The degeneration of the living soil has been vastly accelerated and exacerbated by intensive agriculture leading to the accelerated loss of carbon. The situation is simply an imbalance between nature repairing or regenerating and farming techniques depleting or degenerating. The answer is quite simple, redress the balance. The ultimate challenge for repair and sustainable practice is to understand this process and react accordingly.
We cannot really talk about sustainability until we have defined at what evolutionary point within a system that it is best to sustain. Biological systems are always dynamic and as such are depleting or regenerating according to their food source and environment. Many farmed UK soils have been biologically degenerating for decades, they need a drastic change in management and a system approach to ease regeneration before we can begin to consider sustainability.
Farming has always been about managing soil. Nature builds, farming depletes. Nature unhindered, develops complex dynamic systems that are net carbon importers. When the dynamics change the system loses its resilience and with constant intervention systems eventually degenerate.
“We have to redefine the roles of farming”
Sustainability is about how to balance what goes in with what goes out to maintain an equilibrium. This is not just about the chemistry of soil, but about the driving force that funds the biology of soil; carbon. Climatic climax conditions are systems totally in sync with their environment and are described as ‘an ecological community in which populations of plants or animals remain stable and exist in balance with each other and their environment. A climax community is the final stage of succession, remaining relatively unchanged until destroyed by an event such as fire or human interference’. These systems have developed over many hundreds, even thousands of years and are not held in suspension, they are dynamic, constantly ebbing and flowing, depleting or regenerating according to the seasons and the environment. Its resilience and stability build because of its complexity.
THOUGHT ABOUT SUSTAINABLE
The use of chemicals has increased vastly over the last forty years. For many years managing wheat was with one herbicide and an insecticide in the autumn, followed by a fungicide in the spring and summer. Now we can be applying three or four applications of blackgrass herbicides in the autumn with 1 or 2 insecticides. Then, in the spring we have 4 fungicide timings where we might be using at least 2 actives each time. The trouble is, chemical resistance to insects, disease and weeds is a stark reality with potentially dire consequences. The answer is no longer using more and more chemicals to solve a problem (or symptoms), it is to look at a more integrated approach moving forward that is very different. Whilst we expect crops to yield higher than natural systems can provide, chemicals are probably always going to be a part of the system. However, the point is that they are a part of a system and not ‘the’ system, they are tools to be used appropriately.
So how does this come back to our statement of sustainability in agriculture? Rather than creating farming systems that build and regenerate we have managed to deplete and bypass the process through purchasing in the necessary products of health and growth to obtain higher yields. Yields perhaps nature could not have provided unaided. Over the short term this has been incredibly successful, however, these inputs have taken a heavy toll on the soil eco system leading to degenerating conditions and the inevitable loss of fertility. It is only recently, through the science of biology do we realise just what a negative influence this system of agriculture has had on the living soil. It is the complex microbial biomass that makes, maintains and manages the soil environment through consuming, digesting, releasing nutrients and converting carbon into very complex long term structures to build resilience.
The question is how to allow, 'the living soil' to regenerate and repair. The answer is with carbon. Carbon facilitates function and repair, it also balances the negative effect of excessive nitrogen. Once this is addressed we can start to talk about sustaining systems, but not until then.
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