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Produced by the Soil Health Institute, a US soil health research organisation, the documentary Living soil considers the cover crop method as an optimal solution for soil protection.
“A farm is a business. Yield and productivity are therefore important. I strongly believe in this, and I also believe that soil health is essential for productivity.” This statement by Larkin Martin, a farmer in Alabama, perfectly sums up the changing attitudes in the US regarding the relationship between production methods, productivity, soil quality and environmental impact. Or more directly between economic and environmental issues.
Ten years ago, the conversion to sustainable agriculture was still seen as heresy, the assumption being that only extensive industrial agriculture could be profitable. But the facts have proven these pessimistic predictions wrong. Produced by the Soil Health Institute, the documentary Living soil demonstrates what many farmers have experienced first-hand: respect for nature is compatible with intensive agriculture with excellent yields. But this requires the ability to question oneself and to apply certain unconventional principles.
The miracle of plant cover
The equation is simple and straightforward. Our soils produce 95% of our food, with the rest coming from the sea. By 2060, in less than forty years, we will be needing it to produce as much food as humanity has consumed in the last 500 years. How can this be achieved if, at the same time, more and more of our precious land is being degraded? Whether it is because of erosion, ploughing, or the systematic use of chemical inputs… To this question, the many participants in the documentary answer with one voice: through plant cover. These farmers confirm the benefits of cover crops, whether they have already taken the step to “all organic” or whether they practise sustainable agriculture with the least possible use of pesticides.
The impact is, first of all, visible on the quality of the soil, whose nitrogen and phosphorus content increases at the same rate as organic matter. After a few years, productivity increases while the “fertiliser and pesticide” budget shrinks. In the end, these farmers produce more, even if their approach is more labour intensive.
A methodological reflection
So why don’t all farmers apply the cover crop principle? Living soil does not directly address this issue, except to emphasise the thinking we need to do to preserve soil and ensure food security. Without a profound rethink, defenders of an agriculture that is both profitable and more respectful of the environment will remain a minority. In 2017, about six million hectares of arable land in the United States were cultivated with plant cover. By 2021, this figure has reached nine million hectares. By 2030, the ambition is to reach 12 million hectares, which represents a little less than 20% of the country’s arable land.
You can watch the documentary for free here.