Nutrients for All: Agricultural Systems on the Brink

Nutrients for All: Agricultural Systems on the Brink

Kristie Wang's picture


Nutrient-rich, healthy food comes from healthy soil and healthy farms. But unsustainable agricultural practices and poor land management around the world are decreasing the nutritional content of crops and threatening our ability to produce food.

99.7 percent of human food comes from cropland, but high-intensity, unsustainable farming is leading to rapid cropland loss. Globally, almost 10 million hectares (equivalent to the state of Indiana) of cropland are lost each year due to soil erosion.

A study by Cornell University reported that the United States is losing soil ten times faster than nature can replenish it, while China and India are losing soil 30 to 40 times faster. What’s causing this accelerated soil loss?

Agricultural experts are sounding the alarm over harmful but all too common practices like monocropping —planting only one crop over vast swaths of land, year after year. With farmers racing to cover every inch of arable land with cash crops like corn and soy beans, trees and grasslands that once served as wind breaks and important soil cover are being lost.

Monocrops also accelerate soil degradation by quickly depleting soils of their nutrients and increasing concentrations of pests and diseases. Degraded soil can’t hold water as readily as healthy soil and so it is more vulnerable to being blown or washed away.

Further compounding the problem, monocropping relies on heavy inputs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that undermine soil health and then pollute waterways. And, according to a recent large-scale study by bee researchers, monocropping also accelerates the disappearance of natural pollinators that is an indispensible part of the food production process.

Other unsustainable farming practices like overgrazing, intensive livestock production, overfishing, and the overuse of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics are leading to a host of environmental and health issues.  

The question is: Smarter, sustainable farming techniques exist, but why aren’t farmers using them?

One way of looking at the issue is that while farmers function as “nutrient stewards,” they are only compensated for the volume of crops, livestock, etc. they produce. They aren’t incentivized to produce nutrient-rich food or for using environmentally sustainable practices.  

Some critics of industrial farming have a harsher perspective and maintain that because industrial farming prioritizes profit margins and short term gains, the hidden costs of harmful agricultural practices are “externalized” and borne involuntarily by the planet and the public. According to one study on agriculture in the United States, the consequences to human health and the environment cost as much as $16.9 billion annually.

So what can we do?

Policy measures can provide an important part of the incentives for sustainable farming. In the United States, many experts are calling upon the new Farm Bill to stop subsidizing the corn and soy industry, and start rewarding farmers that produce healthy food and act as good stewards of the environment.

Other measures that incorporate new business models for sustainable farmers are being pioneered by social entrepreneurs like Dale Lewis. Lewis is helping former poachers in Zambia become sustainable farmers and environmental stewards.

Lewis believes that because traditional conservation practices create artificial boundaries between human and wildlife settlements, existing human populations tend to be mired in extreme poverty and must feed themselves through poaching, logging, and overfishing. Lewis’s program incentivizes farmers to use responsible practices by providing market-based rewards. Participants in the program must adhere to responsible farming standards and top performing farmers are rewarded with premium prices for their produce.

How concerned are you about sustainable agriculture? What kind of action do you think we as a society can take? Tell us your thoughts below!