Howard Buffett is promoting a brown revolution to improve soil productivity and help feed the world’s billions

Jay Owen SRI/ESG News, Sustainability News

Carpe Diem

Howard Buffett is promoting a brown revolution to improve soil productivity and help feed the world’s billions

By Ellie Winninghoff

When it comes to feeding the world’s hungry people, the game-changer is no-till conservation agriculture. “Soil is any farmer’s most valuable working capital,” says Warren Buffett’s son Howard G. Buffett, who spends most of his time these days managing the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, based in Decatur, Illinois. “Soil fertility has the single largest impact on production capacity.”

Buffett and his son Howard W. Buffett were in Seattle recently to discuss their manifesto, 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World.  Both men are farmers, and warren buffett has said he’d like Howard G., 58, currently a board member at Berkshire Hathaway, to succeed him as non-executive chairman.

“Forty chances” refers to 40 seasons–the number of chances a farmer probably gets to plant his crops and improve them. When Howard G. heard the idea, it stopped him cold. Realizing that it applies to other aspects of life, too, including philanthropy, he wondered if he was making the most of his chances– listening to new ideas, learning from his mistakes. He’d been making donations since the late 1980s–usually in the area of wildlife conservation. But he had had an epiphany when a colleague pointed out “no one will starve to save a tree.”

In 2006, warren buffett challenged his son by asking him if he had the resources to do something great, what would he do? Howard G. realized that if he really cared about habitat protection and biodiversity, he’d have to focus on a more fundamental issue: hunger and food security for the world’s poorest billion people.

According to Buffett, who farms 1500 acres in Illinois, the U.S. benefits from some of the best soils and most productive agricultural lands in the world–a fertility belt that covers most of the lower 48. On the one hand, he says, that means that when the U.S. maximizes the productivity of its acres, it can save fragile ecosystems elsewhere.

But the opposite has occurred.  For example, he notes, the unintended impact of former president Jimmy Carter’s grain embargo in l980 against the former Soviet Union was a huge toll on the Amazonian rain forest because it opened up world markets to brazil and Argentina.

In fact, he says, American farmers have the potential to increase yields dramatically–in a sustainable fashion. This may seem surprising since U.S. farmers have been consuming water far more quickly than it’s being replaced–something of particular consternation with respect to the Ogallala Aquifer, the massive underground reservoir under the Great Plains that accounts for 30% of the groundwater used for irrigation in the U.S.

But Buffett, who contends that U.S. industrial farm practices are no longer cutting edge (Brazil, with far less productive soil, can nearly match our land productivity), advocates a “brown revolution.” By that, he means paying attention to soil quality and engaging in “best practices” that are well-known but that industrial farmers in the U.S. nevertheless have ignored–cover crops, crop rotations, reduced tillage, and the like.

“The critical issue today is not whether U.S. farmers can produce enough food for our current needs,” he says, “but whether the way we are producing our food is mortgaging our ability to produce food tomorrow.”

The no-till farming systems that Buffett champions always keep cover on the soil. A farmer plants in either the residue from a former crop or in a separate cover crop–a process that increases organic matter in the soil, retains water and decreases erosion. It also sequesters carbon and cuts the use of fossil fuels.

While many of these techniques are associated with organic agriculture, Buffett still uses genetically modified seed and nitrogen-based fertilizer–albeit substantially less than if he did not focus on taking care of the soil.

“I don’t believe organic agriculture can feed the world,” he says.

He prefers the term “biological agriculture” to indicate that no-till is about using biology rather than chemistry to enhance the soil–and to emphasize the soil.

In Brazil, he notes, the reddish acidic heavy clay soil of the so-called “cerrado” (which is also low in organic matter and subject to torrential rains) makes it one of the most difficult farming regions in the world. But because the government has promoted no-till and developed an entire ecosystem of policies to support this type of large-scale sustainable agriculture, the productivity of this land nearly matches his own.

“Leaders of countries grappling with food insecurity in some of the most difficult farming regions in the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa, should find reason to hope in what has happened in Brazil,” he says.

Buffett says it is time to re-design subsidies in the U.S., which currently encourage short-term production rather than longer-term conservation of water and soil. For one thing, he says, water use could be cut in half if “extraordinarily wasteful” flood irrigation and 25-year-old center pivots were replaced by modern and efficient center pivots and drip irrigation.

“If we don’t farm in a thoughtful and planned way, we will end up where many African countries are today; unable to feed their own people let alone export food to the ever-growing world.”

In Africa, meanwhile, he believes the emphasis should be on smallholder farms, where no-till conservation agriculture has already shown it can make a huge difference.  In Ghana, it has already improved yields 45%, reduced labor by between 20% and 50% (depending on the task), improved water availability, permitted the planting of a second edible crop, and given family members more time for other income-generating activities.

“I have an allergic reaction to the term “Green Revolution” in Africa,” he says, referring to an emphasis on expensive hybrid or genetically modified seeds and fertilizer. “Most of Africa’s farmers are too poor, their soil too degraded, and their markets too fragile to go this route on a fast-track.”

But that’s another story.


(Another version of this story can be found here:

A former investment banker, Ellie Winninghoff is a writer and consultant specializing in impact investing. More of her writing about impact investing is linked at her blog, and she can be reached at: ellie. winninghoff (at) gmail (dot) com.