From Soil to Sustainability

By Frederick Kirschenmann, Slow Money Journal (Winter 2016/17 issue)


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Defining Sustainability

Soil to Sustainability - GreenMoneyJournal.comAs most everyone interested in sustainability knows by now, the concept has been appropriated by numerous entities and used in various ways, often to achieve different objectives. In his introductory chapter to the excellent 2013 edition of the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World report, Robert Engelman coined the term “sustainababble” to reflect this “cacophonous profusion of uses of the word sustainable to mean anything from environmentally better to cool”. Increasingly the term is used as a marketing tool, often it is used as an environmental metric, and, of course it is used extensively to describe an “improved” food and agriculture enterprise. While many of these uses may be grounded in good intentions, the result, as Engelman points out, has “a high cost”.

“Frequent and inappropriate use lulls us into dreamy belief that all of us — and everything we do, everything we buy, everything we use — are now able to go on forever, world without end, amen.” – Robert Engelman

Such a “dreamy belief” has certainly been prevalent in most of the visions of “contemporary sustainable agriculture”. Whether one belongs to the school of sustainable agriculture that is fixated on the notion that sustainability can only be achieved by intensifying the technology of our dominant industrial agriculture, or to the school of “greening” the system by inserting more environmentally friendly practices, or to the school that insists everyone must transition to organic, all are grounded in the belief that the fundamental principles of modern agriculture, which emerged in the early 20th century, can continue. According to this standard we simply need to tinker with the current system, in various ways, to make it “sustainable.” Although such “tinkering” can sometimes produce positive, short-term results, it fails to address the new challenges that will emerge in the near future. Occasionally pundits now refer to this “dreamy belief” of sustainability (appropriately, I think) as “Band-Aid sustainability.”

Historical Context

In his engaging book Culture and Agriculture: An Ecological Introduction to Traditional and Modern Farming Systems, anthropologist Ernest Schusky provides us with a summary of how the human species fed itself since evolving on Planet Earth some 200,000 years ago. I think such a historical context can help us to better frame the concept of sustainability. Schusky reminds us that for most of our time on the planet we fed ourselves as hunter-gatherers. Like many other species, we tended to live in small tribes, gather and hunt the food available in a particular place until the food sources became depleted, and then move on to another place. Apparently various methods were also used to limit population growth to keep population density within “carrying capacity”.

It wasn’t until the Neolithic Revolution, approximately 12,000 years ago, that we began to transition from “food collectors” to food producers by domesticating plants and animals. We began to live in settled societies and attempted to produce enough food in place to feed a local, settled population.

As Schusky points out, this new way of feeding ourselves was “land intensive”. It tended to mine the natural fertility of the soil. Consequently, much of this early agriculture was based on “swidden cultivation”, also known as slash-and-burn agriculture. In other words, a common practice was to burn off perennial plants, trees, or grasses — and then cultivate the soil and plant seeds (usually cereals). The natural soil fertility plus the fertility from the ash initially produced good yields the first year. However yields would decline quickly, as natural soil fertility diminished, so the general practice was to slash-and-burn a new plot of ground every year or two, and allow the first to lay fallow for 15 or 20 years before returning to cultivate it again, after soil fertility was restored.

In the mid-20th century we introduced a new form of agriculture, which Schusky calls the “Neocaloric Revolution”, because it is entirely dependent on “old calories”, — fossil fuels, fertilizers, fossil water, etc. The discovery of fossil fuels was the principle innovation that ushered in the Industrial Revolution, but it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that industrial methods were applied to agriculture on a large scale.

While Justus von Liebig came up with the idea of substituting synthetic fertilizers (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) for the “laborious” practice of maintaining soil health and Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch devised the means of making ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen in 1909, enabling the conversion to an intensive “input” agriculture—the adoption of that agriculture did not take root as the dominant form of agriculture until after World War II.”

There were numerous agricultural visionaries, soil scientists and ecologists
who issued strong warnings that this “N-P-K mentality” (as Sir Albert Howard called it) was the wrong direction for agriculture since it was contrary to the workings of nature and was, in fact, a “form of banditry” since it would steal the availability of healthy soil from future generations. (Howard, 1943) F.H. King, Liberty Hyde Bailey, Aldo Leopold, William Albrecht, Hans Jenny, Wes Jackson, and many others had similar concerns. They saw that maintaining the health of soil was crucial to any kind of truly sustainable agriculture and were all aware that modern industrial agriculture was still extremely “land intensive” and therefore damaging to the health of the land. We simply substituted “old calorie” inputs in place of healthy soil.

Of course, the immediate short-term benefits of industrial agriculture—the maximum, efficient production for short-term economic return—were too compelling to seriously consider the warnings of such visionaries.

However, Schusky reminds us that our “neo-caloric era” will of necessity be a very short period of time in the time-line of human history. We sometimes forget that this “modern” agriculture depends on a collection of “old”(nonrenewable) calories, which we are rapidly depleting. We also seem to forget that the first producing oil well in the US became operational in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859,(approximately 150 years ago), and it was fossil fuels (especially petroleum) that provided the cheap energy that sustained the entire neo-caloric economy. But all of these old calories are stored, concentrated energy—fossil fuels, rock phosphate, potash, fossil water, etc.—and these old calories had accumulated in the planet over many millennia. But once they are gone, the neo-caloric era, according to Schusky, must end, and we will need to redesign a new agriculture that can be “sustainable” in the post-neo-caloric era.

The point to remember in all this is that unless someone finally finds a way to invent a perpetual-motion machine, current, diffuse energy (sunlight) will never be as efficient (energy return on energy invested) as stored concentrated energy. Consequently, any alternative energy we may invent in the future will never be as “cheap” as fossil fuels have been.

In addition, we need to acknowledge the ecological damage that the excessive use of the old calories has caused — damage that will further affect the “sustainability” of agriculture — more severe weather events due to climate change, eroded and degraded soils, depleted biodiversity and depleting freshwater resources. These are the “sustainability” challenges that will confront us in the decades ahead.

Of course, as the old calories get used up they will become increasingly expensive, so the neo-caloric era will certainly end due to prohibitive costs long before all the calories are used up.

So, a good way to frame the question of sustainability with respect to our future food and agriculture system is to ask ourselves if the current, industrial system (and any “Band-Aids” we might apply) can still be “sustained” when crude oil is $350 a barrel, fertilizer costs are five times what they are today, we only have half the amount of fresh water currently available, we have twice the number of severe weather events, and our soils are even more degraded than they are today.

Anticipating the Future

Given the changes coming at us, a crucial challenge to sustaining a future food system will be to anticipate the changes and get a head start preparing for them. Perhaps we can learn a critical lesson from the research conducted by Jared Diamond. Based on his intensive studies of past civilizations, he concluded that those civilizations that anticipated the changes coming at them, recognized the value of their ecological reserves, and got a head start preparing for the changes were the civilizations that tended to survive for the long term (they were “sustainable”), while those that failed in that exercise were the ones that tended to collapse. In this regard, Schusky makes another important and sobering observation from his studies of human culture — namely, “that humans manipulate their cultures to achieve many practical, short-range goals; what they do not foresee are many more long-term undesirable consequences. Innovations that solve immediate problems often have built-in effects that eventually will cause major problems.” Perhaps these observations, from Diamond and Schusky, are among the most important to consider for anyone interested in achieving agricultural “sustainability”.

Given this scenario, it seems to me that the most urgent task before us now is to do all we can to restore the biological health of our soils, before the remaining old calories become too expensive to be a viable resource for continuing to “sustain” our food system. Of course other issues will need to be addressed at the same time — crucial among them: putting a cap on carbon, restoring our biological and genetic diversity as much as possible, restoring as many perennials as possible (forests and grasslands), eliminating food waste, and implementing the “right to food” and other recent UN proposals. However, key to future food sustainability will be biologically healthy soil!


Read the rest of Fred’s article at

Article by Frederick L. Kirschenmann shares an appointment as Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and as president of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.

This article appears in the Winter 2016/17 issue of the Slow Money Journal. Details at


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