#16 - Agriculture to Heal Our Worlds
Updated: Aug 29
As the population of our species continues to balloon and war rages in the breadbasket of the Europe, it becomes even more imperative to consider how we generate the calories necessary for survival. Monocrop large scale factory farming is not sustainable. First, it depletes the soil of nutrients which helped lead to the Dust Bowl in the last century. Second, it requires substantial investment and as a result is more likely to be a rented farm where both the absentee landlord and the farmer with a lease have less stake in the farm itself when compared to smaller family farms. Third, the farm provides fewer of the diverse foods with micronutrients that our bodies need to flourish. This doesn’t even consider the potentially toxic impacts of pesticides on crops and hormone injections into livestock.
Aquaponics is a farming method where fish are kept in the water used to sustain the plants. As a result, the waste of the fish provides nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and calcium in abundance to the plants, helping them grow even if they are sprayed with the liquid while outside of soil. Because of the environmental controls that come from this manufactured farm, pesticides are not necessary. In hydroponics, one must put nutrients into the water itself to feed the plants, as opposed to the natural cycle of fish food to fertilizer in aquaponics. In fact, fertilizer can be produced in excess quantities that can be sold, as well as can reduce water use of soil-based farming down to 10%, by reducing runoff among many other things.
One of the benefits from vertical aquaponic farming is that one can grow a wide variety of food in the same building (such as an abandoned industrial building). The fish fertilize the plants, providing a complete protein in addition to reducing the water use of farming. Not just that, but it helps to ensure freedom from the microplastics that fish consume in the ocean which would then be consumed by us. However, if we do not revolutionize our energy generation necessary for aquaponic production, then either the power will come from legacy sources or the solar panels that could be used would require vastly more space than more traditional farming methods do.
If one wishes to avoid that extra need of energy but still desires a more sustainable method of farming, there are still options to replenish nutrients in the soil. First, managed grazing can fertilize the soil and encourages plants to send out deeper roots. This also helps the soil sequester carbon, which is both good for our atmosphere and for the plants growing in the area. One can also work with companion plants, agroforestry, or cover plants. This takes an understanding that all beings in the world function more as an interconnected web than as isolated individual organisms, regardless of being plant or animal.
Chief Seattle once said, “What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to man. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth.” This recognition of the interconnected nature of all living beings within the same ecosystem of our globe can be lacking in our modern existence. If the bees die out, we don’t just miss out on their sting. We also no longer have pollinators necessary for the survival of various species of plants, including many important food crops. If wolves vanish, then the population of their prey grows and threatens the stability of the land and the services it provides to all of us. One cannot isolate one species from another.
Just because one functions within a state of nature does not mean that it must be nasty, brutish, and short. Organisms in a symbiotic and harmonious relationship with each other can help each grow to the fullest of their capability. Even plants give of themselves to the soil, which helps their companion plants to grow. Managing diverse species to support each other results in a more robust system which is resistant to disease and drought.
Monocropping came about to reduce the number of agricultural equipment necessary to process crops. It also led to a growth in industrial scale farms. This lack of diversity leaves the plants vulnerable to disease and drains the soil of nutrients. This is one of multiple factors that led to the Dust Bowl devastating farmers in the United States despite the grand promise of the Great Plowing, which was heavily wheat focused. Famously, Native American agricultural practices such as companion planting are effective at reducing this risk.
Companion planting is valuable not just for the nitrogen that pole beans provide. There are other benefits to companion plants, such as attracting pollinators, warding off predators, or providing the ground cover to keep moisture in the soil. For tomatoes, both basil and parsley are valuable. Basil wards off thrips and moths that threaten the tomatoes, and parsley attracts other insects that feast on other threats to the tomatoes. Diversity can be a tool that keeps all members safe.
It's important to consider the risks of limiting oneself to one crop, source, or remedy for a problem at hand. As the phrase goes, don’t put all of one’s eggs in one basket. That’s a good recipe for an omelet. Instead, recognizing that each plant has its own individual benefits which can be used on concert to support each other. Each of the methods to improve sustainability and longevity of a productive farm can be used to supplement each other. Some will be more suited based on the livestock or crops that are currently farmed.