Contour Plowing
Contour Plowing

Contour Plowing

How working with, rather than against, nature can help feed nine billion people.

Appears in Summer 2019

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. (Psalm 24:1)

When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. (Deuteronomy 8:10 NIV)

At a time when we should be adopting a more resilient, regenerative, and holistic food system that addresses twenty-first-century needs for health, nutrition, and general welfare, our collective hands are tied.

I was born in the middle of the twentieth century. I’ve lived through one of the most amazing advances in food production, poverty elevation, health, and longevity in several millennia. The green revolution, ever-bigger tractors and plows, nitrogen fertilizer, and plant-breeding advances all helped deliver the calories needed for the global population to grow from 2.5 to 6 billion. The massive scale of this revolution has led some to call this the industrial agricultural system; and it does have a lot of elements of industry. It is also hard to argue with the success it yielded in feeding (much of) the world in its time. It’s quite amazing if you think about it. Is this a glimpse at “the fullness thereof” Psalm 24 declares? Maybe.

It was not always like this. I remember stories from my grandparents about how far they had to stretch a sack of potatoes and a few heads of cabbage in the 1920s, in the Depression, and during World War II. These stories help keep thing in perspective: we live in blessed times, certainly here in North America, but also globally.

I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy when it comes to the future and our food supply. Today, however, almost twenty years into the next century, it sometimes sounds like Henny Penny has the loudest voice. Some argue that we have passed “peak food” in recent decades and that it’s all downhill from here. This thinking frequently assumes that people are the problem on earth and that we must curb population growth or be doomed. I don’t buy it. Is not human creativity what helped bring about the bounty of the twentieth century? Are we, as image-bearers of the Creator, to deny this creativity? Should not more people collectively be able to bring more solutions and opportunity? But how? Why? What might the contours of a twenty-first-century agricultural system look like?

Farming Like a State

The regulations and policies pertaining to food and agriculture keep the food system of this century bound to the production model of the last century. A quick glance across the US Midwest and also, but to a lesser extent, the Canadian prairies makes it evident that industrial agriculture, dominant by the 1970s, and continued today through the USDA and various Farm Bills, lends the state’s power to the privileging of commodity crops “fencerow to fencerow.” Earl Butz, the Nixon-era US secretary of agriculture, was the champion of that mandate, and since his time corn output has expanded widely as demand has increased. But a lot of that demand is unrelated to food. Ethanol production, for instance, now consumes more that 25 percent of the crop. It’s not a metaphor to say that it has changed the landscape. The most significant landscape change to the Midwest in recent years is the disappearances of the fencerows themselves, and the resulting disappearance of animal agriculture from many of those landscapes.

Butz’s and USDA legacy policy produced a lot of calories at a time when the world needed them. However, it also created a monoculture (arguably a biculture of corn and soy) that has resulted in soil organic matter depletion and inordinate water usage. In the United States alone, soil disappears ten times faster than it is naturally replenished, according to a Cornell study, at an estimated rate of nearly 1.7 billion tons of farmland alone per year. This loss comes at a financial cost too, with the American economy losing roughly $37 billion in productivity annually from soil loss. One might ask: Is a yield of only about half a billion tons of grain worth those cost? What logic drove us to expand beyond the heart of the Midwest onto more arid prairies, where irrigation was a requirement, and thus drain much of the Ogallala Aquifer, to grow cheap $2.00 corn when it might inherently be better stewarded as rangeland for cattle?

Part of the logic has been perpetuated by Farm Bill policy and programs including the renewable fuel standards that support corn for ethanol, and the land-grant university system, which relies in large part on funding from the commodity ag system, all state interventions that support otherwise nonviable operations.

These artificial interventions perpetuate twentieth-century agriculture and are constraining needed change to our North American food system. When a farmer has big tractors, sixty-foot-wide machinery, huge grain bins, and federal programs that support keeping that system running, it’s really hard to imagine another way to farm.

The historical-adaptive and market-response-decision process that should inform decisions on what to grow is suppressed when the Farm Bill covers your back on the status quo. That is simply the reality. I don’t blame the individual farm operator. Most are caught in the system, even if some are thinking and operating “outside the box.” But how can one re-create a more holistic farm or agricultural system when there are no barns, no fences, and by now a multi-generational hook in the status quo.

At a time when we should be adopting a more resilient, regenerative, and holistic food system that addresses twenty-first-century needs for health, nutrition, and general welfare, our collective hands are tied. A renewed food system requires framing new (and arguably fewer) regulations and policies to free up options for farmers. But that won’t be enough. Legislation and regulations are not the hotbeds of real innovation in the world. It is artists and freethinkers realizing “eureka” moments and capitalizing on them that changes the world for the better.

What are those twenty-first-century food needs?

Red Planet or Green Planet?

The press gives much attention to the various Mars-bound spaceship ventures of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson, seeming to believe that getting away from here is going to be what it takes to save the human race.

But one wonders: Are there other options for creating a future here on earth that we should consider? Maybe we need to get this “house” in order. I doubt the grass is greener on Mars.

I’m all for advancing the moonshot dreams of Musk et alia, and we’ll certainly reap the benefits of the technology that results. But we should invest just as heavily into creatively rethinking stewardship and care for this blue planet, which still seems like a really nice home versus the alternatives. Can we envision advancing our entire food system (back) to one in holistic balance? I don’t mean to demean the practice of looking to the heavens, but maybe with respect to the health of the planet and its inhabitants, we should be looking down—to the ground. Perhaps we should be less interested in moving beyond the thin layer of our atmosphere, and more interested in that thin layer of soil on which our food grows.

I mentioned above the loss of soil in the American Midwest. The loss of soil there is a small taste of what is happening elsewhere. Reading about the advance of the Sahara in Africa, one might be led to believe that it will march steadily south and soon overtake Antarctica too. The southern border of the Sahara adjoins the Sahel, the semi-arid transition zone that lies between the Sahara and the fertile savannas further south. The Sahara expands as the Sahel retreats, disrupting the region’s fragile grassland ecosystems and human societies. Yet Allan Savory at the African Center for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe has demonstrated that with cattle and other large herbivores, we can reverse desertification and restore savannah. His work shows how we can restore the habitat that allows elephants, giraffes, and a host of other wildlife to thrive alongside cattle, which then provide food. With Savory’s findings, we might rebuild the soil that the Midwest has lost.

I doubt the grass is greener on Mars.

I’ve walked that ground in Zimbabwe, and other sites in both tropical and temperate climates, and seen what his restorative practices have done. To envision our food-systems future, we need to look down, to the soil, to the plants that grow (or should grow) in it, and below to the subsurface life that sustains the life above. The science that brought us the Industrial Revolution and the follow-on green revolution in agriculture in the last century allowed us to make many things that have benefited society—tools, computers, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, toys, and so on.

But the land and the soil that sustains it are not things we make. They are, rather, systems we manage. They are by nature complex, and will benefit from a holistic approach, rather than the reductionist approach that has been the marker of many of the advances in twentieth-century agriculture.

We know that more than two-thirds of agricultural land is best suited for growing green grasses, forbs, and forests. Drive a few hours north of Toronto in Canada or across the semi-arid plains of the Dakotas or western Kansas and ask yourself: Is this where you want to operate a market garden and grow cucumbers? The natural products of these lands are not ideal for direct consumption by humans—they’re best at growing grass, and our stomachs don’t do well with grass. They are, however, good food sources for animals (ruminants primarily) that are created/designed to convert that sunlight-derived forage into protein- and omega-rich meat that can be a part of an eco- and human-healthy diet.

When we look carefully at nature, we can respond to the cultural mandate in Genesis 1:28 by seeing the beauty of creation and learning to work with it rather than fighting it—to draw out its potential rather than place our potency on top of it. When we work with the grain of creation, we see that its design is inherently restorative, regenerative, resilient, and productive. Let’s pause to observe, reflect, and think deeper about how to engage the natural cycles of the system. Yes, humankind has been a less than perfect steward of creation—and we may look back to how we stewarded the soil in the twentieth century and acknowledge we could have done better. Yet the creation’s design is inherently robust, and we can apply ourselves creatively to caring for it.

Lions Don’t Have Dilemmas

Some argue that we have to rebalance our diets and eat less meat, and for the slice of the world population that live in North America, that’s likely true. However, as the global middle class continues to grow, the demand for protein will continue to grow even faster, at double to quadruple that rate. Historically, higher-income populations always want more meat. But is that the problem we think it is?

US food journalist Lela Nargi notes that the problem is not necessarily the eating of meat, but the way in which we produce it. In speaking of our ecosystems she says, “We run animals through them in unsustainable ways, or we chop them down and plow them up to raise monocultures of crops like corn and soy—some of them to feed livestock, others to produce the fake meat that’s meant to replace real meat.” Anyone else see the irony in this?

People want to eat meat, and they probably will. But maybe if we step back we can see that there is wisdom in placing animals back into the ecosystem. Let them do the harvesting of the grass and fertilize it too. By eliminating a whole lot of clear-cutting, tilling, planting soybeans, trucking, building fake-meat factories, and so on, and instead letting the animals and the sun do the work, we might be able to simplify our food system and reduce stress on our bodies and the planet, while (re-)creating an ecosystem with a quilt of green meadow, livestock, and some corn fields and gardens interspersed. Yes, every year a few of those animals will have one bad day, at the killing floor. But as we sit back and enjoy the feast of the meat from that harvest, along with some veggies and a nice crust loaf of French bread, we can indeed affirm that, to paraphrase Deuteronomy 8:10, we have eaten and are satisfied, and can praise the Lord our God for the good land he has given us. Perhaps there is no need to rush off to Mars quite yet. Look for the future right here.

Agriculture has always been the foundation of society, and when done wrong it has been our downfall. Yet it can have a positive effect on ecosystems, regenerating the planet while feeding a growing population.

Constraints Are About Capacity

Who in agriculture is looking into the future? What should we be looking for?

I would argue that we should focus on one thing all artists know: that constraints are not just limits on freedom, but bounds in which we can explore capacity, and that we often underestimate capacity.

One example of this can be found in the Dutch school of agriculture Wageningen University and Research (WUR). Their mission is “to explore the potential of nature to improve the quality of life and its ‘System Earth’ context.” In its 2015–2018 strategic plan WUR targeted working on “acquiring insight into system earth’s capacity for recovery, and possibilities to improve that capacity locally and regionally.” In the most recent WUR strategic plan, for 2019–2022, they advance this goal and say, “Our current agri-food systems need to transform towards a circular agriculture,” and “Circular food systems are founded on regenerative natural resources.”

Yet they go on to talk about limited resources, rather than abundance, concluding that “we need to build a broader consensus on what society considers nature and how we engage and interact with it.” This conclusion is on point, yet their strategic plan, as I read it, often shifts to talking of constraints. We should focus less on the constraints than on applying our creativity to expand the capacity of living systems within and beyond those constraints. That is what it means to be stewards and managers of God’s earth.

The World Economic Forum in 2017 developed a set of scenarios that serve as a “map” for the future of our food systems. The scenarios portray possible futures, and can thus guide us to making better decisions. Yet I would argue that it still takes too narrow a look at what the future food system could be. We should envision a future beyond the two axes of efficiency and intensity. Is there room for resilience and regenerative systems as we consider the future? There should be.

Could we (re-)create a food system that can grow with net-zero negative impact? Why not? If Tesla (and others) envision a petroleum-free transportation system, can we also envision an agri-food system that does not rely as heavily on petroleum? I’m all for the nation-state and achieving self-sufficiency in energy, food, and the other support systems for its citizenry. And there will continue to be a place for high-energy-density petroleum fuels in our society—I have a hard time imaging air travel without it. But maybe growing fencerow-to-fencerow corn and using more than a quarter of it for ethanol production is not the best use of land and resources. Another third of corn goes into feed. Should cattle production for milk or meat rely on a seven-hundred-horse-power forage harvester, a dozen trucks, huge silos, and bulldozers to empty them into a feed bunker? That technology suite seems like a very expensive version of the mouth of a ruminant, which should be harvesting its own food one bite at a time; certainly that steer on pasture would likely be happier and healthier than one confined to a concrete feedlot.

Let’s take Savory’s thesis into another realm. If farming cattle can be used to reverse desertification, could farming fish be used to restore our lakes and oceans? We know our legacy with the oceans, (over)fishing the way we’ve done it the past century, since even before the invention of the steel-hulled diesel-powered trawlers fishing has been an extractive process—essentially mining for meat. I can’t fault the fishermen or those of us, including myself, who enjoy seafood. But what if we undertook to understand the “complexity of the whole” of natural living systems, including oceans and lakes, and develop an integrative approach to managing these ecosystems. Taking a holistic approach to farming fish presents an opportunity to grow food, return life to dead waters, and be better stewards of the 70 percent of the earth’s surface area covered by water.

Savory posits that “ultimately the only wealth that can sustain any community, economy, or nation is derived from the photosynthetic process—green plants growing on regenerative soils.” You may argue with his thesis, yet at its essence it encompasses a place for plants, animals, humans, and beyond the earth that source of free energy—the sun. Agriculture has always been the foundation of society, and when done wrong it has been our downfall. Yet it can have a positive effect on ecosystems, regenerating the planet while feeding a growing population.

The capacity of creation to feed a growing population is, I believe, well beyond what we have imagined. I can envision a future where the ag/food system is more holistic, resilient, and regenerative—with capacity to produce more than we could ask or imagine. More than enough to feed the projected 2050 population of nine billion. A holistic approach to managing living systems—which is what the creation is—can not only feed and clothe us but can also contribute to addressing climate change and weather-pattern modulation. It can provide aesthetic services to society—what’s more pleasant to the eye than a healthy herd of cattle on rangeland where “the deer and the antelope (also) play”? By connecting people with the land through the best of both living-system design and the application of appropriate technology, the physical and mental health of those engaged in production and consumptions will improve. To paraphrase a famous quotation attributed to Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, and creative citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Joe Colyn
Joe Colyn

Joe Colyn leads the agri-food consultancy Originz, LLC, out of Battle Creek, Michigan. Working with nature, he envisions an agriculture and food system that is regenerative and thriving—providing an abundance of good food for a growing population. He and his wife, Joanne, enjoy their family of eighteen, including nine grandchildren.


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