JANE MT. PLEASANT: In this section, I'll be talking about the Three Sisters and the discussion on sustainable agriculture. What strikes me as an agronomist about the Three Sisters cropping system is that it was a very productive and stable agricultural system that used no tillage, no inorganic fertilizer, and no synthetic pesticides.
Now, ask me, as an agronomist today, to grow good corn without one of those-- for example, no inorganic fertilizers-- and I can tell you, we can do that without any trouble. We simply put alfalfa into the rotation with corn, and then the plowdown of alfalfa releases significant nitrogen so that the corn will grow just fine.
Ask me to grow good corn without two of those-- no fertilizer, no pesticides-- and I say, we can do it. It's harder, but we can do it. Ask me to grow good corn without fertilizer, without pesticides, and without tillage. Most farmers will tell you it can't be done. And yet, the Iroquois used this system and grew good corn for more than 400 years. In my mind, this represents a very stable and a very sustainable agricultural system that we should be paying close attention to. It represents a balance between productivity and the resource base. It's a balance that our farmers today are struggling to reach as well.
As a Cornell agronomist, I would be one of the first to tell you that we get enormous benefits from our modern and very intensive agricultural systems. We pay less for food than almost anybody in the world does. We get higher yields on less land. That means we're able to release a lot of our land to other types of uses-- parks, national forest, shopping malls, all sorts of things.
And finally, a much smaller portion of our population is engaged in agriculture. That leaves the rest of us free to pursue lots of other things-- to be Cornell professors for example, to be artists, musicians, engineers, all sorts of things. So the benefits of modern agriculture are right there, and they're very obvious. But many in the agricultural community are becoming increasingly concerned over some of the disadvantages that we're seeing in this very intensive and mechanized agriculture.
One of the major concerns has to do with the fact that our agriculture today relies very intensively on the use of nonrenewable resources, primarily fossil fuels for the production of both fertilizers and pesticides, and secondly, water. Groundwater that comes from aquifers is used extensively in the United States for agricultural production. The question is, what happens when the fossil fuels and the water run out?
With the fossil fuels, we absolutely know that the quantities of them are finite. As we have less and less oil to put into our fertilizers and pesticides, what will happen to our agriculture? Will we be able to maintain the same level of productivity that we have today?
A second important concern has to do with soil erosion. I mentioned this in the previous section. There's a great deal of concern amongst agriculturalists, both farmers and soil and crop scientists, about the loss of soil productivity as a result of soil erosion. The reason that this happens is that when soil erodes from a field, the topsoil leaves first. And the topsoil is the most productive part of the agricultural field. So crop production will go down with increased soil erosion.
Another aspect of soil erosion is that it involves the movement of agricultural chemicals, both fertilizers and pesticides, to surface waters. And this is of concern to everyone. We end up with phosphates, nitrogen, and agricultural chemicals in our lakes and streams.
Another area of concern has to do with groundwater contamination. Agricultural soils will leach to the groundwater below, carrying with them nitrates and pesticides that are soluble in water. Since a large portion of our population uses groundwater for drinking water, this is a serious concern.
Another area of concern with our mechanized and intensive agriculture is the loss of genetic diversity in our cropping plants. As agriculture becomes mechanized and more intense, we tend to grow fewer and fewer species of crops, and the variety of crops that we grow within those species also decline. There's a great deal of concern in the agricultural community today that we're relying on fewer and fewer crops and that we're much more vulnerable to all sorts of catastrophes that would affect our food supply.
And finally, there's the issue of food safety. Many people are simply concerned about the number of pesticides that we apply to crops and the impacts that it might have on human health.
So you may be wondering what does the Three Sisters have to do with this. Well, as an agnostic scientist, I think there's a lot of lessons that we can take from the Three Sisters that will be applicable to our farmers today.
Some people ask me if I recommend that New York state farmers begin growing the Three Sisters. And I say, no, of course not. There are a lot of disadvantages to polyculture systems. But I do think there are several important principles that we can take from the Three Sisters and apply them to contemporary and modern agricultural systems that will put us on the road to increasing our agricultural sustainability.
The first of this is that we need to reduce tillage. US scientists have known this, and certainly our understanding of indigenous cropping systems says that if you're going to reduce soil erosion, we have to reduce tillage.
The second important thing is that we need to use multiple species in order to increase the diversity of our cropping systems. We know that sometimes we can increase the productivity by a monoculture, but that we make the cropping system much less stable. So using multiple species in the cropping system is a way to safeguard the diversity of the cropping system.
Another important lesson from the Three Sisters is the recognition that the soil physical environment is critically important to crop productivity. For many, many years, soil scientists have been concentrating on soil fertility. What we now know is that soil fertility is something that's relatively easy to maintain, easy to correct when the soil or the cropping system has been degraded.
But what we also know now is that the soil physical environment, the relative tilth of the soil, whether it's been compacted or not, is one of the most critical constraints to soil productivity. And it's one of the parts of the system which is most easily damaged and most difficult to repair.
The final lesson from the Three Sisters is to urge us to redefine our definition of productivity. In the West, particularly in the United States, agronomic scientists as well as farmers tend to think that yield is everything. We want to maximize the yield per unit of land, and we orient all of our thinking and all of our objectives towards that goal.
But for many people in the world, for farmers all over the world, maximizing yield is not the most important thing. In fact, stability is. What we should be striving for is consistent production over time. In other words, maintaining production perhaps at a more modest level, but at one that we can sustain over decades and perhaps even generations.
Iroquois people have a saying that says that we need to think about the seventh generation-- in other words, that we evaluate today's actions in terms of their effects on that seventh generation, that we not think about just our own well-being or that of our children or even our grandchildren, but that we think about the grandchildren of the grandchildren of the grandchildren.
When you take that philosophy and apply it to farming, it really results in a different perspective. In thinking about the changes that we might make if we were farming for that seventh generation, I find three things. First, that it makes us take a long-term vision. It makes us think in terms of as much as 200 years. We need to think of the impacts of the farming practices that we have today in terms of the effects that it's going to have on the people living on the Earth 200 years from now. And when we do that, it dramatically changes our priorities and our policies.
The second thing that comes from thinking about farming for the seventh generation is that you recognize that protecting the resource base comes first, that the Earth really is our mother, and that in all of this, when we think about our agriculture, we need to think about protecting the Earth and the water. Yields have to be secondary when we're thinking about farming for that seventh generation.
And finally, if we're going to farm for the seventh generation, we need to learn to balance our output with the resources that we have. That may mean some significant changes in lifestyles in the way that we do things today.
I hope you'll join me for the next segment in which I'll talk about Iroquois agriculture today and some of the changes that are happening.
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First Peoples, First Crops provides a new perspective on the fascinating and vitally important role that Iroquois people (Haudenosaunee) have played in the development of agriculture in northeast North America.
Native American woman, the region's first farmers, developed a dynamic cropping system, the Three Sisters, that had enormous impacts on the Iroquois Confederacy and continues to influence Native and non-Native peoples in the 21st Century.
In this room you will learn about the connections between corn growing and the development of the Iroquois Confederacy as well as the science behind the Three Sisters cropping system. You will learn about the origins of corn and its effects on human communities across the globe. The room also provides information on Cornell's American Indian Program and its current efforts to support Native American agriculture in the northeast.
This video is part 5 of 7 in the First Peoples, First Crops series.