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Agricultural sustainability and feeding the world

Sustainability, organic farming, and feeding the world: not as simple as they sound

Sustainability is a major ag buzzword today, mostly peddled by folks with little concept of what a farm is. It is being used in both crop and animal production but I will just talk about crops.

To get on the “sustainable” list to market certain crops I see very strange requirements. You must not push any bush to clear new land and you must not drain a little slough to a big slough in current wet years. What does that have to do with “sustainability?” When the Romans landed in “Jolly Olde” (England) they found mostly bush and swamp. Left like that the U.K. would never have “sustained” many mouths.

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Many years ago a prominent Saskatchewan clay belt farmer stated that the then-practice of a wheat/summerfallow rotation was not sustainable. And he was right. A continual mining of nutrients eventually runs the tank dry, or at least to a point where yields decline to non-economic levels.

I also have my doubts about crop rotations with only two crops. Corn/soybeans in the U.S. still leads to soil erosion and too much glyphosate is leading to resistance issues. Our wheat/canola rotation leads to disease problems — fungicides are a Band-Aid but not a solution.

We do have some sustainability issues but changes can be made to maintain a high level of production. To be sustainable we need to change crops and practices. Crop rotation with as many crops as possible will always be an advantage.

Perennial legumes like alfalfa are a great option in theory but not always in practice. In northeast Saskatchewan alfalfa was a part of the rotation on many farms when the dehy industry was thriving. It would be a great option in this wet cycle as it would keep the water table lower. But, in drier areas and years, annual crop yields after alfalfa can be a big disappointment. Alfalfa sucks water from snow melt to snow fall and can leave soils without the water to grow a crop.

Since about 2005, in our area in central Saskatchewan, a rotation including three years of alfalfa on a part of the farm would have been a great rotation. That is, providing a nearby livestock farm provides the ready market for the crop at a reasonable price. The ideal situation would be to rent the land and the dairy could buy the crop in the field. That is how potatoes work in the irrigation areas around Lake Diefenbaker. But, alas, not too many have a dairy farm handy.

Feeding a hungry world

“Feeding a Hungry World” is a common buzz phrase. There are more hungry mouths to feed and we must gear up to do that, is what we are told. Malthus said the same thing 200 years ago and it has yet to be proven. To increase production, all we need is a ready market and a profitable price. Farmers have proven that again and again. But each time farmers get geared up, surpluses come along and prices fall.

Organic farming is often cited as the sustainable alternative. Not true. Without a livestock component to provide a ready supply of manure the soil phosphorus will slowly but surely decline. I still see organic farms that rely on summerfallow as a nitrogen source and weed control measure. Definitely not sustainable.

It is interesting to listen to grad student seminars at the University of Saskatchewan. Soil microbiologists now have a new toy: DNA. They can use it to quickly and easily determine the bio-diversity of microbes in the soil. But, oh my, what a disappointment when the organic rotation turns out to have less biodiversity than conventional. Our current “conventional” — continuous cropping, zero till complete with earthworms, several crops in rotation, adequate fertilizer and weed control — bears no relation to the “conventional” practices of a generation ago.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no quarrel with folks who farm organically. Many have very sustainable and profitable businesses that include many crops, including perennials, and a good livestock base. And, if you can sell organic grains at $ 30/bushel that is great.

But, let us not pretend that a wholesale conversion to organic farming is going to feed the world. Many documents report that nearly half of all current crop production worldwide is because of fertilizer alone.

Diversity is great, and diversity in types of farms is also great. I see no reason for a conventional farm to consider itself “superior” to an organic farm, or vice versa.

About the author

Columnist

Les Henry

J.L.(Les) Henry is a former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. He farms at Dundurn, Sask. He recently finished a second printing of “Henry’s Handbook of Soil and Water,” a book that mixes the basics and practical aspects of soil, fertilizer and farming. Les will cover the shipping and GST for “Grainews” readers. Simply send a cheque for $50 to Henry Perspectives, 143 Tucker Cres., Saskatoon, Sask., S7H 3H7, and he will dispatch a signed book.

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