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Save that dirt, Howard Buffett says

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: If we are a culture that often equates dirt with worthlessness, Howard G. Buffett would like to change that.

“Soil may not be sexy, and that’s probably part of the problem,” he told an audience of a few dozen on the Monsanto campus Tuesday afternoon. “But it is what sustains our productivity and we can’t change that.”

Buffett, head of the philanthropic foundation that bears his name and son of famous investment tycoon Warren Buffett, was in town to deliver a few remarks on the topic of agricultural sustainability, a subject that bears heavily on his charitable work in the developing world. The Nebraska native, who has traveled to at least 115 nations, operates or oversees farms in Illinois, Arizona and South Africa. His comments this week at Monsanto’s world headquarters keynoted the agri-giant’s media days program, anchoring an array of speakers and panelists for assembled reporters.

Buffett told the group that productivity and sustainable practices are often seen as being at odds, but in reality they can and must coexist. He lauded the company and the neighboring Donald Danforth Plant Science Center for their work on the topic.

“My problem has never been in believing that we can do it,” he said. “My thinking has always been around understanding exactly how we’re going to do it. How will we get it done?”

Buffett said that the term sustainability was heavily used if often ill defined, but he believed it could be seen through the prism of leaving a better world to the next generation.

“If you think about that concept, it means you are making decisions for people you are never going to meet, your grandchildren are never going to meet,” he said. “You’ll never know these people or what their outcome is as a result of the decision you made. It’s a larger vision of stewardship, and I think it is very rarely found in today’s world.

“There’s one thing I can guarantee about that,” he noted with a chuckle. “It is not how our Congress thinks.”

Buffett said that such vision could be seen in efforts from land grant universities to the Rural Electrification Act. He believes that farmers helped fuel the nation’s rise to greatness.

However, he also noted that greatness came at a cost. Most people think the worst crimes against the land were committed during the Dust Bowl era. But the reality, he said, is that we’ve been losing hundreds of square miles of productive land to unsustainable practices since mid-century. The nation was still stripping out as much as a billion tons of valuable topsoil as recently as the 1970s.

He said economists estimate the nation drops some $37 billion a year in lost soil with costs approaching $400 billion worldwide.

“We did a lot of damage over the years with the plow. It may have been considered a great invention at the time, but it was also the greatest sodbuster. (It) probably destroyed more soil than we ever imagined when we first hooked it up to a horse,” he said. “In our home, we call the plow a four-letter word.”

Buffett said for every acre of cropland in Iowa, the average farmer might lose as much in soil as he produced in corn.

“But soil has to regenerate over many, many years,” he said. “The corn is gone into the processor like that. That’s not a very sustainable approach.”

Worse, we may not understand the damage being done. He remembered that one man he spoke with seemed unconcerned and simply recommended synthetic fertilizer for dead soil, an approach Buffett likened to using an oxygen mask on a cadaver.

“I think this should scare farmers, consumers, politicians and government agencies, but it doesn’t. And it doesn’t for a very simple reason,” he said. “We don’t suffer the consequences. We pay our seed bill. We pay our fertilizer bills as we farm, but it is going to be another generation that pays Mother Nature.”

Even worse problems exist in the nations Buffett visits where hunger, malnutrition and environmental degradation are often the norm. Yet in these places, residents frequently have a good reason for employing unsustainable practices. Living in deplorable conditions with little food, they have little time to be concerned over the health of soil or the effect of crops.

“A friend of mine once told me that no one will starve to save a tree,” he said.

Buffett recalled horrifying stories from his travels, including an Angolan woman who tried to give him her child because she knew the baby would die of starvation otherwise. In another instance, he bluntly asked three mothers how they decide which child to feed when times get lean, a query so disturbing the translator was hesitant even to convey it. One replied that she fed the strongest child first.

“She didn’t have to say what that meant because I understood what it meant,” he said. “All three of the mothers I was talking to that day had lost at least one child to starvation. They can’t worry about their soil if they are trying to figure out how to feed their children.”

By contrast, Buffett had harsher words for those in the industrialized world.

“We have no excuse in this country. Our children are not dying for those reasons,” he said. “We have the technology, the knowledge and an abundance of resources. Yet too many of us think the problem is behind us, that it’s in the past. I can tell you it is not.”

Buffett called on policymakers, leaders and citizens to do more to recognize the challenges of soil erosion, malnutrition and agricultural sustainability.

“If there is one thing I know we need, it is urgency,” he said. “As I stand here today, there are almost a billion people who go to bed hungry every night. That’s just a statistic. But I’ve seen plenty of them and you don’t forget their faces.”

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.

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