Challenging Conventional Wisdom
A spate of new research and articles raises questions on dominant narratives
This week, I’m featuring interesting new research, including longer articles that debunk some of the accepted narratives around food, farming and climate change.
High yields while cutting chemical fertiliser? Yes, we can!
Farmers can slash the amount of synthetic fertilisers they use and still achieve high-yields if they pair it with “more environmentally friendly practices” such as growing a wider range of crops, cultivating plants that improve soil health, and adding manure, compost and cuttings to fields, according to a recent study published by Rothamsted Research.
This is because growing legumes, such as beans and clover, adds nitrogen to soil, which reduces the need for fertiliser. Growing a greater range of crops throughout the year also helps suppress weeds and diseases, which tend to appear with higher fertiliser use.
The highest experimental yields are observed when combining these practices, known as Ecological Intensification (EI), with some additional nitrogen, according to the researchers behind the study.
They looked at 30 farm experiments that have been running for a minimum of nine years from across Europe and Africa, which provided data from over 25,000 harvests.
The crops that were tested include two of the three major cereals – wheat and maize – as well as oats, barley, sugar beet and potatoes.
“Using an approach more common in assessing drug trials, this is the first time a major study has compared different farm practices that intentionally work with nature to boost yields and explored how they interact with fertiliser use and tillage practices,” the press release said.
Why should you care?
Fertilisers have played a big role in increasing crop productivity over the past half a century. In fact, it’s probably fair to say they helped the world avert famine in the 1960s – they were a key ingredient in the Green Revolution, after all.
I know there’s discussion about the long-term negative consequences of the Green Revolution, but you can’t argue that it did save many lives. Since then, fertiliser use has become incredibly common in global agriculture, with the exception of Africa.
But there are big downsides to using chemical fertilisers, which usually have three main nutrients - nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). They deplete the soil, release greenhouse gas emissions, and pollute and poison waterways, plants, animals and humans.
In fact, growing use of nitrogen-based fertilisers for food production has led to rising emissions of nitrous oxide (N₂O), which is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO₂) and is the main man-made substance damaging the planet’s protective ozone layer.
Here’s an article I wrote in Oct 2020 about the findings from the most comprehensive assessment to date of N₂O, also known as “laughing gas”. I also touched on this topic in a previous issue.
Research has also shown that many countries are using excessive amounts of fertilisers. So cutting the amount of synthetic fertilisers we use is a great way to rein in climate change and biodiversity loss.
But there is another reason why this matters – the war in Ukraine. Russia is one of the world’s largest suppliers of fertilisers and related raw materials. Belarus, a key Russian ally, is also a key potash exporter.
Fertiliser was already in short supply and prices were rising even before the crisis hit. Russia had put restrictions on fertiliser exports and of course, with sanctions on Russia and Belarus after the invasion of Ukraine, prices have skyrocketed.
All of this makes the findings worthwhile and interesting.
Lead author Chloe MacLaren also said, “data from long-term experiments was key to demonstrating that the benefits of ecological intensification hold over long timescales, and across a wide range of contexts.”
“Short-term experiments can produce spurious results if they take place in unusually good or bad years,” she said.
A word about Rothamsted Research
This isn’t a new institution. It’s home to the oldest agricultural research station in the world and it was founded by a British agronomist who set up the world’s first artificial fertiliser factory. So, yeah, don’t knock their scientists.
If you want to read more, links below.
The press release from Rothamsted
The paper was published in Nature Sustainability but you can only see the abstract because it’s behind a paywall. GRRRR. Thanks to the kind folks at Rothamsted who sent me the full version.
An article in The Guardian about the study. I was surprised there weren’t more pickups.
An interview with Rick Haney, a researcher from USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture), about soils and fertilisers in the Yale Environment 360 (2017).
The roots of Sri Lanka’s crisis go deeper than organic.
Speaking of fertilisers, I’m sure you must have seen all the screechy headlines about blaming Sri Lanka’s economic crisis and subsequent large-scale protests on the previous government’s ill-thought-through plan to ban chemical fertilisers overnight.
If you’ll pardon my language, all those headlines are total BS. What’s happening in Sri Lanka is a result of years and years of mismanagement by a political dynasty that saw itself as above the law.
Anyway, you’ll hear more from me on this as I’m currently working on a piece on this issue, but for now, I wanted to share this write-up from A Growing Culture, a nonprofit working on food sovereignty.
Below are some excerpts.
“While farmers, scientists, and environmentalists were pleading for a gradual transition, the Rajapaksa regime enforced an immediate ban on the import of chemical fertilisers and pesticides without providing any time or support for farmers to transition, influenced by the irrational understanding that restricting imports of fertilisers could reduce the burden on foreign exchange reserves and curb the crisis.”
“Sri Lanka’s case was not a failure of organic. It was a failure of leadership. This is why it’s so crucial to carry the conversation from “which practice should we employ” to looking at the greater context these practices are embedded within.”
You may not agree with everything they say, but I found their take interesting.
Why are Dutch farmers protesting?
There are major protests, too, closer to home. They’re happening in the Netherlands and are led by farmers who are protesting against the Dutch government’s plan to reduce nitrogen pollution in some areas by up to 70% by 2030, which means the country’s livestock would have to be reduced by 30%.
This is because ammonia emissions that come from livestock farms play a key role in the pollution.
“Dutch farms contain four times more animal biomass per hectare than the EU average… Dutch agriculture is responsible for nearly half of nitrogen pollution that falls in the country,” wrote Erik Stokstad in this article published in Dec 2019 in Science.
This piece from Sentient Media took many media to task for failing to mention these issues and why such drastic measures are needed.
Again, some excerpts:
“Reports of a threatened food crisis miss the point that the countries importing Dutch meat and milk consume far more than is recommended to draw down emissions. The main recipients of meat from the Netherlands are Germany, the United Kingdom and China. Almost 75 percent of milk processed in the Netherlands goes to countries in Europe. Yet affluent countries, especially those in the global north, consume too much meat and dairy, according to a report published last year.”
“The media needs to acknowledge that the Dutch farmer protests are not a simple tale of ‘the people’ resisting an uncaring regime. In actuality, many farmers are caught between a government belatedly trying to tackle serious environmental problems and powerful agribusinesses blocking climate action.”
Heated is hiring!
Heated, the climate newsletter run by Emily Atkin, who does amazing work, is back and is hiring a reporter. Find out more here.
SeedChange is recruiting Boards of Directors!
SeedChange, which works on farmers’ rights to land and seed, is looking for “someone with a strong committment to food sovereignty, and experience working on issues related to justice, equity, diversity and inclusion” to become a member of one of their two Boards of Directors. More here.
As always, have a great weekend! Please feel free to share this post and send tips and thoughts on twitter @thinink, to my LinkedIn page or via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading Thin Ink ! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.