[Deep Dive] Before the tractors…
Dive into the world of agriculture to understand how soil works, why we’re killing it, why we’re not doing anything about it and how technology *might* help
In this week‘s deep dive we’re looking at a new report that concluded that pesticides kills 70% of living organisms in the soil and we discuss technology and how technology have destroyed soils but if used cleverly (like perhaps a cow-mask) can help regenerate our soils.
On June 9 on Clubhouse, we were joined by Jacob Vahr Svenningsen — a long time sustainable agriculture expert who have been working with agroforestry in many developing countries via his company eGro. This article is written together with Jacob, based on the interview with him and the ensuing discussion.
We’re starting off with looking at how it all started, then going back and learning what soil actually is and how it “works”, then why we’re killing it today and what the solutions are, then why we aren’t using those solutions and finally, we’re reflecting on how tech can help.
TL;DR at the bottom of the issue.
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It all started with gunpowder
Once upon a time, a soldier noticed that in the field at the places where he knew gunpowder was spilled the surrounding plants seem to grow much faster. Gunpowder back then was made with a compound known as salpeter (KNO3) which contains nitrogen. Ensuing studies determined that it was the nitrogen that acts as a fertilizer which made the plants grow faster. That launched an entire industry focussing on making nitrogen in various forms such that they can be applied to the plants. In 2016 186.67 Mt of fertilizer is being applied to farms around the world. With the fertilizers came the rise in the chemical industry and how it became a center to the agricultural industry.
Then the 1920s and 1930s started the so called mechanized agriculture in which more and more farmers started to use tractors to plow their fields. Plowing is the process of cutting through the soil such that seeds can more easily be sown. And back then switching to tractors from horses or even manpower provided obvious benefits. From time savings to more dependable maintenance (compared to a horse), to reduced manpower required as well as farmers saw a general increase in production. But then in the US came the dust bowls. Huge dust storms which appeared mainly because all farmers happened to be plowing at nearly the same time. The dust bowls ultimately led to the start of the depression in which tractor sales plummeted.
Then came WWII and with it Roosevelts arsenal of democracy he spurred the US industry into action to produce war material for the allies in Europe. After WWII though the sudden plummet in need for production of war material led many producers to focus on tractors and other farm equipment. Post-WWII brought all kinds of technological wonders with it. From microwave ovens to moon landings. The general mentality around at the time was the technology was here to help and make our lives better. In other words, true tech-fixation was on. Yes technology did make many of our lives easier, more convenient, more nice. And with more technology came more knowledge and we learned a few things.
Soil is living carbon and tech is killing it
One thing we learned was that in one shovel full of healthy soil is more living organisms than humans on planet Earth. Soil is a medium, it consists of particles of different sizes, we know them as sand, silt and clay and it holds old and new organic matter known in general as soil organic matter. This is mainly dead roots and animals, but soil is generally very much alive with bacteria and fungi and many other microorganisms from the animal kingdom and domains of other species. And what these organisms do best is one of the things we have the most use for here in the climate crisis: They sequester and bind carbon. What enables all these organisms to live is important factors such as humidity and structure. In fact it’s the organisms themselves that make tiny channels in the soil and that’s what creates soil structure that allows the organisms to live. Take humidity and structure away and the organisms will die. And so the carbon will begin to decompose, a living soil can hold enourmous amounts of carbon, while a dead soil will slowly degrade and gasify back into the atmosphere as CO2. The top 10 centimeters of soil over a hectare will typically have 1.5% of carbon, which translates to roughly 20 tonnes carbon per hectare. (Figure below, Plot nr 2 from right). An agroforestry system will obviously hold carbon down to the bottom of the rootzone, anywhere from 5-62 meters depth of roots in combination with fungi. 1 meter deep soil will hold 300 tonnes / hectare - after which it will it tapper off in soil organic carbon percentages as the roots become more sparse.
We also learned that when we plow two things happen: We break the soil structure and we expose the soil to the sun, hence we lose those two very things that are keeping the soil alive and healthy: Humidity and structure. What happened in the dust bowls was that so much soil has been exposed to the sun that it dried up and turned to dust. That dust was then moved about by the wind and turned into these gigantic dust storms. So when you think about dead soil think desert or dust field and when you think about healthy living soil, think about a field of flowers, a shrub under mutliple layers of tree canopies and a high level of biodiversity in its shadow - no exposed soil.
In the article from last week we learned that not only is plowing killing the soil, but pesticides applied by the people who plow kills 70% of living organisms in the soil. So it’s a one-two punch. First we plow, exposing and breaking the soil and then we spray with pesticides hereby finishing the organisms off for good.
The problem though is that soil is finite resource. We only have so much of it before we run out and once we run out the harvest is over. We’re told that we have roughly 60 harvests i.e. 60 years worth of soil left using plowing-based farming before we’re effectively out of life-giving soil. The prospects for humanity doesn’t look very good at that time. In fact it looks like an even bigger problem than climate change itself.
But there are good news, several farming practices exists today that will actually help regenerate soil and in the process sequester a lot of carbon. These practices are called regenerative farming practices.
What does farming regeneratively look like?
During the interview with Jacob, he took as an example regenerating a field in a typical semi-arid dryland. The first thing you would do would be to plant a lot of flowers. The flowers will be the soil healing plant as they serve different functions, such as accumulate minerals through deep roots, but also attract a large biodiveristy and build the soil structure. Flowers as we all know attract insects. Insects lays eggs, and live as larvae, which attracts birds. An ecosystem is created. When the larvae become protein, they will introduce predators and as these animals all start to interact in dead and living form they spread and form bacteria and fungi growth as they decompose and eventually returns nutrients to the soil. Now the field is already carbon positive. It sequesters more carbon dioxide than it did before. That’s year one for our small farm. During year 2 we start planting other species, such as cash crops, that can now grow in the more fertile soils, like nitrogen fixing varieties such as peanuts, that can continue the regenerative rotation, year after year, while making money. We can now also begin to integrate perennials, firstly the pioneer trees, that will grow fast and provide support for later trees/bushes, such as any fruit tree that fits the climate and that will be sold on market in a few years. That will help create structure in the soil as well as growing very fast. The perennials shed leaves and branches when pruned in a mulching method, and builds topsoil helping to protect the life in the soil. We have now also increased the profit we’re able to make from the field by quite a lot. Instead of one kilo wheat per square meter, we can produce 100 kilo apples from a single tree taking up 9 square meter of soil area, while the bare soil under the tree is filled with flowers. This is a truely ecological system with flowers that bloom all year round, to atract and feed insects all seasons.
The key here of course is that we don’t use a plow at any time. Because we want to maintain the structure of the soil, that is essential for life to sustain itself in the roots of plants and thus preserve carbon levels.
Healthy soil normally contain around 1,5% carbon = 20t/hectare, but in an aggressively managed carbon farming system these soil organic matter levels far exceeds that of a wild forest. Such as the method, syntropic farming, developed by Ernesto Gotsch a Swiss scientist that decided to move to Brazil and "just do it" over the past 30 years, instead of studying it theoretically in papers.
If you’re looking at the total surface area of the Earth excluding oceans then that’s a lot of area. In fact, we just need a small % of the surface are of the Earth to be syntropically farmed to capture and sinking the CO2 emitted by human civilisation, and then some. To compare humans currently tranformed 30-40% of the total area of the Earth. The area compares to Kazakstan, India and Argentina all together.
We will have to do some heavy math-lifting and kung-fu presentation to show these figures. In another episode with Jacob.
So not only can we increase the profit for farmers, and the reliability of their yield in adverse and changing weather comditions, but we can also regenerate the soil, securing water and solve a big chunk of our climate problem using regenerative and ultimately carbon farming practices.
Why aren’t we doing anything?
Profit motive is there. Climate motive is there. Why aren’t we doing it? Before answering that question, Jacob took a big sigh. “Lots of reasons” was the answer.
First the obvious reasons. Governments around the world are subsidizing mechanized agriculture like crazy. Together with the fossil fuel industry, the agriculture lobby is very powerful. It wants to keep on selling pesticides, tractors, GMO seeds, and so on. It controls the most central resource to all humans that are even more central than fossil fuels: What we eat.
Offsets is the big solution touted by most governments, but according to Jacob they’re completely corrupt. Usually the carbon credit projects are financed by making futures, that is promises that one day the carbon emissions from said project will help offset carbon emissions, and these futures are then sold and traded to others that wish to continue their high level emissions instead of stopping them. The people that are into futures and carbon projects are not risk averse, they are often cynical and often it becomes more of a carbon currency game where assets are being created out of thin air on vague ideas. Making carbon futures, as a result is now an unofficially banned asset in the EU system as a valid currency because too many of the ideas and projects have gone default and made the futures invalid, wihtout the project having run to term of 20 years. Much like the sub-prime mortgages of the financial crisis in the 00s. This has inflated the market with "false" carbon projetcs and basically made it into a hot air balloon, the regulators are aware of this, but in the Madrid COP25 they were supposed to re-negotiate a new carbon credit system, or tweak the old one, in consensus that it was still born as a system. Noone seemed to have any solution and even less were able to agree on any progress, few understand the systems deeper flaws and so it continues to ride as is. Bogus project makers get carbon offset ideas and they are are being sold as carbon credit assets, and cycle from hand to hand, as long as they are kept trading each year, they will not be declared default. While they never had a chance to kick-off and become and actual project in the first place. The system definitely have a lot of issues and we don’t have enough room here to go through them all. Watch out for later deep dives on this topic!
Furthermore, there’s a lot of resistance among farmers. As was highlighted by fairly recent episode of 🎧 How to save a planet. In terms of diffusion curve, farmers aren’t known for being early adopters. And the reasons are obvious, their finances makes them risk averse. According to the documentary “Kiss the ground” an average US farmer can make 0.04-1.2$ per hectare including subsidies compared to a regeneratively grown farm which can make 40$ per hectare. Bill Gates recent book points out for “technologies” (or lack thereof) with such a staggering profit motive for which the market aren’t adopting them, then there must be something else wrong. The cultural issue is not to be neglected. In developing countries it’s typically seen as a status symbol if you own a tractor and plow your fields because it looks good, and its easy.
Apart from government showering mechanized agriculture in subsidies, offset that aren’t working and cultural adversity to risk, then there’s also the big issue of what people eat. This to me was a key insight that I didn’t understand prior to the call. If we are to switch out all our industrialized agriculture for regenerative practices this means that we will grow different things at those farms than what we’re already growing. We will be growing less wheat (which people love) and more perennials such as chestnuts, apples, and other types. More nitrogen fixing species such as peanuts and so on. The problem is that the market to produce more of these just aren’t there. This in the end is a problem that consumers can help fix. A key problem therefore is that no consumers know how to buy sustainable food.
Then there are technical challenges during the harvests. A farm grown regeneratively will have multiple species planted right next to or even among each other. This presents a challenge during harvesting where you just can’t run a big combine harvester through the entire field, but would rather need more targeted harvesting. In addition, cattle or other animals will likely roam the fields in the shade of the trees as well. They need to be managed in a more precise way, or a looser way in a dedicated system, that enable the farmer to reduce the damage of the cattle in the other crops. This increases the skill level of the farmers. These are just a few of the technical challenges encountered by regeneratively grown farms, which is typically solved by manpower today but which is also adding friction for farmers to switch to a regenerative practice. Even though 90% of all fruits picked in a place like Florida is still done by manual labour, the future and the past tech fixation and its investibility will most likely attempt to make it more mechanised with robotics.
Making tech helpful but fast
These are some of the places where technology might help. But it needs to do so fast. It’s not enough for a technology to be smart and impactful theoretically, it would need to be so practically too. Here the cow masks are an excellent example. The cow mask also discussed at the interview basically is a wearable device that a cow can wear and then the mask will remove 53% of the cow’s burp related methane emissions. And turns out, that’s a lot! 95% of methane emissions from a cow comes from burping! So if deployed world wide methane emissions from cows and other ruminants would go down by ~50%. That’s significant!
One key problem though is scalability. Right now, there are 1 billion cows on the planet. And that number grows by 10 million every year. So just to halve the emissions of all “new cows” the startup would need to produce 10 million masks ever year. 10 million! Just to compare, Apple says that there are currently approximately 1 billion active iPhones. If they were to cover all cows it would mean building the most valuable company in the world. So the product doesn’t “solve” cows. But perhaps that is just the right attitude. There will be no one solution that solves the entire climate crisis. There will likely be many solutions that will each solve one tiny piece of it. Perhaps this startup will “just” halve the emissions of 1 million cows. That’s still a lot of methane AND a lot of money. What becomes important then is that the startup knows and manages it’s own carbon footprint carefully.
Another hotly debated technology is vertical farming. Vertical farming are known for using a tremendous amount of power. Granted if powered by renewable energy then it’s not as bad as industrialized agriculture. Another beef (pun intended) with vertical farming is that it takes away food demand that could have been satisfied by regenerative agriculture. That too is true. But vertical farming can reduce the carbon emissions of the mechanized food system in urban areas in the developed world because it can potentially limit the transportation costs of food, because people can just grow their own. Is vertical farming going to “solve” food? No. It’s not. It too is going to solve a small amount of it.
From a traditional startup standpoint this represents quite a shift in perspective. You don’t need to achieve world domination to make a difference to the climate crisis, but having that ambition always helps. And that is the lens that most technology should be viewed under in respect to the climate crisis. It’s not a zero sum game. No technologies competes here. The climate crisis problem is SO HUGE that there’s plenty of market for anybody that tries. You wanna reduce cow emissions using seaweed? Great come join! You wanna reduce cow emissions using cow masks? Great come join! You wanna reduce cow emissions using regenerative agriculture? Great come join! The thing to watch out for is not to make the problem worse. Hence startups must focus on making sure that the climate impact they have is significantly higher then their carbon footprint. If true then come join us!
Chemical and mechanized industrial agriculture launched in a period of history with growing tech fascination stemming from truly technological wonders like the moon landing. Plowing fields already gave huge problems back then and was one factor in the depression. As it turns out plowing kills soil. We need soil to sequestrate carbon. The potential is gigantic. However, current agricultural practices more or less directly scrapes the soil off the ground layer by layer. Fortunately, there’s a range of farming practices that can be employed to solve this problem, but they face a lot of inhibitors for deployment. Technology might be able to help with some of these challenges but not all.
That’s it for this deep dive! I hope you enjoyed it. Let me know what you thought about it in the comments below or by sending me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have any questions / comments for Jacob, he can be reached on email and on Twitter.
Be sure to join us on Twitter Spaces Friday 11:30am CET for a discussion about net-zero vs real-zero with Lars Køhler.
Thank you for reading and enjoy the rest of the week! 👋