Non-tillage farming: sustainable, not practical

Organic food and food products are one of the main concerns of controllable health. It’s the trend among fruits, vegetables, meats, and even packaged products are known to have organic ingredients. Although buying organic foods might seem like the healthiest option, the farming methods for these foods may not be that healthy.

Currently, large-scale food-producing companies tend to gravitate towards the easiest and most convenient methods to feed the immense size of the current population. As for agricultural production, this translates into incorporating additives and growing genetically modified food products.

In stark contrast to convenient methods, the concern for consumer health and food insecurity increases. Agricultural production is molding its current farming methods to bring ease to the concerned consumer. But what consumers don’t know, is that tillage farming techniques are required to grow food sustainably.

Simply put, tillage farming is a way of growing crops or pasture without disturbing the soil through preparation that may be damaged by various chemicals.

Edward H. Faulkner states his concern for agricultural production that emulates the attitude toward most current farming techniques in his book, "Plowman’s Folly." "The truth is that no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for plowing," he says.

Tillage farming techniques involve the simple process of soil overturning, or what most might know as plowing. This type of farming allows commercial farmers to meet their production needs.

The needs include the aerating, or loosening of the soil, and the irrigation of water that keeps the soil as dry as possible. Although tillage farming does address these issues, the aerating of soil can be done with organic techniques within the topsoil.

The disadvantages of this tillage farming technique outweigh the benefits. However, non-tillage farming methods do not disrupt lower levels of soil or break any sort of structure, while providing the plants grown with nutrients from previous crop cycles.

Studies from the Agricultural Institute of Canada have shown changes in soil quality under non-tillage farming systems. The studies gave evidence of long term involvement with microbial nutrients in the soil during non-tillage farming techniques. The U.S. Department of Agriculture stands right there with Canada as well stating in "Soil Tillage and Crop Rotation" of the Crop and Livestock section, “Intensive soil tillage can increase the likelihood of soil erosion, nutrient runoff into nearby waterways, and the release of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere (2012).”

Virgilio Cuasay, a volunteer at the SMC Center for Environmental and Urban Studies says that “Tillage farming as an industrial agriculture relies on synthetic inputs.” Nutrients used in conventional farming are often synthetic, rather the organic nutrients that come from non-till farming.

Unfortunately, these synthetic inputs come with side effects. Professor Richard Mulvaney with the University of Illinois stresses that synthetic nitrogen fertilizer stimulates soil microbes, which feast on organic matter. He explains that over time, the soil microbes completely get rid of all the organic matter. Unfortunately, tillage farming techniques rely on synthetic nitrogen along with many other synthetic nutrients that effect not just the soil, but the quality of the plant.

Dana Morgan, a retired Santa Monica College professor can still be found during her free time helping out in the SMC garden. She explains that, “Nutrients in grown food have gone down by 30 percent due to the synthetic nutrients used in tillage farming.” Industrial farming has reached a point where production has got in the way of consumer health.

Studies through the years have proven that non-tillage farming produce greater amounts of organic nutrients in the soil. In Edmeades’ review of long-term manure trials (2003), he found that topsoil is highly enriched in P, as well as K, calcium. The conservation of topsoil is clearly essential to be able to preserve organic nutrients needed for plant growth. Organic matter (roots, leaves, etc.) left over in topsoil through crop rotation provides the next crop grown with nutrients such as vitamin P and K.

It’s a wide belief that composting is a great way to make your very own nutritious soil. Morgan advocates the use of compost boxes as a way to create healthy soil that is sustainable for growing food. She also explains that after harvesting a crop leaving the roots to decompose in the same soil your next crop is planted in is the way all farming should be done.

Morgan also describes an organization called “Kiss the Ground,” and their goals is to restore soil. Kiss the Ground’s mission statement states, “Half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the past 150 years. Topsoil loss is due to over-tilling, deforestation, over-grazing and chemical fertilizers.” Advocates in Los Angeles County and around the world are joining together to raise awareness of the importance of organic topsoil. Topsoil is not just necessary to the quality of food, but for the well being of the future of the soil.