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The Importance of Soil Diversity to Health and The Environment

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The soil where we grow food is a critical foundation of our food system and ultimately, our health. Because the food system affects our health so profoundly, it is critical to make certain of the bio-diversity of the soil in which our food is grown.

The same is not only true for vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and other foods but for the feed our cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry, ducks, and other creatures consume.

When our food is grown in healthy soil containing diverse populations of microorganisms:

  • Nutrient content of the soil is increased, thereby producing food which also contains higher nutrients
  • Harmful pathogens and bacteria that can make people sick decrease dramatically and encourage the growth of friendly bacteria
  • The larger the number of plant species, the greater the variety of crops, and thus disease and scourge are less able to take over
  • Greater species diversity ensures natural sustainability for all life forms
  • Healthy ecosystems are more likely to survive through incidence of various disasters (flooding, fire, etc.)

Healthy biodiversity also provides a number of natural services for everyone (source, Global Issues):

Ecosystem services, such as:

  • Protection of water resources
  • Soils formation and protection
  • Nutrient storage and recycling
  • Pollution breakdown and absorption
  • Contribution of climate stability
  • Maintenance of ecosystems

Biological resources such as:

  • Food
  • Medicinal resources
  • Wood products
  • Ornamental products
  • Breeding stocks, population reservoirs
  • Future resources
  • Diversity in genes, species, and ecosystems

Social benefits, such as:

  • Research, education, and monitoring
  • Recreation and tourism
  • Cultural values

According to the Organic Consumers Association:

A growing body of sophisticated research over the last decade has compared the impacts of organic and conventional farming systems on soil and food quality. Based on this body of research, some of it carried out in field experiments and laboratories, we can conclude that:

  1. Studies of apple production demonstrate that organically farmed soils display improved soil health as measured by increased biological diversity, greater soil organic matter, and improved chemical and physical properties. Enhancement of soil quality in organic apple production systems can lead to measurable improvements in fruit nutritional quality, taste, and storability.
  2. Organically farmed tomatoes have significantly higher levels of soluble solids and natural plant molecules called secondary plant metabolites, including flavonoids, lycopene, and Vitamin C. Most secondary plant metabolites are antioxidants, a class of plant compounds that have been linked to improved human health in populations that consume relatively high levels of fruit and vegetables.
  3. Organic farming can, under some circumstances, delay the onset of the “dilution effect.” In hundreds of studies, scientists have shown that incrementally higher levels of fertilizer negatively impact the density of certain nutrients in harvested foodstuffs, hence the name, the “dilution [of nutrients] effect.” Specifically, tomatoes grown with organic fertilizers maintain constant concentrations of beneficial phenolic secondary plant metabolites and antioxidants, even as fruit grow larger, whereas concentrations of these same beneficial compounds decline with increasing fruit size when the same tomato cultivar is grown using conventional methods and fertilizer.
  4. Studies of 27 cultivars of organically grown spinach demonstrate significantly higher levels of flavonoids and vitamin C, and lower levels of nitrates. Nitrates in food are considered detrimental to human health as they can form carcinogenic compounds (nitrosamines) in the GI tract and can convert hemoglobin to a form that can no longer carry oxygen in the blood.
  5. The levels of secondary plant metabolites in food appear to be driven by the forms of nitrogen added to a farming system, as well as the ways in which the biological communities of organisms in the soil process nitrogen. Compared to typical conventional farms, the nitrogen cycle on organic farms is rooted in substantially more complex biological processes and soil-plant interactions, and for this reason, organic farming offers great promise in consistently producing nutrient-enriched foods.
  6. Organic soil fertility methods, which use less readily available forms of nutrients, especially nitrogen, improve plant gene expression patterns in ways that lead to more efficient assimilation of nitrogen and carbon in tomatoes. This improvement in the efficiency of nutrient uptake leaves plants with more energy to produce beneficial plant secondary metabolites, compounds that promote plant health as well as human health.

Commenting on the well-attended symposium, Dr. Preston Andrews said, “The work we reviewed over the last decade points directly to two major scientific challenges. First, we need to understand more fully how soil biological communities process nutrients and communicate to plant roots in order to promote improved quality in organically grown crops. And second, we need better tools to help organic farmers fine-tune their production systems in order to maximize the soil and nutritional quality benefits of organic farming.”

What effect does conventional farming have on the soil and health of ecosystems?

Conventional farming uses chemical and synthetically-produced fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides to control pests and insects,and weed growth. Farmers following conventional practices use hormones to artificially spur growth in animals and antibiotics to keep animals “healthy”. The use of genetically-modified organisms (which have had their DNA altered in a laboratory), which disrupt the natural life cycle and health of both crops and farm animals are commonly used in conventional farming both for planting, cultivating, and in feeds for livestock.

Conventional farming, by its very nature, has an adverse effect on microbial properties of soil.  Conventional farming  degrades soil fertility, increases erosion, and cause more resistant pests. They also cause massive amounts of pollution from runoff and chemicals used (pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, hormones, and waste residues.  They harm our water due to pesticide runoff into groundwater areas, streams, and rivers. Nitrogen from conventional fertilizers leaching into the oceans “dead zones”.

The use of conventional farming methods actually causes organism growth to be extremely limited due to the practice of mono-cropping (planting the same crop year after year) and promotes the destruction of soil diversity, thereby decreasing nutrient value and nutrition in crops and other products in farming such as meat, dairy products, and others. These practices, used largely by industrial agriculture, are responsible for displacing heirloom strains, native crops, and local farmers. It also causes an increased need for chemical pesticides and fertilizers, due to the increase in disease and scourge in the crops. When plants growing near each other are too genetically similar as in mono-cropping, it causes vulnerability to the health of the plants and the ecosystems alike.

One of the most devastating effects on the environment from conventional farming is the government’s directive to subsidize farmers growing soy and corn to for ethanol. The intent of this activity is to shift the dependence from oil to alternative fuel sources. Ironically, the production of biofuels requires massive amounts of oil. The practice of mono-cropping  is an incredibly energy and chemical intensive process.

The conclusion drawn from various studies of these practices is that the amount of energy required to produce one unit of bio-fuel is greater than the amount of energy it generates. The amount of fertilizers and pesticides required to treat the thousands of acres of U.S. fields these crops is massive, and untold damage is done to the soil, ambient environment, and groundwater as a result of seepage from these toxic chemicals. Most of these farmers have abandoned traditional farming methods such as rotation of crops and replenishing soils of critical nutrients. The more this occurs, the dryer the soil becomes and erosion sets in. This renders the soil arid and worthless. The requirement to use yet more land becomes problematic. As this cycle continues, destruction of more and more land is inevitable.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Soil health is paramount to the survival of human and environmental health. Supporting farming practices that recognize the importance of sustainable soil management is crucial!
  • Every time your food dollars go toward conventional farming, you are supporting monocropping and industrial farming practices that are harming the environment and human health.
  • Genetic modification is viewed as a viable solution to the problems that originate with the practices of monocropping (used in conventional farming). This is a vicious cycle that must be broken.
  • Every time your food dollars go toward sustainable and true organic farming, you are supporting movements that are healthy for the environment and human health.
  • Buy from your local farmer’s markets, local farms, and food merchants that use sustainable practices in their farming methods
  • Sustainable and organic foods do not use pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics, genetically-modified organisms or monocropping…so the answer is simple. support sustainable and organic farming!

Want to help stop large agribusiness giants who are trying to spread genetically-modified organisms all over the planet?

Help Stop Monsanto

Check out the latest news on the Millions Against Monsanto Campaign from the Organic Consumers Association.



This post is part of Kelly The Kitchen Kop’s Real Food Wednesdays Carnival. Please visit Kelly’s site and read the other real food posts there.