AgriTech

Farming For Resilience

Short interval, higher intensity grazing on taller mixed grass paddocks
Short interval, higher intensity grazing on taller mixed grass paddocks

This is the final article in a three-part series on ‘regrooving’ NZ agriculture. In my first article, I focused on the links between flavour and nutrient density in the foods we produce: soil microbes and minerals make for more plant flavour compounds and vitamins in our food. In the second piece I discussed the effects of our paradigm regarding fertilisers and agrichemical choices: how changing our views on soil structure, biology and mineral availability could enable us to farm for both a better environment and better food. In this final instalment, I will outline and re-emphasise the changes that I think need to happen – not just in the field or boardroom, but between our ears as well.

Attitude and accurate thinking are the major part of a solution when we strive to change something as important as how we use our environment to produce food. As American philosopher and educator John Dewey famously said, “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.”

The Problem with Agriculture

1. Simplistic farming

We are not viewing or operating our farms as ecosystems in which all parts and actions are connected. We have defaulted to linear system farming without understanding and honouring biological complexity. Product sales and execution have been easier in the simple chemical ag paradigm of the last 80 years. But as a result, we’re bringing in a toxic harvest of soil, air, and water pollution, cancers, infertility and birth defects. We’re using ever increasing amounts of energy and agrichemicals to deliver a slightly increased yield and a precipitously declining food nutrient density accompanied by erosion, water pollution and climate change.

2. Declining food value

To get as much nutrition from our food today, as someone eating in the 1940’s we’d need to consume:

• Twice as much meat
• Three times as much fruit
• Four times as many vegetables

Food today is not ‘fit for purpose.’ It mostly arrives at our mouths over-processed, chemically contaminated, long dead and of low nutrient content.

3. Our belief that we can’t farm without pesticides

Organic/biological farming shows it is possible to produce similar volumes, better quality and better drought tolerance without an ongoing reliance on biocides. The more we use pesticides and herbicides the less microbially diverse, and hence less resilient and profitable, our farms become.

Research, dating from the 1930’s onwards, compiled in the 1980’s and ignored since, demonstrates that pathogens and insects are attracted to nutritionally impoverished plants. This is the science of trophobiosis – organisms only eat the foods appropriate to their needs. Nutritionally imbalanced plants send specific signals to pests indicating they are composed of simple sugars and amino acids – the only foods these pests are capable of digesting. Fully feeding our crops makes them less likely to be the target of pests.

4. Excessive Urea and Ammonia Use

We’ve added as much synthetic Nitrogen to the planetary ‘sinks’ as was there naturally. Through the Haber Bosch process, we’ve pulled nitrogen gas out of the atmosphere to create ammonia and urea fertilisers doubling the amount of nitrogen circulating in the planet’s land and water systems.

The result has been water pollution, dead zones and massive increases in nitrous oxide emissions from the soil.

Why are we focusing on methane from cows when the greenhouse gas problem is really about the application of urea fertilisers de-stabilising soil microbe communities causing a massive increase in nitrous oxide?

5. Science blinkers

True science is not about having arrived at ‘The Truth.’ It’s about creating a working hypothesis that you are eager to have challenged and refined. We need to be scientists who say – “It appears to be this way, where I’ve looked so far….” Ag scientists who say we can’t feed the world without ag chemicals, tillage and GMOs, need to look at different farms where regenerative practices are being implemented and substantial soil carbon sequestration is happening as a result.

6. Agriculture at the root of our health crisis

Ag chemical-related cancers, birth defects, gut dysbiosis, inflammatory disorders and neurological damage are stressing our bodies and our social fabric. Who is going to carry on the business of society and life in 2050 when the rate of Alzheimer’s has doubled and when half of our children are on the Autistic spectrum. That’s where the statistics are headed. We’re producing poisoned food that fails to adequately nourish us.

7. Climate Change

Without massive, rapid soil carbon sequestration through revised agricultural practices, we will experience ocean acidification and species die off, rising sea levels and the ravages of destructive weather events on soils and infrastructure, including widespread crop failure.

All of this comes to rest at the feet of agriculture: It doesn’t have to be that way. Agriculture CAN deliver stable soil aggregate, water infiltration and storage, carbon sequestration and food that heals people.

Provide farmer education on practices that stress on-farm observation skills and the view of the farm as a soil-based, complex, generous ecosystem. If we stop kicking Mother Nature’s ass, she’ll stop kicking ours.

The Solution: Regenerative Farming Principles

Regroove the orientation of Dairy NZ, Landcare, Ag Research, MPI, FAR and the Universities toward reversing soil carbon loss, increasing biodiversity, preventing erosion and eliminating pesticide use.

Regenerative practices that help achieve farm ecosystem resilience are:

• Keep a living root in the soil at all times to boost photosynthesis and the liquid carbon pathway for carbon sequestration
• Use more natural forms of fertilisers with emphasis on fully balanced major and minor soil minerals – focus on lime and trace minerals
• Seed cover crop and pastures of 30 plus species, leave a higher residual and graze paddocks less frequently for better production
• Reduce pesticide and herbicide use to encourage soil fungal communities
• Reduce tillage. Plough only when establishing perennial crops or pastures
• Keep an ‘armour’ of organic matter mulch on the soil surface to reduce erosion, feed microbes and facilitate water infiltration
• Stop using glyphosate. Instead, use cover crops mulches for weed suppression and soil enrichment
• Mandate multi-species biodiversity in all cropping systems, including forestry
• Replant forests with species appropriate to the zone and environment. Assume they will NOT be harvested. They are more valuable as our weather moderating, gentle rain producing, erosion preventing perennial ground cover than as a source of fuel and fibre.

In short, honour the complexity and mimic the diversity of natural ecosystems in order to achieve high volume, quality food and fibre production that enhances our environment.

Things that need to change

Our attitude towards agriculture as menial, for the ‘dumber son’ and to be mechanised as much as possible, must change. If we’re going to grow ourselves out of these environmental problems, we’ll need to acknowledge the complexity involved in producing quality food without destroying our earth support systems. We need to relearn our powers of observation and sense of connection to our environment, particularly to the intelligence of the plant communities that govern the soil microbiome.

Institute Napoleonic law (common sense) for chemicals so that they are considered guilty until proven innocent. Establish new legal frameworks and regulatory agencies with a clear mandate to vociferously safeguard public and environmental health, along with the long-term, consistent funding to conduct safety tests in-house. Wouldn’t finding non-toxic alternatives to the 100,000 plus chemicals we’ve introduced in the last 70 years be cheaper than the chemical-prompted blow out of health care and environmental clean-up costs we’re experiencing?

Do not put new wine in old wine skins. Hire dedicated regulatory staff, pay them well and make their actions and communications easily transparent to the public. We need regulatory agencies that put public welfare first and that consistently protect us from harmful chemicals getting into our environments and food.

Return to exclusive government funding for ag sciences. The last 40 years of fertiliser company participation has hampered independent, ecology-based research, contributing to our water quality problems and two generations of farmers and consultants who don’t understand soil functions or the farm as an ecosystem.

Re-establish long-term government funding for agricultural extension based on microbiology, ecosystem science and the public good, free from the influence of agrichemical company profit motive.

Given the magnitude of the harm caused, shielding employees and shareholders from legal responsibility for the actions of their corporations needs to be re-evaluated.

This is not just about agriculture as our food supply. It is about agriculture actively reversing its contribution to environmental degradation. It’s about agriculture becoming the solution to, instead of the source of, our major problems. Let ecology show us how we can regenerate our farming, our health and our planet. – Resilience is fertile.

About the author

Phyllis Tichinin

Phyllis Tichinin

Phyllis Tichinin has had a life-long interest in agriculture and natural systems. She describes herself as an ‘eco-nutritionist'. Raised rurally in Northern California, she attended University of California at Davis where she studied Environmental Management and Soils, meeting her husband, a Kiwi getting his PhD in Ecology. For most of her life she has raised her own fruit and vegetables and for the last 10 years her own meat on a dairy support block in Hawke's Bay. She has been an environmental policy specialist in California State government, a biological soils consultant, an organic farmer and is a consultant, educator and purveyor of plant-based alternatives to dairy antibiotics.

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