Soil productivity | maxing it out

dung-maize-fieldHumans are extraordinary competitive creatures. We have found myriad more or less peaceful ways to challenge ourselves from sports to corporate takeovers. We even harass each other for parking spots at the shopping mall.

And everyone does it, even nerdy types. They will play ‘Warhammer’ or go for best online score on their ‘Words with friends’ app. My own nerd gene forces me to log my golf score into a spreadsheet after every round for a record of my personal best, all in the knowledge that because I avoid the club competitions, the only person I can beat is myself.

This requirement to compete means we are not programmed for moderation. We like the best, fastest, strongest, and would be those if we could.

A World Bank project in Kenyan used this instinct to help subsistence farmers grow more food on their tiny 1 ha plots. If a farmer adopted more sustainable land management practices he would receive a payment for the additional carbon his actions sequester into the soil. More importantly his yields of maize, yams and beans increase.

The instinctive requirement to outgrow your neighbor helped enormously in getting the project started and with uptake. No small feat considering a rural community of some 60,000 needed to change some life-long habits in order to receive money from air!

I learned about this interesting example [one of the few successful land-based carbon projects activities that are not about growing trees] at an ‘Agriculture, Soil Health and Climate Change’ Forum held in Sydney recently.

Whilst the mood in the room was congratulatory toward the guest presenter who had made the long journey from Washington, there was a question for the presenter from a vastly experienced CSIRO agronomist with firsthand knowledge of the project area.  He wanted to know why, even though productivity improved, the maize yields were just one third of the potential for the district. Did the farmers not have access to inorganic fertilizer? “No they didn’t” was the predictable answer.

But what struck me was the intent behind the question. It was though the ‘increase yield by a little and enough to encourage the farmers’ was not right. If the potential yield is three times that, we should try to max it out.

Why stop at just a small yield gain when there was all that potential left in the ground?

No matter that the question was posed politely. There was no doubt it was a criticism. The project was underselling that soil potential — surely the farmers would be better off with three times the yield rather than modest gains off a low base.

Well no they wouldn’t.

Even if the soil productivity potential was much higher than realized, it was only possible with more intensive farming at significant financial cost.  Taking on a growing reliance on inputs, farmers would risk the debt spiral that afflicts so many of their cousins in the West [including Australia]. And, needless to say, subsistence meant there were no resources to purchase inputs anyway.

Whilst moving to a high input system might increase yield, it would also put pressure to adopt other profitable options such as economies of scale. Surely it would be better to merge those 1 ha plots into much larger units that could accommodate mechanization.

You see the point. Our CSIRO friend had a paradigm in his head based on what he knew would work best from his viewpoint — and that involves commerce, commerce that feeds on competition.

Maxing it out might increase yield but it would put great strain on both the human and the physical system. It seems unlikely that those 60,000 people in the project area could reallocate the 40,000 ha without most of them having to suppress their innate competitive instinct. In other words we would be asking most of them give up their options to participate in the competitive paradigm that spawned the solution we have suggested. Bizzare.

When it comes to feeding the global population both locally and that commercial scale, we will need to suppress the competitive gene and think more pragmatically. Maxing it out is just brinkmanship. We need to come up with far more equitable and environmentally benign solutions.

A modest incentive to adopt sustainable practices buys time for us to figure it out.

 

 

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