Choosing a model for sustainable agriculture
Agriculture is at the heart of all the great debates related to the environment, water, biodiversity, the war on hunger…all issues that will determine the future of our planet. However, the perception of agriculture by the media, politicians and the public at large conceals numerous misconceptions that are the result of continuing misinformation and a lack of communication on the part of farmers on how their profession and practices have evolved. There is, for example, a serious confusion concerning the impact on the environment of intensive and extensive agriculture. Intensive agriculture is wrongly perceived as synonymous with productivism and pollution and extensive agriculture is meant to protect the soil when in fact it leads to soil depletion through:
- expanding deserts!
This is why extensive agriculture is often considered as sustainable as opposed to intensive agriculture that is thought responsible for pollution and the diminishing of our future resources
This binary classification is nonsense and we have decided to explain the fundamental reasons in order to contribute to the necessary reinformation process that is one of the goals of WOAgri
. This misinformation is, for WOAgri, at the root of the “falling out” between European citizens and their agriculture. Worse, it prevents the understanding of the specificity and strategic character of agriculture in food production!
On July 9th 2006 the French newspaper Le Monde published the headline “L’Afrique agricole, une terre qui s’épuise” (African agriculture, exhausting the land) whereas the agriculture used on that continent is extensive! Why isn’t the relationship “between the soil that is dying and the very limited use of fertilizers in Africa” explained more often?
Understanding the environmental impact of different types of agriculture is all the more important in that many people are questioning the authorities on the consequences of the foreseeable increase in the world population (from 6 billion today to 9 billion in 2050) in terms of the need for food and increased agricultural production. If we need to invent a “new agriculture” to feed the planet as Michel Griffon predicts in his latest book1 , which method will we choose: intensive, extensive, …? What fundamental knowledge can serve as its basis? One thing is certain: we will have to meet our needs AND preserve the potential of our soil.
Intensive agriculture, or nourishing the soil, aims to increase farmer’s yields by maximizing production factors (labor, soil, equipment) and by using inputs (fertilizers, herbicides, plant health products…) to optimize production potential and thus provide abundant, high quality, healthy food at the best price.
This type of agriculture can meet these objectives only if it provides plants with fertile soil i.e. “rich and healthy”! The farmer must therefore check and analyze the fertilizing elements that correspond to the needs of his crops. The golden rule is also to enrich the level of organic matter in the soil, which supports microbial life, and therefore the soil’s fertility.
Extensive agriculture, or depletion of the soil, on the other hand, does not aim to optimize yields through the use of inputs, which means extending cultivation over larger areas to produce the desired quantities.
The farmer compensates for this deficit in production by conquering new areas to the detriment of forests and thus increases desertification. The use of harvests and their residues without adding fertilizer depletes the soil until it becomes unproductive and sterile!
The characteristics of this type of agriculture stem from the fact that it is practiced at the same time in poor countries no matter which areas are cultivated (e.g. Africa), in “new” industrialized countries (Australia) or developing countries (Brazil…) which have wide open spaces.
Thus, extensive agriculture, which has the blessing of all, those who dream of a world where “Mother Nature” would overthrow technical progress, is nonetheless responsible for one of the greatest tragedies for biodiversity: the disappearance of millions of acres of forest.
As Yann Arthus-Bertrand explains, “69 acres of forest disappear every minute in the world and the rate of deforestation continues to increase2 . The overexploitation of forests linked to demographic growth and the forest industry (transformation into agricultural land- mostly devoted in South America to exports-, harvesting of lumber for industry or firewood) is a great danger for the ecological and social balance of the planet…Indonesia has lost 25% of its forests in 50 years. The Amazon rainforest has reached record levels of deforestation, where the equivalent of 6 football fields are destroyed every minute….Over the next 50 years, deforestation will be the main cause of the extinction of species.”
This does not mean that intensive agriculture is above criticism. An excessive use of inputs can produce harmful effects. But if we come back to the objective of constantly improving and preserving the quality of the soil, intensive agriculture protects, whereas in every case extensive agriculture destroys.
The article in Le Monde mentioned earlier also reminds readers that “there are two ways to increase agricultural production. In Asia, the green revolution was based on the increased use of fertilizers and pesticides as well as new seeds in order to improve yields [intensive agriculture]…In Africa, because of the lack of means, farmers use ten times less fertilizer. It was necessary therefore to extend the cultivated areas. In all, around 123,000 acres of forest and 150,000 acres of prairie are requisitioned every year for agriculture [extensive agriculture]”.
Thus, between one type of agriculture that has the means to control its effects to achieve soil enrichment and another type that depletes the soil, it is essential that agricultural policy-makers free themselves from unsubstantiated rumors and make a rational choice.
Q & A with Pierre PAGESSE:
Question : Why do we usually attribute extensive agriculture with “every virtue” to the detriment of intensive agriculture?
Answer: Probably because of an excessive fixation for years on the damage caused by the use of inputs that was not as rational as today. Like all farmers, I continually integrate my cropping plan (crop rotation) and the use of inputs according to my production and the agro-pedo-climatic characteristics of my farm. Today, after 34 years of experience, I am convinced that intensive agriculture is the best choice. This choice is based on all the knowledge I have accumulated, both in terms of plant physiology and pedology, i.e. the science of soil analysis (origins, components, properties and classification).
Soil is, in fact, a mixture of:
-physical elements: limestone, clay, sand, silt, gravel, that give the earth, depending on the percentage of these elements, different soil types.
-chemical elements produced by the absorbent complex linked to limestone: positive ions attract the ions of fertilizing elements made up of phosphorus and potassium.
-organic elements, also referred to as microbial life, that develop in humus. Humus is a very precious element for farmers. It is the partially decomposed organic matter that fixes and produces nitrogen.
The vitality of the soil depends on the balance of these different components. If the balance is not maintained, production will exhaust the supply of these different nutritive elements including the humus. This is why it is necessary to renew these “supplies” on a regular basis!
The great agricultural revolution brought, along with mechanization, the understanding that we could feed the plant externally, using fertilizers and plant residues to replenish the resources of “life in the soil”.
When the earth produces a plant it provides it with nutritive elements. If we don’t renew these nutritive elements the soil is depleted! In order to balance this equation fertilizers are necessary. This is why extensive agriculture leads to imbalance.
This analysis is not, as some would say, the view of an “old-fashioned agronomist” based on some technical “jargon”: this is the reality of the family farming that I practice, constantly maintaining the soil, which is the true heritage for the generations to come.
Question : What are the consequences of this lack of information?
Answer : The main one is that it hides the real priority: investment in research, innovation and the infrastructures we need to reconcile productivity with respect for the environment.
I don’t deny that there have been abuses, notably when the number of animals per acre on livestock farms exceeded the physical capacity of the farm to recycle slurry. Today, slurry spreading plans have corrected these problems and farmers, particularly in Europe, are working towards respect for environmental balance. Perhaps they are being forced to do so by regulations and society. But we have to admit that things are changing!
Question : What is your opinion of integrated agriculture?
Answer : I think that the vast majority of us have always practiced what is referred to today as integrated agriculture. It is the very essence of farming.
One example: humus.
The vitality of the soil depends on the presence of organic matter. This is why I leave straw (the grain stalk) in my fields, which results in the creation of this organic matter. This allows me to maintain a level of humus, therefore microbial life and the life of the soil!
I give back to the earth a part of the nutriments necessary for the growth of my crops plus a part of the carbon in the form of cellulose captured in the air thanks to photosynthesis! My work consists in maintaining the quality of life in my soil, i.e. its fertility. I increased by 30% the level of humus in my fields that were originally situated on a poor and rocky soil!
Allow me to point out that so-called chemical fertilizers are made from minerals: nitrogen comes from natural gas, potassium and phosphorus from quarries or mines, even though an industrial process is necessary to make them more easily available for plants.
Scientific progress also tells us when and how much nitrogen, for example, a plant needs in order to optimize, according to its growth, the dosage and protect the water table.
I would also like to share some “farmer’s wisdom” with you: why would we use excessive doses of inputs in our fields when we know that these elements are costly, especially in an era where the price of our products and therefore our profits keep decreasing?
And your conclusion?
I would like to say two things:
1. We are confronted with a rejection of the very notion of progress, which in itself is philosophically synonymous with the freedom of man. This freedom was conquered thanks to progress and its applications. Let us not turn our backs on progress. In my view, if we don’t want to condemn whole sectors of our economy the notion of “controlled progress” needs to be developed.
2. Faced with the foreseeable need for increased agricultural production to satisfy the demands for food and energy of the entire population, one of the challenges is to promote the spread of knowledge and scientific progress to the largest number of farmers on the planet so that all farmers can contribute and take up these enormous challenges. Balance, and therefore peace on our planet, is at stake.
1 Nourrir la planète (Feeding the planet), Ed. Odile Jacob, May 2006
2World Bank, World Wildlife Fund (WWF)