Conversation with Noted Soil Scientist/Agroecologist John P Reganold
John P. Reganold is in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, Washington State University.
AH: The United Nations predicts that world demand for food will grow 70% by 2050. What are some of the specific ways that you believe we can reduce that percentage?
JR: Oh, well one would be not having nine to nine and a half billion people by 2050, and so in other words, have family planning really bring in education as much as possible for women, especially in developing countries. Because obviously if we only hit eight or 8.5 billion, that would relieve a lot of pressure on scientists as well as farmers. And so that’s one way. Another way is to reduce our waste of food, which is about 30 to 40% in developed, and developing countries. The reasons are different, but it’s still about the same percentage. So if we reduce that, say cut that in half, we’d have a lot more available food.
Another is really watching what we eat, eating a more plant based diet. So that’s easier on the energy of our farming system, its been shown that it’s better calories if you eat — you still can eat meat, but you eat it in lesser amounts, and you eat more fruits, and vegetables, and whole grains. So that would help greatly, but that’s not really what they’re projecting. What they’re projecting is countries get more affluent, especially developing countries that they, they’re doing it now, they’re including more meat in their diet so that’s putting more pressure on the land especially grain crops. So those are the really, the big things.
And also how much we eat. We eat — we have one billion of over the seven billion people that are malnourished, and we also have one billion people that are overweight in the world. So those two almost cancel each other out. But it’s not that simple obviously. There’s the whole thing of where the food is grown, and you just can’t ship those calories to those that need it. Those that need it need to be able to grow more of their own calories.
AH: I know a farmer in the UK who’s had particular troubles due to the drought, and then excessive rain this year with his wheat crop. I know you’re not a wheat breeder but that you’ve worked with wheat. So I just wanted to ask if you would explain how management practices overall will improve yield with respect to contending with climate change situations.
JR: Well some countries are more vulnerable to climate change. In other words, certain areas will experience more periods of warm climate, and more periods of dryness, and others will experience more wetness, and possibly even some cooler periods at times that they don’t want the cool. And we don’t know, we have projections and models for that. But from what I’ve read, I don’t know if there’s really any consistency. What is consistent is that we know there is climate change, and we’re going to continue to have these inconsistencies. So for systems really to be more resilient, which is what you want, you want your soil to be in as good as shape as possible. So one of the key things there is you want to have good organic matter contents in the soil. Usually, the better organic matter you have in the soil, the more organic matter, the better the structure, the more you keep it covered, it’s not eroding, the more resilient that soil is going to be. And we’ve done studies where we found where you have more organic matter in the soil; you have better nutrient retention, and better water retention. It can, you can also use it as a mulch, and that will help certainly.
AH: You’ve recently stated that no one should dismiss organic agriculture as the part of the solution as far as farming, and that farming is more combination of organic and conventional methods. I feel it’s important to have a voice of reason on this point in particular because it seems there’s a whole lot of us and them going on that’s detrimental to agriculture overall. Will you expand on that?
JR: Yeah, I think that’s correct. There are a number of people that tend to take sides, but there are also people that are more obliging in the middle. So we tend to look at organic and conventional sometimes as bookends and everything else is in between. And actually I think our biggest hope is going to be for those hybrid systems that sit in between where you have farmers. And this is true in Africa where it’s needed the most where you have farmers can have basically use organic practices to build the soil, but can also come in if they can afford it with fertilizers, synthetic fertilizers and add them. But they wouldn’t have to add them at high rates because they are also getting some nutrients from the organic residues, and from the manures, and from the composts that they’re using in their systems. But it does help to have fertilizers. I mean, there’s no question that the fertilizers actually work better with the organic matter in the soil. You get better yields with the organic matter there. So it’s really the best of both worlds.
And organic, I think the organic community is actually pulling the conventional community towards the center. So meaning that a number of conventional growers are using organic practices. And so the hybrid systems really where the farmers are using at least 50% of their practices organic might be our biggest hope. The problem in some places is going to be the affordability of those fertilizers, and they’re going to get more expensive because the price of energy’s going to go up. So we need these more resilient systems, and it may get to a point where — and this would be way down the road that I hope this isn’t the case. It is actually the case in some places where farmers can’t afford fertilizers. But I hope that does not worsen because of the cost of energy. And there’s new things coming on. Someone was telling me recently you can buy online basically a small Bosch machine, which is the Haber–Bosch Process, which creates synthetic nitrogen. It works from solar energy, and can convert I think it’s, I don’t know if it’s natural gas — yeah I think it converts the natural gas into synthetic nitrogen…
AH: That’s fantastic!
JR: Yeah, there’s things like that, but at the same time, you want to be able to use organic practices too. You want to build the soil, and so we tend to say those are organic practices, but conventional farmers can do it too.
To be continued…..