Feeding the Earth:

We've Got the Whole World in Our Hands

by Dr. Aref Abdul-Baki

Aref Abdul-Baki, the pioneer researcher into sustainable agriculture at the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, is a man on a mission. His mission: feeding people by feeding the earth. In the past decade, the Lebanon-born researcher has carried his gospel to farmers throughout the world. He writes this Earth Week Letter from his research outpost in California.

This Earth Week, I ask you to take a few moments from your busy life to think of the relationship between you and our Earth.

It's a delicate relationship, more delicate than most of us realize. With misuse, conditions could abruptly emerge that could put severe limitations to human existence on this Earth.

The relationship between the earth and its inhabitants has never been static, simply because, by definition, life is dynamic. Only when it ends is a state of static equilibrium reached. Were this relationship static, many living species, including Homo Sapiens, never would have come to exist.

But for thousands of years, this relationship was governed by natural forces, not to exclude spiritual forces. Only recently have we humans developed our high skills and claimed authority for full control of Earth's resources, leaving nothing for the millions of living species, animals and plants, terrestrial and aquatic. Everything, so the ascendant species assumed, was created (or existed) only to please humankind.

Even more recently, within a relatively short period of stewardship, we have begun to realize some serious consequences:

One. The natural resources of the earth are limited, and many of them are non-renewable. Consequently, shortages must be expected.

Two. The most relevant resources for human survival are those that comprise the base for food production, namely soil and water.

Three. The annual increase in world population is higher than annual increases in food production - even with the best technology. The annual increase in world population is close to one hundred million people. That number is equivalent to the total population of the 24 states west of the Mississippi River. Feeding that number of mouths requires all the food produced in a year by two of America's richest farming states: Illinois and Iowa.

Yet most of the world's population increase is taking place in countries already unable to feed their present populations.

Four. The global acreage suitable for agricultural production is shrinking. Two forces are causing the pinch. One is expansion in housing and industrial development. The second is invasion as desert boundaries expand. The reduction in agricultural land, coupled by population increases, will further widen the gap between food supply and food demand. At the present time, less than 10 countries are able to maintain self-sufficiency in food production. What about the rest of the world? Are we not committed to making food available to those who are not able to produce it?


70 Years of Chemical Diet

In the 20th century we have met the challenge of meeting world needs in many ways. We have witnessed a green revolution in rice production, major yield increases in such grains as corn, wheat, barley and oats and significant improvements in potato production. Advances in agricultural research have supported these achievements. In addition, mechanization significantly increased production efficiency and kept production costs low and competitive. Now, by farming more efficiently than ever before in the history of agriculture, our full-time farmer is able to produce food for over 130 individuals. However, these gains are not problem-free.

The production systems that gave rise to these advantages focused more on the quantity of agricultural products and less on the environment and the nutritional quality of food.

Because pest resistance, as compared to yield and product quality, has never been a major component of plant-breeding programs, crops have to be protected by pesticides, insecticides, fungicides, bactericides, nematodes and herbicides to minimize yield losses and to protect quality. In some instances, pests have developed resistance to pesticides.

Commercial fertilizers have been used, too, often beyond recommended doses, and crops in some instances are not responding to applied fertilizers. Other serious consequences of our conventional production systems include soil erosion and high nutrient and pesticide levels in ground and surface water. Apparently, the chemicals that we have applied regularly to the earth for almost 70 years are creating problems to the environment.


70 Centuries of Feeding the Earth

Before the chemical revolution, we fed the earth and its crops in different ways. The ancient Romans and Greeks recognized the wisdom of feeding the earth so the earth would feed them. They were fair custodians, planting two crops a year: one crop for themselves to harvest and use as food and another to feed the soil and its micro inhabitants.

For the soil's crop of "green manure," they used legumes such as vetch for the cover crops because these legumes fixed nitrogen from the air at no cost to them. Such crops had another value: because they provided a cover that protected the soil from erosion they were also known as "cover crops." Then, when they turned the cover crops under and mixed them with the soil, they yielded enough organic matter and nutrients to support the next crop the farmers would grow for themselves. With green manure, crops needed no additional feeding except from whatever animal manure was produced in the farm.

Thus the fair concept of one crop to feed the earth and one to feed the people went for centuries, providing food and maintaining a fertile soil. The practice stood the test of time in that the areas cropped by the Romans and ancient Greeks are still productive even to the present time.


An Old Diet for a Healthy Earth

Over the past nine years, at the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture where sustainable production has been given top priority, I have tried to reintroduce this system of feeding the Earth in ways modified for our times.

The major modification was to accommodate the two crops in a single year. The crop that is produced for human consumption uses the field at the most favorable time of the year, late spring and summer, while the crop for feeding the earth is grown in the fall and winter, when normally the field is not in use. The approach is efficient. We not only produce two crops a year but also keep the Earth covered when soil erosion is severe.

Of course, there were many additional modifications. We coupled this cover-crop Earth-feeding system with no-tillage farming, a new practice that saves a lot of machinery use, hence a lot of soil compression, which is another force that ultimately induces soil erosion. A further modification was to mow the cover crop and leave the residue on the surface instead of plowing it under as a green manure. As it turned out, the residues provided a mulch layer several centimeters thick, inhibiting weed growth and reducing water loss from the soil.

Mowing a mulch crop also paved the way to a new concept in production, the no-tillage production concept. This concept, supported by the development of new seeders and transplanters that do not require any tillage, is gaining rapid acceptance. In non-tillage production, time and money are saved without sacrificing yield or product quality. In fact, yields are higher and product quality is better. The result is the rebirth of a sustainable production system.

The new sustainable production system was tested not only by the Agricultural Research Service but also by many others - farmers, scientists, extension specialists and gardeners in fields that range from hundreds of acres to small home gardens. It has been tested on a large number of vegetables - tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn, muskmelons, snap beans, broccoli and cauliflower; on such small fruits as strawberries and blueberries; and on large fruit trees.

The tests have extended from temperate climates of several mainly mid-Atlantic states to the warm climate of San Joaquin Valley of California to the southwestern hot, dry region of the Coachella Valley, where dates and citrus are currently being tested. We've tested sustainable crops from the cool regions of Poland, to the Middle East, from Europe to North Africa and more recently in tropical Puerto Rico. Typically, the earth-feeding cover is varied to suit the climate. Regardless of differences in climate and types of cover crops, one fact stands true: by improving the soil we increase yields.

Finally, the new sustainable system requires much lower input of commercial fertilizers, especially nitrogen, and much less need for herbicides to control weeds. Feeding the Earth is indeed an environmentally friendly system. Shouldn't farmers and farming communities around the suffering Chesapeake Bay start farming sustainably to save the Bay?


To learn more, call or write: Dr. Aref Abdul-Baki, Vegetable Lab, Bldg. 010 A, Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, Beltsville, MD 20705 · 301/504-5057.

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VolumeVI Number 16
April 23-29, 1998
New Bay Times

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