In contrast to most other industrial activities, modern agriculture continues increasing its environmental impacts in terms of land degradation, destruction of biodiversity, eutrophication, greenhouse gas emissions and waste accumulation, while doing little to improve the social status of farmers and farmworkers. This chapter will review these problems and present Project Wadi Attir’s approach as a sustainable, emission-free and profitable dryland farming alternative, demonstrating application of the Five Core Sustainability Principles developed by The Sustainability Laboratory. The project site is located on completely degraded former farmland, which means that all restoration efforts will have net positive impacts in terms of biological productivity, carbon sequestration, biodiversity and soil quality. Meanwhile, the underlying economic model will allow for production of ever-increasing amounts of high-quality organic farm products onsite. All process energy, including the energetic footprint of distributing irrigation, will be compensated for by producing renewable energy. All waste materials and wastewater is being treated onsite and reused, resulting in an emission-free, greenhouse gas-neutral production facility beneficial to socioeconomic development—a model system that can be copied in degraded drylands worldwide.
Modern Agriculture – A Sustainability Disaster
Sustainable agriculture has, specifically during the last fifty years and under the leadership of profit-maximizing multinational concerns, developed into an oxymoron. The apparent and skillfully orchestrated necessity for ever-increasing inputs of energy and resources towards enhancing yields is, in fact, ruining the resource basis (land, water, nutrient resources, biodiversity, etc.) for future sustainable global development. Concentration on resource-intensive production methods at the cheapest possible and least regulated locations (Fig 1) resulted in environmental and social degradation, as well as enormous transport distances for resources and products. The resulting calamities are widespread loss of biodiversity and forests, water and ocean pollution, and slavery-like working conditions or mass unemployment for farmworkers at the expense of previously independent, far more sustainable farming communities. Simultaneously, mountains of excess low-quality, fat- and sugar-rich food products are being produced and cheaply sold to the masses, resulting in widespread obesity and diabetes. Around 30% of surplus product accumulates as polluting waste, while intensive, mechanized cultivation, and excessive irrigation and fertilization lead to soil degradation, erosion, nutrient runoff, eutrophication and ocean death zones, in addition to significant greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss.
Fig. 1: Resource-intensive mass production induces enormous environmental and health costs that are paid for by the public and the environment, while valuable natural and mineral resources are being irreversibly wasted and lost.
In consequence, agriculture, forestry and land-use change (the conversion of natural landscapes or forests to farmland), along with related, increasing transport requirements and waste volumes are responsible for around 30 – 50% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, dependent on analysis methods (Fig. 2).
Environmental and economic externalities are not being considered when calculating the true cost of industrial food production. Higher productivities are being paid for by irreversible environmental damage, and by social injustice consistent with the conditions of actual slavery, which is rampant in the industrial agro-industries in the developing world. The outsourcing of production from formerly sustainable locations (e. g. Europe, Fig 3) into cheap and unregulated developing economies in South America, South Asia and Africa has caused massive environmental and social debts at the expense of all mankind.
Fig. 2: Agriculture and mostly associated deforestation/land-use change and waste contribute to about 35% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. To this, we must add transport, packaging and processing-related emissions that can be avoided by restoring more sustainable, local production approaches, supply lines and integrated resource management technologies, similar to those envisaged by Project Wadi Attir. Further reductions can be achieved by creating process energy onsite using photovoltaics or waste biomass.
Fig. 3: The sustainable, low-intensity, permaculture-style mixed agriculture approach shown in this picture was mostly abandoned in Europe over the last century in favor of intensive feedlot-based dairy and cattle production using imported feedstock. This unsustainable model of dairy and cattle production is often employed on cleared tropical forest or savanna, causing excessive greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental damage.
A globally valid overview of these issues, featuring approaches to return to more sustainable management practices have been presented in an outstanding publication, “GAIA – Atlas of Planet Management” by Dr. Norman Myers, first published in 1984 (Fig. 4). This volume, which has been updated in new editions, cites and summarizes the results of thousands of successful approaches towards restoring or maintaining sustainable farming and other environmental technologies from all around the world.
What is Sustainable Agriculture?
Significant confusion is being sowed and maintained concerning the sustainability of agricultural production and production methods. Cheaper and higher-yielding production methods are often wrongly considered to be more sustainable. Sustainability, however, must be measured by the longevity of adequately yielding production technologies while safeguarding soils, natural resources, water, and biodiversity, as commonly assessed in Life Cycle Assessments. Recently LCA data has been released claiming that industrial feedlot-based meat or dairy production (Fig. 1) is more “sustainable” than free range production (Fig. 3. Fig 9, Fig.10). However, if the analysis is being performed in necessary detail, after applying the adequate system boundaries, such as soil carbon sequestration, biodiversity and health aspects, free range production under adequate management emerges as the far superior option, as it can integrate agriculture with high biodiversity, and soil and biodiversity protection (see Figures 6, 9, 10). Similarly, permaculture-like crop or fruit production as depicted in Figures 6 and 8 are clearly more sustainable than the widely-used intensive plantation-style methods.
Link: Breath of Fresh Air – The truth about pasture-based livestock production and environmental sustainability
Fig. 4: ‘Gaia – an Atlas of Planet Management,’ first published in 1984, one of the first global overviews on the challenges facing humanity and sustainable approaches to address them.
The Opportunities of Land Degradation
The further development of agriculture by land-use change is impossible to achieve sustainably according to a variety of sustainability assessments such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials. Any conversion of virgin landscapes to human use necessarily has negative consequences such as greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity losses. This is evidenced by historical and recent land use changes, deforestation and desertification, which have left the world dramatically degraded, with at least 50% of the world’s natural ecosystems, and up to 90% of the world’s drylands degraded significantly (Figures 4 and 5).
Fig. 4: All of the black areas, as well as significant parts of the grey areas have been degraded by human activity during the last 10,000 years, due to massive deforestation for farming purposes, and soil degradation and erosion induced by overgrazing and industrial cultivation of field crops. This has resulted in the creation of millions of square kilometers of deserts and degraded ecosystems, as well as massive emissions of greenhouse gasses.
Fig. 5: Large additional land areas have been subject to degradation during the last two centuries, with agriculture expanding into previously untouched ecosystems and continents. As a consequence, over 50% of the world’s ecosystems are degraded and more are expected to experience the same fate, as visualized by the graph’s yellow bars.
These enormous areas of degraded landscapes represent a vast potential for restoring functional ecosystems and agricultural opportunities worldwide: expanding food production sustainably while also restoring natural landscapes, enhancing biodiversity and sequestering greenhouse gasses (Leu 1990, Leu 2010). Establishing agro-ecological farming systems such as permaculture, agroforestry or integrated resource-conserving installations on degraded ecosystems doesn’t just preserve the status quo, but may induce a wide range of environmental benefits such as enhanced carbon sequestration, biomass productivity, soil quality, and biodiversity, while recovering valuable resources and enhancing productivity. This potential is especially high in drylands, as degradation induces desertification processes that have resulted in irreversible loss of productivity and biodiversity over large areas. As an example, all of Israel fell into a degraded state over 100 years ago, and only massive tree planting efforts and restorative and protective action have revealed the true biological and agricultural potential of this area. Such efforts, reliant on restoring ancient agroforestry terraces and suitable tree species, can restore significant production potentials for high-quality fruit, oil and dairy products (Fig. 6).
Fig. 6: Completely degraded (left) and restored agroforestry (right) landscapes in the Judean Mountains. The environmental benefits of restored agroforestry systems are huge, and can also be profitable if environmental services (e. g. carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation, erosion control, etc.) are adequately considered.
Bridging the Gap for Climate Protection
A recent, preliminary life cycle assessment (LCA) on the impact of rangeland restoration by silvipasture in the Northern Negev indicates that all environmental impacts—greenhouse gas emissions, land-use change, and biodiversity—are negative (meaning beneficial and improving) or significantly reduced compared to conventional feedlot livestock breeding. Applied to large proportions of degraded drylands worldwide, this approach will contribute significantly to mitigation of global warming, economic development of marginal populations, and biodiversity rehabilitation. Other sustainable agricultural approaches supported by improved agroforestry and forestry practices could therefore contribute up to 50% to the global target of avoiding dangerous climate change (Fig. 7).
Fig. 7: According to IPCC, reducing the environmental footprint and resource consumption of agriculture and forestry could contribute up to 50% to mitigating global warming to the levels required to maintain global warming at below an increase of 2oC. Restoration of degraded landscapes to productive agro-ecosystems could significantly aid in achieving this goal.
Sustainable Dryland Agriculture
Dryland agriculture has been specifically affected by the shift towards cheap, high-intensity mass production and globalization, as once sustainable grazing and agroforestry technologies (Fig 8) were abandoned or neglected due to lacking government support and capital, and loss of traditional land rights.
Fig. 8: Ancient terrace systems such as this 20-hectare facility, far inside the arid Negev, have been maintained for thousands of years and are in many places still in a functional state, as seen in the satellite image (top). This system could, even today, produce hundreds of tons of valuable biomass, fodder, oil, wood, dryland fruit and even barley or wheat, in a combined permaculture-like agroforestry approach (bottom), to provide the local population with highly sustainable sources of food, energy and materials.
Ongoing land rights and ownership disputes have affected the sustainable living of dryland populations, with central authorities preventing any development efforts by local landlords. This leads to further land degradation, due to lack of investments in soil improvement and watershed protection. Wherever land ownership is adequately regulated, sustainable and profitable land restoration measures and agroforestry schemes can be implemented with significant economic and environmental benefits (Abu Rabia et al 2010, Fig. 9).
Fig. 9: Once widely applied, dryland agricultural technologies such as livestock grazing and terrace agroforestry can be profoundly sustainable, as they combine integrated resource recycling, local expertise, and genetic resources, and minimize supply routes that result in minimal resource input. Project Wadi Attir aims to combine those traditional technologies with modern, intensive production elements for exponential increases in productivity and profitability, while promoting a justly-managed workforce and healthy socioeconomic development.
Project Wadi Attir, and nearby farms that base their activities on ecosystem restoration, indeed display net greenhouse gas sequestration while enhancing biodiversity, economic gains and social welfare. Properly managed no-till wheat cultivation on suitable plots can similarly lead to enhanced productivity while sequestering carbon dioxide into soil and biomass. Thus, novel approaches of sustainable dryland agriculture and agroforestry can and will contribute to a significant reduction in the environmental impact of global agriculture, while improving resilience and expanding productivity into areas previously considered unproductive. Figure 10 demonstrates in pictures the dramatic benefits achievable by sustainable, free-range grazing management in conserved semi-arid landscapes such as the Golan, where the ecosystems have had 50 years to recover. Grazing livestock there happily coexists with local wildlife due to the conservation and maintenance of highly diverse, productive grassland and savanna ecosystems. Thus, properly managed restored rangeland ecosystems can yield continuous improvements in productivity and biodiversity. Available land reserves for putting better management into practice are essentially unlimited, when compared to amounts of food, fodder and protected landscapes required worldwide.
Fig 10: Grazing cattle can coexist sustainably with wildlife and high plant biodiversity in typical semi-arid savanna ecosystems as long as overexploitation is avoided by enacting adequate management. The areas available for the implementation of highly sustainable management approaches are almost unlimited if we consider the potential to restore up to 5 billion hectares of degraded drylands.
Restoring productive rangelands in the Negev
Our recent assessments indicate that truly sustainable, emission-free farming systems can be created on degraded ecosystems, based on agroforestry and permaculture designs that involve tree planting (Hellman et al 2014, Leu et al 2014, Mussery et al 2013) and soil rehabilitation. This will allow for significant carbon sequestration and continuous sustainable exploitation as observed in protected savannas and dry woodlands elsewhere.
Fig. 11: most of the Negev’s open spaces are profoundly degraded due to overgrazing, tilling and unsuccessful forestry approaches (bottom). Planting of a few suitable trees and application of excess manure have restored the farmland areas shown in the top pictures to a far more productive and diverse ecosystem, allowing for sustainable livestock grazing.
All of the Negev’s open areas are profoundly degraded due to overgrazing, unsuccessful forestry practices and excessive soil tilling (Fig. 11 bottom). Small investments for applying manure and planting a few drought-resistant trees suffice to restore biological productivity and biodiversity five-fold (Fig. 11, top), thereby making livestock grazing a sustainable and profitable option.
Intervention by planting acacia trees has been applied in the area to great success, allowing for the production of five times more rain-fed biomass as fodder and energy than in degraded shrubland (Mussery et al 2013). These approaches are being tested at Project Wadi Attir to great effect, though final assessment of the impacts will not be available for another few years (Fig. 12).
Project Wadi Attir has been designed as a sustainable farming system, limited by the amount of available land and the high economic output expected (Fig. 12). In order to intensify agricultural production and profits and to reduce land use, irrigation agriculture in selected dryland areas can be advantageous. However, irrigation agriculture can only be sustainable if adequate renewable water resources are available. This is not the case in Israel. Since Israel is now producing surplus fresh water by desalinization, the major associated sustainability problem is recovering the energy input required for the desalinization process and the related greenhouse gas emissions. Thanks to recent technical progress, drylands now offer the unique possibility to establish solar energy plants that can provide renewable, cheap energy to compensate for the energy-intensive production of irrigation water. At Project Wadi Attir, about 30 hectares of pasture will be irrigated, together with medicinal plants and some high-quality fruit trees. Such intensification is essential to increase economic turnover and the potential for further economic growth. In order to conserve and restore biodiversity, several high-diversity plots are being strictly protected, and five hectares of degraded farmland are being restored by means of tree planting and the application of manure.
Fig 12: The land use concept of the Project Wadi Area: Only about 45 hectares of land are available to the project. Therefore, intensive farming approaches involving irrigation are combined with watershed protection, sustainable dryland rehabilitation and biodiversity protection, and onsite production of high-value milk products. Besides terrace agroforestry and olive cultivation for erosion control (see Fig. 13), four plots for intensive fodder production interspersed with windbreak limans (1 – 4) are planned to feed up to 600 heads of livestock. An irrigated medicinal plant cultivation area (5) has also been established. In addition, area 6 is reserved for a restoration effort to establish five hectares of high-yielding, rain-fed silvipasture. Most products will be processed in the industrial area, and all wastewater and waste products will be converted into energy or compost to be reused onsite. A solar energy plant will be established to provide energy for all processes and compensate for the energy footprint of the required irrigation water. The outcome is expected to be an emission-free facility for the production of a wide range of high-value products.
Fig. 13: Watershed protection by high-value agroforestry in degraded drylands is a win-win approach of the highest environmental and economic importance, and has been successfully deployed at Project Wadi Attir. Carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation, erosion control, soil improvement and the production of wood, fodder, and high-quality fruit and oils are all simultaneous benefits of this approach.
Tilling of dryland soils is a major environmental problem that reduces soil fertility, and causes the release of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. No-till agriculture, specifically in drylands, enhances soil fertility, crop productivity and soil organic carbon. To supplement sustainable fodder for Project Wadi Attir’s herd, nearby farmland will be transformed to no-till wheat cultivation, with expected benefits of carbon sequestration and higher rain-fed fodder yields. No-till agriculture across the Negev (Fig. 14) will have a widespread positive impact on soil quality and productivity, and will contribute to further improvement of the project’s greenhouse gas balance.
Fig. 14: Regular tilling (top) results in nutrient loss, oxidation of soil organic matter and organic nitrogen, dust clouds, and wind and water erosion. No-till agriculture (bottom) by seed application into last year’s crop residue increases soil organic carbon and soil fertility, while reducing energy use, dust, and wind and water erosion. No-till agriculture has therefore been recognized as a major pillar in the development of sustainable dryland agriculture and the mitigation of global warming.
In conclusion, all of Project Wadi Attir’s activities (Figures 12 – 14) have been carefully planned as fully integrated, sustainable agro-industrial activities. Biodiversity hotspots are being protected, and net greenhouse gas balance is expected to be neutral thanks to carbon sequestration into soil and biomass, and production of renewable energy onsite. Conversion of all waste materials back into fertilizer or energy will result in an essentially emission-free production system with long-term economic growth potential.
The vast environmental gains in one of the most dramatically degraded areas of the Negev, together with the economic and social progress expected, will make Project Wadi Attir a flagship demonstration site. We expect to prove that restoration and proper management of degraded drylands will provide simultaneous gains in all of The Lab’s sustainability domains, including greenhouse gas balance, biodiversity, profitability and socioeconomic progress.