A society that builds its foundations on annual agriculture cannot survive, according to Mark Shepard, CEO of Forest Agriculture Enterprises and founder of New Forest Farm, a 106-acre perennial “agricultural savanna.” In the video above, Shepard speaks to organic farmers not only about his farm but also why annual agriculture is doomed from the start.
In short, annuals — which include the grain crops and soy that make up most U.S. farmland — are chemical intensive and enemies of diversity. Eventually, Shepard says, the destruction caused by this type of shortsighted farming, i.e., annual monocropping, will cause the civilization that depends on it to collapse.
What’s needed, instead, are perennial ecosystems that “redesign agriculture in nature’s image.” In other words, as stated by Forest Agriculture Nursery’s restoration philosophy: 1
“Annual monocropping produces nearly all of the grain, meat, vegetables and processed foods consumed today. These practices require giant machinery, tilling and the application of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, resulting in the eradication of biodiversity, the erosion of topsoil, and contributes 30 percent of global carbon emissions — more than from any other source.
Despite the massive human efforts applied to farming, we are woefully short of the inherent resilience, stability, and outright beauty of natural ecosystems. We need look no further than native ecosystems for a template of how to move forward from the many woes of annual monocropping.”
What’s the Cost of Corn and Other Annual Crops?
There’s now so much corn grown in the U.S. that the Corn Belt (typically said to include corn grown across Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and parts of Nebraska and Kansas) can be seen from space, courtesy of satellite chlorophyll-sensors. 2 Rather than corn being grown as a food source for humans, the two major consumers of corn are industrial in nature: concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and ethanol .
The first part of the devastation comes in making room for the vast swatches of monocrops, as valuable prairies are often turned under as a result. Since the early 1800s, grasslands in North America have decreased by 79 percent — and in some areas by 99.9 percent. 3
Carbon erosion from the land and into the water and air is one result of this turn toward industrial agriculture and annual monocrops. The removal of forests that not only can sustain, but also regenerate our soils and solidify this fragile carbon balance is a major part of the problem, but so, too, is industrial agriculture , including the removal of grasslands to plant more corn.
Previous estimates suggest that one-third of the surplus carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stems from poor land-management processes that contribute to the loss of carbon, as carbon dioxide, from farmlands. 4
A 2017 study revealed “hotspots of soil carbon loss, often associated with major cropping regions and degraded grazing lands” in the U.S. and suggested that such regions should be “targets for soil carbon restoration efforts.” 5 Specifically, while deforestation is said to have resulted in 127 billion tons of carbon lost from the soil, the study found industrial agriculture has led to losses of 121 billion tons.Advertisement
Annuals Are Dependent on Chemicals, Machinery and Tilling
While contributing to the loss of carbon from the soil, monocrops also add a number of harmful elements to the environment, namely pesticides, fertilizers and harmful farming practices like tilling. These are things that must be added yearly in order for the system to survive, and therein lies the problem.
Agricultural chemicals are polluting waterways , leading to toxic algae and red tide , while tilling can destroy the integrity of the soil structure while encouraging runoff. It’s a system based on degradation, rather than restoration. In an interview with Ethical Foods, Shepard explained: 6
“Modern agriculture exists today because the native, natural ecosystem has been intentionally destroyed, and the existing perennial vegetative cover wiped out by tillage or herbicides. Most of agriculture today also relies on large fields of a single species of plant like corn, beans or rice.
These monocropped annual plant systems are the most at-risk for catastrophic outbreaks of pests and diseases because there are no natural controls. The ecosystem is gone, and we are left with an ecological wasteland that continues to degrade over time.
Soil fertility declines catastrophically and plant fertility has to be imported from elsewhere. Annual agriculture, whenever it has been used to provide the staple diet of any culture, has always led to ecosystem collapse and eventually societal collapse.”
Annual monocrops destroy the soil and the surrounding ecosystems, whereas regenerative agriculture rebuilds it, increasing soil organic matter and leading to a number of beneficial outcomes. For instance, soil organic matter is 50 percent carbon, so by rebuilding soil you’re putting carbon into the ground.
The importance of carbon sequestration simply cannot be overstated. Not only will it reduce the carbon dioxide (CO2) load in the atmosphere, but once sequestered in the soil, the carbon actively nourishes soil health and improves water retention. What’s more, restorative agriculture systems like the one Shepard designed are self-sustaining.
“In a restoration agriculture system, annual tillage eventually ceases,” Shepard told Ethical Foods. 7 “You plant the system once and it’s there for 1,000 years. I’ve personally touched hazelnut bushes in Spain that were 1,400 years old and I’ve visited the chestnut tree in Sicily that is 4,000 years old. Their perennialism has paid back their cost of establishment many thousands of times over.”
Monocrops Contribute to the Eradication of Biodiversity
The very definition of monoculture is a system of agriculture with very little diversity. It defines the wide swatches of corn and soy being grown across the U.S. and worldwide. A whopping 35 percent of cereal and soy harvested globally is actually fed to animals being raised on CAFOs ( concentrated animal feeding operations ). 8
Because of the vast amounts of annual crops being grown for CAFO animal feed, conservation group World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) found that 60 percent of global biodiversity loss is due to meat-based diets straining resources. 9 As further revealed by Stop the Machine, a global campaign aimed at relegating CAFOs to museums, 10 even wildlife are affected.
For instance, there are only 15,000 jaguars left in the wild. Half of them live in Brazil, where grasslands and rainforests are increasingly being converted into soy plantations. Most of the soy is being grown to feed CAFO animals. “Agricultural intensification,” including pesticide usage, year-round tillage and increased use of fertilizers, has also been named as a plausible cause for why insect populations are declining . 11
“Annual monoculture farming erodes the soil and depletes its natural fertility, all while destroying wildlife habitat, wild pollinators, birds and beneficial insects,” Shepard continued to Ethical Foods. 12 Monarch butterflies are but one example, numbers of which have decreased by 90 percent since 1996. 13
As usage of glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide) has skyrocketed, milkweed, which is the only plant on which the adult monarch will lay its eggs, has plummeted. In 2013, it was estimated that just 1 percent of the common milkweed present in 1999 remained in corn and soybean fields and, tragically, while milkweed is not harmed by many herbicides, it is easily killed by glyphosate. 14
Why Perennial Ecosystems Are Better
Shepard’s farm is centered on perennial foods like fruits grown on trees, nuts (hazelnuts, chestnuts and walnuts) and berries . Not exactly a “farm” but rather a perennial agricultural ecosystem, the design combines brushland, woodlands and oak savannah, a type of grassland that also includes oak trees, to create the type of environment that might naturally occur.
“Overall, the land attempts to mimic the oak savanna biome. Trees, shrubs, vines, canes, perennial plants and fungi are planted in association with one another to produce food, fuel, medicines and beauty,” according to New Forest Farm’s website. 15
Shepard describes it as a three-dimensional system that includes “a tree canopy layer, a smaller tree subdominant tree layer, shrubs, vines, canes, shade tolerant plants, ephemeral plants, fungi forage and livestock” 16 all of which work together to naturally increase biodiversity and soil fertility. Grazing animals, including cows, pigs, sheep, turkeys and chickens, are also part of the system, helping with grass, pest and brush control.
“Whether you call it Permaculture, Agroforestry, Eco-Agriculture, Agroecology, or Restoration Agriculture … ,” Shepard’s Forest Agriculture Nursery explained, “By intentionally designing and planting perennial ecosystems, we remove carbon dioxide from the air, provide habitat for wildlife, produce food, prevent soil erosion, and begin the creation of ecologically sustainable human habitats.” 17
Allen Williams, Ph.D., a sixth-generation farmer and chief ranching officer for Joyce Farms, a well-known “grass fed guru,” also uses regenerative farming with great success. Williams’ Joyce Farms describes some of its noted benefits and principles as such: 18
• Build Soil Health — By farming without harsh chemicals and tilling, regenerative agriculture allows microbes in the soil to thrive. These microbes are essential for preventing runoff and nourishing plant growth. “Soil doesn’t work without microbes,” they say, as soil should be alive, not dead. “Dead soil cannot hold carbon, so it is released into the atmosphere as CO2.”
• Diverse Cover Crops and Plant Life — Planting a diverse variety of plants increases microbial populations and organic matter in the soil, while also covering and protecting the earth. “By introducing a diverse variety of plants to the soil, the microbial population in the soil becomes stronger. With soil life, ecosystems thrive,” they say.
• No Till — Tilling destroys soil structure and reduces soil organic matter while increasing weeds and the release of CO2.
• No Chemical Inputs — The use of chemicals like fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides kill off beneficial species, like pollinators, and pollute waterways with chemical runoff. It’s also a relatively recent practice that traditionally was not part of farming.
“For hundreds of years chemicals were not needed or used in farming because, sensibly, chemical inputs aren’t needed when you are working with (not against) the systems Mother Nature already has in place,” Joyce Farms explains.
• Livestock Integration — Rather than housing livestock separately from other animals and crops, livestock is integrated into a symbiotic, complementary system that mimics the way nature works.
“The way we do this at Joyce Farms is by mimicking the dense herds of grazing ruminants that used to roam across America, grazing and trampling plants into the soil. This trampling provides an armor of plant life for the soil and feeds the soil microbes.”
Support Local Perennial Crop Farmers
Shephard recommends that those living in urban or suburban environments get involved by trying to imitate nature in their backyard, and if that’s not possible supporting local perennial crop farmers and buying more perennial foods like nuts, berries and tree fruits. 19
Similar to my own dietary advice, Shepard also recommends avoiding annual grains in favor of grass fed meats, eggs and dairy, along with vegetables. By centering your diet around these foods, you get a diet of nutrient-dense foods to fuel your body while supporting the sustainable regenerative agriculture practices that create them.