Everything about farming is better today than it was a generation ago. We have better seeds, better tools and better methods. Because of this, we’re growing more food than ever before.
Where I farm here in Uruguay, even the soil is better, but it will be a challenge to keep all the soil health benefits if the world takes away one of our top technologies.
Because the southern hemisphere is currently approaching summer, we’re now in the busiest season of the year. First up is the planting of soybeans. Next, we’ll harvest our winter crops of canola, wheat and barley. Then we’ll begin a second summer planting of more soybeans plus corn. We hope to improve our efficiency this year with a new machine that puts dry fertilizer straight into the ground.
Back in the 1990s, we wouldn’t have enjoyed so many options or so much productivity. That’s because much of the soil in Uruguay is marginal. It’s shallow in depth and low in fertility. Soil erosion menaces farmers almost everywhere, but our topography and weather combine to make it an unusual hazard. These challenges limited planting in our country to less than 400,000 hectares (988,422 acres).
Then came the practice of no-till farming — a revolutionary concept that transformed agriculture in Uruguay, throughout South America and around the globe. By solving the problem of soil erosion, it boosted production on the best land and brought marginal areas into production.
Today, farmers in Uruguay cultivate more than 1.8 million hectares (4.45 million acres). That’s almost 5 times as much farmland as we planted and harvested in the 1990s. This increase is great for farmers as well as for consumers, who enjoy affordable and abundant food.
Farmers traditionally have tilled their fields to loosen them for seeds or to kill the weeds that steal moisture and nutrients from crops. Yet tilling is an act of violence — and by ripping into the ground, it facilitates the soil erosion that traditionally has thwarted farmers in Uruguay.
No-till farming means we don’t disrupt the soil. With specialized machinery, we deposit seeds directly into the dirt. We also use crop residue and cover crops to protect the ground. The result is that our soil stays in place and grows richer over time as organic matter accumulates. We also improve the soil’s porosity, which allows it to capture and keep rainwater. Our crops remove carbon from the atmosphere and bury it in the soil, which improves growth and helps us adapt to climate change.
This approach is not just good for farmers who produce bounties of food and the consumers who depend on it, but also for biodiversity, conservation and sustainability.
Yet every part of this success story depends on glyphosate, a crop-protection technology that lets us control weeds without resorting to tillage.
Farmers have used glyphosate for almost half a century. It’s the most studied and scrutinized herbicide in history. Science has shown again and again that it’s safe. It recently has become controversial, however, as activists in the European Union and elsewhere seek to ban it.
This would be a huge mistake. It would stop so much of the progress we’ve made in sustainable agriculture production.
It would also be counterproductive. Many farmers would respond to a restriction by using larger amounts of less effective herbicides. This is the only way we could hope to maintain the production, conservation and sustainability that we’ve come to expect. Even so, it would raise our costs and force many farmers back into old-fashioned tillage — perhaps out of business.
The good news is that I expect glyphosate to remain available in Uruguay. The bad news is that European farmers are on the verge of losing it, thanks to regulators who are more concerned about political pressures than they are about the wellbeing of farmers and food prices for consumers.
You may wonder why a farmer in Uruguay would care about the fate of farmers in the EU. Wouldn’t a bad policy on the other side of the ocean improve our competitive advantage?
Maybe so, but only in the short term. Farmers everywhere face irrational threats — and we must face them down together. For farming to flourish into the future, we must unite to save our soil and guard the gains of the last generation.
Gabriel Carballal is an agronomist and member of the Global Farmer Network. He operates on 1,500 personally leased hectares (3,707 acres) with additional acres in partnership with his family and 2 different societies in Uruguay.
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