Maybe it’s time for agriculture to climb down from its wartime footing.
For decades now it’s been a battle as farmers fight nature, red in tooth and claw, to prevent crop damages and loss.
It’s hardly surprising when you consider the historical context out of which our modern Green Revolution agriculture sprang. It took off following the Second World War when our industrial capacity and technological advances were turned to peacetime purposes. Explosives plants became fertilizer factories. Pest control products intended to protect troops from malaria did the same for crops, long eaten by crawling critters. You didn’t have to squint too hard to see the connection between the quantum leap in tractor technology after the war and the work developing tanks and jeeps.
Suddenly rather than just sitting back and practising old cultural control practices and hoping for the best, farmers had new weapons in their battle to feed the world.
There’s no arguing with the results. It was during this period that crop yields began their steady upward climb. In 1945 the U.S. corn crop was yielding just over 30 bushels an acre. By 1950 it had already hit 40 bu./acre, never to look back. By the early 1970s it was flirting with 100 bushels an acre, according to USDA historical statistics, and by the end of the 20th century it was about 160 bu./acre.
With the new and better tools at their disposal, farmers responded by becoming much more efficient and much larger. These very tools that made life easier for farmers, in the end drove a wave of consolidation that moved many people off the land and into cities. The modern farms of today still live and work in the shadow of this great transformation, and continue to have the form they have today because this new generation of tools were and are at their disposal.
Like any production system, however, there will be weaknesses, and over time Mother Nature will find a way to exploit them. Back when I was starting in this business, the researchers at the University of Manitoba and provincial extension staff always told me to remember that nature always has the last at bat in this game we’re playing, and sometimes it feels like she cheats.
That’s not so of course — nature simply exploits the weaknesses and loopholes. Probably the best example of this is the clear and present danger of weed resistance. Our seemingly invincible chemical controls are, again and again, proving to be anything but. We’ve so far escaped the worst of it in Western Canada, but some very intelligent weed scientists have also said loudly, publicly and repeatedly, that unless we change our cultural practices it’s only a matter of time before it gets a whole lot worse. Repeated applications for season after season of the same handful of control products has applied tremendous selection pressure on weed populations. The naturally occurring resistant plants, which were always present at a low level, are slowly becoming the dominant populations, and without action the crop protection dominoes will surely fall, one by one.
That’s not to say this is a sure thing, however, and there’s a hopeful story in our even more recent agricultural past.
Sometime in the mid-1970s a group of dreamers here on the Canadian Prairies and U.S. Great Plains looked at the exciting new tool from Monsanto known as Roundup, and wondered if there wasn’t a better and more soil-friendly way to raise annual grain crops. Rather than relying on tillage and summerfallow, it developed a way to grow crops without tillage.
Just to put this achievement into perspective, humans have been doing agriculture for about 12,000 years and in that time we’ve repeatedly seen the results of continuously growing these crops with a tillage system. That way lays soil degradation and eventually desertification and loss of productive capacity. To take a different approach, one that has spread around the world as it has, borders on heroic.
Often critics of this system get tied up in knots over its dependence on weed control chemistry and they ignore that what it actually does is mimics nature. Nature abhors a vacuum after all, and there’s nothing quite so vacuum-like as a field with nothing growing in it. By keeping roots in the soil at all time, zero till managed to anchor the fragile soils of the region, conserve moisture and make the system dramatically more efficient.
I believe there are opportunities to build upon the foundation of this success and further mimic nature. Incorporating more livestock grazing the land, for example, to mimic the action of the bison. Or expanding upon biocontrol strategies to keep crop pests in check.
That’s not to say we should throw out the existing tool box — but we should never overlook a chance to add to it.