Alarmingly, we are currently undergoing widespread and major biodiversity losses across the planet13. We often hear about pollinator declines14, but the issue is much bigger than just a bee problem. Many habitats4,15,16, and groups of plants17,18 and animals16,18-26 are undergoing range constrictions, displacements or complete extinctions in the U.S. and around the world.
Many of these problems are inherently linked to our food production system. Representing 34% of the land surface of our planet5,27, agroecosystems (cropland and rangeland) are the largest biome on planet Earth. Because of the scale, it is arguable that decisions made on these agroecosystems affect nearly every other habitat and species on the planet either directly or indirectly.
But even diversity within agroecosystems is in steep decline. In the U.S., we have experienced major shifts and perturbations to our food production system since 2007; federal ethanol policies have been linked to these perturbations by mandating a market for corn grain-based ethanol28. Soybeans are produced on a similar number of acres as before the EISA policy took effect, but nearly every other crop is planted on substantially less acreage than it was. What is replacing these crops? Corn has increased in acreage by 14% since 2007, and this single plant species is currently planted on 5% of the land surface of our country28.
There are consequences to this simplification. Corn, soybeans, and cotton are planted on 9% of the land surface of our country. Three species where once there were hundreds19. And the majority of acres of all three are genetically modified to resist pests. All are treated with herbicides. All are maintained with chemical fertilizers29. And nearly all are treated with neonicotinoid seed treatments30. These inputs are the only way that these simplified systems can remain productive31. We have replaced biodiversity with technology.
I question this paradigm of food production. I question the simplification of our landscapes. I question the unnecessary use of insecticides and GM crops. And I question the use of corn for ethanol. As a result of this, everyone that I care about was attacked either directly or indirectly by my employers with the USDA. Our spirits were crushed. And I was punished for conducting science and publicizing results that questioned this paradigm.
But in my exploration for answers, I have discovered something that is both amazing and gives me a tremendous feeling of hope. I have come to see that nearly every major problem that we face as society can be reduced or solved entirely through better management of our food production systems.
Conceptually, farm productivity and environmental health can be fostered with two simple concepts. Increase diversity32-34. Reduce disturbance35,36. Disturbance means things like reducing or eliminating tillage and pesticide use. Biodiversity can accomplish many of the things we rely on inputs for in our current paradigm. Fertilizer comes from animals and plant matter37,38. Predators and competition are nature’s insecticides39,40. Herbivores and competition are nature’s herbicides41. The importance of plant diversity in and near farmland cannot be overstated.
Food production in nature’s image is not simply in my imagination. There are farmers, ranchers, and beekeepers around the country that are already making money by doing this, and they have become my friends (see a list of links below). Although every region and farm operation differs in its circumstances, there are some key elements to ecologically based farming that are consistent. Don’t till the soil, or reduce your tillage substantially. Cover the soil with plants all the time. Integrate animals into cropland. Increase perenniality areas near farmland. So I don’t need a crystal ball to see the future of farming. I can go to the farms where the future is already happening.
But what is alarming is that science often doesn’t support these innovative producers. Quite the opposite. Because the farmers on the leading edge of regenerative agriculture are doing things on their farms that science says can’t happen. And when scientists can’t figure out how to produce crops ecologically on their research farms, the scientific data is thrown down as a hurdle that impedes innovation. Risk Management Agency struggles with insuring farmers that are trying to innovate agriculture by thinking outside the current paradigm. Farm Service Agency struggles to lend money to operations that are producing new products or old products in new ways, because state averages say that these strategies aren’t profitable under the current paradigm. Much of the infrastructure and science that is going on is intended to support the current monoculture-centric paradigm, when what we should be creating is an entirely new one.
We require a transformational shift in food production. And transformational changes do not come from the government and they do not come from large research institutions. Transformation of this nature comes from the bottom up. It comes from the farmers and the beekeepers and the ranchers themselves. And it is happening right now.
To support this incredible innovation, I have a vision for the future. A network of research, education, and demonstration farms across the country. This network would link the top agroecologists in the world with the leading producers in regenerative agriculture to create centers for excellence in biodiverse farming. This network could respond to local needs and circumstances to be as relevant as possible, while upholding the central philosophies and practices of regenerative agriculture. And this network of farms would be also be learning centers where the next generation of students, farmers, and scientists can learn and see the new paradigm in food production. The first of this network is Blue Dasher Farm (www.bluedasher.farm).
In summation, we can produce food AND conserve the environment. I have seen it. And I will devote the rest of my life to supporting it. It is the right thing to do and the right time to do it.
(See below for list of presentations related to these concepts)
1 Bellard, C., Bertelsmeier, C., Leadley, P., Thuiller, W. & Courchamp, F. Impacts of climate change on the future of biodiversity. Ecology Letters 15, 365-377 (2012).
2 Hansen, J., Sato, M. & Ruedy, R. Perception of climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. 109, E2415-E2423 (2012).
3 Turner, B. L. I., Lambin, E. F. & Reenberg, A. The emergence of land change science for global environmental change and sustainability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. 104, 20666-20671 (2007).
4 Johnston, C. A. Agricultural expansion: land use shell game in the U.S. Northern Plains. Landscape Ecology 29, 81-95 (2014).
5 Lambin, E. F. & Meyfroidt, P. Global land use change, economic globalization, and the looming land scarcity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. 108, 3465-3472 (2011).
6 Gurevitch, J. & Padilla, D. K. Are invasive species a major cause of extinctions? Trends in Ecology and Evolution 19, 470-474 (2004).
7 Mooney, H. A. & Cleland, E. E. The evolutionary impact of invasive species. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. 98, 5446-5451 (2001).
8 Beman, J. M. et al. Global declines in oceanic nitrification rates as a consequence of ocean acidification. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. 108, 208-213 (2011).
9 Diaz, R. J. & Rosenberg, R. Spreading dead zones and consequences for marine ecosystems. Science 321, 926-929 (2008).
10 Blumberg, S. J., Kogan, M. D., Schieve, L. A., Jones, J. R. & Lu, M. C. Changes in prevalence of parent-reported autism spectrum disorder in school-aged U.S. children: 2007 to 2011-2012. National Health Statistics Reports 65, 1-11 (2013).
11 Keet, C. A. et al. Temporal trends and racial/ethnic disparity in self-reported pediatric food allergy in the U.S. Annals of Allergy Asthma and Immunology 112, 222-229 (2014).
12 Molodecky, N. A. et al. Increasing incidence and prevalence of the inflammatory bowel diseases with time, based on systematic review. Gastroenterology 142, 46-54 (2012).
13 Barnosky, A. D. et al. Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived? Nature 471, 51-57 (2011).
14 Potts, S. G. et al. Global pollinator declines: trends, impacts and drivers. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 25, 345-353 (2010).
15 Wright, C. K. & Wimberly, M. C. Recent land use change in the Western Corn Belt threatens grasslands and wetlands. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. 110, 4134-4319 (2013).
16 Butchart, S. H. M. et al. Global biodiversity: indicators of recent declines. Science 328, 1164-1168 (2010).
17 Fordham, D. A. et al. Plant extinction risk under climate change: are forecast range shifts alone a good indicator of species vulnerability to global warming? Global Change Biology 18, 1357-1371 (2012).
18 Thomas, J. A. et al. Comparative losses of British butterflies, birds, and plants and the global extinction crisis. Science 303, 1879-1881 (2004).
19 Schmid, R. B., Lehman, R. M., Brözel, V. S. & Lundgren, J. G. Gut bacterial symbiont diversity within beneficial insects linked to reductions in local biodiversity. Annals of the Entomological Society of America 108, 993-999 (2015).
20 Landis, D. A., Gardiner, M. M., van der Werf, W. & Swinton, S. M. Increasing corn for biofuel production reduces biocontrol services in agricultural landscapes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105, 20552-20557 (2008).
21 Swengel, S. R., Schlicht, D., Olsen, F. & Swengel, A. B. Declines of prairie butterflies in the midwestern USA. Journal of Insect Conservation 15, 327-339 (2011).
22 Pleasants, J. M. & Oberhauser, K. S. Milkweed loss in agricultural fields because of herbicide use: effect on the monarch butterfly population. Insect Conservation and Diversity 6, 134-144 (2013).
23 Mineau, P. & Whiteside, M. Pesticide acute toxicity is a better correlate of U.S. grassland bird declines than agricultural intensification. . PLoS ONE 8, e57457 (2013).
24 Meehan, T. D., Hurlbert, A. H. & Gratton, C. Bird communities in future bioenergy landscapes of the Upper Midwest. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. 107, 18533-18538 (2010).
25 Frick, W. F. et al. An emerging disease causes regional population collapse of a common North American bat species. Science 329, 679-682 (2010).
26 Newton, I. The recent declines of farmland bird populations in Britain: an appraisal of causal factors and conservation actions. Ibis 146, 579-600 (2004).
27 Assessment, M. E. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Biodiversity Synthesis., (World Resources Institute, 2005).
28 Fausti, S. W. & Lundgren, J. G. The causes and unintended consequences of a paradigm shift in corn production practices. Environmental Science & Policy 52, 41-50 (2015).
29 NASS. (USDA, 2015).
30 Douglas, M. R. & Tooker, J. F. Large-scale deployment of seed treatments has driven rapid increase in use of neonicotinoid insecticides and preemptive pest management in U. S. field crops. Environmental Science & Technology 49, 5088-5097 (2015).
31 Foley, J. A. et al. Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature 478, 337-342 (2011).
32 Letourneau, D. K. et al. Does plant diversity benefit agroecosystems? A synthetic review. Ecological Applications 21, 9-21 (2011).
33 Letourneau, D. K., Jedlicka, J. A., Bothwell, S. G. & Moreno, C. R. Effects of Natural Enemy Biodiversity on the Suppression of Arthropod Herbivores in Terrestrial Ecosystems. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 40, 573-592 (2009).
34 Lehman, R. M. et al. Understanding and enhancing soil biological health: The solution for reversing soil degradation. Sustainability 7, 988-1027 (2015).
35 Kladivko, E. J. Tillage systems and soil ecology. Soil & Tillage Research 61, 61-76 (2001).
36 Lundgren, J. G. & Fausti, S. W. Trading biodiversity for pest problems. Science Advances 1 (2015).
37 Cherr, C. M., Scholberg, J. M. S. & McSorley, R. Green manure approaches to crop production: a synthesis. Agronomy Journal 98, 302-319 (2006).
38 Maughan, M. W. et al. Soil quality and corn yield under crop-livestock integration in Illinois. Agronomy Journal 101, 1503-1510 (2009).
39 Lundgren, J. G. & Fergen, J. K. Predator community structure and trophic linkage strength to a focal prey: the influence of the prey’s anti-predator defense. Molecular Ecology 23, 3790-3798 (2014).
40 Symondson, W. O. C., Sunderland, K. D. & Greenstone, M. H. Can generalist predators be effective biological control agents? Annual Review of Entomology 47, 561-594 (2002).
41 Mortensen, D. A., Egan, J. F., Maxwell, B. D., Ryan, M. R. & Smith, R. G. Navigating a critical juncture for sustainable weed management. BioScience 62, 75-84 (2012).
Links to presentations on these ideas and concepts
Ray Archuleta https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9uMPuF5oCPA
Dave Brandt https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xfe9PgMveZc
Gabe Brown https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yPjoh9YJMk
Jill Clapperton https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-z-r30mKP3c
Jay Fuhrer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86Uo9YEoaWU
Gail Fuller https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uYMXGz00XM
Kris Nichols https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14fDrB8n08E
Brendon Rockey https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jo6jt7bs_3g
Wendy Taheri https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BZxs5-ZMcIk