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Transformed farmland

Terraculture is a form of agriculture which was tagged by Doctor Jon Foley of the University of Minnesota. It relies on both new age methods of conventional agriculture and more old school organic, holistic, regenerative agriculture in order to feed the worlds growing population without destroying the planet.

With global population growing by about 80 million people each year,[1] it is expected to reach 9 Billion by the year 2040. [2] As landscapes continue to be changed in order to feed the expanding population there will also be an increase in the amount of greenhouse gases that are released into the earths atmosphere. [3]

With about 40% of the worlds surface devoted to agriculture the scope for improvement of ecological management is considerable and the impacts of even a minor improvement in sustainability across agriculture can have a large impact on our global ecological position.

With agriculture responsible for the use of about 70% of the earths fresh water supplies the impact on water can be felt greatly if unmanaged. Agriculture can reduce water quality due to water running off paddocks collecting chemicals that have been applied to the crops or pasture, this can lead to poisoning of water systems and can lead to large scale fish kills if the aqua-plants in the water are killed of. Animal waste may also run off causing eutrophication of the bodies of water, also damaging aquatic ecosystems.[4]

With current conventional methods of farming requiring tillage or cultivation of croplands over the past 50 years the impacts on soil quality are immense and widely visible across many farming nations. Initially tillage was a chemical free way to kill weeds as well as a good way to prepare the seedbed, aerate the soil, bury crop residue and incorporate manure or fertiliser into the soil. This practice, however, has always had a negative impact on soil quality as it fractures the soil, disrupting soil structure which accelerates surface runoff and erosion of the topsoil. Also, due to the burying of crop residue, which would usually 'cushion' soil particles from the rain drops the soil becomes dislodged more easily, leading to clogged soil pores, sealing the soil shut and leading to even less effective water infiltration.[5]

If it is going to be possible to feed the 9 billion population by 2040 there will need to be a focus on the environmental impacts the result from agriculture and methods that lesson the impact and reverse the damage already done will need to be implemented.[2]


Early Days[edit]

Terraculture was originally used in "The Genesee Farmer and Gardener's Journal" 1838 as a term to describe everything that is produced from the Earth, "everything that germinated and grows by receiving its nourishment from the soil..."[6]

Modern Usage[edit]

Timeline of shrinking of Aral Sea

Dr. Jon Foley of the University of Minnesota coined the word in his 2012 TEDx talk "The Other Inconvenient Truth" where he discussed the domination of the planet by humans since the industrial revolution and the alteration of landscapes that are now used in conventional agriculture. Foley discussed the 16 million km2 of land used for cropping world wide and the 30 million km2 of land used for livestock farming totalling roughly 40% of the earths surface, 60 times more land than is currently used for urban and residential cities.[2]

Foley is a world-renowned climate scientist. His work has made major contributions to our understanding of climate change and global sustainability. Foley has published over 130 peer-reviewed scientific articles and is among the top 1 percent of the most-cited scientists worldwide.[7] Currently Foley runs a website 'Global Eco Guy' which is a platform he uses to increase public knowledge about global environmental issues and climate solutions.[8]

Growing population - With global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2040. This growth in population will lead to many issues including where to house all of these people and how to feed them. Terraculture provides a solution for both of these problems, by increasing productivity of current farming lands through the use of precision agriculture and improvement of yields through better care of the soil in order to produce more food on the same amount of land.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions - Agriculture is currently the largest producer of greenhouse gases worldwide, producing 30% of all Greenhouse Gases released globally. Agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emission than all of the electricity and industry worldwide, or more than all of the planes, trains and automobiles combined[2]. The source of these emissions are as a result of deforestation, methane from animals and rice crops and nitrous oxide as a result of over fertilising.

Water Use - Globally people use 50% of the worlds fresh water, agriculture is responsible for the use of 70% of this available fresh water, that's 35% of all fresh water used globally is in agriculture. Natural water pathways have been altered in order to grow crops, for example, the Aral sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan has dried up as a result of the Government transferring the flow of water in order to grow cotton.[9]

N and P Stores - Nitrogen and Phosphorous stores have doubled globally due to the widespread use of fertiliser. This fertiliser runs into waterways effecting water supplies world-over. It is estimated that half of the worlds population relies on nitrogen fertiliser for their food.[10]

Necessity - Despite the impacts that agriculture has had on the earth, it is a necessity for human life and can be a driving factor in building sustainable and regenerative ecosystems.[11]


Foley breaks the basic principles of terraculture down into 5 steps:

Deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest
  1. Stop deforestation - Foley discusses the need to grow more food without increasing the impact on rainforest and savannahs. Foley's idea is to stop growing agriculture, but to increase productivity of current active farm land. the expansion of agriculture is the leading cause of extinction in the world.[12]
  2. Improve Productivity - As the expansion of agriculture halts another method will have to be organised in order to improve the amount of food that is grown. Foley discusses that at present most of the research and development in agriculture is focused on making the most productive farms more productive, rather than working on the less efficient farms. This means there are opportunities to significantly boost food production while not increasing the amount of land currently in use and while reducing the harm to the environment. [12]
  3. Improve resource efficiency - Foley states that many of these improvements can be made by being smarter with water, energy and chemicals already in use in agriculture today. Approximately 1 litre of water is used to create one calorie of food energy, however, this varies greatly worldwide. For example Israeli farmers are able to grow with one tenth of the water as they utilise efficient drip irrigation. Simultaneously farmers in Northern India or Pakistan can use between 20 and 30 litres of water per calorie produced. [12]
  4. Change diets - In the United States only about 10 percent of food grown is used for human consumption. The rest of the industry is primarily producing for biofuel and livestock feed. Globally this number is 60 percent, with only 40 percent of total food production going to human consumption there is space for a reduction in the environmental impact if a higher percentage of farming was focused on feeding people. This principle requires change at consumer, retail and producer levels.
  5. Stop food waste - As well as growing lots of food that is not used for human consumption, a staggering amount of food is wasted. Foley states that between 30 to 40 percent of all of the world's food is wasted. If this number was brought down it would be possible to feed many more people without making any other changes to agriculture. [12]

Through implementation of these principles the impacts of agriculture on the environment will be lessened and it will be possible to begin regeneration of landscapes and the environment to allow the greater volume of food required to feed the larger population is produced.[2]


In order to implement the idea of terraculture effectively in society, both conventional and holistic farming practices will need to be implemented.

Yara N-Sensor ALS mounted on a tractor's canopy – a system that records light reflection of crops, calculates fertilisation recommendations and then varies the amount of fertilizer spread

Conventional - these farming practices are where the majority of development in large scale agriculture has been in the last 50 or so years and including things such as incentives for farmers, precision agriculture and the development of GPS, genetic alteration developing new crop varieties and water efficient technologies such as drip irrigation. Precision agriculture utilises global navigation satellite systems and microcomputers to vary fertiliser distribution and chemical application to limit the amount of loss as well as using automatic guidance systems of agricultural vehicles to manage the production systems.[13]

Holistic/Organic/Regenerative - These farming practices include techniques that have been used for thousands of years as well as more recently developed technologies in order to reduce the impact of agriculture on the environment and have a larger focus on the farm as a whole, rather than of individual parts. They include graywater recycling, better tillage practices, including no till farming, biodiversity management, biodynamic practices. Another practice includes increasing biodiversity of operations on the land, including rotation between cropping and stock feeding paddocks to allow soil to recover from the more intense operations involved with cropping and allowing the stock to break up some soil with their hooves and the fertilise the paddocks with their manure. This includes allowing more than one animal, sheep and cattle for example, to feed from paddocks as different animals have differing gut bacteria that will breakdown the feed differently and deposit a variety of nutrients into the soil.[14][15]

As a result of putting these practices into action a farmer can expect their land to become more drought resilient, and have more productive soil. The land will also require fewer inputs, reducing costs for the land owner. As there will be fewer chemicals applied to the farmland there will be a return in the biodiversity of the soil, leading to greater population of worms and insects involved in the breakdown of waste products left behind by the animals on the farm to improve productivity of the soil. This biodiversity will also extend to the bird and mammal population which also increase the activity within the soils again providing a boost to the farms productivity.[16]


The role of agriculture in the 21st century will be based around sustaining ecosystems, working on agro-ecological practices, integrating landscape management and using scientific innovation in order to develop efficiencies in agricultural systems.

Terraculture will be a lead in development of local regions. Many decisions and developments made to farms come from hundreds of kilometres away, however, implementation of terraculture and associated practices will place more control in local regional groups to develop methods that work for them in their specific region.[11]

With population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 the strain on agriculture will increase, the annual cereal production will need to rise by 3 billion tonnes to 5.1 billion tonnes, meat production will need to raise by over 200 million tonnes to reach 470 million tonnes if global food consumption trends remain constant.[17] In order to reach these marks there will need to be a change in agricultural practices and consumer preferences. These changes are the basic principles of terraculture that will ensure the targets are met.

Agricultural modelling has shown that over a 40 year time each 0.1% change in rate of production will lead to a 4% change in total output. Using these estimates, the amount of food that will be available in 2050 will be appropriate assuming the productivity increases that are available through implementation of terracultural practices.[18]

As the expansion of farmland is limited and often undesired studies have looked into the yield increase of a number of crops, of these maize was shown to have the highest year-on-year increase of 1.6%, soybeans 1.2% and 1% for wheat and rice. The yield gap, i.e. the difference between potential yield and actual yield can be shown between 30% to 200%. This number is larger for developing counties.[19]

If terracultural practices are implemented it will be possible to use less water to produce more food due to the increased productivity of farmland, while also reducing the impact of the ever more variable weather systems that agriculturists depend so heavily on. In order to the development of agriculture to be sustainable it must come from farmers and be developed out through the food chain. The use of agriculture as a biodiversity booster will mean there is a greater opportunity to manage habitats for native and introduced species across the landscape. With the removal of chemicals from the farming process and an increase in the number of species of grasses covering soil providing a greater variety of food for wild animals. This provides benefits for the farm by increasing species biodiversity while also giving the animals places to live where they may have greater access to food, water and shade.[20] There is a need for a national and international frameworks in place to allow the development of terraculture throughout society and to help drive the ecological change necessary.[21]

See also[edit]

  • Agroecological restoration
  • Agroecology
  • Agroforestry
  • Biointensive agriculture
  • Carbon farming
  • Farmer-managed natural regeneration
  • Korean natural farming
  • Permaculture
  • Regenerative Design
  • Agricultural biodiversity
  • Agriculture in Concert with the Environment
  • Agroecological restoration
  • Agroecosystem
  • Agrophysics
  • Climate change and agriculture
  • Community development
  • Conventional agriculture
  • Climate change and agriculture
  • Climate change adaptation
  • Edaphology
  • Ecological economics
  • Ecology of contexts
  • Ecosystem services
  • Environmental economics
  • Environmental engineering
  • Environmental impact assessment
  • Environmental impact of agriculture
  • Food-feed system
  • Genetic erosion
  • Human ecology
  • Landscape ecology
  • Life cycle analysis
  • Nutrient management
  • Political ecology
  • Pollinator decline
  • Rural development
  • Social metabolism
  • Soil science
  • Sustainable agriculture
  • Sustainable development

Other articles of the topic Ecology : 41pounds.org, Discover Life, Philosophy of environment, Institute for Social Ecology, Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy, Fossil Taxon, PCDitch
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Reference List[edit]

  1. "World Population by Year - Worldometer". www.worldometers.info. Retrieved 2020-02-13.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Foley, Jonathan, The other inconvenient truth, retrieved 2020-01-30
  3. "Agriculture-Driven Climate Change jonathan foley keynote". TrendHunter.com. Retrieved 2020-01-31.
  4. "Agriculture and Gardening". extension.usu.edu. Retrieved 2020-02-13.
  5. "Frequent tillage and its impact on soil quality | Integrated Crop Management". crops.extension.iastate.edu. Retrieved 2020-02-13.
  6. "The Genesee Farmer". Scientific American. 4 (13): 98. 1848-12-16. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican12161848-98h. ISSN 0036-8733.
  7. Foley, Jonathan (2019-10-23). "About Foley". Medium. Retrieved 2020-02-13.
  8. "GlobalEcoGuy". GlobalEcoGuy. Retrieved 2020-02-19.
  9. "Soviet cotton threatens a region's sea - and its children". New Scientist. Retrieved 2020-02-06.
  10. Fowler, David; Coyle, Mhairi; Skiba, Ute; Sutton, Mark A.; Cape, J. Neil; Reis, Stefan; Sheppard, Lucy J.; Jenkins, Alan; Grizzetti, Bruna; Galloway, James N.; Vitousek, Peter (2013-07-05). "The global nitrogen cycle in the twenty-first century". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 368 (1621): 20130164. doi:10.1098/rstb.2013.0164. PMC 3682748. PMID 23713126.
  11. 11.0 11.1 "Post". un-redd-website. 31 March 2017. Retrieved 2020-02-06.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Wheeland, Matthew (2012-01-19). "How Can We Feed the Planet Without Destroying the Planet?". GreenBiz. Retrieved 2020-01-31.
  13. Gebbers, Robin; Adamchuk, Viacheslav I. (2010-02-12). "Precision Agriculture and Food Security". Science. 327 (5967): 828–831. Bibcode:2010Sci...327..828G. doi:10.1126/science.1183899. ISSN 0036-8075. PMID 20150492.
  14. author. "Soil biodiversity". NSW Environment, Energy and Science. Retrieved 2020-02-14.
  15. "Why Regenerative Agriculture?". Regeneration International. Retrieved 2020-02-14.
  16. Backhaus, Thomas; Snape, Jason; Lazorchak, Jim (2012). "The impact of chemical pollution on biodiversity and ecosystem services: the need for an improved understanding". Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management. 8 (4): 575–576. doi:10.1002/ieam.1353. ISSN 1551-3793. PMID 22987515.
  17. "How to Feed the World in 2050" (PDF). FAO. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  18. "Download Limit Exceeded". citeseerx.ist.psu.edu. Retrieved 2020-02-07.
  19. Edmeades, Fischer, Byerlee. "Can we feed the world in 2050?". Food Security from Sustainable Agriculture.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  20. Norris, Ken (2008). "Agriculture and biodiversity conservation: opportunity knocks". Conservation Letters. 1 (1): 2–11. doi:10.1111/j.1755-263X.2008.00007.x. ISSN 1755-263X.
  21. "Defining the future of agriculture". World Economic Forum. Retrieved 2020-02-14.

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