David R Montgomery is the writer of the books Dirt and Growing a Revolution where he travelled around the world visiting farmers who are growing high quality produce, profitably while growing soil carbon.
LISTEN TO THE CONVERSATION ON:
All of books shared the same approach to working with the soil: ditching the plow, covering the soil and diversifying crop rotations. Meeting these farmers turned him from a pessimist into a cautious optimist.
Plus we touched upon a very interesting topic which I hope to discuss further in future interviews (and which will be the topic of a new book of David and his wife Anna). How do we grow more nutrient rich calories instead of just calories? Micro nutrient contents of food has dropped 25-50% over the past decades.
Healthy food starts with healthy soil?!
Some tips for impact investors:
– Look at financing the transition, how can you partner with farmers who don’t have the financial resources, make the transition to regenerative agriculture?
– Look into turning around degraded land and turn it into a net asset.
TRANSCRIPT OF THE INTERVIEW
soil, farms, farmers, land, regenerative agriculture, world, farming, micronutrients, problem, book, tillage, practices, terms, people, inputs, plowing, growing, question, transition, real
David R. Montgomery, Koen van Seijen
Koen van Seijen 00:02
Welcome to another episode of "Investing in Regenerative Agriculture: Investing as if the Planet Mattered", a podcast show where I talk to the pioneers in the regenerative food and agriculture space to learn more on how to put our money to work to regenerate soil, people, local communities and ecosystems while making an appropriate and fair return. Why am I focused on soil and regeneration? Because so many of the pressing issues we face today have their roots in how we treat our land, grow our food and what we eat. And it's time that we as investors, big and small, and consumers, start paying much more attention to the dirt slash soil underneath our feet.
Koen van Seijen 00:40
In March last year, we launched our Patreon community to make it easy for fans to support our work and so many of you have joined as a member. We've launched different types of benefits exclusive content Q&A webinars with former guests "Ask Me Anything" sessions plus so much more to come in the future. For more information on the different tiers, benefits and how to become a member check patreon.com/regenerative_agriculture or find the link below. Thank you.
Koen van Seijen 01:06
Welcome to "Investing in Regenerative Agriculture: Investing as if the Planet Mattered". In these interviews I'm talking to people who are scaling up the regenerative agriculture sector, either by increasing the inflow of investment capital or by scaling up the enterprises on an in the ground and by doing so exploring what it means to be an impact investor in regenerative agriculture. Why am I focused on regenerative agriculture? Because the roots of so many of the issues we're facing in the world today can be found in agriculture, from droughts, migrant flows, obesity, social issues, water wars, climate change, hunger, they all have a connection to how we treat the land, grow food and what we eat. I hope you will enjoy this interview as much as I did making it. If you have any comments, please share them on Soundcloud or Twitter. And if you think this content is relevant, or interesting for someone else, please feel free to share the interview.
Koen van Seijen 01:57
You're going to listen to an interview with the writer of the books "Dirt" and "Growing a Revolution" David R. Montgomery. We discussed the world's oldest problem, the loss of soil fertility and how David went from being a pessimist to being a cautious optimist, and what made him believe that this time it's different. Enjoy!
Koen van Seijen 02:14
So welcome to "Investing in Regenerative Agriculture: Investing as if the Planet Mattered". I'm Koen van Seijen, your host, and in the podcast today I'm joined by David R. Montgomery, a MacArthur Fellow and writer of the book "Growing a Revolution" where he makes a passionate pledge for building soil by ditching the plow, covering soil, and diversifying crop rotations. He has traveled the world visiting farmers large and small, traditional and organic, who are very successfully building soil and going against most of modern agriculture science. I'm going to ask him all about what he learned and what needs to happen to scale this. Welcome, David.
David R. Montgomery 02:46
Oh, thank you Koen. It's a pleasure to be here.
Koen van Seijen 02:48
So to start with a personal question, as a geologists, how did you end up in regenerative agriculture?
David R. Montgomery 02:54
Well it's a long story, but I'll give you the quick version of it.
Koen van Seijen 02:58
Ah, we have time.
David R. Montgomery 02:59
Yeah, I'm the kind of geologists who works on landscape evolution, so I'm a geomorphologist. And as part of that I learned to study soil erosion, because erosion is how landscapes get shaped. And when you're looking at soil erosion, the other half of the equation is soil production. So I'm trained to look at the balance between the rates that soils are produced, and the rates of soils are eroded over geologic time over long time frames. And the second popular book that I wrote was called "Dirt: the Erosion of Civilizations" that looked back at the problem of soil erosion through history, and that merged archaeology and geology and it turned out that by the time I was done writing that book, I had written a history of farming. And because the practice of plowing the soil was something that had led to topsoil loss that had impacted civilizations around the world, you know, time and again through history. And this ended up leading me to start thinking about soil as a system that could be influenced by human actions, and not just over geologic time. And I got really interested in the effects of farming practices, you know, how we have traditionally farmed, how we're farming today... and that eventually led me to think about whether we could reverse the problem of soil erosion and degradation. And to do that, I got into looking at farmers who restored their soil on farms around the world. And that led me right into the world of regenerative agriculture, because that's really what regenerative agriculture is all about is rebuilding the fertility of the soil as a consequence of farming, and reversing this long history that I wrote about in the "Dirt" book. So the "Dirt" book and the "Growing Revolution" book are kind of bookends of looking at the nature of the problem and realizing how to actually solve it.
Koen van Seijen 04:45
You call it in the book, and it's even a chapter "mankind's oldest problem". I don't know if I get the chapter title exactly right. But it's the one thing we've been battling with every century and many civilizations have gone under because of that. What makes makes it different this time? Why would we be - I wouldn't say arrogant - but be optimistic enough to think: Okay, this time we got it right and we can actually build a system that is more anti-fragile and more sustainable in the long term?
David R. Montgomery 05:16
Well, that question kind of encapsulates the story of my transformation from something of a pessimist about this problem when I was wrting "Dirt" and looking at the history of land abuse over the century.
Koen van Seijen 05:27
You call it dirt, so yeah.
David R. Montgomery 05:28
Yeah! And you know, if we basically take soil, a healthy, fertile, life-filled soil, and we lose the organic matter, and we lose the native fertility, we're turning it into dirt. Something that just has the geology and not the biology. And it's the combination that makes for healthy fertile soil. What really sort of turned me around in going from being a pessimist on the issue to being an optimist on the issue was seeing examples of modern farmers who had actually pulled it off, who'd actually adapted their practices in ways that rebuilt the organic matter, rebuilt the fertility of their land, and they did it through intensive farming. And this was a very optimistic thing, because if we can change that pattern of soil degradation as a consequence of farming into one of soil building as a consequence of farming, we could solve that really old problem.
David R. Montgomery 06:22
And what really makes it possible now is, I think a few things. We've learned a lot and we've got examples of farmers who have done it that we can learn from as I did. And if we combine the ancient wisdom of things like crop rotations and planting legumes and diversifying our rotations, so we're not just growing one or two things time and time again in the same field. Those things are really ancient wisdom that have been used by traditional societies around the world, but that also used the plow. And it is the disturbance of the land through tillage through plowing that has led to the long term slow degradation of soil fertility by disrupting mycorrhizal fungi that helped feed the plants, and by burning down soil organic matter over time. We now have modern technologies that we can use to couple those ancient ideas of crop rotations and keeping the ground covered with cover crops and more diverse rotations, we can couple that with less disturbance, either no till or minimal tillage applications.
David R. Montgomery 07:30
And you put those three things together under the label of conservation agriculture and you've got a new sort of style and philosophy of farming that really seems to work to build soil fertility, because it's those three things done together. Minimizing the disturbance, in effect feeding the soil organic matter through cover cropping and diversifying rotations which helps with micronutrient provisioning and pest suppression. That allows us to build up soil organic matter, which can restart a lot of the biological processes that are essential toward native soil fertility sort of nature's way of farming. And the other half of that, so we have this knowledge of how to put these pieces together into a new system of farming, that really seems to work. And on the other hand, there's the economic pressures that are affecting modern farming, where if you go talk to most farmers, they're not really anxious to pay a lot more for fertilizers and pesticides, or diesel, those are really high ticket items in terms of modern farming. We rely on them a lot and they actually have become progressively more expensive in terms of on-farm economics, while at the same time, the large harvests that we've been producing in the 20th and 21st centuries, have depressed the prices for the commodity crops that a lot of farmers in the developed world grow.
Koen van Seijen 08:51
They're in a squeeze basically.
David R. Montgomery 08:52
Exactly. They're in this squeeze where they've gotten so good at growing so much stuff, that the price they get for their product is depressed, especially relative to their value since it's the one thing everybody needs other than water and air. And at the same time, the cost of the inputs that they've been trained to rely on to produce those harvests have gone through the roof. So they're caught in a squeeze in the middle. And you see that play out in, in my country, the United States, for example, with the great decline of the family farms and the growing size of farms. The old adage of "get big get out" that was thrown around in the 1970s was a direct consequence of that. And so what gives me hope is that we've learned this sort of new way of farming, that can build soil fertility and as a consequence of that, it allows the farmers that I visited to spend less on diesel because they're not using their tractors as much they're not tilling as much. They spend less than fertilizer because they've rebuilt their native fertility of their land enough they can cut their fertilizer use by a half to 90% or more. And they aren't using anywhere near as much in In the way of pesticides. And so it's greatly reducing their input costs, and what happened to their yields? They either were maintained, or they went up over time. So they're spending less to grow more. It's a good recipe for short-term farm economics.
David R. Montgomery 10:16
And so we're at this juncture now, where, for one of the first times as far as I can tell in history, the short term economics for farmers really are lining up with the long term interests of society in protecting and rebuilding the fertility of our land. A lot of what I talked about in the Dirt book, looked at how short the short term incentives to maximize this year's return and this year's harvest led to the overuse of fertilizers, the overworking of land, and the progressive degradation of it over generations of farming. These two trends, in terms of figuring out how to do conservation agriculture and the sort of modern economic trends, are really pointing in the direction of real optimism that we may be able to solve these problems. Because if farmers can do better by adopting them, and they improve the fertility of their land in ways that reduces pollution, that maintains our ability to feed everybody, but as side benefits of storing carbon in the ground, and protecting on-farm biodiversity, which is important given just the sheer acreage globally, that is in agricultural land. This is a real moment where these kinds of practices could catch on. Because it's not a question of ecology versus the environment. It's a real win-win scenario.
Koen van Seijen 11:38
Extremely interesting that overview of the pressures and why the time is now. But still, I'm suspicious when somebody says: "Yeah, but this time it's different". Especially if we have a few millennia of very different experiences with with soil and civilization. But you have examples in the book where very simple measurement, the soil carbon in soil is higher on some of the farms you visited compared to a native forest. So there is something to it, what would you say to the skeptics who say "Yeah, but everybody always says that this time, it's different."
David R. Montgomery 12:11
Well, I would say that, you know, as a scientist, it's good to be a skeptic. That's exactly the right question one should be asking, you know, why is it different this time? And I think there's sort of two angles to answering that. And the first one, the most sort of basic, one is that we have to get it right this time. We don't have any new places to go to, once we degrade farmland globally. You know, we have to as a global society, we've got to learn how to farm in ways that will maintain the fertility of our land, if we're going to be able to maintain the agricultural foundation of civilization. So at one level, there's sort of a real imperative this time. And at the other level. The reason I can argue that it's different this time is I've visited farms around the world who've already done it. It's not it's not abstract, it's not a theory. And it's one of the reasons I took six months off for my my teaching job at the University of Washington to basically travel around the world and visit these farmers is I wanted to see for myself, and not just sort of read about it, or listen to people about it, but go to these farms, dig holes in the ground, look at their soil, learn the history of the farm, understand what they did to rebuild their soil, and understand the farm economics that they went through, and then stand back and try and draw the generalizations and patterns that one can from a suite of experiences. And it's really this the sort of confluence of a new way of thinking about the soil that really is truly new in terms of combining these three practices of minimal disturbance cover crops and crop rotations. You can look back through history and there's very few examples where people put together that system in practice on the land at a large scale. So there's sort of a new way of thinking, which is sort of the seeds of any sort of revolution in practice is preceded by a revolution in thought. And I see that we've gone through that in science, we've learned enough now about the role of microbial organisms and soil biology in soil fertility to start applying those ideas from a scientific perspective into the applied realm of agriculture. And it's changing the way we think about the land, we think about the soil and how we treat it.
Koen van Seijen 14:20
The fact that we know so much more about the soil we're discovering more every day. I have the feeling I see reports coming out of just the amount of things in there, in a teaspoon, or it depends on which one you read, that we didn't know maybe a year to year or five years ago.
David R. Montgomery 14:34
It's amazing, the whole world of sort of microbial science not only in the soil but also in like the human microbiome that's all over the news, where we're learning new things about the organisms that live within usnand the ways that they can actually benefit and bolster our health and promote our well being is you know, 30 - 40 years ago that was kind of crazy talk and now it's all over the journals as people are understanding the mechanisms through which it works. So we've got this new scientific perspective that we can bring to bear on the problem and we're also at a moment where the kinds of practices farmers are taught and trained to use are very much reliant on very expensive inputs that are not going to be getting any cheaper in the near future and that come with very real and increasing environmental and social costs in terms of the global carbon budget, but also in terms of things like groundwater pollution in the American Midwest, for example, nitrate pollution in the Gulf of Mexico. There's all kinds of forces that are sort of converging on the idea that if we could have a style of farming that wasn't necessarily organic but that used less in the way of agro-chemicals (fertilizers, diesel and pesticides)...
Koen van Seijen 15:52
And just to be clear, this is fundamentally less. It's not 5 or 10 percent, you're talking of examples of 80, 90 and most of them going in some phase completely off.
David R. Montgomery 16:01
Yeah, you know, at least at least off by half. And in some cases, up to 80, 90 and you can you can do these practices organically, so you could go completely off of them. And and if you could do that and still maintain our ability to feed everybody, our ability to maintain our harvest, then that is a recipe to set up for a whole new way of thinking about it. And if it's more profitable for farmers to do this, once they get through the transition - which I found to be remarkably short - it's a setup for increasing adoption, as people learn about it. You know, and obviously, it takes time for new ideas, to filter out of the initial adopters who experiment with it and tinker and figure out how to make these practices work. And the people I visited around the world - in equatorial Africa and Costa Rica and across North America - they had in their words made the mistakes to try and figure out how it is to tailor these general principles of minimal disturbance, cover cropping and diversified rotations, how to tailor that to their land, their economy, their climate, their soils. And once we've learned how to regionalize those general principles, then it's faster to get new farmers on board in terms of how to adopt them. Because as these guys were saying, they've already made the mistakes.
Koen van Seijen 17:23
So what's holding them back? What's holding their neighbors in Ghana and the farms you visited, but also in the US, and also in Costa Rica? What's holding them back so far?
David R. Montgomery 17:33
You know, there's a couple things, I think the biggest thing is that, you know, change is difficult. We tend to want to continue doing things the way we've been doing them simply for the reason that that's the way we do things. And so it can take a while for any kind of new idea to get out of the realm of the initial adopters and spread through people who might who might benefit from it, who might actually be interested in adopting it if they knew about it, or if they knew how to do it. So there's there's the inherent resistance to new ideas. There is the problem that a lot of people don't know about this and a lot of farmers don't know about it. And it goes these three principles of minimal disturbance, cover cropping and diverse diversified rotations really run 180 degrees counter to the conventional wisdom in terms of the way that we farmed for the last 100 years. Sort of the modern conventional farming in the Western world where we use intensive tillage, a lot of fertilizer and pesticides, and we tend to grow one or two crops, functional monocultures.
Koen van Seijen 18:34
And then also in organic I mean tillage is part of the organic movement, has been barred for a long time so even there we see a lot of destruction. I did an interview with Sally Calhoun an impact investor who rented out part of her land to an organic farmer and at some point she just took it back under her management because he saw the organic farmer keep plowing and plowing and plowing and plowing.
David R. Montgomery 18:54
Yeah. And you know, that was one of the things I learned in writing the the Dirt book was that when we look at the the farming practices that helped to take down classical Greece or undermine the Roman Empire, it was not modern agrichemical farming, it was organic agriculture. And the key culprit there was excessive tillage, too much use and reliance on the plow. And there's a lot of organic farms that especially, any that are on any kind of sloping land and aren't on a river floodplain where tillage is causing lots of damage to the soil. So it's really not a question of sort of conventional versus organic. It's a question of re-calibrating the way we think about the soil and think about the land to try and adopt practices that build the microbial life that, if it's working for us in the soil, is a real advantage. It's more efficient really, when you have the trillions of organisms per teaspoon of soil, doing things in there that will promote the growth and health of your crops. That's a lot better than basically spending a lot of time and fossil fuel to work against them and undermine their ability to work for us. And that that's sort of the essence of what we were doing with modern conventional farming. So the real trick, I think, is to figure out how to adapt farming methods to cultivate that beneficial life in the soil. And there's some general principles for how to go about doing that and that's essentially what I learned by going and interviewing these farmers who had already done it. Because I didn't want to engage in abstract speculation about it, I wanted to go to farms where you could go, okay, it used to be a half a percent organic matter, or 2%, organic matter, and these farmers had rebuilt their soil organic matter whether soil carbon content back up to, you know, on the order of 5, 6, 8, 10 percent. Which is not coincidentally, the same transition that I saw on my wife do to our yard in North Seattlen where we live over the course of transforming our side yard, which had been a lawn into a lush garden. And the practices that she used there are very parallel in principle to the practices that these farmers use to restore life to their land around the world.
Koen van Seijen 21:16
And what really comes out of the book as a key, you have to do all three. If you do two or three, you're still plowing a lot, it simply doesn't work. I mean these three are working together, otherwise, you're not restoring the soil. And that's probably, that's maybe what we forgot, in many of the examples, many of the studies that have been on the organic side, etc. in the past decades is if you're only look at two of the three or one of the three, it simply isn't the complete system and simply doesn't work enough and you get this negative results.
David R. Montgomery 21:49
Yeah, it doesn't reliably work, if you only use one or two legs of this three legged stool of the system of conservation agriculture. And there's a fourth leg that one could add, which is livestock and reintegrating livestock, animal husbandry into cropping systems. And I go into that a little bit in the book, but it wasn't the main emphasis of the book.
David R. Montgomery 22:10
And I think that you've just put your finger right on one of the big problems in terms of thinking about adoption, is that in reviewing the literature, because in addition to visiting farmers I dug into the scientific literature because that's what I do for a living and tried to sort of calibrate, if you will, what I was seeing and hearing in the field, on their farms, with what other people's experiences and what studies had found on different farms and in labs and academic settings around the world. And there's a real shortage of studies that have looked at the combination of all three practices. There's a lot of studies that will look just at say adopting no-till farming, where you don't use the plow, you might use like massive amounts of herbicides, although there's some other techniques with cover crops that can get around that. But if you just look at no till, you see really mixed results in terms of soil building, and it depends a lot on sort of what you're doing in addition to the no-till. Or if you just look at cover crops, again, they're sort of mixed results, on average better than not using them. Um, and with diversified rotations, again, you can see a boost from using them. But if you're doing full tillage in a mixed rotation, you don't get anywhere near the benefit that you get if you adopt all three of these practices together in a new system of farming. And there's one thing that scientists have really tend to be very good at, it's isolating elements of a system so you can study those and sort of figure out well, what's this piece doing? It's much harder to actually study the effectiveness of a whole system, because you've got a lot more variables going on, it's a lot more complicated system to try and look at and it doesn't lend itself to the sort of like, clean academic tests of "well, what about this one little piece?". But of course, that can cause a problem, if it's the interaction among the pieces that's actually producing the effect.
David R. Montgomery 23:02
You know, consider, for example, like an old fashioned watch, you know, sort of like an old wristwatch, you could take all the pieces, you could take one apart, and you can understand how all the individual gears work. But if I took one apart, I'd never be able to put it back together because I don't understand the system of how the all those pieces work together.
David R. Montgomery 24:19
And, I think in terms of conservation agriculture, and this new philosophy of farming under regenerative label, there's that problem in the sense that we need some long term studies that look at how these pieces interact and work together. Because there's evidence out there on the land in real farms that they do work. I've dug holes, I've compared the soil structure compared the soil carbon contents, the soil life in these farmer's fields and the fields next door, and it's like night and day. It would be very useful to have a lot more attention academically, on studying that full system. And from what I can tell it's the emphasis on cultivating the benefitial life in the soil that's really the catalyst for why it works so well.
Koen van Seijen 25:03
It's interesting you mentioned that actually, Sally Calhoun, the woman I mentioned before really struggled to find, even if they would pay for it, scientists and academics had wanted to follow the transition on their land because there wasn't a clear one-to-five year plan, no they were going to do it adaptively and looking at what the soil needed year after year and adapting to that. And they were much more comfortable - they being the scientists - looking at their vineyard that they're starting to grow in a beyond organic way. But the normal, the normal terrain was just too difficult to grasp because there wasn't a clear "We're going to do this type of vegetables for X amount of years and that's it." No, there's probably going to be a mix, and they'll probably going to change it and it's going to be adaptive. So they were really struggling finding people that wanted to study or could study that.
David R. Montgomery 25:48
Yeah, it really challenges the way we think about, you know how to set up scientific experiments in agriculture, how to evaluate things. And it also sort of goes against the grain of the kinds of advice that people give to farmers. If you think about it, at least in the United States, the kinds of people who are mostly advising farmers are usually trying to sell them things, and they're trying to sell products, you know, whether it's an herbicide or fertilizer, or a new piece of equipment. And to adopt this new suite of practices you do, if you are tillage based, if you are working with the plow, you do need new equipment, you'd need no till planter, and John Deere will be happy to sell you one. But the real transformation is in thinking about the land and the practices one adopts and there's there's very few chemical supply companies that will encourage farmers to adopt practices that that enabled them to use far less of their products.
Koen van Seijen 26:43
Just like I'm always very suspicious when petrol-selling companies are telling you they're selling you something that uses less of their product.
David R. Montgomery 26:52
Yeah, and there's this sort of classic thing in economics where if the price of an energy source for example goes down it can basically lead to using far more of it. But yeah, one of the things that I've found interesting coming from a geological background on all this is, you know, I wasn't trained to believe that there's a particular way we should be farming or should not be farming, I sort of came in with an open mind, if you will. I'm not trying to sell anybody anything, and I wanted to go and visit farmers and see for myself, how they had changed their land. And I came away deeply impressed with how fast they've been able to do it. And that the fundamental underlying thing that changed was how they thought about their soil. And so in "Growing a Revolution" I basically argue that this new way of thinking about the land, and thinking about how to adapt these general principles of farming to particular places, could be the foundation for a new agricultural revolution that's different than the previous ones, because it's about how we think about the land. And this regenerative agriculture movement is something I think aligns really well with it because these principles are the sort of the foundation for both.
Koen van Seijen 28:09
And I want to just take one step back of something you mentioned before, the quality of produce and the quality and the connection between the soil and the life and the biodiversity in the soil and the life and the biodiversity in us. I start to see, but it's mainly because I'm focusing so much on this topic, that slowly we also start to see the connection between the quality we grow with the amount of attention and the amount of work we put into the soil and the quality of the produce and the amount of nutrients in it. Is that something you see as well or is it just something I happen to see in a few snippets around?
David R. Montgomery 28:44
No, I think you're onto something. My wife Ann and I wrote a book in between the "Dirt" book and the "Growing a Revolution Book", we wrote one called the "Hidden Half of Nature: the Microbial Roots of Life and Health". And in that book, we started to look into that question in terms of, you know, how does healthy fertile soil influence the way that micronutrients get out of the soil itself and into crops and then what are the parallels between the functions that a microbiome serves in the root zone of plants and in the human gut. And these systems are remarkably similar. They're kind of very similar, the one is the other inside out.
Koen van Seijen 29:24
And probably the lack of research into these systems is also remarkably similar, like what you just described on soil is probably the same on our gut.
David R. Montgomery 29:34
They're very parallel. So in "The Hidden Half of Nature" we went into those parallels, the state of research in both things, and what we came away with was the assessment that the microbial communities in both systems are serving purposes that are essentially symbiotic with their host organism, whether it's the plant or whether it's person, and they're facilitating nutrient transfer and acquisition, particularly of micronutrients, and of the sort of precursors to the microbial metabolites, things that microbes produce, that serve as precursors to things that our body will then make that are necessary for health.
David R. Montgomery 30:12
And they also tee up our and inform a plant defense system or our immune system. And they're involved in chemical signaling that just sort of helps us navigate our relationship to the external world. And we sort of teed up in that book, the question that you're asking of, well, to what degree does the way that we grow our food, for example, influence its nutritional quality for us? And Anne I are now starting to work on new book together that's going to look pretty much at that question, because there's all kinds of connections between the way that say the mycorrhizal fungi in the soil help to acquire mineral micronutrients. Things like copper, and boron and zinc and iron. Things we don't need a lot of in our bodies, but that are absolutely essential to the proper functioning of enzymes and processes in our bodies that are critical to our health. And if you look at what's happened to the micronutrient concentration of food over the last 50 years, it's dropped radically by a quarter to over half, depending on which study you look at, in which fruit, vegetable, meat or dairy product you look at. But the overall trend is that, you know, while we've been growing more calories, the quality of those calories in terms of all the other stuff we need for health has been declining. And we're digging into that now to try and look at more into the studies that have actually addressed that, of which there aren't enough. We could use a lot more attention to this issue. We've tended to focus on the question of how do you feed the world with calories? And I think now we need to think a lot more about how do we feed the world with very high quality, nutritious calories?
Koen van Seijen 31:56
And looking at that question -I mean you haven't done the research yet on the book - but what do you think of these vertical farms, hydroponics that take the soil out of the equation, and there are a lot of arguments for it, because it uses a lot less water, you can grow it in cities, etc. I always have the fear that you just described that we're missing something, we cannot measure yet, but we might do in a few years on the nutrient level. But I don't know if you shared that fear.
David R. Montgomery 32:21
That is a really good question. I think it's a very legitimate fear. And we're hoping to wrestle with that in the new book. I can't give you a solid opinion on at the moment, because we're still sort of trying to figure out.
Koen van Seijen 32:31
That's a good cliffhanger.
David R. Montgomery 32:32
Yeah, it's a bit of a cliffhanger. But it's a very well placed concern. I mean, and obviously things like hydroponics are going to be essential for space travel and things like that. But you know, whether we should be feeding cities that way, depends a lot on where do you get the micronutrients to put into the hydroponics? Because you, if the if plants are getting a lot of their mineral micronutrients from the fungi in the soil that extract those elements from the soil particles, then if you're growing hydroponically, you have to add all those micronutrients yourself. So where are you getting them from? Or are you growing micronutrient deficient food if you're not adding them? And what's the energetics of how you get that stuff if you don't, if you're having to import copper from South America to feed your vertical farm in New York, that may not be very efficient. Whereas instead if you just used the the organic matter that the city produces as garbage every day and composted that back to make soil and then grew the same food in urban farms in soil, you might have much more nutritious food. Those are kind of things that Anne and I are hoping to wrestle with a bit more in the new book that we're starting to work on.
Koen van Seijen 33:44
Extremely, extremely interesting. And you mentioned that a few times but I'd like to dive a bit deeper into that. The profitability or let's say the money side of things. You visited these farms, and you said many of them are doing much better financially, because of the lower inputs, maybe because they can sell quality as well. That's a separate discussion, but mainly because they are reducing their bills quite dramatically.
David R. Montgomery 34:10
Yes, it was mainly from bill reduction, because I visited farms all over the world, mostly conventional farms, because I wanted to look at the the question of could we actually transition modern conventional farms - both on subsistence farms in the developing world and large operations in the developed world - could we transition them to much lower input use. I also visited an organic farm, the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, to see whether or not these same principles could work in an organic system and they can. But mostly conventional farmers. In part because that's where the real opportunity lies to sort of change the world, if you will, in terms of how humanity tends to farm. And I was really impressed with with how much savings there was from the reduced input use. If you can reduce the cost of one of your primary costs of production by half or more in a system, that's going to affect the bottom line of the system, as long as it doesn't affect the output, your productivity. All the farms that I visited after they'd made this transition were growing increased yields, not decreased yields. They were growing more food and spending far less on inputs to do it. The yield bumps in few cases were quite significant in most they weren't all that significant. But to me what the significance was is that they didn't lose yield. They were growing just as much, if not more food. And so they were basically, you know, in terms of the effect on the farms bottom line, the reduced cost of the inputs was money that went straight to the farmer instead of to his fertilizer dealer.
Koen van Seijen 35:50
Which is a nice shift, if you look at the farmer, obviously not of your selling fertilizer.
David R. Montgomery 35:57
Oh, yes, yes, exactly. You know, with with any kind of major transition in thinking or technology there's going to be winners and losers and from my own perspective, I think it's about time the farmers won.
Koen van Seijen 36:09
Yeah, because they spend an insane amount of hours producing our food and many actually, I saw some data on last week, live under the poverty line which is crazy because they cannot afford their own food if they would sell it.
Koen van Seijen 36:23
So one of the main challenges you mentioned for broader acceptance of regenerative agriculture or conservation agriculture is crop insurance and policies. For impact investors there is of course a lot of lobbying there to do and a lot of work on the philanthropy side but on the investment side not too much. What do you see after visiting all of these firms - both big, small, organic versus non organic - what do you see as the role for impact investors or investors in general that want to put money to work in this space and want to help this transition, while making investments?
David R. Montgomery 37:00
Well, there's sort of three big things, I think I identified at the end of the book of sort of opportunities to promote this kind of thing and one was the crop insurance. The other was looking at setting up demonstration farms, to sort of show farmers how to adapt these practices, so they don't have to run the risk of experimenting on their farm. And you know, neither of those are probably the best place to point individual or foundation investors too. But the third one is where I think there could be big opportunities, and that's in in transition assistance, and even sort of acquiring farms, and leading them down this road of regenerative agriculture. There's an awful lot of farmland in the US at least, that is leased out and farmed by people who don't actually own it. And so there's there's a problem there. I talked about this historically in the "Dirt" book - the problem of Sir tenant farmers having no long term interest in rebuilding the fertility of their land - has been a real problem. And that I could trace that problem all the way back to the Roman Empire. It's been a huge problem in farming for a long time in different areas. So I've run into some people and organizations that are working with farmers to essentially purchase farms that have been degraded. Farmland that is relatively cheap, because the soils already been degraded. And then buy it, transition it into regenerative farming. And it can be done profitably in real time, but build value in terms of the fertility of the land over time. You know, to me, it looks like a good investment.
David R. Montgomery 38:32
There was a time in the 1940s and 50s, when farmland was valued by the organic matter content of its soil. How fertile is the land. And now we value it by what we can harvest with large agro chemical inputs. It's been sort of divorced from the native fertility of the land. As we look out to what's going to form the value in farmland in 20, 30, 50 years from now as we try and transition off of our over-reliance on fossil fuels, land that you can farm intensively and produce a lot of food on without using a lot of those inputs that will, in all likelihood, get more expensive through the rest of this century. I mean, that seems to me is a real investment opportunity.
Koen van Seijen 39:16
No, definitely. Looking at especially long term focused, I mean, that that's the key here in general, it's the key for any farmer that wants to leave the land maybe to to their children, or to any generation after the land.
David R. Montgomery 39:30
And and that's the perspective. You know, as a geologist, I can't help but come from that perspective. Because to me, you know, if we could make this transition in 30 years, that's remarkably fast.
Koen van Seijen 39:39
You think in centuries normally, or even longer.
David R. Montgomery 39:42
Yeah, exactly! Centuries are round-offing in terms of geologic time, but we don't have centuries to solve this problem, we need to do it much faster. And that's where I'm hoping that these kinds of ideas catch on and spread among farmers around the world. I was just at a conference yesterday, back East, where I was introduced to a gentleman from Cornell who had used ideas like this in terms of building more productive rice systems in Asia and had a great success, not only in growing more food with less inputs, but in growing food that had better micronutrient density. And so I think that, hopefully, that we're on the cusp of really rethinking how we do agriculture.
Koen van Seijen 40:30
Which hopefully even means that, maybe even means that you need less of it, if there's more in it that you need. Less empty calories and more nutrient ones, which would help even more in this equation, because we still have to feed probably 9 / 10 billion people.
David R. Montgomery 40:43
Koen van Seijen 40:44
So final question: let's imagine there's a gigantic room full of impact investors listening to this podcast, they're all interested, they're on board, they want to get into the regenerative agriculture space, into conservation, they want to put their money to work. What would be your piece of advice? Obviously, not investment advice, but what would be your piece of advice? Where to start? What would be the first step, for you?
David R. Montgomery 41:08
You mean, other than supporting us to write the next book?
Koen van Seijen 41:12
Definitely, buying the book is at first, but they've read the book, they bought the book, they bought 10 copies for their friends, and now they want to do something with their investment capital?
David R. Montgomery 41:21
I think looking at how to partner with, or put together networks of people to look at either providing transition assistance to farmers, weather in terms of short term loans for new equipment that they needed to buy, or just sort of financially backstopping someone taking the risk of a transition. And, you know, anytime you change practices, there's at least a perceived, if not real risk.
Koen van Seijen 41:46
The bottom part of the hockey stick.
David R. Montgomery 41:47
Yeah. And also sort of thinking about what the opportunities are for partnering with farmers to take degraded land and turn it back into productivity. Something like a third of the world's farmland has already been abandoned due to soil degradation. That problem of feeding the world you mentioned, the 9 to 10 billion person planet would be a whole lot easier if we restored the degraded farmland around the world. So I'd encourage people to think about the model of trying to acquire farmland that has been degraded, and turn it around. Basically rebuild its fertility and turn it back into a net asset.
Koen van Seijen 42:30
I think that's amazing advice. Thank you so much, David, for sharing. I will definitely be checking in when the new book comes out. Because I think it's one of those pillars or one of the legs of the stool we're missing or we're gonna hear a lot more about if we would talk like in a year from now, I think a lot of the things we discuss will be quite obvious. And so we'll be checking in and we'll be following you. Thank you so much for your time this morning. And it was very early.
David R. Montgomery 42:55
Great. Well, thanks. I appreciate it. It's a pleasure to talk and if anyone's interested in following us on Twitter, we are active there at with our tag of &digg2grow and we can keep people updated on stuff we learn along the way and about when the new book will come out.
Koen van Seijen 43:13
Perfect. I will definitely link it plus a lot of the things we discuss in the show notes down below.
David R. Montgomery 43:19
I have a great pleasure to talk to you Coen.
Koen van Seijen 43:21
You just listen to an interview with David R. Montgomery. If you're interested in more, please have a look in the description below for the links to his books, where you can learn a lot more about the fascinating examples of farms and farmers which went against most of modern agriculture science and build up a lot of soil, real fast.
Koen van Seijen 43:39
Thank you for making the time to listen to this podcast and making it all the way till the end. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. If you have any comments or ideas for future guests, please share them on Soundcloud or Twitter. And if you think this content is relevant or interesting for someone else, please feel free to share the interview. And I hope to see you again here soon for more of these type of interviews.
Koen van Seijen 44:00
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