The Bugs That Can Save The World

I have been researching a new presentation for my Radiance Health Festival between Christmas and New Year. It is called “Healthy Soils, Hardy People, Happy Planet” and it covers the inextricable intertwining of our food producing soils, personal health, community health and the environment. There is, of course, a heavy emphasis upon Climate Change and the profound implications of this coming crisis.

Yesterday, while reading the work of British scientist, James Lovelock, and the research of James Hansen from NASA, I burst into tears at the enormity of their predictions. Lovelock considers that we are too late and that “teeming billions” will perish and just 200 million people may survive through relocation to the arctic zone. He believes we are already locked into an 8 degree rise in temperature and that this is simply not survivable.

James Hansen, arguably the world’s leading climate scientist, is not quite so gloomy. We are at least given a little breathing space in his end game scenario. However, we do not have long to initiate huge changes. Hansen states that the earth is currently the hottest it has been for over a million years. He believes that we have until 2015 to reverse the flow of carbon into the atmosphere and after that time (just 5 years away) we reach the tipping point where Earth becomes “a very different planet!”

Bouncing Back From the Doom and Gloom

This morning I have bounced back from a sense of impending doom as I have realised that very few of the scientific community have recognised that agriculture can lead the rescue. There is no shortage of research into the potential of wind power, solar power and nuclear power to reduce our reliance upon the CO2-spewing liability of coal fired power. However, carbon sequestration in the soil will be the Earth’s saving strategy and not enough key people have realised this fact.

The Americans release over 25% of the world’s CO2 from just 5% of the planet’s population so they are a good example of the potential for change. If they were to increase the organic matter in their cultivated soils by just 1% it would account for 4.5 billion tonnes of the 8 billion tonnes of CO2 they contribute to the atmosphere each year and this is more than what is needed.

Since the Industrial revolution in the 1850s we have lost 476 billion tonnes (gigatonnes) from the world’s soils due to land mismanagement. In that same period, we have added 270 gigatonnes from all of the burning of fossil fuels and industrial emissions combined. We need to pull back this CO2 from the atmosphere and return it the soil. The sequestration of carbon is rapidly achievable on a planetary basis and there are tremendous flow-on benefits to what may prove the ultimate win/win situation.

How Do We Do It?

There are several productive strategies, including the minimisation of tillage, the stabilisation of all nitrogen inputs, the use of cover crops, rotational grazing and the use of carbon-building triggers like humates. However, the most important carbon sequestering tool involves the creatures in the soil responsible for humus production.

There are two types of humus in the soil and one of them remains in the soil for 30 times longer than the other. Active humus, produced largely by bacteria, is what you might find in the compost produced from your lawn clippings. Bacteria prefer easy-to-digest carbon sources and the humus they produce is dominated by fulvic acids, which are not stable in the soil. This humus might last 12 months before it oxidises and returns to the atmosphere. Cellulose digesting fungi, by contrast, tend to combine humus and clay together to create a much longer lasting end product dominated by humic acids. This stable humus can last up to 35 years in the soil, which is 250% longer than the average time that carbon remains in biomass (plant matter).

Unfortunately soil-life analysis reveals that it is the cellulose digesting fungi that have been decimated by chemical farming practices. They are far less hardy than soil bacteria and it appears that herbicides, nematicides and, obviously, fungicides, knock the hell out of them. The single most productive carbon building strategy is to reintroduce and support cellulose digesting fungi – the most important creatures on the planet at this point in our history!

Bring On The Carbon Builders

NTS has specialised in the development of inexpensive inoculums of cellulose digesting fungi and these inputs can offer more than carbon sequestration. The dominant species in these inoculums is an organism called Trichoderma and there are several key strains of this microbe involved. Trichoderma provide three distinct benefits. They are voracious cellulose digesters, they are predatory fungi that prey upon numerous pathogens and they release an exudate that serves as a plant growth promoting agent. This is why it is so common to see a yield increase in the crop following a cellulose digesting programme.

A substantial stubble digestion trial on Brian Wilson’s property at Mingay in Victoria in 2004, revealed the yield building potential of this approach. This trial, supported by Southern Farming Systems and the Victorian DPI, involved 9 different plots each receiving a different treatment. These treatments involved combinations of 1 tonne of lime per hectare, 100 kg of Urea p/h, incorporation of residues vs standing stubble, humic acid and stubble burning. The residues were from Tenant wheat and the following crop was canola. Just one of the plots received an NTS inoculum of cellulose digesting organisms and this plot achieved a remarkable yield response in the subsequent crop.

Amongst the other treatments, the outstanding performer was 100 kg of urea combined with stubble incorporation. This worked well because incorporation improved the disgestion through soil to plant contact. Similarly, the carbon to nitrogen ratio is often a limiting factor in the digestion of crop residues so urea addresses this issue. The urea/incorporation plot achieved a yield response in the following crop of 3.7 tonnes per hectare of canola. By contrast, the crop that received the NTS inoculum along with incorporation and 1 tonne of lime achieved a yield response of 5.15 tonnes of canola. This plot also received 25 kgs of urea and a little humic acid and molasses to activate the new workforce.

In a more recent case reported by researchers in Bulgaria this week, there was also a significant yield improvement associated with a stubble digestion program. In this study, organised by the Dobroudja Agricultural Institute in Bulgaria, the leading NTS product, Accelerate™ was used. Initially wheat stubble was digested prior to plantings of beans, maize and sunflower. All three crops achieved yield increases over the controls exceeding 10% and then when these 3 crops were digested and returned to wheat there were increases as high as 19%. What is the explanation for these yield increases?

Phosphate Solubilisation, N Storage and Stimulation

It is now widely recognised that you are only receiving 27% of your soluble phosphate investment because 73% becomes part of a massive frozen reserve in your soil within 6 weeks of application. One of the best techniques to reclaim some of these losses is by recharging your soil with cellulose digesting fungi, as these organisms release a constant supply of acid which gradually solubilises locked-up phosphate. There is no better chance to build your population of these phosphate-releasing organisms than to apply cellulose digesting fungi to a paddock full of tucker. There is no way that you will not experience an improvement in your fungi to bacteria ratio with associated access to phosphate from your frozen reserves. This supply of soluble phosphate can contribute to subsequent yield increases.

The extra humus you have created (for which you will soon be paid) has a capacity to store and deliver nitrogen which can also boost yield. Finally the Trichoderma, that are key players in the Accelerate™ blend will be in huge numbers in your soil due to the abundance of available food and these creatures will also promote plant growth. We would typically see a reduced incidence of disease when such fungal dominance is achieved. When considering these factors it is hard to imagine not achieving an increase in yield following a cellulose digestion program. The only question remaining is “how do you brew Accelerate™ and what does it cost?

Brewing the Bugs and What Will it Cost You?

Accelerate™ is a product that requires a 24 hour brewing process but this is not a difficult thing to do. The brewing process involves the addition of three components to a tank which is aerated by a pump and venturi system. This brewing equipment need cost no more than AU$2000 and sometimes considerably less. 200 litres of brewed inoculum will cover around 7 hectares and this involves 1 kg of Accelerate™, 2 litres of LMF™ (Liquid Microbe Food) and 2 litres of Dominate-F™. The total cost of these additives equates to just AU$7.00 per hectare and this may prove to be the best $7.00 you will ever spend. It is critically important that you use this recipe to be assured of success as this is the proven formula. LMF™ has been shown to be an excellent fungi food and Dominate-F™ is an NTS breakthrough that produces huge numbers of spores rather than hyphae and this is much more user-friendly, while delivering a larger, more hardy workforce of humus builders.

The Top Ten Benefits of Humus

Humus is not just something that may provide a second income stream on the farm while saving the planet. It also offers many other benefits in what may prove to be the greatest win/win in agricultural history. Here are some key benefits:

  • pH Buffering – the higher your humus levels the less the importance of maintaining a perfect soil pH of 6.4
  • Mineral Retention – humus has negatively and positively charged sites so it can store and stabilise all minerals. If you can build your humus levels it will dramatically improve fertiliser efficiency.
  • Soil Detoxification – humus acts like a carbon filter to neutralise chemical residues and heavy metals in the soil.
  • Root Zone Chelation – humus contains both humic and fulvic acids which are nature’s most powerful chelating agents.
  • Crumb Structure Promotion –  this magical soil structure is not something you can buy in a bag. Bacteria release a sticky exudate that creates mini aggregates in the soil. Then, fungi use their hyphae to wrap these particles into larger aggregates to create a highly desirable crumb structure that allows easy access of oxygen and water. Plant roots, earthworms and beneficial nematodes can move easily through this soil and everything works as it should!
  • Plant Growth Promotion – the organisms that live in humus produce growth hormones, B group vitamins (now known to promote plant growth) and other growth promoters.
  • Water Retention – humus holds it’s own weight in water and is a far more efficient means of delivering water directly to the roots than storage and delivery from dams which suffer major evaporation problems and generate a major carbon footprint via pumping of that water.
  • Soil Structure Improvement – poor drainage, hard pans, erosion and dust storms are far more likely in low humus soils as the life that creates a crumbly, friable soil is missing and the glue that holds the soil together is also lacking.
  • Less Chemical Intervention – high humus soils usually feature the full suite of protective organisms which reduces the need for toxic chemicals.
  • Solubilisation of Mineral Fertilisers – the better your humus levels the faster your response to mineral fertilisers like lime, dolomite, rock phosphate and rock dust. The release of these materials is governed by biology.
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