Iowa State’s Dr. Matt Liebman is a professor of agronomy and holds the Henry A. Wallace Endowed Chair for Sustainable Agriculture. He studied biological sciences at Harvard University and earned his Ph.D. in botany from the University of California-Berkeley. At ISU, he focuses on how to use ecology to maintain or increase agricultural production while reducing dependence on chemicals and fossil fuels.
Now I’m sure a lot of you will look at his Harvard and U.C.-Berkeley background and dismiss him as another East coast/West coast elitist trying to preach nonsense to the real folks in flyover country. To those folks, let me grab you by the scruff of the neck and point out the years he has spent working in the real world, flyover country around Iowa State University, one of the top ag schools in the country. He digs in the dirt, plows it up, plants crops and carefully gauges the results. He has mud on his boots and dirt under his fingernails.
Not too long ago, he completed a long term study on the effects of increasing the number of crops in a rotation sequence. What he did was ask an interesting question about our current practice of a two crop rotation: Corn and soybeans. We know what it does to the soil and the amendments needed to maximize production. What happens, though, if we add one or two more crops to that rotation?
Of course greater crop diversification has been the constant chatter from folks who fear we are losing the plant DNA that has sustained us for centuries. To maximize production, an important step to making sure farms are economically viable and they can produce enough to feed a hungry world, they say we are ignoring heritage seedstocks and that is a dangerous tradeoff. To the alarmists, the trend toward monoculture creates an unnatural and harmful reliance on fertilizers and pesticides.
Let’s be fair. ‘Alarmist’ is often used as a dismissive term similar to ‘Chicken Little.’ Can we rephrase and use ‘whistle-blower,’ a term that often describes someone who notices real wrong-doing and calls attention to the problem? The catch, I think is ‘real wrongdoing.’ Where is the hard evidence that current practices are potentially bad for the future of agriculture and that ‘multi-cropping’ can hold its own against the proven advantages of a two crop system?
Dr.Liebman’s crew established a powerful argument for multi-cropping. Their study showed that it can lead to a reduced reliance on herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilizer, and less use of fossil fuels – four things that might mean better sustainability.