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Published July 23, 2012, 11:11 AM

Sustaining what we have

We’ve got a good thing going in ag: let’s not mess it up

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

I came across a news article recently about the ancient Mayan civilization. (Don’t worry, this column isn’t about those silly predictions linking the remarkable Mayan calendar and the nonsensical notion that the world will end Dec. 21, 2012.) No, the news article dealt with a scientist who found signs that the Mayan civilization collapsed, at least in part, because of declining food production.

That fits with what a lot of smart people say about some other thriving civilizations that eventually fell apart: their inability to produce enough food, not inept leadership or military defeat, was the big culprit.

Now, a growing number of smart people say that U.S. agriculture needs more focus on the long-term sustainability of soils and ag practices. Without greater sustainability, they say, U.S. ag sooner or later will lose at least some of its amazing productivity.

A few years ago, I would have said that sustainability is just a fancy synonym for soil conservation. And I’ve always been a big believer in soil conservation. Nothing in agriculture, not even drought or poor prices, bothers me more than soil erosion. As bad as other problems can be, the loss of precious topsoil has permanent consequences.

But conversations with scientists and farmers in the past few years have convinced me that sustainability involves more than soil conservation. Even to a layman like me, it’s clear that farmers and ranchers need to pay more attention to things like soil health and the amount of fuel, water and synthetic fertilizer they use.

It’s gloma-what?

Just one example of the changes in agriculture: experts are putting greater emphasis on keeping plants in the soil at all times. That seems a little strange to me — I grew up in a place and era where summer fallow was common — but I’ll follow reputable research wherever it leads.

A key area of research involves glomalin, a root-dwelling fungi that helps plants acquire more nutrients and utilize the nutrients more efficiently. There’s good reason to think that using cover crops to maintain living roots increases glomalin. Though the cover crops take moisture, the loss of that moisture is more than offset by the greater water use efficiency created by the extra glomalin.

There’s also good reason to think that glomalin binds soil particles together and helps them resist erosion.

As research into glomalin shows, ag scientists are making amazing discoveries. Farmers, ranchers and other agriculturalists are being given great tools with which to sustain their fields and pastures. We’d be foolish not to make use of those tools.

I think of it like this:

Modern-day archeologists visit the sites of long-vanished civilizations and find evidence that declining food production contributed to those civilizations’ demise. What would it say about us if archeologists of the far future visit the Northern Plains and discover the same thing happened here?