The world’s biggest producer of soy is the US. The land under soy production in the US would generally have been either prairie, savannah or forest originally, depending on the precise location.
The next biggest producer of soy is Brazil, where soy has led to slash and burn of the rainforest to grow. What makes this worse is that, oddly, rainforests typically grow in relatively thin, poor soils, meaning that production can only continue for a short while before having to move on to a new area, so increasing the need to clear more land. When one considers that much of this soy goes to produce animal feed, which is frequently fed to cattle (or other grazing animals), which require grazing land, which requires yet more deforestation…
A recent Guardian article writes about future perspectives in the United Kingdom. The UK’s agricultural soils, so environment secretary Michael Gove, are expected to lose their fertility in 30 to 40 years due to heavy industrial crop production, working with machines, fertilisers and other chemicals that manipulate the ecosystem.
A German study that revealed concerning results: within a quarter of a century, about 75% of flying insects in German bio reserves disappeared. This, so scientists, has tremendous implications on our planetary ecosystems since insects play an integral and important role as pollinators and prey.
After ruling out the factor of weather and alterations to the landscape, there are strong indications for climate change and heavy agricultural practices as the causing factors for this decline. What the researchers concerns further is the fact, that the observations took place in well-kept and protected zones. Thus, can one imagine how the image must look much worse outside of those nature reserves?
But we can make a change!
Firstly, of all the large-scale monoculturally grown crops, soy is the one that most obviously lends itself to VF/CEA methods; with the plant being mostly leafy green and relatively small (compared to say wheat), and with the beans also not being large/heavy (as opposed to say corn).
What this means is that by growing soy, and by dramatically reducing the land footprint required to do so, we can free up land currently under soy cultivation. This land can be rewilded, simply allowing it to return to its natural state. Equally, a portion of that land may be actively managed in a more ecologically sustainable way - for example it might be used for agroecological farming, where many types of mutually supportive food plants are grown together, in effect as a miniaturised ecosystem. Growing with VF/CEA not only releases currently used land however, but also helps to protect ecosystems from further damage in future.
From there, it is possible to reap all the many benefits that nature provides to us humans. These benefits, often collectively referred to as ‘ecosystem services’, include water management, carbon sequestration and many more! This really is the end goal of this project. We humans need to protect earth’s ecosystems, because in the end, we are entirely reliant upon them. In enabling us to take on this stewardship role, the true potential of VF/CEA is revealed, in that it allows us to take an important step towards finally living within our means in this beautiful but fragile natural world we call home.
Large scale monocultures - the problems
Perhaps primary among these is the simple issue of space. Grown using conventional farming methods, these crops take up a large amount of land. Generally speaking, they are grown on land that was historically cleared of its original ecosystems - usually forests but also grasslands & prairies. This comes at a cost, as those ecosystems provided humans with many services, from water management, to the creation and maintenance of soils, on to complex systems like the carbon and nitrogen cycles. Furthermore, as the global human population expands, it stands to reason that more land will be required to grow more food, so exacerbating the situation.
These farming methods also require heavy doses of fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides, causing other problems. Runoff is the most well known of these, causing aquatic dead-zones in both rivers and where they flow out into oceans. Pesticides have also been implicated in the decline of insect populations, most notably bees. This is a major problem for agriculture, since we still rely to this day on insect pollination for so many of our crops.
Another issue for conventional agriculture is water use. It is estimated that 70% of all available freshwater goes to irrigating agricultural crops. By far the largest portion of this is going to go to the monocultural staple crops - wheat, corn, potatoes, soy and so on. In a world where water shortages are already an issue, and only likely to become more so due to climate change, there is going to be a need to seriously reduce water use for crops.
Water furthermore becomes an issue in the form of heavy rainfalls that lead to floodings. As a consequence, yields decline and fertile soil is swept away.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these applications of chemicals allow us to grow far in excess of the normal carrying capacity for these soils. But in so doing they damage those soils, requiring yet more chemicals. This cycle has lead to the decline of topsoil across the world, to the extent that we are now hearing warnings that we have perhaps a little over half a century before all our topsoils are eroded degraded. It takes hundreds, if not thousands of years for nature to replace them!