Biological agriculture has often been seen as a middle ground between chemical agriculture and certified organics but it is rapidly proving to be a force within itself. In the following interview Acres Australia talks with Graeme Sait, author, educator and co-founder of Nutri-Tech Solutions (NTS), a recognised world leader in the biological approach. Graeme has just returned from a world seminar tour, which included the US, South Africa and the island of Mauritius.
Acres Australia (AA): I understand that you have some exciting news to share about the global advance of biological agriculture, but I wondered if we might begin by clarifying the difference between conventional organics and biological agriculture?
Graeme: Well, I guess the biological approach is more pragmatic and goal specific. Conventional organics involves a great list of things you are not allowed to do but there is barely a sentence about what growers should be doing to produce nutrient-dense food with forgotten flavours and enhanced medicinal qualities. The biological approach is very specific about how to produce more nutritious food with less chemical intervention and there is a strong emphasis upon boosting profitability in the process.
AA: Are you suggesting that there is no sacrifice involved in becoming more sustainable?
Graeme: Most definitely not. There is a hard science-based agronomy focus in this approach which typically involves an improvement of existing practices and a subsequent increase in efficiency and production. There is less idealism here and a greater understanding that growers are invariably in tight economic circumstances where risks are not acceptable. Nutrition is the focus, rather than the simple avoidance of chemicals. Both increased profitability and reduced pest and disease pressure are nutrition issues. If we get the soil and plant nutrition right and nurture the soil organisms behind the delivery of this nutrition, there is a dramatic increase in resilience and much less need for chemical intervention.
AA: How was your South African tour? I understand you have been visiting that country for over a decade. Have you witnessed many positive changes?
Graeme: Yes, I have delivered many four day and one day courses in that country for many years. In fact, they call me the “Father of Biological Agriculture” over there these days. It was so gratifying to witness the scale of change this time around. I had not visited for over two years as I had a near-death experience last year with an undiagnosed burst appendix and cancelled everything for 6 months. There are now compost heaps all over the landscape, dozens of biological companies and biological strategies have almost become mainstream.
AA: I hear that the Woolworths Supermarket chain in South Africa has embraced biological agriculture?
Graeme: It was fascinating to visit some Woolworths stores to witness their progress. Woolworths decided to go down this path several years ago after some of their key people attended one of my courses. We travelled to South Africa for two years training the Woolworths growers and then last year they launched their “Farming For the Future” initiative, where the food sold in their supermarkets is largely biologically grown. The quality of all of their fresh produce was exceptional this time around but I was amazed to see that they have even taken it a step further. Many of their growers are now obliged to deliver around 20% of the produce as certified organic. The fascinating thing is that the growers are not paid a higher premium to produce the certified product and the supermarket actually sells the certified produce at the same price as the rest of the fresh food. This is a world first and it is an exceptional outcome for the lucky consumers!
AA: Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see an Australian supermarket head down this path?
Graeme: I am surprised that our supermarkets have not seen the obvious potential. Woolworths in South Africa have picked up a considerable increase in market share and they have also enjoyed a large reduction in waste. Nutrient density and extended shelf-life are one in the same thing. Consumers everywhere are looking for more flavour and less chemical contamination and when it can be delivered with more shelf life and less waste you would think that the local chains would jump on board. At the last of my five seminars in South Africa this time around there were 20 people attending from a rival supermarket chain playing catch up.
AA: Were your most recent seminars well attended?
Graeme: I traveled to all corners of the country and there were large, enthusiastic crowds everywhere. There was so much gratitude for my role in the changes and it was really quite humbling.
AA: I was reading that agriculture is becoming increasingly challenging in South Africa with many farmer deaths and a real risk that the country may one day go down the path of Zimbabwe and reclaim the farmlands. It seems strange that they are embracing change amidst so much uncertainty. Can you explain how this is working?
Graeme: It is my belief that the South African farmers that have remained in their country are some of the toughest and bravest souls on the planet. They have a pioneering, action oriented spirit that sees them perfectly suited to jump headlong into this more sustainable option and make it work for them. They are now close to becoming the leaders in this approach and they will teach the world in years to come. It is true that most people involved in South African agriculture have a hair raising, near-miss story to share over a beer, but in spite of the risk factor there are more young people at my seminars in that country than in any other. These people are a breed apart. In fact, the entire country has an entrepreneurial buzz and positive vibe that defies their problems. I love visiting this country and I am proud to have contributed.
AA: Are the growers involved largely fruit and vegetable growers or does the change extend to broadacre?
Graeme: It is across the board. One of my seminars was in Blomfontein, which is a large broadacre region. Cereal growers have discovered the benefits of seed treatments, mycorrhizal inoculation, humates and foliars and had some great results to share. At one point I was picked up in a private plane and flown to visit a massive organization that produces 45% of South Africa’s tomatoes on over 2000 hectares and have thousands of hectares of other crops. These guys are amongst the largest and most professional biological operations anywhere. They have their own soil test labs and microbiologists. They employ almost 8000 people and they even have their own schools. They are producing thousands of tonnes of compost and their tomato yields are as high as 250 tonnes per hectare (grown in the ground, under plastic with 100 tonnes of compost per hectare).
AA: It certainly sounds impressive. Have they discovered anything new you can share?
Graeme: Everything is tightly monitored with leaf tests and in-field monitoring. Most of their people have attended my courses over the years and the purpose of this visit was to deliver a one-day refresher course to their Directors, scientists and farm managers. The CEO flew me around the huge farm in his helicopter and I was treated to a banquet in their luxury game lodge that evening. They have large buildings filled with brewing tanks multiplying specialist inoculums, compost teas and Effective Microbe (EM) brews. I was particularly fascinated with some of their EM creations. For example, they are mulching up lantana and brewing it with a couple of herbs and the EM microbes to create a liquid to manage nematodes and it has proven remarkably effective. In fact, they no longer use any chemical nematicides. They are similarly brewing neem leaves along with garlic and chilli to manage insects. This is a state-of-the-art operation where everything is closely trialed and monitored by highly competent research staff. I was so impressed that I asked if we could hold our next South African four-day course in their remote region so that we could visit the organisation on the fifth day, as a field day to witness the biological approach in action. They have agreed, so that is the game plan for early next year.
AA: I wouldn’t be surprised if you have some Australian attendees for that one. How did Mauritius compare to South Africa?
Graeme: Mauritius is a beautiful, cane clad, volcanic island with a population of 1.4 million, positioned about 1000 km off the coast of Africa. There was a remarkable contrast between the emerging biological revolution in South Africa and the continuance of extractive agriculture on this island. The fresh food in the supermarkets was of shocking quality. In fact, it was amongst the worst I have seen in the world with the exception of Romania and Hungary. The island boasts one of the highest rates of chemical usage in the world and there is no surprise that it also suffers one of the highest rates of cancer. The latest cancer figures were published on the morning of my arrival. There are 45,000 small growers producing fruit and vegetables but the vast majority of available land is producing sugar cane. The small scale, vegetable growers can be seen in the fields everywhere with their backpack sprayers applying their latest chemical concoction to ward off the latest crop problem. They are usually dressed in shorts and shirt sleeves in windy weather and obviously have no conception of the uptake of chemicals via the skin. They are notorious for mixing up cocktails of fungicides and pesticides in new combinations, the toxicity of which are completely unresearched. I didn’t feel too comfortable tucking into a salad during my stay on the island but the locals have no choice but to eat the contaminated food as there is no biological or organic option available. It made me realise how much we take for advantage in this lucky country of ours.
AA: How were you received by the farmers and agricultural officials during your visit?
Graeme: I was hosted by a wonderfully proactive Ag scientist named Guillaume Maurel who is intent upon exacting meaningful change in his homeland. Guillaume, and his business partner, Philippe, had organised meetings with the relevant Government people and key players in Mauritian agriculture. I gave two television interviews and an in-depth newspaper interview that was pretty hard hitting. I figured that they really needed a wakeup call so there was no point in mincing words. There was a large crowd at my one-day agriculture seminar which was located at the local Ag department offices. It was impressive to see the department agronomists get so quickly behind a more sustainable alternative. I guess they can see that the current chemical strategy has hit the wall, so they are open to viable options. I was able to access Government figures on chemical imports and it was quite clear that they were using more chemicals each year with less response. In fact there had been a steady decline in yield over the decades of this chemical experiment.
AA: Was the sugar cane farming any less destructive than the small crop production?
Graeme: Unfortunately, this was not the case. We had tested a number of soils around the island prior to my arrival. We found 120 year old tea plantations with organic matter levels of around 14%, so we know these soils had a bountiful beginning. Cane covers every available nook and cranny on the island and the sugar cane fields are now measuring around 2% organic matter. That’s a serious loss of fertility. It’s no surprise because they are still burning before harvest and then they gather up every last stalk of cane residues to fuel the power stations that are tied to every sugar mill. Sugar cane is a powerhouse photosynthetic machine but you do need to return some of that vast amount of organic matter to the soil, or you are simply mining and that is not sustainable. In my interviews, I drove home the fact that organic matter was the island’s treasure for future generations and they are currently stripping it out at a frightening rate.
AA: Did the Government seem receptive during your meetings?
Graeme: Very much so. On my last day we had a meeting at the Prime Minister’s office where we met with the deputy PM. He was particularly receptive and has offered to help us facilitate change in any way that he can. At present it seems likely that the Government may finance one of my four day Certificate Courses on the Island in the coming months.
AA: It certainly sounds like you had a productive time abroad. How did you feel about returning to Australia where your company is still addressing issues linked to the claimed contamination of two of your organic products?
Graeme: It was nice to get out to spread the word rather than withering in frustration back home where organic politics have got in the way of common sense and the organic farmers are the losers.
AA: Perhaps you can explain what you mean? Did you feel that the ABC were justified in running the contamination story?
Graeme: The so-called whistleblowers are a couple of ex-employees who have set up a company that competes against NTS. They have obvious vested interests in discrediting our company for their own gain. The ABC were well aware of this fact and they were also aware that this was the latest in a long string of investigations we have suffered in relation to these malcontents. I doubt that any company in the country could have survived the 16 investigations we have suffered in the past two years as a result of this malice. It is testimony to the integrity of NTS and our operating systems that we have proven equal to the challenge. The ABC were also aware that the levels of “contamination” involved in two of our two hundred products were less than what is allowable in healthy drinking water (when the products are diluted at the recommended application rates) but that seemed to get in the way of a good story. I will never again watch a story involving “investigative journalism” without wondering about the truth.
AA: The claims involved synthetic nitrate contamination of a fulvic acid product. Was that the case?
Graeme: We claimed the nitrates were naturally occurring and this was reflected in the test results. Fulvic acid typically contains natural nitrate levels of between 800 ppm and 2000 ppm or between 0.08 and 0.2 of one percent. Our fulvic acid soluble powder, from which Fulvic 1400™ is made, tested at just 149 ppm nitrate, which was surprisingly low. We have discovered that the ABC journalist was informed by the analytical laboratory that performed the test for him that the level of nitrate found in Fulvic 1400™ was low and within background levels expected in humic or fulvic acid or any organic type material and very unlikely to be related to the use of synthetic nitrate, however, it appears that this got in the way of a good story. Regardless of the origin of the nitrate nitrogen, the levels themselves were so ridiculously low that it should never have been an issue. We are talking about less than 5 ppm when the fertiliser is diluted at the label rate. The Australian Certified Organic Standard allows 45 ppm of nitrate in water used for manufacture of organic products and organic crops are watered with irrigation water that is likely to contain far higher concentrations of nitrate-nitrogen. The whole situation is ludicrous and it needs to be addressed.
AA: What does your schedule look like for the coming months?
Graeme: I have a tour of North Queensland, followed by a visit to Norfolk Island where I will be giving some seminars. I have a farm on this Island and it is so wonderfully peaceful over there. I will use the opportunity to write the next issue of our “Nutrition Matters” email magazine. Then I will head to NSW where I will present for our Distributor, YLAD, at their 10 year anniversary celebration, before embarking on a seminar tour of New Zealand. Life is never boring!