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Healthy soil is key to feeding the world (worldsensorium.com)
297 points by dnetesn 4 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 163 comments



I've been doing small backyard-scale experiments with soil-building the last few years and I've come around to the viewpoint that soil should be thought of as a kind of distributed organism. (Someone once called this the "Gaia hypothesis writ small".) The soil organism is made up of myriad species of fungi, bacteria, insects, etc., but it seems to work as a whole (cf. Michael Levin's work, like "What Bodies Think About: Bioelectric Computation Outside the Nervous System - NeurIPS 2018" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjD1aLm4Thg )

In any event, what I've found is that the health of the crops is most easily influenced by looking after the health of the soil (duh?) and that, if you get the soil right, the plants seem like they can't help but grow vigorously.


Not more than a month ago I spent almost an hour trying, unsuccessfully, to google that Michael Levin talk, having forgotten his name, the title, the forum, etc.

Thank you, thank you for the link!


Deep topsoil takes a long time to build. Generations. Centuries.

Like the Midwestern US with buffalo herds moving about and fire for thousands of years. Or old fields that have been properly manured and cultivated for generations.

But an improvement, however small, is still an improvement.


Gabe Brown claims that they increased the amount of organic matter in their soil nearly 10x in two decades, and that's while discovering what worked over the years: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yPjoh9YJMk


Elaine Ingham also has some things to say on the subject.

Part of forest soil creation is the life and death cycles of trees. We haven’t let many trees alone for the sort of time frame this takes, and we haven’t tried to speed things along by accelerating tree deaths a bit (we clear a forest, which is very, very different than making trees fall down and then leaving them where they lay).


If you don’t know anything about fruit trees, it can take an awful long time to get an apple. If you do, then a handful of years can accomplish a lot.

We definitely need to reevaluate this idea of how long it takes to build topsoil, if you actually want to make it instead of waiting for it to just happen.


The volume of topsoil when you multiply it out at x feet deep by y millions of acres is truly staggering, but you can certainly build rich soil very quickly (single digit years) if you only need a small farms-worth. Occasional grazing and fire is not the most efficient method.

I can't help but recommend the book "farmers of forty centuries" by FH King for a look at what it takes to produce 3 seasons of crops per year to feed the populations of China/Japan/Korea on very slim, mountainous real estate circa 1900. Spoiler alert: it's a lot of hu-manure and manual labor.


Me too! Could you say more about what kinds of experiments you've been doing and how you are measuring the results? I've been using the Haney Soil Test along with Phospholipid Fatty Acid Analysis (PLFA) to understand how my management practices have been impacting overall soil health and microbe communities. I've been thinking about how I wish I could collaborate more with others on research to help build a dataset that can be used to quantify the effects of regenerative farming.


I haven't done anything quite that sophisticated! I have only "anecdata" to contribute.

We are basically on sand dunes here and our "soil" is what I call "dirty sand". I had a bunch of wood chips with some chicken manure and feathers in it and I spread that about six inches deep over a bare patch of sand. I added potatoes and kept it moist. Now, a year and a half later, there's a layer of rich living soil between the sand and the wood chips. There are lots of worms and other critters living in there, and I have plants growing well. It's January and I've got broccoli, blooming nasturtiums, fava beans, and potatoes of course, plus a lot of other things. Mushrooms appear regularly too. I don't add any fertilizer or anything.


Measuring humus is a great start to measuring soil quality. Simply looking at the 'black' left on ones hands after feeling the soil is a great start. It is an established science (soil management), just not applied in commercial farming very often.


Easy to test with raised beds.


The breakdown I'd like to see is a histogram of where calories come from, binned by the size of the farm they are grown on.

Most farms (and farmland) in the US are still classified as family farms. As long as they are closely held, farms managing thousands of acres are family farms.

https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-economy/land-use-land-v...

The good news if if you convince an industrial farmer that something will be more profitable, they will do it, at least in aggregate they don't resist better methods for no reason.


Family farms operate about half of America’s farmland and they are responsible for about 21% of production. Link:

https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2020/01/23/look-americas-fam...

Family farms grow commodity and fiber and not necessarily food calories.

‘Industrial farmer’ will toe the line of the inputs industry(feed, fertilizer and weedicides) and collect subsidies. Profitability doesn’t relate to good soil practices. Profit is extracted from all that ancillary to the food production industry. Example: There is no money in growing food. The profit comes if you own your truck lines and part of the supply chain. Or Agtech or inputs make more money than the proceeds of actual food. Subsidies make up most farm income and pushing more farmers into debt and bankruptcy. It’s not very rosy.

Industrial farms have polluted our waters and poisoned our soils that habitat and eco systems are entirely decimated. And crop diversity is also severely compromised and we lose so much variety and cultivars. That’s why we get tasteless red delicious apples and Roma tomatoes because it’s easy to mechanize to feed billions cheap food.

In my opinion, I think there should be two kinds of food. Cheap Soylent kind of nutritious goop to stave off malnutrition and starvation in industrial factory farms with strict protocols to deal with the environmental impact and then real food whose price reflects the true cost of growing food for billions cheaply. But all ag and food production should be termed industrial as it is the erasure of nature and habitat and eco systems.

I am very much in favour of the late great E.O.Wilson’s Half Earth proposal and I think it should be considered in earnest to save our planet.


From your link:

Our research found that family farms remain a key part of U.S. agriculture, making up 98% of all farms and providing 88% of production. Most farms are small family farms, and they operate almost half of U.S. farm land, while generating 21% of production. Midsize and large-scale family farms account for about 66% of production; and non-family farms represent the remaining 2.1% of farms and 12% of production.

My point was that the use of "family farm" with no additional context (as in the article), is very difficult to interpret. You've linked a description that includes several types of farm under the label "family farm" but elided the "small" that reflects the statistics you quote.


I am not sure I understand your point. Please clarify.

In the United States, the average size of a farm is around 400 acres.


You wrote "Family farms operate about half of America’s farmland and they are responsible for about 21% of production".

The resource you link identifies those as small family farms and gives much larger ownership and production numbers when larger farms that are also classified as family farms are included.

The article linked for HN discussion uses the term "family farm", which we can see doesn't mean a lot in the US.

Now you are discussing, probably, mean size, which the article you link makes clear doesn't mean a lot (because there are many many tiny, not very productive farms).


‘Farms’ can mean a lot of things and they are not all producing food calories. So what is your definition of ‘productivity’?

A farm can be profitable not growing anything and collecting subsidies. Many ranchers have a small herd and use their ‘farmland/ranches’ for endangered mitigation purposes as there is a lot of federal dollars for conservation. There are ‘farms’ that have upto $250k/year tax write off for an alpaca farm.


Apples and tomatoes are not good examples for your point. There's a tremendous variety of apples available in standard grocery stores, most of which are significantly tastier than the red delicious. And bland tomatoes are a result of having to ship tomatoes, which is near impossible with ripe fruit, hence selecting robust varieties, picking early, and having them ripen in transit. There too, increasingly you can find heirloom varieties in stores, however they are understandably more expensive. Try canned tomatoes if you don't need a pretty fruit but are looking for flavor -- canning varieties are picked ripe and immediately processed.


Canned varieties use tomatoes grown specially for canning and they are picked unripe ..ripened with ethylene gas and immediately processed.

With apples, old canopied orchards are destroyed and cannot be replanted again due to replant disease. United States is facing a huge problem with fire blight disease (that affects all pommes..pears and pecans too) and there is a new fire blight resistant foot stock..but dwarfing stocks and grafting takes time.

On a side note, I tried pitching a rootstock grafting robot but never found traction. Agtech only funds tech that uses chemicals and fertilizers. We are losing tasty cultivars and will end up only growing the monocropped varieties at scale. It’s literally the same economics as factory production. But nature is not a factory. I don’t have the energy or inclination to effect any change anymore. I see the ground reality now and profit motives. I know I will eat well because I save seeds and grow old cultivars for taste and not quantity. I don’t think it’s my job to change the world anymore. Covid brought home a lot of realities. All the weak spots were exposed. I am looking at everything with a diff set of eyes than I did two years ago.

Currently pears are going through a dimming phase due to thin profit margins. In the next few generations, pears will be a rare fruit. Meanwhile in this environment, Abundant robotics..the only American robotic apple harvester (and one that had done better than any of the other start ups and was also the first) was shut down and it’s assets auctioned off. I know exactly what went down and why it was shut down but it’s not something for public consumption. An American grown and funded fantastic tech had its patents and data ‘sold’. It was developed at SRI Menlo Park and entire annual budgets of Washington state university research Dept. And the company sold even shit like its compressors and furniture at an auction. Fully stripped and when it’s on the auction block, it becomes a undesirable acquisition. It was staggeringly shocking. That’s when I realized that this is all futile. Bigger forces planning bigger goals.

I honestly believe that American ag is on its way down. We are fast going towards food insufficiency and higher reliance on imported food. I don’t know if it’s deliberate policy or if there are other motivations at work. But this is ‘above my paycheck’, as it were and I think we are looking at the eventual demise of American food ag.

Having said that, I am 1000% sure that relying outside our borders for our food and not being food self sufficient is a terrible recipe for disaster. I expect high inflation of food prices and food shortages in the near future in America. Even more severe than in other parts of the world because we are already reliant on imports and most of the food we grow comes from the desert called California that is looking at decades of drought in the future. And its main growing areas in Central Valley and central coast is going to experience salt water intrusion and subsidence is already happening. I give it thirty years before all that land is sold to property development or open space because food won’t grow there anymore. Meanwhile we have done nothing to ensure food security. I will be dead by then and until then I am going to eat well. Nothing lasts forever.


National Research Council study quoted in article: "A well-managed alternative farming systems nearly always use less synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics per unit of production than conventional farms."

There's a certain disingenuousness in this rhetoric. A skilled, professional bicycle frame builder can build a frame that's stronger with less materials than the frames that come out of semi-automated plants in Korea. But that doesn't mean the framebuilder is "more efficient".

Industrial agriculture is far more efficient in terms of labor. That's what matters in the process of transforming society. Notably, the labor freed up by industrial agriculture can be used to very efficiently accumulate more resources to be put into agriculture and even more knowledge.

Which isn't to say small scale farms don't some virtues but let's be clear what's going on.


I don’t think it’s disingenuous to say that certain types of farms use less harmful chemicals. But if you know that they take more labor then one could ask, how can we reduce the labor requirements of small farms to make those benefits scale? For my part I’m designing a solar powered farming robot that is totally open source, with the hope that this will lead to low automation costs for small regenerative organic farms.

https://community.twistedfields.com/t/a-closer-look-at-acorn...


I wouldnt say it is disingenuous, but rather tautologous (true in virtue of the statement). Ind Ag is more efficient at producig food. Europe was starving until modern mechanised ag. But now we have too much and it is poisoning the world and we ned to move to the next solution: integrated ecological management.


It requires far more knowledge: an in depth understanding of the agriculture relating sciences. But less pesticides, less fertilizers, no-till certainly reduces the labor.


> But less pesticides, less fertilizers, no-till certainly reduces the labor.

How do you figure? Pesticide, Fertilization, Tilling and Harvesting are precisely the types of labor that has been automated and is now done 60-feet wide by 4 miles an hour.


The automatization is far from being the norm (if you mean autonomous tractor). Then automatization applies to both type of agriculture. But there how do I figure? Not sure to properly understand your question, because less works mean less labors. Automatized or not.


The parent just said "automated". Using a tractor driven by a person to till a field is a vast savings over using a horse or person, as was done previously.

Autonomous vehicles and AI have been vastly oversold as a mean or a source of automation. There's been a huge amount of automation through applying regular machines to things that were previously done by hand and that's still where most labor-saving improvements happen.


Those technologies reduce inputs - a good thing. They don't reduce the use of labor.

But just as much, all these technologies can be used with large scale, industrial agriculture.


They do: less inputs mean that the farmer has to spend less time on the fields. Fertilizer isn't put in one shot. It is done multiple time over the year. Less means it will be done less times.


If you're interested in healthy soils, and particularly their enormous potential for carbon sequestration, consider joining my team at Yard Stick! We're building hardware that measures soil carbon in-situ, 90% cheaper than conventional methods. Currently hiring a few different hardware roles:

https://useyardstick.notion.site/useyardstick/Careers-at-Yar...


Have you targeted the cannabis growers? Lots of living soil growers who would be interested in this.


Who is a customer for a product like this?


Primarily it's ranchers and farmers globally who want to get paid to add carbon to their soils by adopting more soil-friendly practices. This is a rapidly growing market as more companies are looking to offset their emissions. There's also a good deal of growers simply interested in learning about the climate impact of their practices, or soil researchers studying the carbon impact of various practices.

Current soil carbon measurement methods are very cost- and labor intensive, so our in-situ spectral probe will make these measurements much more accessible.


I would like one for home gardening. Soil carbon is one measure of soil health.


stick your finger in and see if it is black with humus!


You'd probably need an effective carbon economy and regulatory framework that would reward soil with good carbon sequestration.

But to your point, the masters human race would rather destroy themselves that do things like that.


No. Healthy soil means high carbon content (mycelium, microbes etc).

"Dead soil" that has been tilled too much will have fucked up nitrogen and other cycles, requiring irrigation, supplemental fertilizer and more pesticides.

The climate crisis angle is just icing on the cake.


Under this heading,

> Myth 2: Large farms are more efficient

The author cites two studies, one from 1989 and and one from 1992, to claim that large farms are not more efficient. I feel like 30 years of technological advancements might have changed that. So the evidence seems very weak to me.

P.S. I would really want to live in a universe where small farms were more efficient than large ones. But evidence is evidence.


It's also a bit weasel wordy .. "While large farms excel at producing a lot of a particular crop – like corn or wheat – small diversified farms produce more food and more kinds of food per hectare overall."

I believe in the movement and have seen what factory farming does to a place first hand, but I always cringe when movements try to turn cons into pros with misleading comparisons.


I think we just don't have a settled definition of efficiency. I've seen farmers claim that using the right rotations, edible cover crops, and grazing cattle and free-range chickens leads to more calories per acre, more diverse crops and all without fertilizers or pesticides. But no claims about farmer and machinery time per acre. Factory farming is probably fewer farmers and fewer tractors per calorie.


Agreed. My grandfather raised 20-30 dairy cows on 200 acres. Horse and plow. Little fertilizer. Crop rotation (pasture/clover/hay). Lots of child labour. Wood lot for firewood at the back.

Better for the land, but I wouldn't be that kind of farmer for anything.

Now large dairy farms are running hundreds of head of cattle with only a couple of full time workers but tend to use quite a bit more acres per cow (or just plain buy hay and other feed from other places).


Technology is probably getting to the point where we can have better farms but less work than our grandparents needed to do. A tractor can still be used for sustainable planting and harvesting. Rotating a herd of cattle to promote soil growth can be done easier with an ATV and extra fencing than a guy on horseback.


According to Our World in Data [0]:

> Smallholder farms (farms with less then 2ha) use 24% of agricultural land, produce 29% of crops, providing 32% of the world's food.

That means that the larger ones use 76% of land to provide 68% of the world's food. Looks to me like small farms are indeed more efficient...

[0] https://ourworldindata.org/smallholder-food-production


I'm there with you. I belong to a food coop and purchase from small local farms all the time, but that's as an affluent tech professional where I'm under no illusions that the current state of this food community would be able to sustain the entire US population at its current rate of consumption. Things like producing millions of acres of corn to produce corn syrup and animal feed for fast food burgers are things that the "artisinal" food community sort of looks down upon, things like that would likely have to change if the farming system were de-industrialized and replaced with small independent farms.

It's an extraordinary claim that small family farms could feasibly replace industrial scale farming as a whole without changing things like that, so you'd need some extraordinary proof. While I can see how maybe you can show that a small farm is more productive per acre compared to an industrial farm, OK, now try to scale up that small farm, by either expanding it or adding many more such small farms, to produce the same amount of food as the industrial farms do. Then what happens?


>Things like producing millions of acres of corn to produce corn syrup and animal feed for fast food burgers are things that the "artisinal" food community sort of looks down upon

I know you were just providing one example, but this doesn't seem like an outrageous position to me. That's a lot of resource use for some food that causes myriad health problems in our society. Seems like we'd all be better off just eating the corn and then would be able to use a lot less food.

I don"t disagree with your wider point about industrial vs. family farming, though.


oh, I 100% agree that the practice is awful, corn syrup shouldn't exist and animals are mostly supposed to eat grass, not corn. I was just pointing out that these are things that are enabled by industrialized farms, so if they went away (which would be great) then the overuse of corn would have to go away too.

that is my larger point is, if small farms can feed the US, it's likely that US food culture / economics would need to change pretty radically for that to happen.


Wheat doesn't care how big is the farm it's growing on. Same techniques can be used on any farm. Look at official statistics for olive production of Spain, smaller farms have better results, but the difference is tiny, a few percent.

Also a 'large' farm for spain is 'medium' in UK and 'tiny' in US. Usually people who say small mean family owned, not corporate.

This is simply a matter of capital and land allocation/distribution/policy.


My friend is literally a family farmer, and all she grows is corn and soybeans, in heavily-mechanized monoculture, with all the fertilizer and pesticides you'd expect. It seems like who exactly owns the farm doesn't bear much on what is the most profitable thing to do with the farm.

But this is a world I'm not very familiar with and I'd like to hear from people who actually know what they're talking about.


The author also doesn’t define efficient. Food produced per unit area? Energy? Effort?


I think that's the key point in both 'sides' of the argument (if any) in the comments under this article. It's sustainability vs min/maxing (expenses vs effort vs yield).

I mean, it's obvious that small scale eco-conscious farming is "better" than large-scale industrial farming using genetically optimized crops, fertilizers, and pest control, but only if your definition of "better" focuses on sustainability, if it's cost vs yield and the like, industrial farming may be "better".

The eco-conscious way of farming is more labor intensive and will most likely lead to higher prices in store shelves. But on the other hand, there's plenty of people who would want to work as a farmer, as long as the wages and working conditions are good.


also, over what time span/# of crop cycles?

effects on other aspects of the system?


efficiency is a misnomer. is it more efficient to grow some veggies in your backyard, or to have an industrial system? currently we have efficiency, but do we have health? do we have the lifestyle we want? do we have the future secured? No, No, No. How do I want the future? Really tasty fruits I cant get in the shops. And I have many. Now that is something efficiency cant get me. PS, Im not so sure evidence is evidence! :) Did you see the article on how smoking increases fitness? https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=29728175


Well... Those studies aren't the only ones. How about having a look at these, or that site in general?

https://rodaleinstitute.org/science/articles/


How do you define efficient? There are lots of ways to slice the data. Large farms need economies of scale to pay for $1M tractors. I don't see anyone paying for something that expensive and raising a family on 40 acres.


Exactly. Eeking out every ounce of productivity from land is different to getting the highest return on a financial investment.

My hunch is that small farms are cash poor but time rich and that has implications. At some point the bottleneck switches from cash to available time of talented people.


Great article. If you're interested in this topic, recommend watching "Living Soil" documentary on YT: https://youtu.be/ntJouJhLM48


This article clearly fails to convince the HN crowd despite being correct on every claim. Those who have never been to a farm do not understand the importance of 'dead soil' its not some utopian dream to want to reduce both pesticides and reliance on fertilizers. Its an necessity. The excessive use of pesticides and fertilizer is the agricultural ponzi scheme, every year you're repaying all your debts with more of what is slowly reducing yields. It might have saved millions of people from starvation during the population boom but now it is most definitely a giant risk to the future crops that must grow. I'll link sources later but generally, all pesticide use is slowly increasing due to diseases becoming resilient against the safest pesticides and because monoculture growing (large single crop farms) is inherently bad at managing disease. I hate to bring up Coronavirus but people must learn that despite our intelligence, viruses, bacteria and parasites are most definitely still smarter than our defences. especially when it comes down to basic chemicals we spray everywhere or dare I say it, vaccines. Failing to understand how to use the tools available to us risks losing the very tools upholding society. We saw it with antibiotics, we're seeing it with pesticides and we're going to see nature out-evolving us if we're not cognizant of the dangers.


Biological resistance is inevitable if there is a mild single mode of action. It doesn't matter if you are organic, permaculture or conventional. If you use a single mode of action that lets some survive, it will be resisted eventually.

Did you know insects can develop resistance to crop rotations and spring burns? Resistance isn't limited to chemicals.

How do you fix this? Multiple, overlapping modes of action. If we can effectively control HIV and it's extremely high mutation rate, we handle a few weeds.


I've always said, sustainable soil management techniques getting incorporated into conventional farming will be the ultimate benefit provided by the organic farming movement.


Not a bad prediction and I agree.

Would the organic food people be okay with that though? Some of those people want to convert 100% to organic, which is obviously not scalable or sustainable (ironically).


> obviously not scalable or sustainable

reliable citation needed.


https://www.technologyreview.com/2019/10/22/132497/sorryorga...

Also source: me. Been in agriculture for a long time. Have good friends that _run large organic farms_ (1,000-4,000 acres).


A recent paper on Nature with 68 citations describes organic farming as sustainable:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-019-0266-6


According to this people: https://www.unep.org/thinkeatsave/get-informed/worldwide-foo... about a third of the food produced is thrown away along with half the water used to produce it.

Strikes me as an obviously improvable thing, as long as we're as a species capable of reining in the market forces at play.

But then again, we as a community don't seem to able to stop a couple hundred maladaptive nerds from using downvotes as a "me no likey" button, so there's that.


> as long as we're as a species capable of reining in the market forces at play.

A better phrase would be “reining in the perverse incentives at play” as government is just as prone to give in to perverse incentives or regulatory capture that promote waste.


Common sense in politics is also key. My Canadian province grows different crops but potatoes are the big crop here 25% of all potatoes bought in Canada. This summer was perfect and in the fall it was a bumper crop it was amazing. But then two fields out of hundred tested positive for a plant virus called potato wart. It's an ugly fungus on the potato but it's harmless to humans.

There are now millions of pounds of perfectly fine potatoes that can't be sold. The biggest market the US will not buy them. It was just a few potatoes out of millions of pounds. The remaining are for food only and can't grow into a plant.

Even Puerto Rico which buys a lot of potatoes grown here (30%?). They don't grow potatoes in Puerto Rico so a fungus is not a threat. But it is not permitted to buy any potatoes from Canada (archaic shipping laws don't help) but specifically no potatoes from here PEI.

They can't even give them away since it takes too long to ship them and who will pay the labour costs, or the fuel to ship them? They need to be disposed of before they rot.

So even if you as a farmer grow a crop and lots of it there are laws that can ruin your day. And that's after you spent 18 hour days all summer growing a good crop.


Can rotting potatoes not be used in building soil? It won't be profitable, but its better than landfilling... what is the manner of disposal anyway?


Here is what my local government has about disposal: Can potato waste be buried in abandoned or operating excavation pits? No. Potato waste is organic and being that all excavation pits have exposed bedrock in them, which creates an easy access to the groundwater table, the organic waste can contaminate it.

https://www.princeedwardisland.ca/en/information/agriculture...

Some farmers are using tractors with snowblower attachment to shred the potatoes.

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/prince-edward-island/pei-pota...


Just think about the waste of a widespread crop infection... The risk simply isn't worth it.


This article feels intellectually dishonest.

> According to a recent U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, family farms produce over three-quarters of the world’s food.

Here's a bunch of data [1]. You see some obvious patterns. Firstly, large farms dominate the developed world. Developing farms dominate the developing world. The reason for this should be obvious: labour cost is the driving factor. Labor is cheap in the developed world. This makes farming machinery really expensive in labour terms. In the developed world, this isn't the case. Mechanized agriculture favors large farms so here you are.

I'm not sure we should be celebrating that a large amount of the world's population is growing and tending food by hand.

> Conventional farming practices that degrade soil health undermine humanity’s ability to continue feeding everyone over the long run.

So this I somewhat agree with. It used to be (or at least it feels like this is the case?) that in years past there was a more conscious effort to rotate crops to rehab the soil whereas now it seems like we bridge this gap chemically.

I don't think "healthy soil" is the key here however. The bigger factor is energy cost. Want to make more soil? You can do that... with sufficient energy. Want fresh water? You can desalinate if you have to. The limiting factor is... energy. Want to improve land usage with so-called "vertical farming"? The limiting factor there is, you guessed it, energy.

I actually look forward to a future with sufficient automation and cheap energy such that very few humans are actually required for food production.

[1]: https://ourworldindata.org/farm-size


you should read bill gates blog, you might get along ;) Nice ideas, but back to earth and fix the problems now by doing less. Not racing to the stars and destroying more on the way. Dont worry, humanity will have unlimited energy (hey dont we already) and will get tho the stars. Best not to destroy the planet on the way.


wish i could upvote this a hundred times.

i love the work of Million Belay with The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) (https://afsafrica.org) as well as with the Stockholm Resilience Agency. this video of his and others like it really drove home the important core reasons to focus on soil health: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZQrufxn990 (https://graid.earth/a-resilient-food-future-for-the-people-o...)

also i think this video about Ernst Götsch and his 'syntropic' agroforestry is very exciting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSPNRu4ZPvE


No mention of worms and their importance in healthy soil? Or the impact of pesticides on them?


The northern Midwest has no native worms. They all died in the last ice age. It’s all insect and microbe decay. Imported worms are slowly changing what trees can grow. The seedlings are adapted to life in a thick duff layer that the worms eat.


As someone who was 110% pro-worm this was a bitter pill to swallow, but yeah, my beloved compost worms (Eisenia foetida) are a "non-native invasive" species.[1] "And so it goes."

I wonder about the ecological equilibrium that might obtain in a thousand years...

[1] "Eisenia fetida worms are native to Europe, but have been introduced (both intentionally and unintentionally) to every other continent except Antarctica." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eisenia_fetida


I moved so that solved the problem, but the common wisdom does seem to be that Eisenia foetida colonies rarely survive more than a couple years, since they don't burrow far and they aren't cold adapted. If you have to pick a worm, that certainly beats nightcrawlers by a mile.

I'm told that they think most incursions are caused by fishing expeditions where the fisherman releases the worms at the end of the day, rather than carting them back home. You can track the progress outward in a circle, not unlike fungal fairy rings.

In a pinch you can start an Eisenia foetida worm bin by calling all of the bait shops to see who can sell you a large container of them. So clearly they're an option for fisherman.


It's not just worms. We're lucky to have excellent soil in our backyard and it's absolutely crawling with millipedes, isopods, and springtails.


I have a vermicompost bin in my kitchen, I'm in awe whenever I open it at just how many bugs there are in there just doin' their thing, and it's all self contained. The only "pest" I've had has been ants entering the bin and stealing food. Once I wrapped some double sided tape on the legs, that cleared up that. Even my wife likes 'em.


Small farms use absurd amounts of labor, the cost of which in the developed countries would go far beyond "economically infeasible" to "actually impossible".

The modern world is not going to go back to subsistence farming, nor should it. Agriculture does need a revolution, but not in the direction that this article wants it.

As far as what direction to take Ag, my company is working on technology that reduces herbicide usage by 70+% in the largest sector: row crops, and it's going to hit the fields in a big way very soon. Leveraging the advances in robotics and AI to treat each plant individually and efficiently as possible will revolutionize Ag. Crop inputs can be reduced, new chemistries even organic ones may be unlocked for large scale use, the changes that will be wrought when this technology reaches maturity and large-scale market penetration will change Ag fundamentally, for the better.


Many of these people are trying to get the farm animals to do the labor, rather than humans. These conveniences and petrochemicals and predicated in an infinite supply of fossil fuels. Something has to change, and if we don’t change it then Time will do it for us.


It is doubtful that crop input costs will be reduced as companies like yours will seek to capture the savings in chemical costs by charging for the usage of the machinery. I’m not saying that’s necessarily bad.


Since the more advanced machinery costs more, a customer would not buy it unless it saves them money, thus a significant enough amount of the savings must be realized by the customer after the increased cost to have any reasonable chance of market success: the farmer must win as well or the product is doomed.

In this way, the market does keep a company honest. Farmers are absolutely incredible businessman, they will have nothing to do with technology that only makes money for somebody else. Also, we generally sell our equipment and the vast majority is customer or Ag service provider owned.


Maybe paid too much attention in that "elective" class Environmental Science in college but this book should have been taken seriously since its publication: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent_Spring


Silent Spring is emotionally manipulative hyperbole which does harm to reasonable progress because it was among to introduce the catastrophizing of environmental issues which creates zealots and anti-zealots instead of a narrative dominated by pragmatic improvement and optimization.


In all fairness if one is not emotionally attached to a thing, then it will not be cared for. No amount of scientific data will convince an unemotionally attached person to care. If we operated on rational, a lot of world problems including wildlife and environment would not be an issue. Heck, nations use emotions to start and justify wars. So this may sound negative "emotionally manipulative" but is essential.

Why do this? Because damage to the environment takes time. Typically in the decades before the magnitude of the damage is realized. e.g The Butterfly effect.


Have you read it? I did about two decades ago, and while it wasn't entirely my thing, I've read it with systems thinking in mind. Skimming its Wikipedia article to maybe get what you are talking about, because I could have forgotten something in the meantime, I found nothing.

In hindsight she's been absolutely right.


Yes I have and also as long ago. But the overall message did burn into me. That is the environment is scared and we really should take better care of it.

Eg. Florida Everglades. In short 'in the name of progress' thought it was a great idea to redirect the water flow even when presented with much scientific data that this would be a bad thing to do. And it proved disastrous. Now the state is still trying to restore it.


In context (and hindsight) it was the necessary "emotionally manipulative hyperbole" to kick off the whole shebang, eh?


I don’t know about “necessarily”, going back and imagining history happening differently isn’t always a fruitful activity. There were certainly people interested in preserving high quality environments and concerned with degradation before the more extreme and hyperbole laden “environmental movement”

One can only guess how things would have evolved differently, but people did have successes before the exaggeration became common, and overreaction and political splits to extreme views is currently a significant obstacle to progress.

When you exaggerate, you create opposition who do too.


Ahem. Create opposition? By whom? Big multinationals which have budgets for PR greenwashing everything? And lawyers to mute dissent? Which has been proven again and again after the fact? When things were already broken?

See it as an asymmetric answer in the war of attrition by the commercial killers of the environment.


so much media is emotionally manipulative, it seems to be how humans respond to things. oh well. so lets not discount this book, but rather look at how is could be valid / invalid on other merits.


But that’s all it was, it told a story that needed to be told but did so using fear and exaggeration. I’ve read it.


Although the article seems very poor, for motives already stated by other posters, I think there is a legitimate debate that is not being taken. Industrial farming is pretty bad in ecological terms. Organic farming might be better, but the incentives are just not there. As with many of climate-related issues today vs capitalism, the problem seems to be costs externalization. This case seems trickier than atmospheric emissions because in many case, people degrading the soil actually owns the land, which would affect long-term yields. However, money earned today might compound better than long term yield degradation, which is also harder to grasp to us humans?


>climate-related issues

*Environmental issues


There's a small pot of land in my city that starts right where one of our parks end. It's not fenced, the amount of traffic (people, dogs, cats, trucks) is similar to that of the park.

On that land, grass grows freely, bushes stretch and grow at will, weeds come and go throughout the year. Native flowers bloom seemingly out of nowhere. There's always bees, mosquitoes, ticks, birds and the likes during the warmer months. Every fall, a new layer of mulch forms as leaves, plant matter and dog poop gets stuck in the grass and plants, protecting the soil from both heat and winter in the coming year.

On the park land, there is an annual cycle of desperate attempts to keep the grasses and bushes alive.

Each fall, months of cutting the grasses short, plucking weeds, removing leaves and plant matter, cutting down bushes to "encourage root growth" and general practices that expose the soil to sunlight during dry months have decimated most plants. By winter, something like half of all grasses are gone, a small section of bushes get diseased and die off, leaving only a few patches of healthy soil versus a large amount of compacted earth and/or mud that gets washed away during heavy rain fall.

Each spring, the city drives heavy machinery to replant most of the grass(es) again. The earth being heavily compacted, all seeds land on top of the soil. They subsequently dry out in the sun, and a large majority of them never get to root. The regrowth of grass is either via direct transplant (soil and everything) or when people in the neighbourhood plants their own seeds (and make sure to water them) after deaf complaints to the city/municipality.

Taking inspiration, we tried to replicate such a system for our shared courtyard.

Branches, twigs, leaves and food waste is composted and used as mulch (though we started with store-bought wood chips). No dirt is exposed to sunlight or frost, only plants are. Barely no effort to remove weeds as very few are strong enough to grow through all that mulch. When we are forced to restrict water usage during the driest months, most plants pull through, with some having minor die off or they just look droopy and sad until next rainfall.

The neighbours (three courtyards) do it the more traditional way of removing leaves, dead plants and pulling the large(r) amount of weeds that pop up in the barren soil. During years when water use is restricted, a lot of their plants and flowers dry up and die, causing them to buy and replant new ones the season after.

We've managed to convince some by showing them our results, but so far it's only us in our block that does this.

It's madness, and I wouldn't be suprised if there were similar stories with (industrialized, work-intensive) farming.


I really liked this documentary!

Kiss the Ground (2020) https://www.netflix.com/title/81321999

Some striking pictures of two fields next to each other, and really inspiring grit by intelligent farmers


This strikes me as someone who formed a conclusion and went out to go find supporting evidence to write about.

It is also wrong.

The key to feeding the world was the Green Revolution, the system of plant variety and hybrid development, fertilization, pest management, and mechanization with related techniques which developed the capacity to feed the planet in the mid 20th century. Without it the world’s population would have been limited by starvation billions of people ago.

There are good arguments that those techniques can be significantly improved upon, but the people pushing for them generally don’t have very much of an idea of how things work and just tend to repeat each other’s “bro science”.

https://wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Revolution


This is a clickbait article that doesn't deserve a place on HN. So let's forget the "bro" aspect. Some methods of soil rejuvenation are very compatible with modern farming, and some farming in the US still depends too heavily on chemical fertilizer.

In the mid-1800s, the "Great American Desert" was rebranded the "Great Plains" in a marketing campaign designed to get poor Irish people to go out and populate/farm it. That whole mess ended up with the topsoil getting blown off after a single generation of farming. Meanwhile, we now understand "soil" as a very complex substance, more organic than mineral. If they had understood that then, they would have had a better yield and the Army Corps of Engineers wouldn't have had to come in and rebuild Oklahoma and half of Arkansas from scratch[0].

For all the wonderful development of the 20th Century, lots of mistakes were made and lots of land was destroyed to achieve a brief burst of productivity, and lots could have been made more sustainable, and still could be.

[0] https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/citations/ADA637016


And this isn't limited to the US, the soviet did the exact sale things in Khazakstan[1] with the same consequences…

[1]: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virgin_Lands_campaign


Also in Argentina. It's a settler/imperialist pattern. https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conquista_del_Desierto

(Not in Israel, though; when I say "settler/imperialist" I suspect some people might draw that conclusion. Israelis don't waste the land or practice these kinds of short-sighted farming techniques.)


> Not in Israel, though; when I say "settler/imperialist" I suspect some people might draw that conclusion. Israelis don't waste the land or practice these kinds of short-sighted farming techniques

It's not really surprising, since their territory is very small (even though they are expending it on a regular basis, it's still very much bounded, because expanding outside of Palestine would be almost impossible). I think it has a lot to do with the idea of having a land so vast that you can't really imagine exhausting it (of course it only happens during colonization because the “big land” is otherwise divided between many competing factions, each controlling a tiny part of it)


Mm. Yes, also a misunderstanding of fertility. The Israelis for instance were of a mindset to go into an extremely arid place and plant grasses and harvest water until they could hold down the dunes in some places, grow crops in other places. Whereas there was a big misunderstanding in the 1800s, in the plains of Argentina and the Great Plains of America, that the thin soil which supported grasses would be able to support wheat or corn. The constant replanting without rest or irrigation was more like a religious belief than an understanding of the land.

Maybe yeah, too much land can lead people to casually screw it up. Or on the other hand, knowing your land is so small and limited makes you have to act more carefully...


I'm not so sure about that. Israel seems to only be capable of its agricultural miracles thanks to over-extraction from freshwater aquifers, including those belonging to Palestine


don't they have a lot of polytunnels?


Are there any good books on this topic? Plenty has been written about "The West" in general, but specifically the agricultural history of America seems like it'd be both interesting and enlightening.


Not to dispute your assertions, but perhaps it's worth looking at an alternate viewpoint.

I found Masanobu Fukuoka's "The One-Straw Revolution" quite compelling. In it, Fukuoka argues for finding ways to diversify plant variety, improve soil quality and fertilization, manage pests such that external input (mechanization, fertilizers, pesticides, heavy irrigation) is not needed in the first place. All while improving yields year after year.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/976905.The_One_Straw_Rev...

A dear friend has been applying the so-called "natural farming" principles for about a quarter of a century now, and swears by it. His farm is beautiful in a wabi-sabi sense, and is abundant like a forest.

(edit: language, clarified sentence)


When the description of your book includes "purifying the human spirit" the immediate reaction is that you've found a way to sell books to hippies, and your advice on farming is perhaps suspect.

There is a lot of speculation out there about how things might be done, but the reality is how things have actually been done were with the Green Revolution a.k.a. conventional farming.

A few individuals with a hobby farm selling food to rich people isn't a solution to world agriculture problems. Most of these techniques are labor heavy and replacing machines with people either creates an underclass of slave-like labor or makes food cost a huge portion of where your income goes to. They also often use fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, etc. but ones which are considered "natural" but not necessarily (and often definitely not) any less poisonous than synthetic alternatives.

Like I said before, there are techniques, opportunities to improve, but these things aren't going to come from hippies thinking their garden is going to save the world or there 1/8 of an acre operation is going to scale to thousand acre farms. Their plans usually would involve completely reorganizing the world economy in infeasible ways only possible if everybody was an angel and shared exactly the same ideas.


Yours is a valid critique. I'm not a fan of woo language either.

At the same time, it's hard to ignore the results I've seen first-hand.

Let's ignore the woo language and ignore the book and ignore my suggested misunderstanding of how any of it is supposed to work.

What is the long-range systems outlook of current ag practices? Is it sustainable? If not, what scale of economic policy change will we have to undertake to make it work sustainably?

We are of course talking about the entire system and not a few oddball smallhold farmers.


>sustainable

This is a bit of a weasel word overloaded by usage without much understanding of what is meant.

Agriculture is not one thing.

A whole lot of modern practices are indeed quite sustainable over very long periods, some others... less surely so, some, like burning down rain forests to farm for a few years and then moving on, obviously not.

A whole lot of people get a little bit of information and just keep repeating "modern practices are unsustainable, we need to do X!" but this is vague and involves almost no understanding. What you need is actual scientists studying particular practices in particular areas commenting on the long term viability of certain behaviors and how they might be changed.

But like many things the popular narrative is a good vs. evil where one vague thing is seen as bad and another good without really getting into what they're talking about. It's a complex field, I'm no expert but I know more than enough to see when somebody doesn't know anything, and unfortunately most of the conversations are by people who don't know anything.

There are a lot of things which could be better and are indeed getting better.

Automation needs to get better for non-grain farming so that the ratio of grains vs. other foods is altered in production and consumption. Automation could get better so you could have large fields growing multiple species at the same time without intensive human labor. Automation could get better so that weeds could be mechanically picked instead of whole fields getting sprayed with herbicides, so individual weeds could be sprayed with herbicides instead of crop plants. Understanding of soil fungi interactions with minerals and plants and how to grow and maintain this fungi and how to select for species of fungi which result in higher yields.

There's a lot, it involves knowing and understanding specifics with an interest towards long term and not attaching broad labels to vague terms.


You just have to look at the wikipedia page for the green revolution to see how it's unsustainable: it relies on fertilisers derived from fossil and mineral resources that are now limited and cannot be replenished. Alternative methods like permaculture are trying to avoid reliance on such non-renewable inputs.

The wealth of society that allows us to have food so cheap right now is all thanks to a whole lot of 20th century infrastructure that was developed using fossil fuels and other mineral resources which can't last forever and are furthermore destroying our life support ecosystems. I believe that, aside from the potential for automation that you mention, we are likely going to end up shifting to a standard of living where our food just costs a lot more. This will happen either because we shift to more sustainable methods that are less efficient, or because we don't and society collapses.


The biggest fertilizer input is nitrogen, usually as ammonia or a derivative, produced by reacting atmospheric hydrogen with fossil derived methane. It would be entirely possible to acquire this methane from renewable resources (cows, landfill, compost) but isn’t economical and not a huge source of fossil usage anyway.

The rest of the mineral fertilizers still have to come from somewhere, when you take them away with the harvested food you have to find them somewhere to put them back. “Permaculture” isn’t magic that produces potassium from good feelings. There are plenty of cycles for each resource and as a farmer you have to participate in them, which usually means regularly adding things to your soil.



US ag practices are in general very sustainable. Water management is arguably a major issue, but the US receives plenty of rainfall. It’s a distribution problem where mining water is currently cheaper than piping it across the country.

Soil is currently a major focus in modern farming. PH, drainage, aeration, etc etc are how farmers achieve extreme yields, but it’s all part of a large cost benefit analysis spending 10$ to make 9$ is simply wasted effort.


The next generation of farming progress will be maturing the science of interactions between fungal species and multiple plants in a soil ecosystem and commoditizing them into concrete things which can be measured and manipulated on an industrial scale.

Think “planting” fungus and fertilizing it to optimize specific species interactions and possibly multiple cropping to take advantage of plant-fungi-plant interactions.


Industrial agriculture as it is now isn't the solution to the problems of the world, either.

Maybe something like this https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integrated_farming


Your point is taken, but if you are unfamiliar, One Straw Revolution is not a random woo book off the shelf of some niche indie bookstore. It is a widely read and well-respected modern classic, standing for almost 50 years now.


It's clear these practices don't scale. It's like saying you only need to hire 1 software dev and have them do everything, perfectly. When you find that 1 dev, it looks great.

Your friend's farm is likely a well run operation and he might be a top 1% farmer (how ever you would quantify that). Also you make no mention of profitability, most farms are for profit and need to generate positive cash flow, regardless of practices. Oftentimes these sustainable practices are antagonistic to profitability, a complicated problem people in ag/tech/engineering/policy are working to resolve.


> It's clear these practices don't scale.

Citation needed.

Agriculture is one of humanity's largest-scale activities.[1] The vast majority of the world's farmland is smallhold. [2] The practices in Fukuoka's books are fundamentally smallhold practices. My friend's farm is a wee 10 acre plot.

> Also you make no mention of profitability, most farms are for profit and need to generate positive cash flow, regardless of practices.

Depends on how you look at it. If you see the state of agriculture worldwide, the evidence points to the contrary. Farming is unsustainable sans debt. As a system, farmland does not obey economic laws. In my opinion, the state of US agriculture is telling. 1% of the country's population operating giant farmlands needing super-high direct input costs, benefiting from just the massive available landmass not yet homesteaded, and indirectly beholden to subsidy that goes to Oil & Natural gas. The sector flounders under crippling debt. [3]

Perhaps the purely profit-oriented standpoint is worth questioning. What would the world look like if agriculture, like education, healthcare, air, and water be thought of as a public benefit enterprise rather than a private profit-driven enterprise?

And might this public-benefit attitude also change labour dynamics? It is hard work, but plenty of people are happy working with their hands. Many would live peacefully, if the economic and social environment weren't so hostile to human labour.

The contrarian viewpoint is this: The reason why agriculture is hard is because it is capital intensive and wide open to tail risks. The antidote would be to minimize capital investment, and diversify the "portfolio" in holding size, crops, trees, communities and so forth.

[1] https://ourworldindata.org/global-land-for-agriculture [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smallholding [3] https://time.com/5736789/small-american-farmers-debt-crisis-...


> What would the world look like if agriculture, like education, healthcare, air, and water be thought of as a public benefit enterprise rather than a private profit-driven enterprise?

Some of us know that, because we lived through exactly that. It would look like evil empire of Soviet Union.

The “public benefit enterprise” of Communist farming pushed for collectivization and reduction of small holding, precisely for the same reason as profit-oriented private farming had: to maximize productivity. It still had not been enough to actually feed the people: shortages were constant, famines were common (though most of them were manufactured methods of genocide), and Soviet Union imported massive amounts of grain from United States.

At the same time, in Communist state, “public property” meant in practice “nobody’s property”, and so Soviet Union oversaw environmental destruction on a massive scale, limited only by ineptness and inefficiency of the entire communist enterprise.

So no, I’m not particularly excited about the prospect of making farming a “public benefit enterprise”, thank you very much. For an activity to actually benefit the public, you need to do more than declare it “public benefit, not for profit”. At the same time, for-profit enterprises have benefitted people immensely, so much so that people don’t even notice that anymore, as it became a constant, basic element of reality.


I'm not sure how you've gone from a suggestion of public benefit to an ideological extreme. Plenty of public benefit stuff in the world is compatible with profitable economic activity. Universal education, for instance.

As another example, science itself suffers today from the lack of public benefit thinking, does it not? Anecdotally it is extremely hard to find funding for total blue-sky research. University departments are cost-optimizing to adjunct faculty or contractors. The resulting publish-or-perish environment arises from said scarcity and feeds back into it to create a vicious downward spiral.


There are plenty of citations demonstrating organic practices cannot realistically replace even 50% of current production. You clearly know how to Google.

This comment reads like socialism fan-fic. How well did communal/collective farms work for the Soviet Union and or China?

The only way that has been proven to not starve millions of people has been to incentive food production in a pseudo-capitialistic manner (and yes, they are usually heavily subsidized for great reasons).

If you made millions doing ad tech in silicon valley and want to play farmer on your 10 acre plot, great. Agriculture and food production are scaled to the gills currently. They got this way through incredible innovation. People were doing 'organic practices' for hundreds of years. It didn't scale. Mechanization, synthetic fertilizer, and plant science _did_ scale, however and that's why our systems looks like they do. The innovations needed to accomplish this were truly mind bending from several disciplines.

Instead of celebrating these achievements, the conversation has been hijacked/lost because for profits companies took advantage of murky/poor regulation and are currently rent-seeking to squeeze every last dollar out of the system. Those problems can be fixed, but nobody is focusing on that, there too busy imagine some irrational alternate that simply cannot exist with ~9 billion people, many of which will begin eating more calories and more input intensive calories (meat) as time moves forward.

Embrace that scale, and innovate from there.


Organic and regenerative are not necessarily the same thing. Organic can still rely on biocides and fertilizer input. Regenerative practices treat the farm, including the soil, as an ecosystem. Killing any part of the ecosystem by applying biocides of any type is antithetical to the practice. Once the ecosystem has been built there is enough biodiversity that pests problems are minimal.

I disagree with you that regenerative farming can't feed the world. Yields are as good or better than conventional farms. Fortunately, regenerative farming is more profitable so we are going to see a shift to regenerative regardless of the naysayers.


I've never said regenerative ag can't scale. Look through my comments, I _strongly_ believe regenerative ag can scale and is needed to solve alot of problems. The parent comment is talking about organic agriculture.

Organic is a legally protected term (in the US). There are certain things you can/cannot do which help constrain it's ability to scale. Regenerative ag is not protected. You assumed something incorrect I'm afraid. I've _very_ pro regenerative ag.


Apologies for the assumption. Whenever these threads pop up one of the biggest issues in discussion that I see is the conflation of definitions for all these different farming practices. To the uninformed organic and regenerative are the same thing. My comment was just an attempt to clarify that regenerative ag the article is talking about and organic farming are not the same thing.

Go team regenerative!


Hm, to clarify, I'm coming at it from a systems point of view.

Available energy limits populations. Suppose the green revolution didn't happen, where would world population be?

It's not possible to A/B test these things, of course.

Also I did not say anything about the type of economic system. I'm just doing scenarios here.

If you have credible research to back up your claims, I'll be more than happy to alter my opinion.

(edit: typos)


From a systems point of view the changes where dramatic.

"Farmers today grow five times as much corn as they did in the 1930s – on 20 percent less land. That is 13 million acres or 20,000 square miles, twice the size of Massachusetts. The yield per acre has skyrocketed from 24 bushels in 1931 to 154 now, or a six-fold gain. And the Agriculture Department expects the average yield per acre to double in the next 25 years."

https://mjperry.blogspot.com/2011/05/corn-yields-have-increa...

“From 1866, the first year USDA began to publish corn yield estimates, through about 1936, yields of open-pollinated corn varieties in the U.S. remained fairly stagnant and averaged about 26 bu/ac (1.6 MT/ha) throughout that 70-year period. Amazingly, the historical data indicate there was no appreciable change in productivity during that entire time period (Fig. 1), even though farmers’ seed-saving practices represented a form of plant breeding.”

https://agfax.com/2017/05/25/corn-historical-grain-yields-fo...

PS: Of of note in 1927 there where 2 billion people worldwide and starvation was still common. Growing from 1 billion in 1804 or doubling in 123 years the difference largely came down to an increase in the amount of farmland and a slow increase in productivity.


https://www.no-tillfarmer.com/articles/8651-long-term-no-til...

"No-till practices weren’t doing enough to improve his soil resource. So Montel shifted his priorities to building soil health and it’s paying off: Montel harvested an average of 197 bushels of corn per acre across the farm last fall,"

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S037842901...

"No-till yields matched conventional tillage yields for oilseed, cotton, and legume crop categories. Among cereals, the negative impacts of no-till were smallest for wheat (−2.6%) and largest for rice (−7.5%) and maize (−7.6%). No-till performed best under rainfed conditions in dry climates, with yields often being equal to or higher than conventional tillage practices. Yields in the first 1–2 years following no-till implementation declined for all crops except oilseeds and cotton, but matched conventional tillage yields after 3–10 years except for maize and wheat in humid climates. Overall, no-till yields were reduced by 12% without N fertilizer addition and 4% with inorganic N addition."

Changing farming practices does not seem to lower the yield per acre in a significant way, so it does not mean going back to 1936 level yields.


No-till is a fairly mainstream practices and it’s upsides and downsides have been known for years. My point was this kind of research has real and very dramatic impacts making it fairly easy to verify stuff.

As to yields on an individual farm or even state they very quite a bit from the national average. For example the state of Oregon averaged twice as much (241) as Montana per acre in 2020. https://www.cropprophet.com/historical-average-state-corn-yi... The cost benefit needs to consider local conditions rather than simply pointing at a national average.


This reminds me of this video I watched about a farming family in Wisconsin. It's obviously high-level and anecdata, but I think it's along the same lines as your post and OP: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sRPP4Ilpxso


>the system of plant variety and hybrid development, fertilization, pest management, and mechanization with related techniques

You're correct, but there turned out to be second order effects that were not accounted for because we didn't know that much about it.

For example, chemical fertilization in the Midwest turns out to all flow into the watershed and dump out into the Gulf via the Mississippi. Which creates a dead zone for marine life. Which translates all the way down that food chain. It's a real problem. So much so that I'm surprised that the Gulf States haven't tried to sue the Midwest States for economic damages.

Any "feed the world" solution really has to deal with the problem of "exactly how much of the world do we actually need." It sounds grim, and it is, but if the ecological problem is real and serious, it's a question that has to be dealt with.


>You're correct, but there turned out to be second order effects that were not accounted for because we didn't know that much about it.

Everything does. People fall into the pattern of "doing things this way is bad for all of these bad reasons" and "we should do things this other way for all these good reasons" failing to recognize the full spectrum of effects of various plans and pretending that their hopeful solution for the future won't itself have consequences too. It's an optimization problem that has been turned into a polarizing morality problem which doesn't lend itself to solutions (largely because most of the moralizers have only very superficial knowledge of the issues).

>For example, chemical fertilization in the Midwest turns out to all flow into the watershed and dump out into the Gulf via the Mississippi. Which creates a dead zone for marine life. Which translates all the way down that food chain. It's a real problem. So much so that I'm surprised that the Gulf States haven't tried to sue the Midwest States for economic damages.

I wonder how much extra carbon could be fixed in the Gulf of Mexico if we left ag runoff as it is and put enormous aquarium bubblers at the bottom of the ocean around the Mississippi delta.

>Any "feed the world" solution really has to deal with the problem of "exactly how much of the world do we actually need." It sounds grim, and it is, but if the ecological problem is real and serious, it's a question that has to be dealt with.

It really doesn't. Unless you're willing to advocate for suicide or genocide, it's not a problem that food policy needs to be concerned with. People feel resource constrained in other ways and nearly all advanced economies have seen birth rates fall to below replacement rate. Overpopulation is the hot button issue of decades past and the dire predictions aren't coming to pass as growth rates seem to be doing a fine job limiting themselves.


>I wonder how much extra carbon could be fixed in the Gulf of Mexico if we left ag runoff as it is and put enormous aquarium bubblers at the bottom of the ocean around the Mississippi delta

Who knows? I rather suspect that if you optimize for one metric--fixing carbon--you will compound the second order effects.

>It really doesn't. Unless you're willing to advocate for suicide or genocide, it's not a problem that food policy needs to be concerned with

I think it does need to be addressed. Nobody wants to advocate for genocide, and mass suicide is a hard sell, but if we stipulate that the Earth can only support X number of humans--an argument I'm not making in particular, but it has been made both now and in the past--you have to ask who gets to keep eating. While Ehrlich and others have made predictions that didn't pan out, they will eventually come true if the population continues to grow. Granted, that may be a 27th Century problem, but it may be a current-Century problem. We simply don't know.

We have papered over the population growth issue pretty well so far. Technology does a good job of that. But again, it has come with the second order effects of overall carbon output. Massive climate disruption would do a pretty good job of selecting for only those people who can keep ahead of the problem technologically, which is the same thing as genocide, but sounds less gruesome I suppose.


The global population is predicted to peak in the middle of this century as a natural result of development leading to declining birth rates. We don’t seem to have to do anything or motivate anyone to change because it is already happening and won’t exceed the food capacity of current practices before the peak.


Key word there is "predicted." Great if true, but what's plan B if their models turn out to be wrong?


It's not "we expect this change" it's "we expect this trend to continue".

Plenty of countries are below replacement birth rates already, it is a trend that goes along with economic development and happens in a few generations. Some US states have lost population in the last couple of years for the first time ever.


Or, perhaps, the key to feeding the world in the short term is petro-chemical based agriculture, leading to massive overpopulation and total collapse.

while another key to feeding the world over a longer time span would involve permaculture-style methods and slower population growth, TIED TO ending corruption in distribution networks and much of the world's governments.


Let's not tie everything too much together. Tying everything together is how people become unhinged conspiracy theorists. Let's take one subject at a time. 1:

>>the key to feeding the world in the short term is petro-chemical based agriculture, leading to massive overpopulation and total collapse.

Let's assume this is because the profit is there to make more grain, not because anyone wants overpopulation or collapse. What you're saying is that it works, it does create more food. More food for more people. People are less likely to starve. Okay, good. Until the overpopulation and collapse part.

What evidence do you have that that will happen?

You're suggesting limiting food to decrease population. I just want to be clear about that. You're saying that people should starve. Even though we could farm enough food to feed them. Because you disagree with the farming methods. Right?


I don't think they are suggesting that people should starve. They are suggesting that we need to stop making so many damn people, so that we can transition to better farming methods (among other things).

From my uneducated perspective, the pain of "not having enough young people" due to declining population growth is a temporary problem, whereas reducing the long-term population growth trajectory is still a good thing. Is that wrong?


> Is that wrong?

Yes.

The world doesn't have an overpopulation problem. It is clear that when economies develop and infant mortality goes down, people start having many fewer children after a few generations. Most of the world's advanced economies are in population decline already when you discount immigration. '

> the pain of "not having enough young people" due to declining population growth is a temporary problem

The world economy was set up to grow which requires a constant growing population. What we're in for is a long term global population decline, maybe starting as soon as 2040. With lengthening life spans (covid aside) you have a younger generation perpetually having to do the work for more and more people as the elder generation ages out of the workforce but still needs to be fed, entertained, and cared for. It isn't "temporary" but could last centuries.


> The world economy was set up to grow which requires a constant growing population. What we're in for is a long term global population decline, maybe starting as soon as 2040. With lengthening life spans (covid aside) you have a younger generation perpetually having to do the work for more and more people as the elder generation ages out of the workforce but still needs to be fed, entertained, and cared for. It isn't "temporary" but could last centuries.

I think the parent is thinking longer term where "centuries" is temporary. Over a longer time horizon like this it's pretty clear that "an economy set up to grow" isn't sustainable in that we have finite resources and thus cannot grow infinitely. Which leads to the opposite conclusion to yours: that we need not to have a constant growing population (ideally over the long term it should be a roughly stable population).


>> Over a longer time horizon like this it's pretty clear that "an economy set up to grow" isn't sustainable

Really? The resources as we open up the moon, Mars, and the rest of the solar system are almost infinite. So is the space. Perhaps humans are programmed to reproduce too much, to grow constantly. But we have only begun to touch the edge of the womb, with one little toe. It's quite possible we are the only species within 100 light years capable of spaceflight of any sort. Think about this: There are 7.5 billion humans. In one place. That's it. It's really not much. That's the number of bacteria living on your shower curtain.

One comet hit, one nuclear war, one bad flu, it's finished.

1 million years from now, if we're gone, there will be a thin layer of strange plastics and metals, maybe 10cm thick at the bottom of the ocean. Maybe 5 million years from now, the octopus will become civilized, and they'll discover this weird layer. They'll burn it for fuel and end up dying from the radiation. A few million years after that, the rat will become civilized.

50 million years from now it won't matter at all.

But right now we're part of a very interesting project, as far as we know maybe the most interesting project that has ever been generated by this galaxy of 100 billion stars in 5 billion years. This generation right now that we're living in.

So you think there are too many people?!


Uh, in an abstract way it's not wrong; I don't have kids and probably won't have 'em, and I'm not real happy about paying for other people's kids. But let me just give you a nauseating example of how your kind of thinking is real close to the edge of the rails...

I was in Spain and through some friends I was hosting an American couple, showing them around town. The wife was a bicycle racer and the guy was in the Air Force, logistics guy recently back from sitting somewhere air conditioned. So we had a few drinks and he told me about his views. He had a very negative opinion about Medecins Sans Frontieres, I'm not sure if they had done him wrong somehow (they saved my life, once, so I had a positive opinion of them, and we argued). He said this:

"Why should we give aid to Africa? They just make more babies. The population is already too high."

I asked him, "Do you mean we shouldn't make drugs available?" He responded in the affirmative. He said, "Until they can make those drugs for themselves, why should we white europeans give them drugs to make more children?"

There was nothing humanitarian in his statements, he was purely a racist. It was one of (not the) most outright racist things I've ever listened to. I sat and absorbed it as we drank wiskey on my balcony. Then I told him he was a racist piece of shit, and kicked him and his-- wife who fell asleep on my couch, out of my house.

Now, even though I don't have kids and don't want them, do I think your Malthusian theory about growth trajectory is wrong? Yes.


What does me thinking that there are too many people in the world have to do with some sociopathic racist American?


Simply that that's where this type of thinking leads, once you begin reducing living people into the category of "too many".

I think it's okay if you want to pay people not to have children. I don't have kids and it annoys me to pay for other people's kids. But when you begin speaking of the world in terms of overpopulation -- of too many living people -- the next question is "who should be eliminated?"

So who do you think should be eliminated? I think if you hate your own kind enough to want them dead, then you've gone too far -- this road leads you to become like the sociopathic racist.

//--> Me, Jew whose great-uncle and aunt survived Auschwitz. The world was made better, for other people, because they survived.


I didn't say anything about eliminating anyone. I said there are too many of us.

It's dramatic and disingenuous to suggest that "I think there are too many humans" implies "I think that we must decide which humans to eliminate".

You seem concerned about the legacy of the Nazi agenda. That's understandable. But I do not personally have any "final solution" in mind.

I had in mind things like "shifting our economic system to reduce reliance on growth to maintain prosperity". It also acknowledge that it's very human and natural to want to reproduce, and that you mostly shouldn't force people not to.


It's possible to think that the world is overpopulated in the sense that a world with fewer people would suffer less environmental degradation and have higher levels of happiness on average, while at the same time denying that some living people should be eliminated. I think it's probably a good thing that developed nations tend to reach a point where population levels start declining. Does that mean I want to kill off grandma early? Not at all, that's absurd. I think there are too many pure bred dogs, too, but I'm not going to start murdering golden retrievers.


I mean, it sounds ridiculous when you put it that way, but it also sounded ridiculous in the 1930s. We're still within living memory of a time when such ideas of how to improve the world and give people more living space were discussed in polite society before polite society started politely shooting and gassing Jews and Gypsies. Reducing the human population so us and our kids have more land and resources sounds great but how? To the Germans, they didn't care how. They didn't really want to hear the details. Americans are exactly the same. Oh, look, there's all this open land with no one living here! Just some buffalos and savages right? Oh no, that was terrible? You think that was all criminal? How could those people have been so cruel - wiping out whole races to take their land! You would never do that! So now, in the name of ECOLOGY you just want EXCESS PEOPLE TO MAGICALLY DISAPPEAR, no specific plan, just would be nice if they vanished, because there's too many for your taste or what in your opinion the world should be like? And this is supposed to be a liberal or humanistic notion? No, it's exactly the notion of the white American settler or the quiet German. "Too many of this or that - we need more space and more nature - of course I wouldn't kill those dirty people, but it would be great if they disappeared. Better for the planet and the environment, you see."


> So now, in the name of ECOLOGY you just want EXCESS PEOPLE TO MAGICALLY DISAPPEAR

Is this a statement about me specifically? I don't want excess people to disappear, and I didn't claim that. I think I made it clear (but I'll make it clearer now) that I wouldn't condone any plan that reduced the population via the premature ending of life, up to and including a magical Thanos finger snap. My point was that this does not conflict with the notion that, had fewer people been born with all else being equal, the resulting world would have certain positive ecological qualities in comparison to the world we have now.

Would it be better for me to deny this? It seems self-evidently true, and I feel it every time I look at a radar map and think about how much green space my home region has lost over the past few hundred years. I'd keep it to myself if I really thought it was a slippery slope to a world of eugenics, but I don't think that's necessarily the case. I don't want to make anyone disappear -- but I do think a world of declining birth rates would probably be a net positive.


We are making more calories, the jury is still out on whether we’re making more food.

Something has gone very wrong with nutrition and that needs to be solved too. Some people think you can solve all of these things at once. Maybe so, maybe not, but calories is a pretty sketchy metric to use as a yard stick.


Distribution networks is key. We are plenty of food to feed everyone in the world, right now. Petro-chemical based agriculture was one of the greatest innovation of humanity. But it's been misapplied and abused, mostly in the name of profits and slow/bad policy makers. Does not mean those tools and techniques can't be more properly applied.

Can we feed them American style diets? No, but I would argue that diet is not worth scaling as we see several negative health outcomes as the result of our quantity and quality of calories.

Link to my blog in my profile where I write about some of these things.


It only is needed for a short time. Fertility is already below replacement in most of the world, only a few areas are still growing rapidly.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographic_transition


> The key to feeding the world was the Green Revolution... Without it the world’s population would have been limited by starvation billions of people ago.

Do you have references for this particular assertion? Do you mean that without the Green Revolution, billions of people alive then would have starved or do you mean that without the Green Revolution, billions of people wouldn't have been born?


Or more people could grow their own food.


Contrast this with the constant flood of HN comments about how every desirable city is morally obligated to become a hyperdense megacity.

I don't know how much food you're going to grow in your 400 sq ft closet in an apartment tower.


I can grow a lot of food in that much space. The problem is plants need light which is cheap from the sun, but there isn't enough in my closet so I need expensive lights on all the time. It is much more energy efficient to grow plants in open fields and fly the results to me (and using trucks, trains and ships is cheaper yet)


Once read a very scary prediction on HN that if the planet warms all the temperate soils will decompose to gases and non-bidodegrable stuff instead of accumulating, and so we'll have lousy tropical soil everywhere and way more greenhouse gases.


Good read...

"Dirt to Soil One Family's Journey into Regenerative Agriculture", by Gabe Brown, 2018

Gabe Brown didn't set out to change the world when he first started working alongside his father-in-law on the family farm in North Dakota. But as a series of weather-related crop disasters put Brown and his wife, Shelly, in desperate financial straits, they started making bold changes to their farm. Brown―in an effort to simply survive―began experimenting with new practices he'd learned about from reading and talking with innovative researchers and ranchers. As he and his family struggled to keep the farm viable, they found themselves on an amazing journey into a new type of farming: regenerative agriculture.

Brown dropped the use of most of the herbicides, insecticides, and synthetic fertilizers that are a standard part of conventional agriculture. He switched to no-till planting, started planting diverse cover crops mixes, and changed his grazing practices. In so doing Brown transformed a degraded farm ecosystem into one full of life―starting with the soil and working his way up, one plant and one animal at a time.

In Dirt to Soil Gabe Brown tells the story of that amazing journey and offers a wealth of innovative solutions to our most pressing and complex contemporary agricultural challenge―restoring the soil. The Brown's Ranch model, developed over twenty years of experimentation and refinement, focuses on regenerating resources by continuously enhancing the living biology in the soil. Using regenerative agricultural principles, Brown's Ranch has grown several inches of new topsoil in only twenty years! The 5,000-acre ranch profitably produces a wide variety of cash crops and cover crops as well as grass-finished beef and lamb, pastured laying hens, broilers, and pastured pork, all marketed directly to consumers.

The key is how we think, Brown says. In the industrial agricultural model, all thoughts are focused on killing things. But that mindset was also killing diversity, soil, and profit, Brown realized. Now he channels his creative thinking toward how he can get more life on the land―more plants, animals, and beneficial insects. "The greatest roadblock to solving a problem," Brown says, "is the human mind."

One source: https://u1lib.org/book/5283239/7bd9a9 38.14 MB

About the Author

Gabe Brown is a pioneer of the soil-health movement and has been named one of the twenty-five most influential agricultural leaders in the United States. Brown, his wife, Shelly, and son, Paul, own Brown’s Ranch, a holistic, diversified 5,000-acre farm and ranch near Bismarck, North Dakota. The Browns integrate their grazing and no-till cropping systems,

which include cash crops and multispecies cover crops along with all- natural, grass-finished beef and lamb, pastured pork, and laying hens. The

Brown family has received a Growing Green Award from the Natural Resources Defense Council, an Environmental Stewardship Award from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the USA Zero-Till Farmer of the Year Award.


If you are looking for more material to help you better understand your soil, the best book I've read on the subject was A Soil Owner’s Manual: How to Restore and Maintain Soil Health. It takes a "just the facts" approach, which makes it more dense than it appears, but can be read through quickly. Here's a synopsis: https://thenaturalfarmer.org/article/a-soil-owners-manual-ho... .


The real key to feeding the world and not destroying the planet is to stop eating animals and animal products. End of story.


With all due respect, without evidence your argument is baseless. I think your appealing to your ethos to persuade others (and on the internet what authority do you have?). I agree the world population should stop eating animals, but why?

My reasons are:

(1) morally dubious -- the majority of animals raised to be eaten live in squalor. It is below me, personally, to eat an animal raised in those conditions. For many people it isn't AND this doesn't support the argument that not eating animals is better for the planet.

(2) environmental impact -- the UN put out a list some years ago stating that to reduce environmental impact, consuming less animal and animal product is the way to go. Here is one list [0] indicting that among a collection of behavioral changes, eating more vegetables is helpful. Here is another [1] indicating that to reduce carbon footprint, travel (rather than diet) are primary ways to do so.

[0] https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/16-ways-take-act...

[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-52719662

End of story? You must provide more than internet ethos to persuade an audience!


You're right, I should have provided a source. In the end, it's basic physics, really. If you make a plant, and feed that plant to an animal, and then eat that animal, your caloric conversion rate will always be lower than eating the plant directly lest you violate the laws of thermodynamics.

But, here's a really good summary by Our World in Data going into more detail: https://ourworldindata.org/land-use-diets


> simplistic idea is the real key to misplaced expectations

I have spent some time playing with gpt3 and have almost been able to generate the article and the top comments by iterating over “permaculture”, “green revolution”, “vegetarian” and “technology”.


This planet is huge, we have near infinite energy extruding and emitting from the sun. The universe is huge. The planets surface is huge. The earth crust is huge.

Overpopulation is a myth if we can spread out and not overwhelm specific places of our world.

Slow down on the extraction.

Slow down on the waste.

Let us multiply not divide.

If you want to learn more, check out the YouTube channel listed in my profile.

The universe is a Trivium, inputs > processing > outputs

Pollution is the piling up of byproducts or inert or semi-inert materials. Things which are no longer useful or helpful inside biological bodies.

Pollution bio accumulates inside all bodies, including our earth.

We grow our inputs (food) in a very sensitive edge between atmosphere and earth's crust, 0-30 or so feet. Let us maximize the edges, reduce pollution, & multiply and share our soil & soil growing skills.


overpopulation, i mean population growth speed, has been demonstrated to take only a few years to die off in certain cases.




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