The agricultural productivity and the Mount Everest

If you want to climb the mount Everest, you are going to need at least courage, money and good planning, right? But you will also need, obviously, to get yourself there. For that you can use for example, a car and then a train, after that a plane and then a car again.

When you get on the the mountain base, you might still need an off-road vehicle to go up a little more. After that, perhaps some animal like a horse or a mule can take you a little higher toward your goal.

There will be a moment, however, that you will have to proceed on foot. Alone or in a group, with big or small loads, you will necessarily go walking. You can take with you an extra oxygen cylinder. Or not. Your walk can be extremely hard. Or not. You will get to your final objective. Or not!

At this stage of our climb I’d like to suggest a pause, so we can take a look right from above the landscape of our current plantations. What do you see from there today? How do you see the near future? How will we increase the desired “productivity”? And the profit, this poor forgotten, will it increase too, or this is only true for the outlays?

I’m sorry, I have a few more questions. Until when will we measure the “productivity” as the amount of bags per hectare from a certain crop? A hundred bags of soy per hectare? Three hundred bags of corn? A hundred and twenty of coffee? But... at what immediate cost? At what cost, in the long-term? Which quality is expected? At what level of wear? Do we respect our limits? Do we respect other people’s limitations? Nature limitations?

Should we after all, measure the productivity of a field, or the total productivity from an area (or farm) through the years? And how this questions matter to Everest?

I’ve seen agronomists defending the idea in which increase of agriculture productivity was mainly due, to the increase of mineral fertilizers use. They even mention statistics from the last century, showing graphically, almost parallel curves of growth. Would they be right or wrong?

I would venture to say both! They’re right when referring to the mentioned period, the last decades of 20th century. But, they’re mistaken about the present. Well let’s see. The numbers compare on one hand, the average amount of fertilizers used per crop, and on the other hand, the overall average productivity of those crops. We can imagine that in the vast majority of properties, the quantities of used fertilizers were indeed less than the ideal. Therefrom the parallel increases of use and production per field.

The situation today however, it’s completely different. I don’t have any statistical data, but
almost every one of us who visit farms daily, knows innumerable cases of producers increasing their fertilization inputs, while the productivity remains the same or even drops. It’s even easier to find cases in with the farmer reduces the expenses with fertilizers and checks, astonished, that his productivity has increased. What is in fact going on?

Going back to the mount Everest, we can compare the era of the minerals lack, with the beginning of our mountain up trip. The mineral fertilizer was the ideal vehicle for the initial climb towards high productivity. At a certain point however, that vehicle will not be able to move any further. Another type of carrier will be necessary to take us higher.

Increasing doses of fertilizers applied to the soil not only end up reducing the important edaphic life, like roots and the microorganisms, but also leave in the soil part of those minerals, that will accumulate (or not) depending on the nutrient and on the type of soil and exploration.

Nowadays it is known that in tropical conditions the fertility is an attribute of the system, not from the soil. We also know that the more biomass we add in this system, and the more we cycle this biomass, the higher is the fertility achieved.

Adding more biomass to the system has to do with intelligent succession and crop rotation than the simple immediate market logic suggested. It has to do with the planting off different cover crops cocktails, according to the time of the year and local conditions. It has to do with biodiversity.

The biomass cycling for its part, is executed primarily by the living organisms in the soil. Everyone works; from the largest such as earthworms and beetles to the microorganisms. Our function is to promote better conditions for those buddies to grow and develop. That includes reducing the use of too soluble substances in doses that are aggressive to soil and plants.

Summarizing all that, and again speaking about our mountain climbing, perhaps it is the moment of leaving the vehicle that brought us until here (mineral soluble fertilizer), in the current quantitative levels (or a little below that). So we will be able to board at another transportation, more appropriate to that stage of going higher up (increasing the productivity). Of course, there are different specific scenarios, let’s not generalize.

It is interesting to note that as in the case of the mountain, after a certain height, only living vehicles can continue to go up (horses, mules or even people). The mountain could be telling us: WHAT ABOUT USING THE SOIL LIFE (and not its death!) TO CONTINUE GOING UP?


Antonio N.S. Teixeira 

 Executive Director - IBA

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