The importance of a resilient food and agriculture system is being discussed around the world, but what exactly does “resilience” mean?
For farmers like me, it means the toughness to deal with difficult problems as well as the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances—and always to remember that the purpose of agriculture is to produce safe and healthy food.
The COVID-19 pandemic certainly has demanded resilience from farmers. Yet the essentials of our job have remained the same. We still go into the fields, plant our crops, help them sprout, protect them from threats, and harvest them for food. And we do this while restoring the environment and being profitable if we want to be farmers in the long term.
We can’t do any of it by Zoom.
Instead, we make it by tending to the soil from which all things grow. Every farmer knows the vital importance of soil, but our dependance on it is more than merely agricultural. It’s also deeply human. That’s why there’s an etymological connection between “human” and “humus”—the name of our earthly species and the name we use to describe the richest soil.
Last week we acknowledged the link by celebrating World Soil Day, which seeks to call attention to how the health of soil improves human wellbeing.
One of our most basic duties is to fight soil erosion. Every time one of us touches the ground, we threaten to take something away from it. That’s especially true in traditional farming and its massive disruption of plowing, which prepares the ground for seeds and kills harmful weeds. This act of violence can wound the soil, removing moisture and nutrients.
That’s why our farm switched decades ago to a system of no-till conservation. We haven’t plowed our fields in 40 years. We still work with the soil, but we don’t rip it open anymore—and we can manage to grow two crops every year if the weather allows it: We start with wheat, which we harvest in July, and then move on to sorghum, which we use to feed the cows.
A great benefit of this no-till system is biodiversity. It preserves an ecosystem that enriches the soil.
Here in France, we used to enjoy four seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter. Today, however, it seems as though we have just two seasons—dry and rainy—and we struggle through both. Proper attention to soil conservation can be the difference between our farm’s economic success or failure.
At the same time, we must remain aware of the fact that conservation agriculture is not an end in itself. It’s a tool and not a goal. It’s a tool that helps us meet the goal of food production.
People who don’t farm sometimes lose sight of this important fact. They dream up proposals such as the European Green Deal, which treats farmers as the source of environmental problems rather than the producers of the food that we all need. They think only of bans: Long lists of things they don’t want us to do, such as defend our crops from weeds, pests, and disease with safe and reliable crop-protection products.
Without these tools, it will be much more difficult to raise our crops. If unprotected from pests and disease, they will not be edible because of diseases on the grain and will wind up in the trash bin. Europeans will have to import food from other places—not the avocadoes and bananas that we can’t grow here anyway, but the staple products that we’ve always provided for ourselves.
The purveyors of news try to portray the ordinary practices of mainstream agriculture as harmful. If you only watch this kind of television, you may begin to believe the fairy tale that we can feed the world with tiny farms operated by happy families that spend most of their time watching birds.
This is nonsense. Farmers are 21st-century innovators who apply amazing technologies to the challenges of our moment. These include the latest soil conservation techniques as well as cutting-edge seeds that help us cope with climate change.
We do all of this because we’re resilient—and know that our job as farmers is to keep producing food, even in the harshest of circumstances.
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