Food. It is a big part of our lives to say the least. Most of us live in cities and have little idea of the huge amount of land that is devoted to growing or raising food and other agricultural products. It is difficult to truly understand how big of an impact agriculture has on the environment. Two fifths of America is farmland. That is 9.15 million acres of land being used to grow our food. It makes sense with the amount of people there are on earth that there would need to be a lot of food grown. Yes, there is a bit of room for improvement on the waste and distribution side of things, but I want to focus on the impact of the land.
In a forest the soil is healthy and rich in nutrients because they are being cycled through plants, animals, bacteria, fungi, and many other living organisms. This keeps important elements such as Carbon, Nitrogen, and Phosphorus locked in the soil or the organisms themselves. Forests are a perfect example of a closed system where one output is an input for something else. For example, the carbon of a tree when it dies and falls over is a product for fungi, bacteria, as well as other organisms to consume. Fungi and bacteria are good at fixing nitrogen into the soil, which is something most plants can’t do. This fertilizes the soil so that now more trees or plants can grow. An animal can feed off the plant and then the animal’s droppings can become fertilizer for another tree, plant, fungi, bacteria.
With industrial agriculture systems, which typically practice monoculture, there is just one variety of crop growing in bare dirt. When the plant produces its fruit (final product), it is taken away from the field to be consumed or processed into a product. This is a constant cycle of nutrients leaving the soil. When there is only one type of plant in the soil, it also depletes a singe profile of nutrients from the soil. On top of that, soil erosion happens when the soil is bare and turned frequently. It loses nutrients and carbon because there is not living material to hold these nutrients in the soil; they vanish with the wind — or when it rains, with the water that evaporates. Carbon can leave the soil in the form of CO2, and fixed Nitrogen decays into nitrogen gas.
There are many symbiotic relationships between mycorrhiza and root systems of plants and trees that can be lost with soil erosion. Diversity in an ecosystem is essential for not only maximizing the production, but it can also protect from pest invasion and damage. Using other plants that have a symbiotic relationship with each other can protect a crop from pest damage.
Soil erosion is something that typically happens in a positive feedback loop, which causes it to get worse and worse over time. When vegetation starts disappearing and the soil begins eroding, it gets harder for anything else to grow in it and so the soil further erodes. On top of that these exposed plants that are being planted as a crop are vulnerable to pests, so they usually get sprayed with pesticides and fertilizers to make up for the lost nutrients in the soil. This adds more toxic compounds in the soil making the soil more “dead.”
Think of it this way, everything you buy that was grown in a field is full of nutrients and water from the field it came from. So, ideally, any waste would go back to the farm to be recycled. We can’t really cycle the nutrients we consume but we can at least compost the inedible components. The weeds and other unwanted vegetation should be composted to cycle the nutrients back into the field. Another way to maintain soil health is to practice crop rotation. Rotating what is growing in the soil helps it maintain a balance of nutrients and aid the proliferation of symbiotic subterranean life.
We should make it a priority to stop expanding agriculture, especially industrial agriculture, further into undisturbed lands. It should be a priority to protect our natural biomes that support biodiversity, because symbiotic relationships will be lost and so might many different species of plants and animals. We can make agriculture more efficient and still easily produce enough food if we can optimize the way we do it. Shrinking the scale down and adding diversity are simple ways to do that. All we are is a collection of water and nutrients. As such, we should try to put the highest quality nutrients into us, while minimizing the intake of and pollution from toxins. Understanding the cycles of nutrients and the problems of toxins can easily align us in a better way of living, both for ourselves and the ecosystems we are a part of.