Today we’re going to discuss regeneration, in particular, regeneration of the soil and ecosystems. Over the last 50 to 75 years, basically since the second world war we’ve gone through a period of destruction. In effect a faustian bargain in which we gave up 1% of our topsoil every year in return for production returns.
We did this by using chemicals: chemical fertilizers, chemical pesticides and herbicides and fungicides and it worked. There were lots of famines and people starving in the 1970s. A lot of the techniques developed with chemical inputs saved many people, kept them alive. But the cost! That bill is coming due and we need to pay for it now. If we wait the cost will be so much higher.
A few years back, maybe 20, the idea of sustainability started the kickoff and that was about holding the decline, holding things steady but even then that wasn’t enough. It was never going to be. You could see it then. Being sustainable was great but it wasn’t going to actually improve things and as we’re growing more people every year. We need to actually do something to improve and save our soils. Regeneration is about returning that which was ripped out of the soil by the use of agricultural chemicals.
Living the Changes
We have been living through a J curve. We are in the first part of the J, at the bottom of the curve. We’re in a position where we can start growing the longer part of the curve. Out of everything we’ve lost, it’s what’s gone missing from the soil. That is: carbon and carbon is just a proxy for life on this planet. Much soil nowadays is just a matrix used to contain the chemicals used to grow food. It is, in effect, a huge hydroponic system. if you’ve seen the film King Corn you know this is the case because they pump ammonia into the soil. Liquid ammonia which is a nitrogen based product and does give the corn a kick. I’m not sure it does the plant any good but it grows a lot of corn leaf. Not sweet corn or flour corn but it’s a type called dent corn which is then treated like crude oil. It’s chemically fractionated and torn apart and then fed the stock and people and whatnot. We get wonderful things like high fructose corn syrup from the process.
The Green Revolution
We got to this point because there was a growing population on the planet there was a hell of a lot of nitrogen available after the Second World War because nitrogen is a key part of nitroglycerin and other explosives. Once the war ended somewhat quicker than people expected there was an awful lot of this stuff leftover and the industrial capacity to continue making more. A way was found to use it in conjunction with increased mechanization. Increased use of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium as well obviously, because you need the three major elements and the growth in monocultural production just exploded. There was a time in the sixties and seventies when the American farm system went from paying people not to grow crops to paying people to grow extra crops. This was in response to an ideological change but also the fact that there were so many people suffering famines I still remember photo images on the ABC News of thousands upon thousands of people in India living in stormwater drains piled on top of each other to give them some sort of housing and so that they could be fed nearby. It was not a good time. The green Revolution built upon this and selected seeds for hybridization. All these things interacted to basically kill off the soils. An article a little while ago stated the UK has probably got 30-40 harvest left before their soil is completely gone. The UK has had a reputation for good soils.
When you start applying those sorts of industrialised processes to the ancient soils of Australia you end up with a problem. We are fortunately on deep red volcanic soil but even that’s not without limit. It’s soil that feeds us, that and the fact that it rains from time to time. There seems to be a series of things going on as the soil dries out so that the climate dries too. I know there’s climate change going on as well and that’s exacerbating things but ever since colonisation and the clearing of forestry here in Australia there’s been a drying out of the continent. The lack of fire stick farming by Europeans has altered the nature of our soils as did the fire stick farming to start with. There are always consequences for actions.
Mechanised farming, in the developed world and increasingly across the developing world, was the only game in town after the second world war. All the best and brightest minds went into developing ways to make the industrial system as efficient as possible and that’s fair enough. There were people starving, there was money to be made, their were careers to be created. The endpoint of that of course is not so much an excess of food because there are still people starving but a waste of food and on the technological level you end up with something like Monsanto developing seeds that only grow in paddocks sprayed with glyphosate and planted with hybridized seeds that need to be repurchased each year. The seeds are genetically modified to be able to resist the effects of glyphosate.
Genetically Modified Crops
A quick word on genetically modified genetically modified crops.
Genetic modification is something humans have done to plant seeds since we came in contact with them. We were just another evolutionary pressure on seeds. Now if you’re going to bring a new seed batch to market one that’s more rust resistant or better able account cope with drought or whatever I got no problem with using GM techniques. When companies start putting fish genes into tomatoes so that you can grow them in frosts, I have an issue.
And then there’s what Monsanto did.
The technology which could be used for improving seeds was used to alter them so that the seeds could only work when they were bathed in glyphosate and they had the ability to withstand glyphosate genetically engineered into them. The glyphosate then wiped out all the competing weeds. This is great if that’s what you’re trying to do. If you don’t want anything else growing and this “improvement” is where the trouble with Monsanto’s GM begins. There are so many things wrong with this that it is not funny. What it means to start with is: every time you spray a weed crop you’re selecting for those weeds that have the ability to withstand the glyphosate. Not surprisingly after 5 or 10 years of this system there developed Roundup resistant weeds which means that you’re either have to cultivate more or you have to find an even more potent chemical not that glyphosate is all that special anyway.
The misuse of genetic modification by Monsanto has done much to destroy the idea that there is some good to genetic modification. In the long-term, a lot of the chemicals have really nasty side effects and linger in the environment, despite what they say on the tin. I’ll have another episode on the effects of Roundup coming up and why we really should be getting rid of it. This development is the sort of logical end point of Industrial agricultural systems. if it’s not Monsanto and glyphosate it’ll be another seed / Chemical company and another poison. Best to stop.
The Best and Brightest
Back to the need for regenerative agriculture. As I said, all the best and brightest minds went into the industrial agricultural method. For the people going into agriculture it was science, about the ideas and it seemed to be working. People were growing more, more people being fed and famines declined. Now the trouble with a lot of the science that was taught during this period and actual soil science only ever covered the physics and chemistry of soil. Things like the pH of the soil, how the particles interact with each other and how they behaved under different water regimes and so on. But there was rarely any mention of the biology in the soil because after all didn’t have to worry about that sort of nonsense, the chemicals were feeding the world.
Enter the Hippies
As a reaction to this paradigm, there arose the back to the land movement in the 60s. Hippies, communes, that sort of thing but they’re were also others like John Seymour and his wonderful book The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency which was where I started my organic journey. Seymour et al we’re going back to organics by using systems from prior to the introduction of chemical fertilizers. Basically just growing without the chemical fertilizers. Yields dropped some to begin with but so too did costs. You weren’t having to buy all fertilizers, chemicals and whatnot, you were growing your own through your farm systems.
There’s also a fellow call John Jeavons who came up with a similar sort of system. His didn’t involve animals and did involve a lot of double digging each year in the garden beds. 85% of the stuff that was growing went through the compost to feed the soil for the 10% you ate and the 5% you sold for a profit. A lot of these older systems described as new ways of doing things were not.
These were the beginnings of the sustainability movements. The ideas we needed to stop what we were doing with chemicals and we need to save the soils that we’ve got. We need to keep them alive. At the same time people like Masanobu Fukuoka of the One Straw Revolution who didn’t use any chemicals did use animals: ducks. I’ll be doing a whole episode on Fukuoka’s methods. I’ll probably be doing a video to show you the grain growing system as I set it up over the next few months on my place. Of course in the 70s and 80s we had John Bill Mollison and the development of Permaculture.
Industrial to Sustainable to Regenerative
So what commenced as a return to old ways then developed new ways of doing things. It wasn’t just in the english-speaking and the japanese-speaking world, people developed systems in India and Bangladesh. There’s a system called zero budget natural farming system that was developed in India and does what it says on the tin using available resources to create biology in the soil.
An older system developed in the late 19th century: Biodynamics. Developed by Rudolf Steiner, it involves creating and maintaining soil biology. Biodynamics has been taken up by large numbers of wine growers as a way to improve their soil, their harvests and the ecosystems that they’re growing in. It’s a system that works. A word of explanation: like permaculture, biodynamics has probably got two wings to it. I’ll be very blunt here and not judgemental but you just need to be aware that there are two sides to these things. I have heard these two streams described as being the purple and the brown.
The brown wing of Bioynamics and permaculture for that matter, focuses on food production, soil health and getting things done at commercial level. The purple side is what could be described as a bit woo woo or perhaps better described as esoteric. Which is fine if you want to do that I’m not denigrating it but for those of you reading or coming in contact with the biodynamics and/or permaculture for the first time just be aware that it may not resonate with you because of the purple/brown dichotomy. I’m definitely of the brown variety.
We have the regenerative techniques. Fukuoka, ZBNF, Permaculture, Biodynmics and their ilk. The facts are, they work and the point of them is to get more soil carbon or more soil biology happening. This includes fungal activity, the bacteria and even soil viruses – there’s positive ones as well as negative. The same with the bacteria and the fungus. The point is we can replace all the artificial fertilisers artificial herbicides pesticides fungicides with natural systems, with complex ecosystems. There is going to be a period of adjustment but can be done now. Especially as lands come out of drought, or after fire events or even flooding. Cleanish slate, start as you mean to go on.
The other thing that happened with industrial agriculture that no one talked about at the time and I’ve mentioned before, was the loss of soil carbon. Soil carbon is destroyed every time you plough the soil or turn it over expose it to the air. It’s this aspect that has climate change implications. As you can imagine this is a bit of an issue given everything else going on in the industrialised world. The good news is regenerative farming sucks the carbon back out of the atmosphere and puts it in the soil. I’ve heard calculations on this that are quite mind boggling. Originally I heard a 3% increase thing soil carbon across the soils of Australia will remove all the carbon put into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution which seemed a bit excessive to me but they’d done their maths. The latest thinking is that two-thirds of the world’s agricultural land and increasing it’s soil carbon by about 2% will then removal all the excess carbon since 1750 of thereabouts and it’ll do it and 2 to 5 years depending on the weather conditions and that sort of thing. We can actually make a difference within those 12 years well 11 and a half now since the IPCC people came out and said we had 12 years to go last year last October.
So we’re in a position where we can actually reverse all of climate change, all of the carbon dioxide related to climate change. The methane and what not being released by the Tundra is problematic but we can do this carbon thing in the soil and we need to do it probably quicker rather than slower. There will be more of this in coming episodes.
Just a quick word on the benefits of regenerative Agriculture, regenerative gardening and even a regenerative approach to life. In regards to the soil, regenerative agriculture and gardening has many benefits other than just the climate ones. By removing all the chemical inputs we give the soil a chance to heal, we produce food that returns to the nutrient levels of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The protein levels were much higher. I’m going to do another episode on that. Once the soil’s been cleaned then water becomes clean because it’s not got the rubbish going into it. Natural systems have a chance to repair themselves, the beneficial organisms aren’t being killed off constantly by the chemical inputs. When the water’s clean and the soil’s clean then the air becomes cleaner.
I hope this has been useful if you got any questions email me at the firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be happy to answer any questions.