This is a fictional scenario, based on reading of scientific literature.
The first farmer, Al (for Farmer Alpha) hated being a nomadic hunter-gatherer. Having just reached puberty, he now had to join his father and the other men chasing after large grazing animals, killing them with spears, and dragging them home. Anyone not dragging fresh meat needed to pick and bring home fruits, nuts, and vegetables.
Al did not like red meat. He preferred poultry. It was tastier and birds flew nearby and killing them did not require a team of men. He also liked berries, vegetables, and grains that grew near his latest home. But he could never settle down. He lived in the Fertile Crescent and the grazing animals migrated. So his people moved as well. They were about to move once more and he wondered if he would ever eat these same fruits and berries again.
Then he noticed that tiny new plants seemed to grow just where berries, vegetables, or small kernels fell from the mature plants. He dug up some of the earliest-sprouting baby plants and figured out that plants grew from seeds that had been the grains or had been embedded in the berries and vegetables. He collected as many seeds as he could and took them with him to his next short-term home. He put them on the ground where plants grew well and, sure enough, some baby vegetable and berry bushes and grain plants sprouted. His family moved again, though, before these plants grew anything edible. Each time he moved, he collected more seeds of things he liked to eat.
When Al started his own family, he tested his ideas of not migrating with hunted animals. Instead, he cleared away the healthiest prairie grasses from the flattest ground he could find and put down his seeds. He noticed birds and other small animals eating the seeds or his young plants, so he killed and ate the birds and small animals. Many of the seeds survived and grew up to bear edible food. Over the years, Al grew his farm. He flattened land that was hilly and plowed that land. He built fences to keep animals from eating his plants and seeds. He noticed that rain that previously had settled in and around the uneven ground, now flowed away, so he dug canals and wells to provide his plants with the water he learned they needed. He even fenced in some grazing animals so they could not migrate and he could kill and eat them without much effort. Other people saw how successful Al was, and they copied his methods. Over the next century or two, much of the Fertile Crescent became farmland. Where before there had been prairie grasses that fed bovines, horses, and other large animals, now there were crops, and many of the large animals were fenced in. But food was plentiful and took much less work to obtain. One person could provide enough food many others. People finally had the time to create civilization.
But many of Al’s brilliant innovations had serious flaws. Land with prairie grasses, such as once existed in the Fertile Crescent, can have moist, healthy topsoil as much as ten-feet deep. This topsoil includes enormous numbers of microbes, as well as other living things like worms and insects. It retains much water, and includes a great amount of carbon. The first farmer’s ideas of flattening land, burning brush, tilling, fencing, controlling water, and other tools of agriculture can cause topsoil to die, dry out, become dust that blows away or gets washed away, or form crusts that no life can penetrate. The topsoil releases its carbon into the atmosphere. What once was ten feet of topsoil becomes ten feet of sand. This is desertification, and to a large extent it is the result of the mistakes of the first farmers.
Can Farmer Al’s mistakes be fixed? Yes. Can we again have topsoil that goes down ten feet with carbon-rich topsoil? Yes. Will this remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and help fix global warming? Yes. Can it be done quickly enough to help prevent global warming disasters? Yes. Is it easy? No!
Regenerating soil has been studied by the Savory Institute, the Rodale Foundation, the Regenerative Soil Foundation, and major agricultural institutions around the world. We know how to do it, but it is very complex. Soil conditions differ, everywhere on Earth. Rainfall varies by region. There are innumerable factors: desired crops, land topology, temperature, farming workforce numbers and skillsets, regional ecology, and on and on. Big agricultural companies such as Bayer, International Harvester, John Deere, Caterpillar, and many others for years have made fortunes helping mankind farm using Farmer Al’s mistakes. Greater fortunes can be made now by fixing those mistakes. We need to convince Big Ag to modify its business models to study how to regenerate soil. We also should support startup agricultural companies to outmaneuver Big Ag, and make fortunes regenerating our soil, reversing Farmer Al’s mistakes, and making agriculture thrive while fixing the world. It can be done. We need the will, the drive, and money to do it.
I am a novelist, not a climate scientist, nor an agricultural expert. I am not saying that what I wrote here actually happened. It almost certainly did not occur in the manner I describe. But the ideas in this scenario need to be discussed, and I wrote this as a way to open discussion.
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