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Intensive Farming: The Bane of the Earth

Brown, arid dirt for miles beyond. Not a single source of water is to be seen. Not a single piece of green land is to be seen. A cistern truck roams through the streets, carrying water in its tank then stops by a small worn-out house. An old couple steps out and brings a large plastic container. The truck driver helps fill the box with water and in no time, he is off to his next destination. This is the reality of Chile, where families go on for days at a time without water. Meanwhile, a few thousand miles North and North East, millions of people enjoy a juicy, delicious, green fruit so precious it is now known as green gold: avocado.

Avocados are desiccating Chile’s and its water supply. The popularity of avocadoes has exploded over the last few decades. In 1985, U.S consumption was only 436 million pounds but this number has increased six-fold to over 2.6 billion pounds of the fruit being consumed in 2020. [1] However, the rise in avocado popularity is not limited only in the U.S. In 2017, China imported over 6,000,000 pounds of avocados, which is over a thousand times more than the amount imported in 2011, making the country one of the top 10 markets for the green gold. [2]

Chile produces 245,000,000 kilograms of this fruit each year [3] and a single kilogram of avocado only consists of 3 fruits. [4] This means that Chile produces 735,000,000 avocados per year. Producing a single avocado takes 70 liters of water but in Petorca, Chile’s major avocado production city, it takes 320 liters to produce a single avocado due to the dry climate. [5] In total, that is a minimum of 23,520 million liters of water used every year in Chile just for avocados. As this water is being consumed by plants, there are families going on without water for days. Plant production is being prioritized above human health and well-being. However, agriculture production in Chile does not need to take up so much water.

The two major reasons Chile’s water supply is failing is due to the avocado itself and irrigation problems caused by intensive farming methods used in Chile. The avocado, unlike other crops, particularly consumes a lot of water. While tomatoes use a mere 5 liters to grow and an orange takes 22 liters to grow, avocados take up a minimum of 70. [5] However, as one of the top avocado exporters in the world, Chile cannot give up on avocadoes. In fact, in 2018, Chile made 364.16 million dollars solely from selling avocadoes. [6] Due to the avocado’s importance in Chile’s economy, more sustainable methods of avocado farming should be introduced.

The second reason Chile’s water supply is falling is that farmers in Chile implement intensive farming methods, agricultural intensification and mechanization systems that aims to maximize yield from available land through various means. [7] Chile particularly has issues with irrigation which has been caused by the intensive farming methods used by avocado farmers. “In general, it has rained less in the last ten years and there are big irrigation problems,” says Alex Martin, a farmer who has been exporting avocado from Chile for more than 20 years. [8] These irrigation problems start from the act of using groundwater to water land. Due to the massive amount of water the avocado needs, these groundwater reservoirs have become depleted in order to sustain the plants. The issue has gotten so out of hand that in Petorca, what was once a large, rushing river has been dried up by avocado farmers and residents are left without water for days at a time. [9]

However, groundwater depletion is only the start of the chain. While groundwater is very troubling, equally problematic is the consequence of groundwater depletion: soil salinization. There are natural salt minerals dissolved in water. When water is artificially spread over land and evaporated from the soil, this salt gets left behind. After many cycles, the soil gets packed with salt, turning the rich dark soil into powdery white flakes of loose salt. This is called soil salinization and forces farmers to abandon the infertile land, as it can no longer retain any more nutrients to grow more crops. When the natural rain does come, the loose salt mixes with the runoff, resulting in higher salinity levels. This runoff eventually merges with other bodies of water including lakes, rivers, and streams. Because of this, the salinity levels in these bodies of water rise to levels which few animals can withstand. [10] This consequently results in a lack of biodiversity.

While this may all seem ominous, there is still hope. This hope may be found in one of the least expected places: South Africa. While South Africa is one of the top 30th driest countries on the planet, South Africa has managed to produce food year after year. Their secret? Eco-farming. [11] While it may sound unfamiliar to most, eco-farming was first introduced in the 1900s and has slowly become more popular ever since. Eco-farming ensures healthy farming and healthy food by protecting the soil, water, climate, promoting biodiversity, and not contaminating the environment with chemical inputs or genetic engineering. [12] In South Africa, technology and smart growing methods have become a major factor to ensure that the environment is protected as well as the health of the crops.

To ensure that groundwater depletion is not an issue, South African farmers collect rainwater in reservoirs to use. However, when feeding the crops with this water, farmers use modern tools to measure and record the amount of water in the soil to prevent issues such as soil salinization to occur for crops. Furthermore, to retain more moisture in the soil, farmers have started using compost after finding that soil with compost retains 60% more water compared to soil without water. Water management is not the only concern in South Africa. Healthy soil is also an issue. [11]

Due to the dry climate, most of South Africa’s soil is dry and inarable. Due to the lack of available soil, farmers have been experimenting with growing plants in matters other than soil. In South Africa, several farms have been using a method called hydroponics. Hydroponics is the concept of planting crops in solely water. Farmers dig holes and then place plastic netting on top. Then, they plant the crops, place gravel instead of soil on top of the plastic bed, and feed the plants water from above. While it may seem like this may require more water, because of the gravel and plastic bedding, all excess water simply drips down into the hole below. Doing so allows farmers to use this same water for multiple rounds of crops. So effective is this modern method of farming, studies have shown that hydroponics produces more crops than traditional soil farming.[11]

In the end, as South Africa has shown, it will be human will-power and advanced technology to turn the crisis around. Chile has been greatly impacted by their irrigation issues, but so have other countries including the United States. According to experts, the water supply in Western US has significantly diminished due to irrigation issues within agriculture. [13] With wildfires and excessive irrigation, if the U.S does not change its agriculture growing methods soon, the problems may worsen to the level of those in Chile. However, South Africa has shown that these problems do not have to exist. Through smart eco-farming methods, South Africa has proven that there are smarter and better ways to grow food without harming the environment. Eco-farming is the future of agriculture and it is time for more farms to realize it.


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