We need a brown revolution.
Most of us are familiar with the green revolution—the explosion of agriculture production that happened between the 1940’s and 1970’s, due largely to the work of Norman Borlaug and others who developed high-yield, hybrid seeds and helped expand irrigation infrastructure, chemical fertilizer use and mechanical agriculture throughout the developing world.
The time has come for another leap forward in agriculture—and a change in attitude when it comes to farming and ranching. Now is the time for a revolution that involves not bringing new inputs into the field but in taking care of what’s already there. It’s a revolution focusing not so much on the seed we put in the ground but on how we treat the ground itself—it’s time we focus on soil health. It’s time for the brown revolution.
Now, full disclosure, I didn’t come up with the term brown revolution—it was probably coined at Cornell University and been in use at least since 2011. What it means is that the time has come to start thinking about how the health of our soil effects agriculture production—it also means that we need to start thinking more about how the health of our soil effects the environment. What’s cool is that if we take better care of the soil, we will find an intersection between both of these goals.
Studies have shown that by converting to no-till alone, you can reduce fuel use when growing crops by as much as 4 gallons of diesel per acre per year. Other sources have reported that by using soil health practices like no-till and cover crops, you can reduce the need for synthetic fertilizer, with one 2017 study showing that the use of these practices reduced fertilizer costs by as much as $50 per acre (and think how much prices have gone up since then!).
In addition, for every 1% increase in organic matter, the soils water holding capacity increases by 3.2 times - that can equal out to as much as 2,500 gallons of additional water per acre per year! Research also shows that each tillage pass you take can cost you a quarter of an inch of moisture or more. In fact, Oklahoma State University has reported that a conventional wheat-summer fallow cropping system loses roughly 59 percent of rainfall back to the atmosphere through evaporation—something that no-till, strip till and other conservation tillage methods can help reverse.
By going no-till you can also decrease soil erosion—a huge benefit in and of itself– but you also decrease the amount of run-off into our water. Turbidity (dirt in the water) and sedimentation are two of the largest water quality challenge we have. In addition, most nutrients and bacteria that get into our water do so by being tied to soil particles that run-off of agriculture land. If we can control soil erosion, we can improve water quality—and save the towns downstream (and their rate payers) money in water treatment costs.
Through reduced tillage you also increase the amount of organic carbon “sequestered” into the soil. Remember, plants breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. By going no-till it’s estimated that you can also sequester around half a ton of carbon dioxide per acre per year while helping your overall production. That’s carbon dioxide that’s taken out of the atmosphere, reducing greenhouse gasses (you also are reducing greenhouse gasses by reducing fuel use as well) while helping maintain and in many cases increase production long term.
By improving soil health, you help with overall production while improving water quality, reducing soil erosion and helping address climate change. You also increase your ability to adapt to wild weather swings like droughts and floods–things we will have to deal more and more with in the future. A final added benefit is the help you also provide wildlife habitat by improving the quality of streams and lakes and by providing cover and food for wildlife on untilled fields.
All this points to one simple fact—by being mindful of the health of our soils we will be better able to feed and clothe an increasing world population while helping to address climate change, improving water quality, reducing soil erosion, reducing fuel use and helping improve wildlife habitats.
Protecting the environment and production agriculture are not mutually exclusive. All it takes is a little revolutionary thinking—brown revolutionary thinking.
- [Podcast] How Intensive Nitrogen Use is Browning the Green Revolution
- Reminiscing on No-Till’s Revolution
- Switching to No-Till, Cover Crops in Effort to Improve Watershed