particular, practicing no-till agriculture allows the establishment of a robust microbiome below the surface (like worms and Mycorrhizal fungi), all of which feeds the plant growth cycle naturally, reducing the need for chemical amendments like fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide. In addition to carbon, leaving cover crop plant materials and the byproduct of a harvest (e.g., corn stalks) adds nitrogen and phosphorus to the soil, key nutrients for plants that would otherwise be added in the form of mineral fertilizer. Building the food chain at the bottom, literally in the soil, enhances the prospects for wild creatures all the way up that chain. Allan Savory, an ecologist from Zimbabwe and one of the early pioneers of the regenerative movement, focused primarily on intensive rotational livestock grazing. Similar to how herbivores graze in the wild, concentrating cattle and moving them frequently actually restored degraded grasslands, brought back native species of birds and mammals, and provided better habitat for even large mammals in the African bush. Similar results were discovered by John Wick and Peggy Rathmann--using cattle to restore grasslands resulted in an increase in birds and mammals on their farm in Marin County, California. A quick note here--we need more peer-reviewed research demonstrating the link between biodiversity and regenerative agriculture, but these anecdotal stories are compelling.
If we’re considering how to foster wildlife habitat in agricultural lands, we cannot skip a discussion about the significance of organic farming over that of conventional. Rachel Carson drew attention to the chemical crisis facing our nation with her courageous publication, Silent Spring in 1962. Despite the well-known scary side effects of coating our food with carcinogenic chemicals, only 1% of agricultural land in the US is farmed organically. About 5% of the US food sales are certified organic, but the large majority of that food comes from abroad. This article is not a deep dive into the science of organic versus conventional, but the fact remains that we are still using millions of tons of synthetic chemicals to grow our food and food for livestock across the US, some more damaging to wildlife (and humans) than others. 2,4-D, for example, is one half of the formula that made up DDT; DDT is now banned in the US, but 2,4-D is one of the most widely used herbicides. It is considered a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, althought not by the EPA. Another commonly used herbicide is atrazine, which is a known endocrine disruptor, causing male frogs to develop female sex characteristics, and some studies tie it to fertility disruption and cancer. This is the stuff we’re eating, and spraying with wild abandon across millions of acres of habitat across the country. It’s meant to kill plants and insects, so it should not be too surprising to consider that there are health implications for animals further up the food chain, just as there are for humans.
One last example: the EU recently banned neonicotinoids, a group of pesticides attributed with driving bee colony collapse disorder and decimating the population of these key pollinators. Unfortunately those pesticides are still legal in the US. A common variation of GMO corn, Bt corn, actually has “neonics” embedded in its DNA. Caitlin Shetterly’s Modified discusses some interesting theories about the health effects of neonics on humans, if you’re interested in learning more about GMOs and benefits of organic over conventional.
I should add one more disclaimer here: I am not a farmer, nor did I grow up in or near a farm. But I have spoken with many farmers about these practices. Whenever I bring up this idea of shifting management practices of agricultural lands, most are quick to note that farmers are not receptive to outsiders telling them how to farm. But when you actually talk to farmers, especially younger farmers who are open to new technologies and methods, many are eager to learn more about these ideas. Many are already practicing some type of “unconventional” practice that is actually regenerative (e.g., cover crops, no-till, crop rotation, or rotational grazing). And many are struggling financially, recognize their land is degraded from generations of chemical monoculture or overgrazing, and are looking for solutions that actually restore the land they love so much. So if conversations with farmers are the biggest obstacle to success here, then we’re not really that committed to the objective in the first place.
Up next: the financial, legal and policy shifts that can support a transition to regenerative and organic farming practices.