Food Lifestyle Sustainability

The New Science of Farming Can Help Us Reconnect

Thai rural students Learn from the notebook .

By Robert Turner

As a science writer with a focus on food and agriculture, I’ve written about everything from climate change to the global food web to little bugs in the dirt.

A lot of it, I know, has been a bit disheartening to the reader as scientists have sounded the alarm about the serious, looming problems that may affect our ability to feed ourselves down the road, including more floods, heat waves and drought, rising input costs and dwindling water resources. But there is reason for hope, and over the coming new year I’ll be sprinkling my column with some of the revolutionary advances in science that offer the greatest promise for a food-secure future. Science can help us better understand and reconnect to the natural world.

Farm fertilizer costs are up 200 percent from 2020 (largely due to increased fossil fuel costs which are used in the manufacture of nitrogen fertilizers), and that will continue to affect food prices. But the good news, as mentioned in my column last month, is that money is now raining from Wall Street and the US Government into sustainable food startups and new ag-tech companies that may change the way we farm and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and chemical inputs.

This year I’ll be interviewing scientists, executives and investors to report on cutting-edge public and private companies in the ag tech and sustainable food sectors that are bringing innovation across the food supply chain. There’s a lot to write about as the world transitions away from our current fossil fuel-intensive, monocropping, industrial agriculture system.

In recent decades, we have witnessed the terrible loss of biodiversity and the serious degradation and loss of topsoil from modern agriculture. As noted previously in this column, research suggests that there are half the number of insects in North America as in the 1960s. Many insects, including bees and butterflies, provide valuable ecosystem functions, like pollinating one-third of our food crops. I hope to offer potential technologies and solutions in the coming months that might save us from this bug apocalypse.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has said that we have enough topsoil left to last for about the next 60 years. Topsoil is blowing and washing away from over-tilling the ground, and the solutions lie in regenerative agriculture, which includes crop rotations, multi-species cover crops and new no-till planting methods. Many scientists now believe that regenerative agriculture may be the most cost-effective tool that we have to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and mitigate climate change. The truth is, we can regenerate topsoil, and I’ll be reporting on that.

Modern agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and highly destructive to our waterways and the environment, and it has been driven by a few, very large agribusiness companies who would like to keep things going as they are, with them at the top controlling everything and keeping farmers on the edge of solvency and dependent on the chemical inputs. What we need is market disruption, and this is what new science-based technology can do. New advances can make farmers less dependent on chemicals and the status quo, while reconnecting human beings to the natural systems that surround us.

As we begin to better understand the symbiotic, interconnected relationships between the millions of species of microorganisms living in the soil and the plant and animal life above ground, and work with nature and not against it, we’ll feed more people and do less environmental damage. Here, I’ll summarize the key sectors where scientists are making these advances.

Many of the things that growers and scientists are working on today will be the necessary tools that can help us build thriving, sustainable, regional food centers. The new tools and technologies include carbon sequestration solutions that increase soil organic carbon and help build soil health. The technology will also increase soil’s water-holding capacity, and that makes the soil much more resilient to flooding and drought while also increasing yields.

Controlled environment agriculture, or indoor greenhouse and vertical growing solutions, will help produce food year-round for local consumption and reduce our dependence on food from far-away places, and that improves food security. New biologics for crop nutrition and protection, including possible RNA technology, will allow us to better target pests and disease, and deliver the nutrients plants need more efficiently with less environmental damage to streams and waterways from fertilizer and chemical run-off.

Precision agriculture using satellites, drones and high-tech sensors in the field will give farmers the data they need to make smarter field management decisions. Farm optimization solutions will reduce inputs and costs, labor, and waste, while improving yields. New food preservation and waste reduction technologies will greatly increase shelf life. Better tracking, real-time data and distribution systems will ensure that food gets from the farm gate to the consumer quickly, and that any food donated to food banks gets there while it’s still fresh. With all this new science and technology on the horizon, it’s an exciting time to be a scientist or a farmer.

These are just some of the sectors in the food system that researchers are working on. And scientists, backed by that other great force of human ingenuity—capitalism—will be looking for new technologies that might answer some of the greatest troubles looming out there, from climate to superbugs. Meanwhile, I’ll be sitting here on my little mountain farm, watching my cows on the green, distant hillsides, and writing about them—the scientists, not the cows. Well, maybe about the cows too.

Happy New Year.

Robert Turner is a farmer and author of Lewis Mumford and the Food Fighters: A Food Revolution in America. Learn more at EatYourView.com.

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