If you were told that a single strategy could improve the health and longevity of your family, while building the production and profitability of your farming enterprise, you might shake your head in disbelief. If you were also informed that this simple practice could improve your management of increasingly precious irrigation water, while helping to protect and cleanse polluted waterways, you might double up on that disbelief. If you were then told that this same strategy could counter climate change, the greatest challenge faced by humankind to date, your disbelief might turn to derision.
Magic bullets are usually the preserve of the health hucksters and the desperately hopeful but, in this case, there actually is a single solution to these serious issues. The solution lies in the soil, or more specifically, a chocolate-coloured substance found within healthy soil, called humus.
Humus (organic matter) is the soil glue that determines whether our rivers run brown following a rain event, or if dust storms strip the thin veil of topsoil that sustains us all. We have lost 2/3 of the planet's humus in just ten decades with the industrial, extractive agriculture model, and this loss has generated something even more serious than soil instability. This carbon has moved from the soil to the atmosphere as part of the carbon cycle. This represents a massive addition of CO2 to the thickening blanket that traps the heat and over-warms our planet. In fact, mismanagement of our soils has provided almost double the CO2 contribution of industry, coal-fired power and motor vehicles combined.
The ongoing loss of topsoil, through loss of the stabilising effect of humus, has had a huge negative impact beyond global warming. Recent research has revealed that if we maintain our current rate of topsoil loss (3 – 5 tonnes per acre, per year), we have just 60 years until zero topsoil remains. If you consider the challenge of feeding ten billion people with half the current levels of topsoil, you will realise that we hit the wall way before 60 years. So, is it all over bar the shouting, or is there a viable solution to our woes?
The good news
There is an answer, and this solution offers a remarkable win/win on multiple levels.
It is essential that we understand the carbon cycle to grasp the potential of this planet saving strategy.
We can not make new carbon. There remains the same number of carbon molecules that have been here since the birth of our world. That carbon is stored in the soil, in carbon-based lifeforms (animals, humans and plants) or in the atmosphere as CO2, and constantly cycles between these three forms.
The largest carbon storehouse is the soil, where stable carbon is retained as humus for over 35 years. If we could strive to build, rather than lose humus, in agriculture and home gardens, then we are effectively capturing carbon that otherwise would have cycled to the atmosphere. We are sequestering carbon from the atmosphere into our soils.
An increase of just 1% organic matter in farmed soils represents the sequestration of over half of our yearly CO2 emissions, and this is more than what is required to reverse global warming. This is why the French initiative at the recent Paris conference is so important. Their "4 in 1000" initiative is all about striving to build 0.4% organic matter in farmed soils, to effectively reverse climate change. 22 countries have signed on to this hugely important initiative to date, and Australia needs to be the next.
What are the benefits for Australia?
We are what we eat, and what we eat comes from soils that are a shadow of their former selves. A combination of over-cultivation, heavy machinery compaction, acid/salt fertilisers, crop removal and farm chemicals have compromised soil nutrition and soil biology. The figures for Australia demonstrate that farmers are now applying more fertilisers and chemicals each year for less response. This is actually the definition of "unsustainable", and it is time for a productive change.
When we regenerate soils by improving key mineral ratios and striving to build, rather than lose, organic matter and associated soil biology, there is an exciting win/win outcome. Farming becomes more profitable and less stressful, the food produced becomes more nutrient dense with greater medicinal potential, and we are countering climate change via carbon sequestration.
The links between humus and profitability are well proven. Several years ago, The National Australia Bank jointly funded a long term study into the dynamics of farm profitability. This published study involved 800 farms, and the findings surprised all involved. It was found that the single most important determinant of productivity and profitability was the amount of organic matter (humus) in those soils. The researchers involved even put a specific monetary value on every 0.1% increase in organic matter, because it made such a difference to the bottom line.
The impact of soil degeneration upon the health and longevity of consumers is also well proven. More chemicals are required, as soil health declines, and the food produced on those struggling soils is seriously compromised. Nutritionists claim that the food we are now consuming contains just 20% of the nutrition found in the food consumed by our grandparents when they were children. This loss of 80% nutrition in three decades is not just about the mining of soil minerals and the decimation of microbes that deliver those minerals. It is also related to food processing, freight and storage.
The human cost of this declining nutrition is profound. A recent WHO study on the links between nutrition and degenerative disease was unable to identify a single disease without a nutrition link. Several recent studies have revealed a link between farm chemicals and children’s health. In fact, leukemia, which has been strongly linked to toxic chemicals, is among the top causes of death in children worldwide.
Humus and precious water
Water has become the new gold, as much of the world reels under the impact of a changing climate. Many areas are receiving much less rainfall, while others are suffering from more floods as weather extremes become the norm. Humus is the most effective known water management tool. An increase in just 1% humus means that this soil can now hold 170,000 litres per hectare that it could not previously retain. There is none of the evaporation associated with dam storage and there is no carbon footprint in delivering irrigation water to the farm. The plant simply sucks moisture from the humus storehouse as it is required. The higher the humus levels, the greater the infiltration of rainwater, and this can have a major positive effect upon flood damage potential.
The Australian opportunity
Australia is uniquely placed to benefit from a move toward regenerative agriculture. Despite a steady decline in organic matter over recent decades, there is still enough humus in many of our soils to provide a base level of fertility, as a platform upon which to build. We have identified a number of strategic sustainability initiatives that can prove to be game changers for food producers. These strategies include the management of trace mineral nutrition, addressing key mineral ratios and precision nutrition supported by tissue testing and in-field monitoring.
This mineral focus is part of a three-pronged approach, which also includes microbes and humus. The microbial component is addressed with the use of biostimulants, DIY microbial inoculums and protective strategies. All-important humus is generated via cocktail cover crops, compost and humates. The goal here is to produce food with forgotten flavours, extended shelf-life, less chemicals and greater nutrient density.
The world is is crying out for better, cleaner food. There is no surprise that Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, has recently announced his intent for Russia to become a chemical-free, GMO-free haven. He sees the potential for his country to benefit from a global awakening in awareness of problems with the chemical contamination and nutritional degradation of our food. He recognises a great marketing opportunity.
Australia is perfectly positioned to follow a similar path! But in this case, we become the food bowl for Asia. Australian farmers can reclaim their profitability and satisfaction while reducing stress and helping to counter climate change in the process.
If you are interested in learning more, you are welcome to join Graeme Sait and his talented agronomy team from 21 – 24 November for the internationally acclaimed, four-day Certificate in Nutrition Farming®. There are just a few spaces remaining for this course, so book now to secure your place.
If you have further queries, or wish to book over the phone, please call NTS on 07 5472 9900.
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