Courtney White

 

According to the United Nations, there will be nine billion people on the planet by 2050, which raises a serious question: How are we going to feed them without destroying what’s left of the natural world, especially under the stress of climate change?

Australian farmer Colin Seis has an answer: intensify food production by managing land in nature’s image. That might sound like a mouthful, but consider the heart of this issue. If humans can’t find enough food, fuel, fiber and fresh water to sustain themselves, they’ll raid the environment to secure them, pushing all other values that we place on nature, such as wilderness and endangered species production, down the priority list. Perhaps way down.

It’s not about poor people and starvation either. The food well-fed Americans eat comes from a global production system that is already struggling to find enough arable land, adequate supplies of water and drought-tolerant plants and animals to feed seven billion people. Add two billion more—of all income levels—and you have a recipe for a devastating raid on the natural world. Where is all this extra food and water going to come from, especially if the climate gets hotter and drier in many places as predicted?

Industry has an answer: more of the same. More chemicals, fertilizers, GMOs, monocropping, heavy fossil fuel use and land ownership consolidation. A second “Green Revolution” is required, they say, even though the consequences of the first one have been decidedly mixed, especially for the environment. Of course, Industry is more than happy to continue profiting from these “solutions”— which is why it insists on keeping its hand on the steering wheel.

Fortunately, there is another way, as I was reminded while visiting Colin Seis’ farm in New South Wales last fall. Colin pioneered a regenerative agricultural practice called pasture cropping, and I went exploring to learn his story.

In 1979, after a wildfire burned nearly all of Colin Seis’ farm and sent him to the hospital with burns, Colin decided to rethink the way he had been practicing agriculture. His new goal was to rebuild the soil’s fertility after decades of practices had unwittingly depleted it. Colin and his family raise Merino sheep (for wool) on their farm, so Colin decided first to take up holistic management, which is a way of managing animals on pasture that mimics the graze-and-go behavior of wild herbivores. It’s perfectly suited for central New South Wales, whose rolling grasslands, decent rainfall and lack of native predators make it ideal for raising sheep—lots of sheep. But it is what Colin did next that really caught people’s attention.

After a late night of beer drinking at the local pub with a friend, an idea struck Colin: what if he no-till drilled an annual crop into his perennial grass pastures? Meaning, could he raise two products from one piece of land—a grain crop and an animal product? This was a heretical idea. Crops and grazing animals were supposed to be kept separate, right? But that’s because the traditional practice on cropland is plowing, which eliminates the grasses. But what if you no-till (no-plow) drilled oat or wheat or corn seed directly into the pasture when the grasses were dormant? Would they grow?

Colin decided to find out. Fast-forward to the present—and the answer is a resounding “yes!” Pasture cropping, as Colin dubbed it, works well and has spread across Australia to some 2,000 farms. Today Colin produces grain and wool—and, if he wanted, a harvest of native grass seed, which was an original food source for the Aboriginals of the area. It’s all carefully integrated and managed under Colin’s stewardship.

Pasture cropping is just one example of regenerative practices that build topsoil, increase yields, and conserve the environment. There are many others, involving soil, seeds, water, plants, livestock, trees, organics—and people, as the stewards. Building topsoil, for instance, stores more water, grows healthier plants that feed more people while sequestering carbon, which is good for nature too!

Is this pie-in-the-sky stuff? Perhaps, but consider the alternative: more of what got us into trouble in the first place. With two billion people to feed, clothe, house, warm and slake thirsts, contemplating alternatives is crucial if we’re going to have our natural world and eat it too. Fortunately, answers exist, if we’re willing to go exploring.

 

Courtney White is executive director of the Santa Fe, NM-based Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building economic and ecological resilience in western working landscapes. www.quiviracoalition.org