Agricultural productivity and Mount Everest

The mountain may be telling us: WHAT IS IT TO USE THE LIFE OF THE GROUND (and not its death!) TO CONTINUE ASCENDING?

If you want to climb Mount Everest, you will need, at the very least, courage, money and good planning, right? But you will, of course, also need to travel there. For this you can use, for example, a car, then a train, then an airplane and again a car.

Arriving at the foot of the mountain, you may still need an off-road vehicle to climb a little further. After that, maybe an animal, like a horse or a mule, can take you a little bit higher, in the direction of your goal.

The time will come, however, that you will have to continue on foot. Alone or in group, with very little load, you will inevitably continue on foot. You can take extra oxygen tubes with you. Or not. Your walk can be extremely difficult. Or not. It will reach its final goal. Or not!

Well, at this point in our climb, I would like to suggest a pause, to look at it from above, the current panorama of our crops. What are you seeing today from there? How do you see the near future? How will we increase the much desired “productivity”? And will the profit, that forgotten poor, increase as well, or just expenses?

Sorry, I have more questions. Until when will we measure “productivity” as the number of bags per acre of a given crop? A hundred bags of soybeans / ac? Three hundred corn kernels? One hundred and twenty coffee? But… at what immediate cost? At what cost, in the long run? With what quality? With what level of wear? Do we respect our limits? What about the others?

Should we, after all, measure the productivity of a crop, or the total productivity of an area (or farm), over the years? And what does all this have to do with Mount Everest?

I have seen agronomists defend the idea that the increase in agricultural productivity is due, in large part, to the increased use of mineral fertilizers. They even cite statistics from the last century, graphically showing almost parallel growth curves. Were they right or wrong?

I venture to say both! They are right when they refer to the period mentioned, the last decades of the twentieth century. But, they are wrong about the present. If not, let’s see. The numbers compare, on the one hand, to the average amount of fertilizers used per crop; on the other hand, to the general average productivity of these crops. We can imagine that, in the vast majority of properties, the amounts of fertilizer used were in fact less than ideal. Hence the increases, parallels, in use and production by area.

The situation today, however, is completely different. I do not have statistical data, but
almost all of us, who visit farms daily, know countless cases of producers increasing their fertilization, while productivity is maintained or even falls. It is even easier to find cases in which the producer reduces the cost of fertilization and finds, surprised, that his production has increased. What is actually happening?

Returning to Everest, we can compare the era of mineral deficiency with the beginning of our journey up the mountain. Mineral fertilizer was the ideal vehicle for the beginning of the ascent, towards high productivity. At some point, however, that vehicle will not be able to move forward. Another type will be needed to lead us higher.

Increasing doses of fertilizers applied to the soil, not only end up reducing the important life contained therein, including the roots, but also leave part of these minerals in the soil, which will accumulate (or not), depending on the nutrient and the type of soil and exploration .

Today it is already known that, in tropical conditions, fertility is an attribute of the system, not of the soil. We also know that the more biomass we can add to this system, the more we can cycle this biomass, the greater fertility we will have there.

Adding more biomass to the system has to do with more intelligent rotations and successions than the simple logic of the immediate market suggests. It has to do with planting different cocktails ”of cover plants, according to the time of year and local conditions. It has to do with biodiversity.

The biomass cycling, in turn, is performed, primarily, by living organisms present in the soil. Everyone works; from the largest, such as earthworms and beetles, to microorganisms. What we must do then is to promote the best conditions for these friends to grow and develop. This includes reducing the use of highly soluble substances, in aggressive doses in the soil and plants.

For all this, and again speaking of our climb up the mountain, perhaps it is time to leave the vehicle that brought us here (soluble mineral fertilizer), at the current quantitative levels (or a little below). So we can embark on another one, more suitable for this phase of the rise (of productivity). Of course, there are cases and cases, we will not generalize.

But it is interesting to note that, just like on the mountain, after a certain height, only live vehicles can continue the climb (horses, mules or just ourselves). The mountain may be telling us: WHAT IS IT TO USE THE LIFE OF THE GROUND (and not its death!) TO CONTINUE ASCENDING?

Antonio N. S. Teixeira
Executive Director – IBA

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