I will be travelling to Chile next month for the first time. This week I was asked some questions by journalist Patricia Vildosola from the leading agriculture journal, Revisto del Campo. It occurred to me that my readers may be interested in my responses, as her questions involved some big picture, philosophical issues. My answers underpin much of what NTS is trying to achieve in the world. Here is the transcript from that interview:
Graeme Sait is a global leader in sustainable agriculture who travels the world teaching farmers and consultants the mechanics of profitable sustainability. In most countries he meets with high level government officials and he is a sought-after keynote speaker at conferences around the world.
He is the author of hundreds of published articles and a best-selling book entitled “Nutrition Rules!”
Graeme specialises in the profound link between soil health, human health and planetary health and he has developed a holistic approach to food production called “Nutrition Farming®”. This pragmatic approach involves the balance between minerals, microbes and humus. This hard-science based system delivers food with forgotten flavours, more medicinal qualities, extended shelf-life and much less chemical contamination. This all-inclusive strategy also focuses upon building profitability for farmers, while increasing their sustainability.
Graeme Sait is set to visit Chile for the first time and he agreed to explain a little more about the content of his upcoming talks, in this interview with Patricia Vildosola.
Patricia: Hi Graeme, thanks for agreeing to this interview. I need to ask you an important opening question. Is there really a new way to farm?
Graeme: Yes, there is. Much of modern agriculture is based upon a myth that we cannot produce food without chemicals. We have been duped into a belief that high production agriculture requires genetic modification and an increasing array of protective chemicals. It is simply not true and many thousands of farmers around the world are now demonstrating that you can be more productive, more profitable and have more fun farming, when you work with a natural system rather than against it. It is all about addressing root causes rather than just treating symptoms. Chemicals treat symptoms and we have poured on more and more every year with less and less response. Every year since the start of this chemical experiment in food production, ten decades ago, we have increased the amount of chemical applied to our soils and food, and every year, without exception, there is an overall increase in pest and disease pressure. This is actually the definition of “unsustainable”.
Patricia: So, what is the best way to produce our food while maintaining sustainable development? Is it really possible to achieve economic growth and maintain social equity while preserving nature and the environment?
Graeme: I think it is important to understand that we really don’t have much choice about the imperative to change the way we produce food. At our current rate of topsoil loss, we have just 60 years left until there is is simply nothing left in which to grow the food for our expanding billions. This thin veil of soil that sustains us is disappearing because we have lost so much of the humus (organic matter) from our soils. Humus is the soil glue that holds a soil together, preventing erosion and dust storms. We have lost over 2/3 of our humus with the chemical, extractive farming model and that massive lode of carbon is now CO2 in the atmosphere. In fact, this is the lion’s share of the excess that is thickening the blanket that surrounds us, trapping the heat and dramatically changing our climate.
The fastest way to reverse global warming is to change the way we farm and begin to build, rather than lose, humus. When we increase organic matter by nurturing soils rather than blind extraction, we are effectively sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere. It is really important to understand that you cannot make more carbon molecules. It is the same carbon molecules that have been on the planet since the start of time and they move between the soil, living things and the atmosphere as part of the carbon cycle. If you have generated more carbon in your soil, as humus, it had to come from somewhere. You have captured what would otherwise have returned to the atmosphere as part of the carbon cycle.
Most people don’t understand that the only way we can effectively reverse global warming is to sequester CO2 as stable humus in our soils. Thankfully, the French Government have understood this equation. Their new ‘4 per 1000’ initiative is all about incentivising farmers to try to increase organic matter by 0.4% each year (4 per 1000). Their scientists have recognised that this is the single most effective response to the climate change challenge and thankfully 22 other countries have now signed up for this initiative.
Patricia: You mentioned the idea that we need to begin working with Nature rather than against her. You seem to suggest that Mankind has always produced food by working against Nature. How could that be?
Graeme: I can understand how you might make that assumption, so I need to clarify my earlier statement. We have not always farmed with this extractive, chemical, anti-Nature model. We had tens of thousands of years where farmers returned organic matter to the soils, they spelled soils, green-manured and grew cover crops. Most importantly, they did not assault those soils with ever increasing amounts of acid salt fertilisers, which can be harsh on soil life. A German chemist started this fiasco in the 19th century, when he analysed the ash from a burnt plant and discovered that it largely consisted of just nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). He announced to the world that this was all that we needed to produce our food and disused armament factories sprang into action to manufacture NPK fertilisers.
This “fertility from a bag” concept was a massive change to the way we farmed and it was only a short time until this dumbed-down nutrition compromised the soils and the plants they produced. It is really quite simple. Every time we remove a crop from the soil, we remove a little of all 74 minerals found in a healthy soil, but now we were returning just three minerals. How did we think this could be sustainable? Even more importantly, why did we not think about how this simplistic NPK approach might impact the nutritional requirements of microbes, plants, animals and, of course, us? Our crop plants were the first to signpost their distress, as they quite rapidly became more susceptible to attack from pest and disease. Their resilience had been compromised on three fronts:
Number one – farmers were no longer feeding up the soil microbes and earthworms with manures and cover crops. The plants no longer received the nutritional support from manures, with their full spectrum of minerals and there is also a microbial link. There is a soil microbe behind the uptake of every mineral. They are effectively the bridge between the soil and the plant. Then, there is the wonderful earthworm. Earthworms pull minerals from beyond the root zone and magnify and stabilise those minerals with the humus they produce in their castings. There are very few earthworms remaining in our commercially farmed soils.
Number two – no mineral is an island. They all impact each other. Too much of one mineral shuts down another or sometimes, several others. When we overapply NPK, as almost every farmer did, we impact the uptake of supportive trace minerals, and the plant’s capacity to protect itself is seriously compromised because these micronutrients are integral to plant immunity.
The third negative impact on crop resilience was the effect of the high-salt, acidic fertilisers on soil life and the humus that sustains them. Every kilogram of nitrogen we supply, over and above what the plant needs at that time, results in the burnout of 100 kg of soil carbon (humus). This carbon then becomes CO2 in the atmosphere and it is actually a root cause of our current climate crisis. The salt component of these fertilisers also dehydrates single-celled soil organisms and the acid component sizzles critically important creatures, like mycorrhizal fungi.
It was only a short period before scientists were forced to introduce “rescue chemicals” to enable production to continue in the face of this reduced resilience. Then, the downward-spiralling, vicious cycle really kicked in. The chemicals further compromised soil life and the plants they were designed to protect. The eventual outcome of this dumbed-down nutrition was a completely unsustainable system, where we pour on more and more chemicals each year with less response.
Wow! That was a long answer, even for me.
Patricia: You seem to be suggesting a return to traditional food production, but this seems unrealistic. Technology has created amazing increases in efficiency and production, which is so necessary to feed expanding populations.
Graeme: I am not proposing a return to traditional farming. I am suggesting that we need to recognise the wisdom in some of those practices, while also realising the unsustainability of the current mainstream approach. The definition of the word “science” in Webster’s dictionary is “adherence to natural laws and principles”. When we apply that definition to agricultural science, veterinary science and medical science, it is abundantly clear that the “science” is about making money from treating symptoms. Real science involves learning from Nature, understanding her interrelated complexity and working with that understanding to solve problems rather than treat symptoms.
In this instance, when we look at soils and how they work, it is very difficult not to feel awestruck by the vast complexity and diversity found in that thin veil of topsoil that sustains us. Yet, despite that mind-boggling diversity, the solution is simple. This system has three key components – minerals, microbes and humus – and we were supposed to manage and nurture those three things. That is the essence of Nutrition Farming®.
There are key mineral ratios (according to a soil test) that determine productivity and resilience. There are four minerals that should be maintained at luxury levels, according to a leaf test, to ensure abundant, problem-free crops. Then there is the microbe component. We brew up a new microbe workforce to beef up our existing soil life, while feeding those organisms with introduced biostimulants and humus-building cover crops. Humates (natural substances called humic acid and fulvic acid) are the most powerful humus-building bio-stimulants, so they become an integral part of this regenerative approach. There are thousands of farmers all over the globe who are now farming more productively and more profitably by addressing root causes rather than the increasingly expensive, symptom-treating alternative.
Patricia: I wonder if you could expand upon the link between human health and soil health.
Graeme: This is actually the great passion that drives me on a crazy schedule that has taken me to 33 countries in the past 12 months. The simple story here relates to the fact that we are what we eat, and what we eat comes from soils that are a shadow of their former selves. Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine, made the famous statement, “let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food”. Nutrition research in recent years has driven home the profound significance of those twelve words.
Fresh food contains everything that our body requires, providing an amazing array of medicinal compounds. These nutrients work so much better than supplements, because they contain all of the natural co-factors to improve nutritional uptake and performance. It is critically important to understand that the amount and quality of these medicinal components in our food is dependent upon how that food was grown. The chemical, extractive approach has decimated our soils, messing up mineral balance, sterilising soil life and burning precious soil carbon. There are multiple studies illustrating the decline in nutrition associated with this flawed form of food production. Degenerative disease is now our largest killer and a recent WHO report could not find a single one of our key killers that did not have a nutritional link.
We call this regenerative approach “Nutrition Farming®”, because it is all about bringing back these medicinal qualities into our food. It is also about reducing the toxic residues that seem to have almost become an accepted risk factor when seeking nourishment. A US study of 1400 children looked at the presence of the 13 most commonly used chemicals in the bodies of those children. To the horror of the researchers, they did not find a single child who did not have unacceptable accumulations of all 13 chemicals. Our inheritance to our children with this misguided approach has been a leukaemia ward in every city. This chemical-related cancer is now the largest killer of kids.
Patricia: It is suggested that we will need to double our current production of food by 2050 to feed our rapidly growing populations. Do you really believe that this is possible without GM crops and chemicals?
Graeme: I believe we must try and I seriously believe it is possible. The fact is that we are in crisis. As I have mentioned previously, we are pouring on more and more chemicals, with less and less response. The world’s most widely used farm chemical, the herbicide, glyphosate, has just been listed as a carcinogen. It has also been banned in some countries because it has been linked to increases in liver and kidney failure. France has just announced that they intend to ban it because it is a proven endocrine disrupter. This is the chemical that is sprayed three times per crop cycle on the principal GM food crops, corn and soybean, because they have been genetically modified so that they are not killed by the herbicide. Unfortunately, it may well be the consumer of these contaminated foods that suffers, as the residues are obviously still present in the food. Almost every loaf of bread contains GM soy flour and every can of soda contains corn syrup from these tainted crops.
We have contaminated our waterways with chemicals and destroyed two thirds of the humus that cleanses the soil and protects our precious water. Water has become the new gold in every country that I travel. The best way to manage increasingly limited water availability is to store everything that we can. The current strategy involves huge dams with massive evaporation issues, as the planet heats. When we build humus levels by just 1% in our soils, those soils can now store 170,000 L/ha that they could not store before. There is no evaporation beneath the soil and no carbon footprint when delivering that water to the crop. There is no more efficient way to manage a precious substance.
Patricia: What is the difference between your approach and organic agriculture?
Graeme: Conventional organics is all about what you can’t do. In Australia, there is a substantial manual full of the “don’t’s”, associated with organics. However, there is not a single sentence about what you should do, to create medicinal food with forgotten flavours, extended shelf-life and reduced chemical contamination. Nutrition Farming® is all about the things you can do, to build humus and soil life, improve mineral balance and create a much more resilient plant. There is no sacrifice here, because you can do these things while also building productivity and profitability. I am not knocking organics because I buy organic food whenever I can, if I have not been able to produce my own. I just feel that they have lost their way a little.
Organic growers are often shackled to low production and less yield, just because they have not been taught the science involved in high production, sustainable food production. If we can understand the simple fact that plant disease and insect attack is not bad luck, if we can realise that pest pressure is not an accident, that there is always a reason, then we are on the right path. An ill-informed organic grower is really no different to a misguided conventional grower. Neither have recognised that management of minerals, microbes and humus addresses root causes of pest pressure. At least the conventional grower has the chemical crutches for support, but the ill-informed organic growers can be like lambs to the wolves.
I love farmers. I believe that theirs is the single most important profession and that they are amongst the last of the “real” people remaining out there. I have dedicated my life to making their lives better.
Patricia: Thank you for agreeing to share your passion.
Graeme: It was a pleasure, and I am hopeful that this information might inspire some Chilean farmers and consultants to attend one of my talks in your country. I will do my very best to inspire meaningful change.
Click here to view the published article in Revista Del Campo