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The View from Here: The common man rises up

Mike Gangwer Published on 05 April 2011

There is much in the news today about unrest and revolution in the world. The “common man” rising up and asking: “Why do we live like this, when we have seen how others live?” The connectivity of our communication systems brings every corner of the world to our computer screens, our BlackBerrys, and our social media.

As diplomats assigned to expeditionary roles, we know that the human dynamic is unpredictable. And the leadership response is unpredictable as well. We may think we know what the outcome is, but sometimes, and often, a single event changes the course of an entire country.

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A case in point is the recent (and profound) changes in Egypt. I submit that these changes are fueled not by money at all, but by the human dynamic, or condition, that compels a society to demand change.

Yet once the unrest is sublimated, or runs its course, then the hard work begins with an answer to the question “Now what?” Let me, in the rest of this column, take us down a similar path that is just as important. Or, perhaps, far more important.

The global price of energy and the related price of human foodstuffs are now on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. Many think tanks are now positing that the world is at a tipping point, with three axioms intersecting: global climate change, increasing population and land use.

I agree with this assessment. The common component in these three axioms is soil. The climate models indicate severe weather changes that will likely yield erosion events (water and wind), the physical movement of our agricultural (and non-agricultural) soils into downslope surface waters.

These soils are carried by sufficient velocity to remain as river sediments downstream, lake deposits once the velocity is slowed, or constrained behind a dam used for flood control or electrical generation. Climate change also impacts the hydrologic cycle.

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A drought in Russia’s wheat-growing area last year and the current drought in China significantly change the amount and price of our cereal grains, in this case wheat.

Our third climate change effect is that of superstorms, rainfall and snowstorm events with greater intensity, with an outcome of changing crop rotation, cropping intensity, and erosion events.

The second axiom is population. All indications are that the carrying capacity of the world, in terms of food production, is slowing as the need to feed more people grows. Some suggest a second Green Revolution.

Others submit that we have already the ability to feed an increasing population; rather it is the storage, distribution and pricing mechanisms that need updating. Others will suggest a change in how we use our harvested cereals.

Should we reduce the use of corn grain as a source for ethanol production? Should we reduce the swine and poultry herds, as these monogastric animals consume the feeds that we can use as human food?

Our final axiom is land use. I am in the camp that considers land use as the number one concern for meeting the needs of humans and animals for food and feed in the coming decades. People like living near water, where recent alluvial soils have been deposited.

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These soils are generally the most fertile. People like living in nearly flat terrain, as construction costs of infrastructure are lower. In much of the world, our agricultural soils are found in flatter terrain, as these soils are the deposits of many years of water and wind erosion.

In all the places of the world I have worked, the best use of land is done in Afghanistan. Farmers there build their homes on the sides of mountains and retain every square meter of farm land in the alluvial flood plains of the river systems.

If they built their homes and commerce buildings on these valuable soils, they would starve. Yet even there, new development seeks to build on flat land and if the economic model supports the greater price for land out of agricultural production, then so be it.

As I write this in our home town of Alma, Michigan, on Wright Avenue, a super Wal-Mart is under construction. It is in an ideal location, as you would expect. Yet it sits on corn and soybean ground, and very productive land as well.

I have watched many, many of these kinds of land use changes and in nearly all of them, the retaining of farm land as a high-value, significant resource is negated by economic development.

Here is my point. Energy is renewable. The sun, our source of all energy, still shines and emits an enormous amount of light and energy captured by plants so we all can eat, and captured by the atmosphere and ultimately the soil so life can exist on the planet.

If in my lifetime the supply of petrochemical energy, oil, shrinks to a fraction of today’s supply, we can transition to other energy sources. I am not writing here that this transition will be easy or inexpensive.

The price of food is inexorably tied to the price of energy. Farm inputs like fertilizers and diesel are requirements. In nearly all regions of the world, the intrinsic soil fertility levels, such as soil organic matter and exchangeable cations, are nominal to the point that these must be replenished in some form of soil amendments.

Even with the advent of biotechnology, the fundamental requirements of essential plant nutrients are absolutely essential. Yes, the plant physiologists have given us plants with a greater growth coefficient per unit of water consumed as beneficial water, but there is no such thing as a drought-tolerant plant. All plants must have some water to keep them cool and move soluble soil nutrients into the plant shoot, leaves, and fruit.

Interestingly, the increasing carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere actually favors increasing crop production. Carbon dioxide is the precursor to the carbon molecule in simple sugar, the first organic product of photosynthesis.

Thus it is one thing to have food and feed at some cost, but it is entirely a different matter if food or feed are not available at any cost. Without writing of an alarm here, I submit here that one very important long-term goal of our policy makers of the world is inventorying the soils of the world so that the best soils are kept in food and feed production.

I can think of no higher calling than this. Energy is renewable and costs are consequential. However, when soils are lost, transported off a crop field, or lack productivity given the misuse of nutrient and carbon cycling, or are built upon with the modernity of commerce and industry, then we are at a peril that is a tipping point.

In the operational sense, we already know how to classify and describe our highest-value soils. The science is well known. Yet we agricultural scientists must make our way to the policy makers and make the case that on a global perspective, protecting our highest-value soils so they remain productive at converting carbon dioxide into sugar, the stuff of food that we eat and feed that animals eat, is the greatest legacy we may give to those following us.

Perhaps the day will come when the common man will gather in a crop field, or in a watershed, or in a floodplain and demand that these places remain protected. For if we do not protect them, food and feed will not be available at any cost.

All societies live on the basis of food sustainability, either having access to food from somewhere else, or growing it nearby. The view from here is clear – we should support, now, a worldwide program giving soils and their role in humankind the importance they must have. For healthy soils beget life, and life that is sustained for generations.

Once the soil is lost, so are we. PD

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS
  • Email Mike Gangwer

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