Conserve, Restore, REVERSE

As a graduate student at the George Washington University, I wrote a master’s thesis, of sorts, while interning at a radically progressive NGO working in international development. My thesis compared the Green Revolution (characterized by advanced cultivation of highly specialized food crops selected for increased yields) to what was then the incipient revolution of genetically modified crops, which many were promoting as the next green revolution. My analysis was that it was unlikely GMOs would be used to help the poor grow crops in marginal conditions (as was claimed) or that increased yields would go significantly further to feed those who were hungry. Instead, I argued that the profits from GMOs were likely to be concentrated in the hands of the corporations designing the seeds, and furthermore, the ecological dangers of a GMO approach were significant. 

I was just a grad student, not an expert in agriculture, but sadly, I have to say that my assessment back then has proven pretty accurate. The problem, as I saw it then and see it today, was that the GMO approach was the next step in a long line of unsustainable approaches to agriculture that have bought us plentiful food in the short-term but serious costs in the long-term. What I thought we needed was to reverse this process . . . but how?

Something exciting is happening

Much like the maxim to “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” conservationists concerned with wildlife, habitat, and the benefits provided by nature have been focused for a long time on “conserve” and “restore,” which probably don’t need much explanation. Now, however, a third part of what I’ll call the “conservationist’s maxim” is coming to the fore. That third, and essential, component is to reverse.

Reverse means a fundamental change, or an about-face, in the way that people view and interact with nature. When we talk about reducing CO2 emissions or protecting natural systems to serve as carbon sinks, that is an effort to reverse the business as usual practices that have led to an overabundance of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. When we work to establish sustainable supply chains for the production of goods, that’s an effort to reverse processes that threaten to deplete natural resources in our children’s lifetimes. When we redesign cities or industrial processes to minimize habitat fragmentation, pollution, and reliance on fossil fuels, that’s the reverse of economic thinking that designates waste, pollution, and environmental impacts as “externalities.”

Reversing agriculture

Recently, I have became aware of a relatively new form of “reverse thinking” taking place in agriculture, epitomized by the company Indigo Agriculture. This company’s mission is “Harnessing nature to help farmers sustainably feed the planet.” That mission statement showcases the ways in which Indigo is reversing the classical approach to agriculture, which relies on synthetic fertilizers and chemicals, GMOs, and plant breeding.  

Indigo harnesses nature by using naturally occurring, endogenous probiotic organisms that have co-evolved with plants for millennia to create seeds that will require less fertilizer and fewer fossil-based agricultural chemicals, are more resistant to disease, can survive under harsh conditions such as drought, and in the process even help to create healthier soils. Indigo does not genetically modify their microbes but uses knowledge of plant genome sequencing to help identify those most likely to make a difference to the plants.  

Indigo helps farmers by working to ensure that they can capture as much of the profit from their new technology as possible. They are doing this by creating an integrated system of improved seeds, agronomic assistance, quality testing, and on-farm storage that helps farmers obtain the price premium for their product—all while monitoring real-time field-level results for their crops across the country using satellite technology.

Indigo’s seed technology is contributing to feeding the world sustainably by reducing the need for fossil-based fertilizers and pesticides, while improving yields under a variety of conditions—something that will become ever more important as predicted and unpredictable consequences of climate change manifest around the globe.

What is most exciting for me, however, is that the Indigo technology reverses the troubling paradigm that we’ve had in agriculture for quite some time, which is that practices that seem to benefit the farmer in the short-term are often detrimental to both the environment and the consumer. We in conservation have struggled for a long time to incentivize farm conservation practices because what is right for the environment, for wildlife, or for water quality often means a trade-off for the farmer or the forester. This tradeoff can take many forms, such as increased costs (for fencing or specialized equipment) or foregone profits (trading off short-term profit maximization for long-term sustainability).

The Indigo model has the potential to truly align the interests of landowners, natural systems, and consumers:

  • Indigo has seen corn and soybean yields increase by almost 10% after only four years, while reducing nutrient inputs. (Indeed, Indigo corn recently received organic certification with flying colors because the inputs to the seeds were all natural.) This means a direct benefit to water quality, which on a large-scale can help reduce the size of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and improve its fisheries.

  • The Indigo “Marketplace” allows farmers and buyers to track and certify their value-added crops, giving farmers the most natural of incentives for increasing the sustainability and quality of the food supply: the reward of greater profit for the crop they have produced! Consumers also get more of the type of product they want: one that is healthy for themselves as well as the planet.

Environmentalists want us to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Conservationists are working to conserve and restore natural systems while reversing our unsustainable approaches to extracting value from nature. My fondest hope is that Indigo Ag, while focusing on natural solutions that benefit farmers, consumers, and the environment, will be sure to include wildlife as a key stakeholder in their enterprise. If they do, they’ll surely be at the forefront of the “reverse revolution” that aims to align our short-term interests with the long-term health of our natural world.