From Soil to Sustainability


Frederick L. Kirschenmann shares an appointment as Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and as president of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.



Defining Sustainability.

As most everyone interested in sustainability knows by now, the concept has been appropriated by numerous entities and used in various ways, often to achieve different objectives. In his introductory chapter to the excellent 2013 edition of the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World report, Robert Engelman coined the term “sustainababble” to reflect this “cacophonous profusion of uses of the word sustainable to mean anything from environmentally better to cool.” Increasingly the term is used as a marketing tool, often it is used as an environmental metric, and, of course it is used extensively to describe an “improved” food and agriculture enterprise. While many of these uses may be grounded in good intentions, the result, as Engelman points out, has “a high cost.”



Such a “dreamy belief” has certainly been prevalent in most of the visions of contemporary “sustainable agriculture.” Whether one belongs to the school of sustainable agriculture that is fixated on the notion that sustainability can only be achieved by intensifying the technology of our dominant industrial agriculture, or to the school of “greening” the system by inserting more environmentally friendly practices, or to the school that insists everyone must transition to organic, all are grounded in the belief that the fundamental principles of modern agriculture, which emerged in the early 20th century, can continue. According to this standard we simply need to tinker with the current system, in various ways, to make it “sustainable.” Although such “tinkering” can sometimes produce positive, short-term results, it fails to address the new challenges that will emerge in the near future. Occasionally pundits now refer to this “dreamy belief” of sustainability (appropriately, I think) as “Band-Aid sustainability.”


Historical Context.

In his engaging book Culture and Agriculture: An Ecological Introduction to Traditional and Modern Farming Systems, anthropologist Ernest Schusky provides us with a summary of how the human species fed itself since evolving on Planet Earth some 200,000 years ago. I think such a historical context can help us to better frame the concept of sustainability. Schusky reminds us that for most of our time on the planet we fed ourselves as hunter-gatherers. Like many other species, we tended to live in small tribes, gather and hunt the food available in a particular place until the food sources became depleted, and then move on to another place. Apparently various methods were also used to limit population growth to keep population density within “carrying capacity.”

It wasn’t until the Neolithic Revolution, approximately 12,000 years ago, that we began to transition from “food collectors” to food producers by domesticating plants and animals. We began to live in settled societies and attempted to produce enough food in place to feed a local, settled population.

As Schusky points out, this new way of feeding ourselves was “land intensive.” It tended to mine the natural fertility of the soil. Consequently, much of this early agriculture was based on “swidden cultivation,” also known as “slash-and-burn” agriculture. In other words, a common practice was to burn off perennial plants—trees or grasses—and then cultivate the soil and plant seeds (usually cereals). The natural soil fertility plus the fertility from the ash initially produced good yields the first year. However yields would decline quickly, as natural soil fertility diminished, so the general practice was to slash-and-burn a new plot of ground every year or two, and allow the first to lay fallow for 15 or 20 years before returning to cultivate it again, after soil fertility was restored.

In the mid-20th century we introduced a new form of agriculture, which Schusky calls the “Neocaloric Revolution,” because it is entirely dependent on “old calories”—fossil fuels, fertilizers, fossil water, etc. The discovery of fossil fuels was the principle innovation that ushered in the Industrial Revolution, but it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that industrial methods were applied to agriculture on a large scale.

While Justus von Liebig came up with the idea of substituting synthetic fertilizers (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) for the “laborious” practice of maintaining soil health—and Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch devised the means of making ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen in 1909, enabling the conversion to an intensive “input” agriculture—the adoption of that agriculture did not take root as the dominant form of agriculture until after World War II.

There were numerous agricultural visionaries, soil scientists and ecologists who issued strong warnings that this “N-P-K mentality” (as Sir Albert Howard called it) was the wrong direction for agriculture since it was contrary to the workings of nature and was, in fact, a “form of banditry” since it would steal the availability of healthy soil from future generations. (Howard, 1943) F.H. King, Liberty Hyde Bailey, Aldo Leopold, William Albrecht, Hans Jenny, Wes Jackson, and many others had similar concerns. They saw that maintaining the health of soil was crucial to any kind of truly sustainable agriculture and were all aware that modern industrial agriculture was still extremely “land intensive” and therefore damaging to the health of the land. We simply substituted “old calorie” inputs in place of healthy soil.

Of course, the immediate short-term benefits of industrial agriculture—the maximum, efficient production for short-term economic return—were too compelling to seriously consider the warnings of such visionaries.

However, Schusky reminds us that our “neo-caloric era” will of necessity be a very short period of time in the time-line of human history. We sometimes forget that this “modern” agriculture depends on a collection of “old” (nonrenewable) calories, which we are rapidly depleting. We also seem to forget that the first producing oil well in the US became operational in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859, (approximately 150 years ago), and it was fossil fuels (especially petroleum) that provided the cheap energy that sustained the entire neo-caloric economy. But all of these old calories are stored, concentrated energy— fossil fuels, rock phosphate, potash, fossil water, etc.—and these old calories had accumulated in the planet over many millennia. But once they are gone, the neo-caloric era, according to Schusky, must end, and we will need to redesign a new agriculture that can be “sustainable” in the post-neo-caloric era.

The point to remember in all this is that unless someone finally finds a way to invent a perpetual-motion machine, current, diffuse energy (sunlight) will never be as efficient (energy return on energy invested ) as stored concentrated energy. Consequently, any alternative energy we may invent in the future will never be as “cheap” as fossil fuels have been.

In addition, we need to acknowledge the ecological damage that the excessive use of the old calories has caused—damage that will further affect the “sustainability” of agriculture—more severe weather events due to climate change, eroded and degraded soils, depleted biodiversity and depleting freshwater resources. These are the “sustainability” challenges that will confront us in the decades ahead.

Of course, as the old calories get used up they will become increasingly expensive, so the neo-caloric era will certainly end due to prohibitive costs long before all the calories are used up.

So, a good way to frame the question of sustainability with respect to our future food and agriculture system is to ask ourselves if the current, industrial system (and any “Band-Aids” we might apply) can still be “sustained” when crude oil is $350 a barrel, fertilizer costs are five times what they are today, we only have half the amount of fresh water currently available, we have twice the number of severe weather events, and our soils are even more degraded than they are today.


Anticipating the Future.

Given the changes coming at us, a crucial challenge to sustaining a future food system will be to anticipate the changes and get a head start preparing for them. Perhaps we can learn a critical lesson from the research conducted by Jared Diamond. Based on his intensive studies of past civilizations, he concluded that those civilizations that anticipated the changes coming at them, recognized the value of their ecological reserves, and got a head start preparing for the changes were the civilizations that tended to survive for the long term (they were “sustainable”), while those that failed in that exercise were the ones that tended to collapse. In this regard, Schusky makes another important and sobering observation from his studies of human culture—namely, that “humans manipulate their cultures to achieve many practical, short-range goals; what they do not foresee are many more long-term undesirable consequences. Innovations that solve immediate problems often have built-in effects that eventually will cause major problems.” Perhaps these observations, from Diamond and Schusky, are among the most important to consider for anyone interested in achieving agricultural “sustainability.”

Given this scenario, it seems to me that the most urgent task before us now is to do all we can to restore the biological health of our soils, before the remaining old calories become too expensive to be a viable resource for continuing to “sustain” our food system. Of course other issues will need to be addressed at the same time—crucial among them: putting a cap on carbon, restoring our biological and genetic diversity as much as possible, restoring as many perennials as possible (forests and grasslands), eliminating food waste, and implementing the “right to food” and other recent UN proposals. However, key to future food sustainability will be biologically healthy soil!


Beacons to Guide us.

Fortunately we are not without practical wisdom to guide us as we design a new agriculture for the post-neo-caloric era.

Here are a few “beacons of light” to guide us. I prefer to call them beacons, rather than “models,” since we tend to think of models as examples that can be duplicated. In our new world, we will need to pay much more attention to the uniqueness of each ecological “neighborhood” and design agricultural systems that are suited to each ecology, rather than imagining another uniform, homogenized, global agriculture typical of the agriculture that has evolved in the neo-caloric era.

Here are a few of the “beacons” that can guide us on our future sustainability journey:


Deborah Koons Garcia, Symphony of the Soil

This new documentary on soil is a masterpiece of science and art that can be used to transform the way our culture thinks about soil. No one can watch this video and still think that soil is just “dirt.” It describes not only how soil was formed over many millennia, but also how to care for it and restore its biological health. The documentary can be obtained from Lily Films.




USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and cover crops

In recent months the NRCS under the leadership of Ray Archuleta, has become very active, working with farmers and soil scientists to incorporate cover crops into monoculture farming operations, with significant results toward beginning a process of restoring soil health. Farmers who have incorporated these practices for a period of five to seven years have discovered that the improved soil health enables them to reduce their fertilizer and pesticide inputs by 70 percent and still maintain yields; furthermore the improved soil health dramatically improves soil moisture-absorption capacity, reducing flooding and nutrient pollution, as well as increasing drought tolerance. A video with some of the stories from farmers and soil scientists can be viewed below.





The American Academy of Microbiology: “How Microbes Can Help Feed the World”

One of the encouraging, recent developments concerning soil health has been the increasing attention given to the microbiome in soil. Even soil scientists, a decade ago, sometimes referred to soil as simply “a material to hold a plant in place.” Now we are beginning to understand that soil is a living community of organisms with billions of microbes at its base. While not perfect, a typical article on the subject has been published by the American Academy of Microbiology: “How Microbes Can Help Feed the World,” by Ann Reid and Shannon E. Greene, December 2012. It can be accessed here.


John Deere, The Furrow, February 2013: “Building Better Soils”

I take further encouragement from the fact that John Deere elected to devote this entire issue of The Furrow magazine to the subject of soil health. Again, many of the stories are about farmers and the benefits they have experienced from soil-health-restoring practices. The magazine, for example, features Gabe Brown, a “20-year no-till, cover crop, and livestock” farmer near Bismarck , North Dakota, who reports that before he started his soil-health farming practices, his soil was only able to “absorb a half-inch of rain-water per hour. Now it’ll take in 8 inches.” This issue of The Furrow can be accessed here. Brown has since also reported that while it now costs most conventional, monoculture farmers $4.50 per bushel in input costs to raise corn, his costs are $1.41 per bushel.


Matthew Liebman, agronomist at Iowa State University

Dr. Liebman has conducted more than ten years of research comparing results from typical two-year monoculture corn/soybean rotations with three-year rotations of corn/beans/ small grain with clover, and four-year rotations of corn/beans/small grain/alfalfa and a second year of alfalfa. The two-year rotation relies entirely on synthetic inputs of fertilizers and pesticides and the three- and four-year rotations incorporate modest amounts of livestock manure. His research has demonstrated that the soil health improves in the three- and four-year rotations; in addition, fertilizer and pesticides applications can be decreased by almost 90 percent. The land yields and return on investment in land and labor is slightly higher than in the two year rotation. Comparable ecological benefits have been demonstrated by incorporating perennial prairie strips into conventional corn/soybean monocultures. Reports on the published research can be obtained on the Leopold Center website.


The Land Institute

In Salina, Kansas, Wes Jackson established a research and education institute to explore the possibility of developing perennial grains that could eventually replace annuals. After 30 years of research, scientists have concluded that with additional research it could be possible to replace many annual grains, like wheat, sorghum, rice, and other crops with perennial varieties. Perennial plants are much more resilient than annuals and have many soil-building and carbon-sequestration capabilities by virtue of their robust root systems. Scientists have already demonstrated the soil-health-restoration capacity of such perennial varieties. In the longer term, post-neo-caloric future, these new varieties are likely to become the core of sustainable grain agriculture. Information can be obtained on the Land Institute website.


Jeremy Grantham, “Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever”

The importance and benefits of restoring biological health of soils are not only being recognized by farmers and agronomists, but also by economists and investors. In the April 2011 issue of his widely read newsletter, Jeremy Grantham—one of the nation’s leading investment counselors—reminded investors that it was “Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever.” Grantham points out in this essay that investors need to change their investment strategies if they want to continue to make money on their money. Continuing to invest in cheap raw materials to increase value without paying attention to natural and social capital, which sustains our economies, will not continue to be successful. Among other things he advises investors to “invest in soil.” (A copy of the newsletter can be obtained here.) Woody Tasch, founder of the Slow Money investment movement and author of Slow Money: Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered makes similar points regarding successful investing in the future and makes even more passionate appeals to “investing in soil health.”


Sir Albert Howard, The Soil and Health (1947); Dr. Daphne Miller, Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing (2013); Roni Neff (ed.), Introduction to the US Food System: Public Health, Environment, and Equity (2014)

Finally, health care professionals are beginning to recognize the relationship between soil health and human health, a connection that Sir Albert Howard had observed back in the 1940s.

In his book The Soil and Health (1947), Howard suggested that we could not have human health without soil health, plant health and animal health— that they are all “one great subject,” and that this synergy would become the “health care system of the future.”

The connections between healthy soil, healthy agriculture, and healthy humans are now reiterated by Dr. Daphne Miller, a practicing physician and professor of family medicine. In her new book, Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing, she provides numerous on-the-ground examples of such connections.

Roni Neff, a health care professional at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has also edited a book of essays, some of which suggest the connections between healthy soil and human health.


Lessons from My Own Farm.

My earliest personal lesson about soil health came from my own farm. It began with my father, who started farming on our farm with my mother right after they got married in 1930, which was in the midst of the Dust Bowl. Somehow my father understood that the devastating results of the Dust Bowl on his land were not just about the weather; they were also about the way farmers farmed. Consequently, he became determined to not ever let that happen to his farm again, and so “taking care of the land” became his central passion, and early on he began to instill that value into his young son.

Later in my life, when I returned to our farm to manage it and was introduced to organic agriculture, I discovered that managing for soil health was central to the early advocates of organic farming, visionaries like Sir Albert Howard, Lady Eve Balfour, J.I. Rodale, and others. Consequently, I decided to convert our farm to an organic farm and began implementing the various practices for restoring soil health—applying compost, introducing a mixture of crops in a crop rotation pattern that included alfalfa, a deep-rooted legume that also supplied our ruminant animals with forages for winter feed.

By the 1980s, our soil had visibly improved—it was more porous, and earthworms and other soil life had dramatically increased. Then, in 1988 we experienced the first dramatic, practical result of this improved soil health. That year we experienced the worst drought in the history of south-central North Dakota. Our neighbors, who farmed with conventional synthetic inputs, never pulled a combine out of the shed that summer since all of their crops dried up and died from lack of moisture by the time they grew to roughly 7 or 8 inches tall. Remarkably, by contrast, our fields produced wheat yields that averaged 17 bushels per acre, despite the severe drought. That result could only be explained by the increased moisture absorption and storage capacity of our healthier soils.



One important lesson in all this was articulated clearly by Wendell Berry in an essay that he originally published back in the early 1980s, “Solving for Pattern.” In that remarkable essay, Wendell pointed out that in our culture we tend to try to solve problems in isolation, as if they were detached phenomena that could be solved with single-tactic, therapeutic interventions. But in fact, problems are always part of a network of interrelated phenomena. Of course, as long as we had all of the cheap “old calories” to perform all of our interventions, we could make the system of therapeutic interventions work relatively well. However, as we enter the post-neo-caloric era, at the same time that we have degraded the health of our ecological and social resources (especially soil), we will need to begin recognizing the ecological complexity of living systems and their self-renewing capacity. If we are to live healthy, productive lives, let alone feed ourselves, in our post-neo-caloric future, it will be essential that we sustain our ecological capital (soil being the foundation of that capital). We will need to “solve for pattern.”

It is interesting to note that this shift in our thinking is now also being recognized by some of our leading economists. In an essay, published in the January/February 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Michael Porter and Mark Kramer suggested that businesses that wanted to be successful in our future could no longer operate by “the old playbook” of marginalizing labor and raw materials in the interest of maximizing profits, and neither could they continue to externalize social and natural costs in the interest of maximizing short-term profits, since labor, raw materials, social and natural capital (including soil) have now all been so degraded that businesses can no longer be successful unless they “share value” throughout each of these sectors to maintain the health of the whole. As they put it: “Shared value holds the key to unlocking the next wave of business innovation and growth. It will also reconnect company success and community success in ways that have been lost in an age of narrow management approaches, short-term thinking, and deepening divides among society’s institutions.” We will now need to “solve for pattern.”

All of this further suggests, as John Ehrenfeld and Andrew Hoffman propose in their recent book Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability, that any of us interested in truly achieving “sustainability” need to move beyond much of the “chatter” about simply buying more “sustainable” products. As they put it, “sustainability is not about windmills, hybrid cars, and green cleaners; it is about the way we live. It is about living authentically; it is about our relationship with nature, with each other, and with ourselves. To be sustainable requires a fundamental shift in our way of thinking and goes to the core of who we are as human beings.” I would only add that it is also about how we relate to soil!


Reference: SlowMoney



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