This would be the dream of every serious ecologist but none of them that I have read about have the faintest clue about how to make it happen. Sustainable agriculture means that a specific area of land will continually provide for everything that naturally lives there, plants, humans, animals, birds, insects etc without importing anything from sources outside of its area. This includes fuel – no point saying this farm is fully sustainable except for unavoidable help from Saudi Arabia. Not only should the soils fertility be maintained but it should in fact continually improve.

Partly grown orchard showing legumes growing wild in the inter-rows, these not only contribute to soil fertility but hold huge amounts of moisture, much more than if that area was mowed neatly to be short grass. The tree roots easily extend to these zones.

A rainforest is a good example of this. The trees grow new leaves and shed their old ones, the old leaves fall to the ground and become mulch. The army of insects and bacteria who live there gobble up these old leaves and their excrement and themselves when they die become plant food for the tree ad infinitum. However, there's more to it than that.

In Kazakhstan there are vast natural forests of apples, some of them 40 to 50 feet high, they have been there for eons and are generally not harvested commercially even though they crop profusely, probably because they are smaller than regular commercial apples. On entering the area at fruiting time there is a stench of rotting fruit from that which has fallen to the ground. There are innumerable varieties of apples in the area, marble sized to plum sized, red ones, green ones, sweet ones, sour ones, and as well there are pears and apricots.

Quoting a paragraph from Orion Magazine we have

Aimak Dzangaliev first considered devoting his life to apples in 1929, and as of the summer of 2006, he was still actively working to study and conserve and use the diversity of wild fruits in his homeland. He credits his wife, Tatiana, several decades his junior, with ensuring his good health and vigor by having provided him with several kinds of wild apples every day since they were married. Wearing a fire engine–red dress that exclaims I love apples! by its very intensity, the rosy-cheeked Tatiana shares with her husband an awe for the overwhelming diversity of a single wild apple species native to Central Asia: Malus sieversii. Tatiana marvels at the variety of shapes, sizes, and colors of apples found within a sixty-mile radius of their home. “Look at them,” she sighs, scanning the season’s harvest. “There are apples the size of a large marble to that of a small plum; some are very glossy, others are somewhat dull; their skins are solid red, yellow green, or mottled russet . . . ”

The ardent composter will leap into the fray somewhere along the line by saying he is fully in agreement but when we look at his practices he obviously can't meet the criteria. Divide his plot into 3. P1 he uses to grow grass to make the bulk of his compost. P2 he grows his animals for their manure to enliven his compost and P3 is where he grows what he needs to live on. Bet you dollars to donuts virtually none of the compost finds its way back to P1. To begin with all three plots would have the same 'sustenance value' for want of a better term. Slowly over time the sustenance value in P3 will double or triple while P2 would diminish and P1 would produce less and less grass till finally none at all. Once at this point P3 will deteriorate rapidly so now what happens? Sell out, buy another plot and start over?

The key to the sustainability thing is that 90% of the edible produced crop must be returned to the soil. In other words, if one fruit tree meets your needs, then plant 10 trees so there is plenty of fruit to fertilize the area they were grown on. Not economically feasible? Of course not, though not necessarily so, the term 'profit' is totally foreign to nature.

Young trees need careful attention to keep weeds and grass from crowding them out. Once established this Panama Berry tree has a dense canopy that shades and inhibits the intrusion of weeds and grasses. Some species of plants exude a chemical in their root zone that is toxic to all other species, effectively a self protection weedkiller.

Back to the fruit trees, initially this will seem like endless recycling without any progress. But no - everything, but everything, has and emits frequencies (in similar fashion to DNA except it is species specific rather than individual specific), this includes metals, bacteria, plants, colours, just everything. Whereas all these things have their own particular frequency, the sun generates all frequencies and constantly beams them out in every direction. A miniscule portion of the total bathes the Earth as sunlight. This stream of infinite frequencies from the sun is filtered and taken up by plants, the ultimate alchemists. Bananas for example have a high potassium content and the plants are heavy potassium feeders. Their leaves filter out the frequency of potassium (and others of course) from the sunlight and turn it into potassium ions that become part of the tree and eventually its fruit. If the farmer gathers up all the fruit he can find and sells it at a market, then that bounty of sun provided potassium has been removed from the farm and needs to be replenished in unsustainable ways. Should the farmer sell only one bunch and let 9 bunches fall to the ground to rot, the soil's potassium content will increase. The next seasons bunches will benefit from the soil's potassium increase in addition to the continual supply of new ions from the filtered sunlight. On and on it goes, albeit very slowly, but fertility will improve specific to the needs of the plants growing there as will the crop quality and quantity. Certainly there is more involved than just that but here the focus is only on the fertility aspect.

Apart from horticulture, all other forms of agriculture can never be sustainable. All land for grain and vegetable crops needs to be plowed and a seed bed prepared. This releases huge amounts of carbon back into the atmosphere, irrigating the crop also severely depletes the soil of carbon. These soils can have just 0.5% of organic carbon whereas a well managed orchard will have 6%, that's a huge difference in tonnes of carbon released to the atmosphere as CO2.
Farming livestock can never be sustainable either. All animals, except goats who because they eat everything are desert creators, will eat the grass and leave the weeds which then proliferate. Least harmful is slashing but mostly they grow back. Cattle dung lands in heaps, all too soon the dung, through which nothing grows for a long time, without the help of the dung beetle it soon covers too much of the grazing area so it has to be broken up and spread by harrowing. All of these endeavours require the use of fuel, then there is fencing, stockyards, shearing sheds, dips. drenches, inoculations,  feed supplements etc etc. Finally at the end of the animals cycle it is sold off from the farm and all of the considerable resources supplied by the land to provide for it's growth effectively finish up in a sewage system.

Back to the economics, at first glance it seems economic suicide to harvest and sell only 10% of the crop – but is it? We have to look at the entire picture. Take a cattle farmer, in raw terms the area of land needed to provide enough food for one person with beef for a year if planted to Macadamia nuts instead would actually provide sustenance for 900 people !!!!  If these were farmed sustainably, by using 10% of the crop this would provide the food requirements for 90 people, that's real sustainable agriculture providing for 90 times more people on an area of land currently used to unsustainably run cattle and contributing hugely to planet degradation. Additionally, in case you missed it, after a 20 year study (ending 2012), beef consumption is now recognised to contribute to a 16% increase in heart disease, 10% increase in cancer and 12% in diabetes. Shame they didn't check for arthritis, maybe they did but the results were too scary to publish !!!

Today's agricultural practices aren't too dissimilar to those use by ancient civilisations aimed at harvesting a bounty when times are good and storing it for use when times are bad. The cycle of tilling the soil, planting an annual crop and irrigating to get more than nature would normally have granted, inexorably depletes soil fertility. All the ancient civilisations, Mayans for example, eventually failed but at least they stuffed up only their local area. The only exception might be the Indians who created the Terra Preta in the Amazon basin, these are soils with 15% carbon and 2 to 6 feet deep are extremely fertile even to this day. Science cannot explain how this was done in the midst of rainforest soils which are notoriously poor quality. Read all about it on http://www.acresusa.com/toolbox/reprints/Feb07_TerraPreta.pdf These Indians are long gone, most likely thanks to the Spanish explorers spreading smallpox as they went. Today with container ships and air freight we are effectively stuffing up the whole world. Local areas would have failed already but stuffing the entire planet will take a great deal more time. We can halt the decline if we get wheat, meat and dairy out of our collective diet, then there would be no reason to produce them and the unrelenting degradation would be greatly diminished.  This won't happen any time soon so collectively we are keeping our finger on the self destruct button

The Australian Society of Soil Science says about 1,500 gigatonnes of carbon is stored in soils worldwide, twice the amount that is stored in plants and double the amount contained in the atmosphere. (One gigatonne is the equivalent of one billion tonnes) and is equal to one years worth of Australia's CO2 emissions, while an easily achievable four per cent increase in soil carbon could remove 40 years' worth.

 "Carbon can not be sequestered in soils if we continue with the same forms of land management that caused the carbon losses in the first place,'' said Dr Jones. "People cannot function without a skin, soil cannot function without cover." Agriculture accounts for 30 per cent of the world's carbon emissions and 17 per cent of Australia's total carbon emissions, according to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

It is a sad inditement on every one of the world's governments (whose uppermost thought is that when food becomes scarce or unaffordable it is bad for the health of politicians), that they will exclude agriculture from their global warming solutions when it is a major contributor to excess atmospheric carbon but ironically it also holds the solution. The world contains just so much carbon, whatever mankind does, doesn't create more of it. What modern man is doing is moving it from it's normal safe place in the soil, to the atmosphere. Well publicised are the findings of huge concentrated underground deposits (coal mines), digging it up, burning it and releasing CO2 into the air. Less well known is that this is on a par with continually ploughing the earth and constantly releasing to the air that carbon (much less concentrated) recently absorbed by plants from the air and put back into the soil.

As innumerable original inhabitants would confirm, Australian Aborigines, American Red Indians to cite two, it is absurd to think that one person 'owns' a portion of this planet in this universe and can 'sell' it to another person. Perhaps the best we can strive towards is that we can be custodians of our plot. In order to be a custodian we should demonstrate that we have the knowledge and ability to be one, if we haven't then we must do the learning until we have.

The quest to sustainable agriculture is more than just that, it is a blueprint of how to live in tune with nature. Not part of the scheme and not part of natures vocabulary are Profit, Mortgage, Overdraft, Rates, and/or Energy costs so in this modern age attempting to operate a farm sustainably is fraught with enormous difficulties.

Home