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Farming in Nature's Image by Judith D. Soule and Jon K. Piper, is a book about the science of sustainable agriculture. It embodies the fruits of years of research carried out at the Land Institute, Kansas USA. The authors, two professional ecologists working at the institute, have shown beyond reasonable doubt that conventional farming practices are not sustainable and that to continue with current land management practices will sooner or later, totally deplete soil fertility causing massive loss of productivity, even with the continued use of agricultural chemicals.

The authors show that modern agriculture, with its emphasis on chemical use and biological technologies, is rapidly destroying natural systems. The effects of using toxics has, in the past, been overlooked because they have enabled production to be maintained and enhanced. But this has been at the expense of continued loss of natural fertility. The use of chemicals, over a period of a few decades, has resulted in continuing soil erosion, loss of genetic and biotic diversity, depletion of energy and water resources, chemical contamination of water, workers and food, and new and more serious pest problems.

Widespread chemical application destroys natural soil fertility by killing the microbes and other organisms that maintain soil fertility; heavy farm machines compact the soil preventing aeration and water absorption, causing runoff of leachates that contaminate surface and ground water supplies.

Topsoil loss caused by chemical use, annual cropping and water runoff and wind erosion, is quickly depriving humans of vital resources. In some areas of the US, 50 percent of top soil has already gone. Chemical application can hide this by maintaining yields, but only for a limited period.

Research at the Land Institute demonstrates that non-tillage agriculture and reversion to natural pastures, can allow soils to recover by rebuilding the natural processes of soil formation and its fertility.

The book is important in showing, through long-term research, how chemical dependency can be replaced by natural processes to recreate natural soil fertility. The authors maintain that local ecosystems provide the most appropriate structured models for agriculture. By mimicking a natural vegetation structure, farmers can copy a whole package of patterns and processes that have developed and worked in an ecological or evolutionary time frame. Examples of this approach are found around the world.

"The problem of sustainability is too often regarded solely as a technological problem of production. This approach limits the researcher's ability to understand and address the fundamental ecological reasons why agriculture systems are unsustainable. The 'nature as model' approach provides an ecological rather than a technological orientation to solving the problems of agricultural sustainability. This approach seeks to diagnose he health problem of an agroecosystem and to discern the system-level ecological principles necessary to develop a sustainable agriculture. Simply focusing on techno- logical aspects of the problems and seeking quick-fix technological solutions obscures he fundamental problems that lie behind the technology-induced environmental crisis. Even though some promoted alternative technologies may be low-input, without a whole-ecosystem approach, all the interconnections among various problems cannot be addressed".

Modern Agricultural Practices That Have Contributed to the Current Ecological and Economic Crisis

Practice Problems Addressed Problems created
Mechanisation Labour inefficiency Erosion, energy dependency, capital expenses, interest payments, larger farms, fewer farmers
Inorganic nitrogenous fertiliser Crop yield Ground water contamination, farm specialisation, pests, erosion, energy dependency, high input expenses, less economic resilience
Pesticides Crop loss to pests (success doubtful) New pests, resistant pests, water pollution, human poisoning, energy dependency, high input expenses
Hybrids and genetically narrow varieties Crop yield and non uniform traits Aggravated pest problems, loss of local adaptations, chemical dependency, high input expense

The problems caused by industrial agriculture are beginning to emerge. These problems are multifaceted and long-term by nature. Accordingly, narrow, short-term solutions cannot work. But long-term solutions that are not economically feasible in the short term are not possible until society is willing to underwrite farmers short-term losses.

"The challenge for the present is to learn to work and learn to use solar energy in new ways to help to accommodate this burgeoning human population. But it must recognise nature's limits and cycles and work within them."

Industrial agriculture is a man-made system that replaces natural systems. As such, it cannot be sustained beyond a certain point. If it continues to spread, natural soil fertility will be lost and with it the capacity to grow food. Sooner or later the situation will become irreversible. Unfortunately, by destroying productive soils, future generations are condemned to a regime of increasing starvation and inability to sustain life.

Wes Jackson, comments that we are at the exact point in history when we need to make a decision to continue modern industrial agriculture and risk the future, or to reclaim the soil and ensure the future. Real solutions to top soil loss and loss of natural fertility are, he reminds us, more a matter of changing the world view than "smart resource management" - that is a change in the way nature is viewed.

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