The principal narrative for how we will grow food in the future is that it will be technology-driven. Endorsed as our only opportunity to create a “cleaner and greener future” and “produce sufficient food to meet projected demands”, it’s becoming entrenched as the principal scenario.

But there is a more realistic alternative.

It’s where we will go by necessity. The costs and risks of relying on land with little inbuilt resilience in a changing and unstable climate, combined with emerging resource constraints, global supply chain and environmental issues, will make this industrial-styled food production untenable.

Whether growing in a backyard in Wales, a community garden in Boston, a smallholding in India, a commercial orchard in Brazil, or running cattle in outback Australia…, our food growers will rely more on Nature’s free ecological services and create resilient growing conditions by getting the ecosystems in their farms and gardens functioning again.[1]

Imagine looking out across a landscape… It doesn’t particularly matter where.

In virtually all places, we see biodiversity materialised within our agricultural landscapes and gardens. No longer reliant on monocultures, farmers and food gardeners grow diverse crops and recruit plants, livestock, birds, insects, and other living organisms to deliver ecological services.

Plants are employed to reduce soil compaction, feed beneficial insects, and supply nitrogen to our crops. Grazing, browsing and foraging livestock of all shapes and sizes help to get the wealth of plant materials recycled in our soil. This ‘functional’ biodiversity reduces production costs and builds connections making farms and gardens better able to weather the storms of climate change.[2]

Growers optimise solar energy capture by growing abundant solar panels and creating production systems with multiple layers of vegetation. Utilising the vertical space to diversify their crops, provide ecological services, and physical protection from drought, sunburn, and extreme temperatures, trees weave an extra layer of fruits, fertiliser, fodder, and forage across the fields.

Underneath the decaying leaves and other plant and animal waste materials, the soil is dark brown, crumbly with aggregated minerals and organic matter. The unmistakable signs of well-fed soil organisms and, consequently, functioning soil ecosystems.[3]

Plants get five-star catering directly from the soil ecosystem rather than via intermittent and often inadequate fertiliser, compost, and other organic and biological inputs.[3] Water readily infiltrates, is stored, and the excess drains down through the soil, reducing the damage caused by droughts and flooding rains.

Farmers and gardeners grow healthy, pest-resistant crops with fewer costs and frustrations. Food supplies have improved with better yields, additional crops grown in multi-layered production systems, and the integration of livestock in arable cropping systems.

Having re-created vibrant, living landscapes across our rural and urban spaces, insects, birds, and small mammals that used to be common are commonplace once again, and we are making headway supporting the recovery of endangered species with specialist habitat requirements.

How did this Change Happen?

Slowly at first. We didn’t realise what we were missing.

We thought our soils were in reasonable condition if they didn’t show the customary signs of degradation – erosion and compaction. But we struggled to grow healthy, pest and disease-resistant plants and nutrient-dense food. In our impoverished landscapes, we couldn’t rely on natural pest control from insects and birds, even for minor infestations. And had trouble growing anything when the weather turned bad.

As a society, we valued productivity and benchmarked our supply chains, manufacturing and service industries, and organisational structures on their ability to create goods and services resource efficiently. Yet, in our farms and gardens, we mostly ignored, neglected, and even in some places reduced to bare bones the sophisticated, locally adapted, complex eco-systems underpinning our home and commercial food production. We didn’t recognise that the production systems we used to grow food were no different in principle from the systems that manufacture big-screen TVs and make espresso coffee. Except they also required ecological systems to function!

As a result, we had to substitute for the free ecological services our ecosystems would have supplied by cultivating soil and applying pest controls, fertilisers and other inputs. Virtually everybody did it! It was the accepted way to grow food, whether we applied chemical or organic inputs.

Our efforts to improve our growing conditions were limited to restoring remnants of native vegetation, wetlands, and waterways, to planting natives in the corners of our fields and bottoms of our gardens.

Industrial agriculture briefly stepped into the spotlight

Proponents claimed it was “the only viable way to feed the world’s growing population”. That the latest technologies provided the answer to “a cleaner and greener future”. Farmers would use the technology to improve their yields and use fewer agrochemicals and fossil fuels. Human ingenuity and trademarked products drove innovation.

But away from the public eye…, a few growers and forward-thinking organisations were switching to regenerative practices, realising that the land they were managing ‘sustainably’ was in poor condition and could give them more support with growing food.

Often ridiculed by their neighbours, and held back by the lack of research funding and information in the farming mass media, they sourced their inspiration and practical ideas elsewhere. Stories were shared on YouTube, social media, and between like-minded growers at fringe conferences and field days. They didn’t turn their backs on sustainable practices and ‘agri-tech.’ But envisaged a fundamentally different pathway for the future of farming.

In the early 2020s, more growers began to join them after experiencing firsthand the challenges of climate change and damage from extreme weather events. Time-tested recipes for crop protection and plant nutrition were becoming unreliable, as were the liabilities associated with relying on land with little inbuilt resilience. It was also becoming impossible to ignore food safety, nutritional and environmental issues from the way we grew food. Fuel, freight, fertiliser and other costs were escalating. The only people who seemed to be making a decent income were the companies supplying the products and services!

Growers felt compelled to change. But were also encouraged, seeing the benefits regenerative farmers were getting, especially farmers who reduced their dependence on inputs by repairing the ecological functions underpinning their production systems.[4]

These growers combined their ingenuity with billions of years of innovative research and development by mimicking the architecture and dynamics of the natural ecosystems in their region. Many people thought they were weird. But it was difficult to totally disregard what they were doing because they were broadacre commercial growers with the soil test data and science validating that their practices worked. Colin Seis, in Australia, had reduced his annual input costs by over 80%, while his soil tests showed his major and micro soil nutrients increasing.[5] Gabe Brown in the United States had stopped applying fertilisers, yet his yields were 20% higher than the “county average”,[6] and Dave Brandt learned that he could use “almost no commercial fertilisers …. and still produce a great crop of corn and beans.”[7]

With the know-how to develop place-based practical solutions suitable for their growing conditions and the food they grew, to trial techniques, learn, share their experiences, and respond to newly emerging issues and threats, these leading growers became agents of change.

Many time-honoured practices used by Indigenous growers came back into fashion and it was incredible how quickly we cultivated an eco-logical story for the future of agriculture. What began as change driven by a sense of urgency, was soon appreciated as an opportunity to realise the economic and environmental benefits of acknowledging, repairing and working with the ecosystems to produce food.

References

[1] Wendy Seabrook, 2021, What is Regenerative Farming and Gardening? Learning from Nature

[2] Wendy Seabrook, 2022, Eco-logical Farming and Eco-logical Gardening Handbooks Published by Learning from Nature

[3] Wendy Seabrook, 2021, What is Healthy Soil? Learning from Nature

[4] Wendy Seabrook, 2021, Support Farmers to Choose Regenerative Practices – that Work Learning from Nature

[5] Colin Seis interviewed by Soils for Life – Winona, Gulgong NSW 2020

[6] Gabe Brown, 2018, Dirt to Soil. Chelsea Green Publ.

[7] Natural Resource Conservation Services, Ohio, Soil Health Profile, David Brandt

Photos by Stefan Widua and Tom Fisk

Get help with getting the ecosystems in your garden and farm up and running again using the Learning from Nature Eco-logical Farming and Gardening Handbooks.

Front cover Eco-logical Gardening Handbook

Front cover Ecological Farming Handbook

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