The True Green Evolution — imagining the future of agriculture

Illustration by Esther Punny

Now it´s the time to ensure there is enough food for the generations to come.

As a dancer, I like the word agriculture because it includes the word “culture” in it. This is not too far from the truth: the development of immaterial culture was indeed accelerated by the invention of agriculture around 12,000 years ago. By growing our sustenance instead of wandering around looking for it we were able to stay put and form permanent communities, in which also arts, social institutions, and science could thrive.

A lot has happened since man first looked at the wild fig and thought: I can totally grow that! The Neolithic revolution, also known as the first agricultural revolution, brought about irrigation and deforestation as ways to cultivate the land. Domestication of animals started with the wolf even earlier than the domestication of plants, around 15,000 years ago, and followed by sheep around 4000 years later (see here for a handy timeline). The second agricultural revolution, or The British Agricultural Revolution, was initiated in the 18th century and marked an unprecedented increase in the food supply in Britain, leading to a population surge.

Although fertilizers were also used earlier, the invention of the synthetic variety accelerated the transition into more technologically driven farming from the 1950s onwards. This is generally referred to as the Third Agricultural Revolution or The Green Revolution  —  although, for many, the word “green” seems counterintuitive now. The Green Revolution helped bring about many more or less problematic technologies that characterize farming today such as mass production, monoculture, and gene manipulation.

Agriculture is one of the main contributors to human beings´ role as the dominant species on this planet. Agricultural development has made modern life possible, but with enormous consequences to our planet. By relentlessly shaping the ground we stand on to grow food, we have caused biodiversity loss, accelerated mass extinction of animals and plants, and manipulated our whole ecosystem in a way that has initiated an on-going long-term shift in temperatures and weather patterns called the climate change.

We all need food to survive  —  that bit has not changed since we first sowed a seed of einkorn wheat. But our methods in producing it need to change. What does the future of agriculture look like?

This article discusses some of the problems with current agricultural methods and lists potential solutions to these challenges. For a deep dive into one of the most overlooked aspects of sustainable agriculture, see George Monbiot´s illuminating article on the importance of soil published in The Guardian 7.5.2022 here.

“The soil needs to be thoroughly stirred” / “haymaking with appropriate equipment”, Finnish agricultural posters by Kulutusosuuskuntien Keskusliitto (1940–1949). Credit: Työväen Arkisto

Why is modern agriculture unsustainable?

One of the main environmentally problematic characteristics of modern agriculture is a heavy dependence on artificial fertilizers. The negative environmental impact nitrogen-based fertilizers have on our planet through water pollution is quite often talked about — even I remember learning about agricultural runoff and eutrophication already in secondary school. But an equally concerning issue is with the soil itself. In the long run, maintaining growth with artificial fertilizers leads to the decrease of natural biological activity, as well as the chemical and physical quality of the soil.

Because using fertilizers can temporarily lead to good growth, many farmers neglect to take care of their land properly. Years and years of heavily fertilized farming drain the soil until there´s nothing left but crumbly, dead land.

Think about it this way: Imagine there´s a panacea that keeps one healthy without having to eat properly, do any sports, or otherwise take care of the body. You take it for years and it seems to work. But then, it starts to lose its power, finally ceasing to work at all. You haven´t done anything to take care of yourself throughout the years of using the drug. And now you don´t have the energy to even get up and start to live differently. What do you do now?

The price of fertilizers has been on the rise over the past year. Hopefully, many farmers take this as a sign to reduce relying on external input to keep up the profitability of farming and start to develop more self-sufficient agricultural methods.

Monoculture is a method of farming by the cultivation of a single crop. Cultivation of one variety of cereal or vegetable is relatively easy because it allows for the effective use of fertilizers and pesticides. In this kind of farming, the field becomes a kind of factory that only produces one product.

Because of its cost-effectiveness, monoculture has become a global standard for food production. However, the popularity of this farming method has many damaging effects on the environment. It also increases the risk of mass destruction of the farmed crop, which at its worst can lead to devastating humanitarian crises such as the Irish potato famine in the 1840s.

Historical monoculture in Finland: Cultivation of Christmas flowers in December 1961. Credit: Erkki Voutilainen / Museovirasto

6 approaches for more sustainable agriculture

Here are some ways in which farmers can develop their farming methods to advance sustainable development:

  1. Crop Rotation
  2. Sustainable soil fertility management
  3. Cover crops
  4. Direct seeding
  5. Collaborative partnerships
  6. Digital sustainability management
Crop Rotation

Many environmental problems associated with modern agriculture can be improved by careful planning of crop rotation. Crops can be roughly divided into two categories: crops that exploit the nutrients in the soil to grow, and crops that improve soil quality. In well-planned crop rotation, the two kinds of crops take turns, improving the structure and the quality of the soil in the long run.

Three main factors play into how straining the crop is for the soil quality. Firstly, if the crop requires heavy cultivation by plowing which disturbs the natural structure of the soil, the crop is considered exploitative. Secondly, if a significant portion of the plant is harvested and only a small portion remains on the ground, in the long run, the ground will be depleted of organic matter, making cultivation of such a crop exploitative. Finally, if the crop requires a lot of pesticides (=plant protection compounds such as herbicides or fungicides), it will contaminate the soil and affect its fertility, increasing the exploitativeness of the crop.

When choosing crops, the plant species is one of the first things to be considered. Even the variety within the chosen species can play a role in how successful the yield will be. To illustrate this, imagine a cereal farm that mainly focuses on rye. There´s a plan to cultivate rye for the next 50 years. Even the variety of the rye will affect the state of the fields and the yield in the long run. One should aim for diversity inside the species to avoid the risk of mass destruction. If all the crops are the same variety, one single disease can kill off the entire yield.

It is important to design enough diversity between growing seasons in such a way that crop varieties support each other. There are many potential targets: increasing or maintaining soil quality, protecting pollinators, or preparing the soil for the plants of the next growing season, to name a few. Planning should take into account, which targets are of the highest priority.

When planning a crop rotation, one should also include enough time for the land to be fallow, which means leaving it unseeded for one or more vegetative cycles. The resting time allows the land to recover from the stress of cultivation. During the fallow season, the field can be contributing to biodiversity by, for example, acting as a wildflower meadow for pollinators.

The historical Norfolk crop rotation system (in the foreground), an experiment by Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences in Poland. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Sustainable soil fertility management

Don´t let the litany scare you  —  most of the time sustainable soil fertility management simply means making the most of existing organic matter to improve soil quality. One of the ways of doing this is green manure, i.e crops that are grown to be plowed into the soil to improve its fertility. Green manure crops are capable of pulling nitrogen from the air into the soil through a process called nitrogen fixation. They help the following season´s crops to grow, sometimes entirely without artificial fertilizers, depending on the species of the following crop. Pea and other legumes are typically used as green manure.

Most of the time green manure crops are plowed into the ground in their entirety, but occasionally, parts of them are used for feeding the farm animals. Even with plants grown for human consumption, utilizing the inedible parts of the plants left over in the harvest is an opportunity often missed. More farmers will have to learn to utilize plant waste such as cereal stems as green manure or compost.

Cover crops

Cover crops are plants grown to cover the soil to protect it, often after the harvest of crops grown for human consumption (such as potatoes). The same field that produces an edible crop in the summer can be covered by protective vegetation such as grass in the winter. Typically, red clover is used for this purpose, but also legumes and brassica such as tillage radish are suitable for it.

Cover crops help restore the soil from the cultivation of exploitative crops by for example preventing nutrient runoff and erosion and thus maintaining the healthy structure of the soil. This helps increase future crop yields. Cover crops also reduce the carbon emissions the land produces. Read more on the benefits of cover crops here.

Direct seeding

Traditionally, the sowing process starts by turning over the soil with a plow, a farming tool with one or more blades usually made of iron or steel attached to a tractor (or a horse, if you look back beyond the 1940s). Then the field is flattened with a harrow, a tool with discs suitable for surface tillage. Finally, the ground is prepared by cutting furrows, into which the seeds are planted. Usually, this part is done mechanically with a seed drill.

The problem with the traditional sowing process is that it constantly disturbs the soil. This has many negative effects. Firstly, when the surface of the soil breaks, the deeper layers become exposed to the oxygen in the atmosphere. The carbon in the soil then becomes oxidized and turns into carbon dioxide, which is the primary greenhouse gas contributing to climate change.

Carbon oxidation in agriculture. Illustration by Esther Punny

Secondly, when the natural structure of the soil is broken down by tillage, the soil loses some of its natural porosity, resulting simultaneously in both poor water retention and infiltration. Breaking the structure down also makes the soil more prone to compaction, making it harder for plants to grow their roots into the soil. Additionally, cultivation disturbs soil organisms (symphyla, mites, springtails, diplura, earthworms, etc.) that are vital for healthy growth, because they turn nutrients into forms that are easy for plants to use.

Direct seeding is a method of planting seeds into an untilled field through a small hole drilled into the soil. The method disturbs the soil significantly less and also requires less labor than traditional sowing. Despite these advantages, direct seeding is not widely popularised yet. Some barriers include high prices for direct seeding machinery, as well as an enhanced need for weed control. However, in the past years, experiments with rice especially have been paving a way for the method.

Collaborative partnerships

Agricultural Specialization has been a global phenomenon since the Green Revolution at least, resulting in farms focusing on a limited variety of goods, often either crops or livestock. In Finland, for instance, similar types of farms are even more concentrated in specific locations, with dairy cattle farms being the most common type of farm in the Northern and Eastern parts of the country. From the point of view of sustainability, high specialization is bad, because it encourages monoculture. It also does not make it practical to make the most of the agricultural output of the farm.

To illustrate this, let´s take a dairy cattle farm as an example. The livestock produces tons of excrement. In the worst case, only some of it will be used as manure for the pasture, while the rest might end up running down to nearby water bodies. It is quite challenging for a farm to optimally balance its resources as an individual, highly specialized facility.

But what if the excess manure could be used to fertilize the neighboring farm´s barley fields? This way, more of it would be put to actual use. In turn, the plant farm could give the livestock farm excess hay to use as fodder for the cows. This co-operation between different types of farms could lead to more effective use of resources and help both nature and farmers themselves.

Read about one such experiment in Denmark here.

Digital sustainability management
Illustration by Esther Punny

Online resources for farming are developing all the time, and there´s a lot of info already out there. By googling myself I found at least these resources:

Much can be done still to make the latest scientific knowledge available for farmers to make their practices more sustainable. Avoin is developing a tool that utilizes an already existing carbon footprint calculator for farming released by European Commission in 2015 as a base and source for inspiration. Originally, the tool was built in Microsoft Excel and was not easily usable for non-experts. The new calculator will be built inside Avoin´s virtual mapping tool Avoin Map, in which the farmers can log to virtually monitor their farm´s profitability and sustainability.

The original calculator from 2015 bases its data on the latest knowledge from the year 2014, making it obsolete. It also makes wide generalizations, ignoring vital factors such as weather in its calculations. Additionally, its user interface is somewhat awkward, making it more difficult for people with varying digital skills to start using. The new calculator aims to tackle these challenges as well as go further with country-specific calculations.

While the previous calculator was largely based on West-European agricultural research only, the goal for the new calculator is to be based on more country-specific research data. This means it will show results that have been calculated based on the area in which the user´s farm is located, making the calculations more accurate than before.

The first version of the new calculator will be ready by 2024. The tool will not have a complete catalog of global agricultural data by then, but it will be more advanced than the calculator from 2015. The goal for the new calculator is to update itself as more data is gathered. This means that it will not be a stagnant kind of digital instrument, but a tool that will constantly develop, making it increasingly easier for farmers to evaluate the sustainability of their farms in the future.

The True Green Evolution

Essentially, the struggle is about moving the whole global agricultural ecosystem in a more ecological direction while making sure there´s enough food for everybody.

For most industries, sustainable development presents challenges that are complex and require skill and knowledge exchange over borders of individual countries  —  and agriculture is no exception. Essentially, the struggle is about moving the whole global agricultural ecosystem in a more ecological direction while making sure there´s enough food for everybody. The solutions to this problem will have to be complex and take into account individual circumstances, starting with the local climate and available resources, along with the structures of the global production and distribution chains.

The changing climate offers its own, significant complexities. In the future, we must prepare for some of our existing arable lands to be destroyed by extreme weather, floods, and drought. We will have to develop new methods for farming for these new conditions. Drawing from the knowledge of indigenous people around the world to modify our current farming habits is a kind of retrospective approach some organizations have already started to experiment with. For example, in Vietnam, indigenous techniques of retaining water in hilly terrain conditions, such as making water wheels for water supplying, and digging wells in paddies for water storing, have been implemented in modern farming.

Many organizations are looking into innovations to advance sustainable development in agriculture. For example, The Land Institute, a nonprofit research organization, focuses on studying perennial crops and polyculture farming. These are methods of keeping the land covered all year round while attempting to increase biodiversity and food security. The Organic Research Centre, an independent organic research organization, is looking into ramial chipped wood as a substance to increase soil fertility. In Finland, Carbon Action Platform by The Baltic Sea Action Group connects scientific projects and pilot farms to research ways of accelerating soil carbon sequestration. The platform provides practical tools and guidance to farmers, including an e-college for regenerative farming, which is freely available in Finnish and Swedish.

Since the beginning of humanity´s agricultural endeavors, constantly developing farming methods and innovations have made it possible to produce significant yields with a considerable price to pay for the environment. This millennium has seen the rise of awareness of the cumulative planetary burden caused by the previous three agricultural revolutions.

Now, it´s the time to look simultaneously into the past to evaluate, what we have done wrong and right, and into the future to envision new ways of producing enough food for everybody. We shall do this while conserving our nature, the beauty of which makes life worth living.

Perhaps history will remember this era as the Fourth agricultural revolution, or better yet  —  The True Green Evolution.

Written by Tuula Cox. This text is the seventh post in a blog series by Avoin. The blog series discusses environmental protection and sustainable development from the digital point of view. For inquiries about the text, contact

This blog post was first published via Medium.