Alternatives to Industrial Ag

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Modern industrial agriculture relies heavily on large, monoculture fields with the two main crops- corn and soybeans- grown on a two-year rotation.  Chemical herbicides and fertilizers are heavily used to support this intensive agriculture.  Extensive herbicide use leads to weed resistance and very quickly we find ourselves stuck on the herbicide treadmill.

The herbicide treadmill occurs when rising herbicide use leads to resistant weeds, which leads to more types of herbicides being used, and so on. The data backs this up – as the graph on the right shows (Data Source: USDA Quick Stats).  For more on the treadmill and how we got here, see the Managing Weeds for Healthy Kids site.

However, even as billions of dollars and millions of acres of American farms are dedicated to the industrial ag complex that led us to be stuck on this treadmill, many researchers are finding that bringing back old-fashioned farming methods, but guided my modern science, could give us the boost we need to get off the treadmill.

We look some of the alternative farming systems that show promise for reducing herbicide use while still maintaining the high yields needed to feed the country and the world.

Diversified Cropping Systems

Before the advent of modern agriculture, farmers used crop rotations to get the most out of each acre.  In particular, growing a forage crop like alfalfa in rotation with soybeans and corn helps control weeds and boost soil quality.  These perennial crops put in a solid root system that prevents erosion, and legume forages like alfalfa are nitrogen fixers which capture atmospheric nitrogen, enriching soil health.

These extensive root systems also build organic matter in the soil, and prevent weed infestation.  Plus, they even sequester carbon- some ranchers are starting to get into the carbon credit market. A year or two rotation of alfalfa, or even just a winter cover crop, can make a big difference.

Plus, research shows that diversified cropping systems can produce similar yields to the conventional two-year corn-soy rotation, without the costly inputs of agrichemicals.  In one key study, published in 2012, USDA weed and soil scientist Adam S. Davis and his team published results of a 8-year long field study.  They compared the yields and costs of producing crops under the conventional methods with a 3 year and 4 year rotation with combinations of corn, soy, small grains, clover, and alfalfa.  The diverse cropping systems produced similar crop yields and quality, with substantially less inputs of chemical fertilizers and herbicides (Davis et al., 2012).

Other resources:

Organic Farming