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#12 Dr. David Montgomery, Geomorphologist at UW

February 20, 2018

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Modern conventional agriculture is destroying our soil. At the rate we’re going, we will lose one-third of our agricultural production capacity in the next century, even as the population is expected to increase by at least 50%. Worse yet, our current system actually pays farmers to destroy the land through subsidies and crop insurance, perpetuating a model that keeps farmers reliant on oil and chemical inputs.

But there is a solution, and today’s guest has written two books about it. David Montgomery is a professor at the University of Washington and the author of Dirt: Erosion of Civilizations and Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. David studied geology at Stanford University before earning his PhD in geomorphology at UC Berkeley. He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2008.

Today David joins Ross and Christophe to explain why civilizations that degrade their soil don’t last. We discuss the troubling numbers around soil degradation and loss and the three simple farming practices that would restore our soil. David walks us through the residual benefits of regenerative farming and the factors that inhibit widespread adoption. Listen in for David’s insight into the challenges Nori might face in paying farmers to capture carbon in the soil and learn how quickly we might restore the soil pending the adoption of regenerative practices.

Resources

David’s Website

Big Dirt music

Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life by David R. Montgomery

Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David R. Montgomery

UN Report: Status of the World’s Soil Resources

Key Takeaways

[2:08] The relationship between civilizations and soil

  • Civilizations that degrade soil don’t last
  • Carbon in soil serves as fuel, recycles dead stuff

[4:45] The troubling statistics of soil degradation, loss

  • 1/3 of agricultural land taken out of production due to degradation
  • 50% loss of carbon from agricultural soil
  • Lose 1/3 of agricultural production capacity in next century

[6:38] How simple changes in farming practices could restore the soil

  • Plow degrades natural production capacity of land
  • Tilling soil accelerates breakdown of organic matter
  • Monocultures promote pests, pathogens
  • Adopt no-till agriculture, cover cops and crop rotation
  • Save on diesel, fertilizer, pesticides = increase profit
  • Practices would return carbon to soil as well

[13:42] How diverse crop rotation defeats pests without chemicals

  • Pests adapt to predictable patterns
  • Grow three to four crops in unpredictable pattern
  • Reduce need for agrochemicals, spend less to grow more 

[18:36] What is preventing widespread adoption of restorative practices

  • Requires shift in how think about soil
  • Takes time for knowledge to diffuse
  • Need policy incentives, education (i.e.: demo farms)

[23:12] How regenerative farming provides a better business model

  • Farmers control what, how they grow
  • Reduces expenses up front and maintains yield
  • Current industrial model undervalues farmers’ ingenuity

[29:21] The role of subsidies and crop insurance in slowing adoption

  • On level playing field, regenerative practices would win out 
  • Farmers see damage of conventional practices, want to take care of land

[31:40] The challenge in Nori’s intent to pay farmers who remove carbon 

  • Difficult to quantify, technical challenge to measure carbon in soil
  • Could incentivize to adopt regenerative practices
  • Helping farmers make transition is good investment

[36:52] The residual environmental benefits of regenerative farming

  • Fewer emissions from production of fertilizer
  • Less diesel burned for tractors

[37:40] How regenerative farming translates to variability in soil, crops 

  • Several hundred thousand soil types
  • Principles apply, farmers must adapt practices

[42:44] David’s insight on the future of our soil

  • Embrace science of soil ecology
  • Could restore soil by 2100/2200

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