This is the second in a series of three blog posts where I explore the implications of two threats to our food supply – climate change and peak oil. Sometimes called ecological agriculture, eco-agriculture or regenerative agriculture, the idea is to grow food by working with, not against, nature. This type of agriculture typically uses more human resources and less technology while also sequestering more carbon in the soil.
Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial
Perhaps one of the most significant studies on organic farming techniques was published over a decade ago by the Rodale Institute. The Farming Systems Trial was launched in 1981 with a clear goal: Address the barriers to the adoption of organic farming by farmers. For more than 40 years, the Farming Systems Trial (FST) at Rodale Institute has applied real-world practices and rigorous scientific analysis to document the different impacts of organic and conventional grain cropping systems. The scientific data gathered from this research has established that organic management matches or outperforms conventional agriculture in ways that benefit farmers and lays a strong foundation for designing and refining agricultural systems that can improve the health of people and the planet.
Mixed crops provide ecological benefits
A recent experiment by researchers at the University of Göttingen investigated how a mixture of crops of fava beans (broad beans) and wheat would affect the number of pollinating insects. Somewhat surprisingly, they found that areas of mixed crops compared with areas of single crops are visited equally often by foraging bees. Their results were published in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. This could be due to several reasons. However, the researchers noted, “Mixed cultivation of wheat and fava bean has also other advantages for crop production,” says Professor Catrin Westphal, Head of Functional Agrobiodiversity. For instance, yields per bean plant were higher in mixed crops than in pure cultures. “Cereal crops can be ecologically enhanced by adding legumes such as beans or lentils. This can make a valuable contribution to increasing the abundance of flowers on the arable land and thus counteracting pollinator decline,” concludes Haß.
Berlin could produce more than 80% of its fresh vegetables locally
Berlin has enough space for urban gardening, and up to 82% of Berlin’s vegetable consumption could be produced locally, a new study finds. “The amount of vegetables represents a significant share of the annual consumption,” highlights Diego Rybski, an external faculty member from the Complexity Science Hub and a co-author of the paper that will appear in the April issue of Sustainable Cities and Society journal.
European farms mix things up to guard against food-supply shocks
An article by Ethan Bilby in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine, reports that researchers are discovering the benefits of combining forestry and agricultural activities. The COVID-19 pandemic led to bare shelves in supermarkets as shipping routes were cut off. The war in Ukraine has affected the supply of essential grains. But increased climate change stands to cause even greater disruption. Researchers say part of the solution to mitigating that risk is for farms to become more mixed through some combination of crop cultivation, livestock production and forestry, a move that would also make agriculture more sustainable. For Dr Sara Burbi, assistant professor at Coventry University in the UK until December 2022 and now an independent researcher, COVID-19 was a wake-up call.
“Suddenly, we experienced first-hand what happens when value chains are not resilient to shocks and what happens when globalisation, with all its intricacies, does not work anymore,” she said. “We saw highly specialised farming systems fail when they over-relied on external inputs that they had no access to.”
Pilot farms across Europe are experimenting with combining crop and livestock production in one farm (mixed farming) and with pairing farming and forestry activities (agroforestry). Poultry grazing in orchards is an example of a mixed-farming approach. The results reveal interesting synergies and promising effects, including improvements in soil health. A combined system can increase the cycling of nutrients needed in the soil for crops to grow. It can also help to regulate air and water quality, prevent land degradation and even provide biomass and food on-site for livestock.
Veganism may not save the planet
Vegans and vegetarians have long argued their approach to eating is the kindest—to animals and to our planet but new research from the University of Georgia suggests that might not actually be the case. The paper published in the Journal of Political Ecology (2022) found that a diet of mostly plants with local and humanely raised meat is likely the most ethical way to eat if we want to save the environment and protect human rights. “There’s nothing sustainable about this plant-based model,” said Amy Trauger, author of the study and a professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. For example, soybeans used in U.S. tofu and tempeh products aren’t grown in the U.S. They were largely imported from India, where soybean production contributes to widespread deforestation and habitat loss. Soybean plantations also take up valuable land space that could be used to ease food insecurity in the country instead. Then there’s the pollution and environmental impact from transporting soybeans all the way from India to the U.S. Similarly, palm oil, which is a vegan substitute for butter or lard, is mostly imported from countries where local ecosystems aren devastated by deforestation and loss of biodiversity as millions of hectares of forests are razed for palm oil production.
In contrast, animals raised in humane and natural systems can contribute to climate change mitigation. For instance, one pig can produce over 150 pounds of meat and 20 pounds of bacon. Raised on a pasture, outside in a forest with a diet of tree nuts, surplus milk and vegetable waste from nearby farms, that pig can also contribute to soil, forest and ecosystem health. When the time comes to harvest the animal, a small-scale processing plant that avoids plastics and employs well paid staff could be used to keep the supply chain short and transparent. That one pig could feed a family for months, Trauger argues.
Effort to help pollinators shows successes, limitations
Although not quite the bee’s knees, a three-year effort to conserve bee populations by introducing pollinator habitat in North Carolina agricultural areas showed some positive effects, as bee abundance and diversity increased in the studied areas. But results of a study examining the program’s effectiveness also showed that the quality of the habitat played a key role in these positive effects, and that habitat quality could be impacted by the way the areas are maintained over time. The research is published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.
Researchers visited 16 sites four times each year and caught bees in nets and in cups—called bee bowls—that were painted to mimic the UV reflection of flowers. In all, the researchers collected more than 16,000 bees from 128 different bee species. Results showed bee abundance increased over time, with more bees collected in 2018 than in 2016. Meanwhile, the diversity of species increased in 2017 and then dropped slightly in 2018, although both years showed large improvement over 2016. The study also showed, though, that the quality of flowers was a key driver of bee abundance and diversity, with areas of higher flower quality attracting more bees and more bee species. Poorly maintained areas with degraded flowers, weeds and grasses lagged behind in bee collection.
The study turned up a few surprises. Although there were no squash plants, the areas attracted squash bees – an important specialist pollinator. “We also found a particular bumble bee—Bombus pensylvanicus—that is under review for potential addition to the endangered species list,” she added. “We found a high abundance of them, so it’s possible that they’re attracted to agricultural areas more than other areas. We submitted the data to Fish and Wildlife so it can be used to help make the decision on whether it should be listed as endangered or not.”
The researchers hope that further studies like this one can be performed in different types of habitats, like forests or urban areas, to capture a wider sense of bee populations in North Carolina.
Big food companies encourage regenerative agriculture
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Dieter Holger notes that soil holds the promise of capturing greenhouse-gas emissions to help slow global warming. Companies are now working to measure how soil stores carbon as they encourage farming techniques that reduce emissions across their sprawling supply chains. Improving soil health is a goal of so-called regenerative agriculture, which typically involves tilling less, growing more than one crop on the same land and using less synthetic fertilizer. Many farmers are hesitant to shift from established farming methods, but companies and governments are investing to educate them on the benefits. Regenerative practices can increase soil nutrients and yields while also absorbing carbon dioxide from the air, scientific studies say. Healthier soil could offset up to 15% of global fossil-fuel emissions, according to a 2004 study published in the journal Science.
Many of the world’s biggest food companies, including General Mills Inc. and Nestlé SA, are working with farmers to promote the practices. However, determining the emissions captured in the soil still largely relies on imperfect estimates. Companies are eager to improve the measurement ahead of coming mandatory climate disclosure rules that are expected to require them to publish reliable information about their emissions and climate plans. The entire food-and-agriculture value chain—including processing, packaging, transport, waste and household cooking and refrigeration—contributed 31% of human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions in 2020, according to the United Nations.
2 replies on “Ecological Agriculture”
I did not have the time to read the whole thing, Rebecca, but found the article on the impact of a vegan diet particularly interesting! Thanks, Desre
Thanks for your comment, Desre. I was a bit unsure about that article but I, too, thought the findings were interesting.