If I asked you, “What aspect of crop production causes both the largest loss of nutrient density and most extensive environmental damage?”, what would be your first guess?
Like many people, your answers might include genetic modifications, over-sprayed chemical pesticides, or crop selection that produces more aesthetically pleasing yet less nutritious food.
While those farming practices are certainly contributing to America’s food quality issues, they are not the leading cause of unparalleled soil erosion, increased reliance on toxic chemicals, and desertification of our ecosystems.
Because most Americans are so distanced from the food they’re consuming, the most disturbing and disruptive farming techniques are hidden behind a veil of ignorance. At face value, one of the most detrimental practices seems relatively benign: tilling.
Tilling is a soil “preparation” technique that agitates topsoil like a blender mixes your morning smoothie. The result is a weed-free, fluffed-up “soil” into which industrial farmers can easily plant their thousand-acre rows of corn.
I hesitate to use the word “soil”, because when a farmer runs their till through a field, all critical elements of soil life are sliced, diced, and severed. What remains is a dry and dead composition of silt, sand, and clay. Incredible volumes of soil organic matter (SOM) are lost.
What does that mean for the future of that field and the seeds planted within?
The relationships between the bacteria, fungi, and small animals like worms are responsible for the transfer of nutrients, the sequestration of carbon, and the overall resilience of that ecosystem when challenged by opportunistic pests.
In other words, those soil relationships are responsible for creating nutrient-dense crops. They are responsible for pulling carbon from the air and using it to build up soil. They are responsible for protecting a tree or plant from the pests that might otherwise destroy it.
By severing those relationships, the subsequently planted crop can only pull the nutrients that are left in the lifeless soil. In order to produce a normal, aesthetically pleasing cob of corn, that farmer must rely on subsequent fertilization and soil treatments to replace vital minerals and organic compounds like carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. NPK, the elemental letters for the compounds in these soil treatments, fails to replicate the vast “give and take” that occurs between mycorrhizal fungi and plant roots.
The environmental concerns:
When a farmer shreds up those mycorrhizal fungi in the soil, they are unwittingly limiting the potential of their crops, but they are also contributing to growing levels of carbon in the atmosphere. In a study comparing no-till farming to intensive tilling, researchers found no-till soil had a 10% increase in organic carbon content compared to the industrial tilling method. When farmers fail to build SOM, they use more fresh water, lose more soil in runoff, spend more on soil treatments, and directly contribute to negative effects of climate change.
If you consider California alone, the failure of this agricultural practice is astounding. Over ⅓ of the vegetables and over ⅔ of the fruits and nuts consumed in the U.S.. are grown in this state. Every year, over 70% of the farmed acreage in California is completely tilled. Another 23% is partially tilled. In over 93% of the farmed land in California, farmers destroy critical soil relationships and reduce soil organic matter. According to the California government, approximately 43 million acres are farmed every year. Using our 93% measure, approximately 40 million acres are turned over every year in California alone.
While a 10% increase in organic carbon content with no-till farming is impressive, let’s consider the implications of a ‘measly’ 1% increase in SOM.
With a 1% increase in SOM per acre, soil can hold another 20,000 gallons of water. If California stopped tilling practices and increased SOM 1%, they would potentially save approximately 800 BILLION gallons of water. California currently pulls massive amounts of water from other states, including Colorado. If Colorado was able to retain a fraction of that 800,000,000,000 gallons of water, I would argue they would see a reduction in forest fires and a decrease in desertification.
With each 1% increase in SOM per acre, as many as 10 tons of carbon are pulled from the atmosphere. Using California as another example, that would be another potential 800 BILLION pounds of carbon.
The scale of this opportunity should excite every farmer in the world. It should be a race to see how many tons of carbon can be sequestered and how many gallons of water can soak into soil instead of rushing into the ocean.
The power of the consumer:
Fortunately, you hold tremendous influence as a consumer. In your wallet you hold hundreds of votes every month. You can use these votes to force the hand of farmers and the governments that supply them with subsidies. With your purchasing power, you can drive the change that needs to happen.
Instead of buying your produce from your local supermarket, search for a local farmer’s market near you. Farmer’s markets in 2021 are wildly more advanced than even a decade ago. In most cases, you will be able to buy all of your proteins, vegetables, and fruits in one trip. When you introduce yourself to your local farmers, they will almost always reciprocate their appreciation by supplying you with the best quality product possible. Local farmers care about the food you eat.
Have important conversations with these farmers. While it’s no guarantee, nearly every community-scale local farmer will practice a form of no-till market farming. In other words, they grow all of their produce without disturbing the critical relationships in the soil. As a result, the food you buy from them will have more nutrients than anything you can find at the supermarket. Furthermore, the fruits and vegetables you take home may even have been picked the day prior.
By reducing the time after harvest, you are increasing the nutrient density of your food even more. If you want to learn more about nutrient density after harvest, we wrote an article about the difference between supermarket produce and local produce. As an example, supermarket spinach has about 50% of the nutrients that the spinach at your local farmer’s market contains.
If you’re concerned about price, do the math on nutrient density and food quality. If the food at the local farmer’s market costs as much as 25% more, it’s actually better value per nutrient than your supermarket produce. Secondly, take into account the community benefit of supporting local business, the downstream healthcare savings when you live a healthier life, and the climatic benefit of pulling more carbon from the air. All of these improvements come without the cost of environmental destruction.
If you need a final reason to buy from your local farmer’s market, the food simply tastes better.
Lue et al. Effect of Tillage Treatment on the Diversity of Soil Arbuscular Mycorrhizal FUngal and Soil Aggregate-Associated Carbon Content. Front. Microbiol. 06 Dec 2018.
Averill et al. Global imprint of mycorrhizal fungi on whole-plant nutrient economics. PNAS. 28 Oct 2019.
Zulauf, C. and B. Brown. "Tillage Practices, 2017 US Census of Agriculture." farmdoc daily (9):136, Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, July 25, 2019.
LaSalle, Tim & Hepperly, Paul & Scholar, Fulbright. (2008). Regenerative Organic Farming: A Solution to Global Warming.