What Have We Done With Our Crop Production?

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Regardless of our accomplishments, we owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.

One of the most common questions asked by farmers is – have you had rain? If yes, how much? As all countries do – South Africa has unique geographical, ecological and meteorological challenges. For example, the levels of rainfall received in South Africa can be sporadic and unpredictable. 

Too often we move from being in a drought to experiencing flooding and returning to drought status within a period of days. 

What is at risk here is the health and quality of our topsoil which is essential to agricultural and ecological successes. Topsoil is where all plants grow, it is the foundation for agricultural life as it contains the nutrients, minerals and microbes necessary for life to grow.

If your soil doesn’t have microbe and nutrient-rich topsoil, or cannot absorb water quickly enough and/or retain the water for longer usage, you’re in trouble. 

All topsoils are a living system, that must be fed daily for it to function optimally. This is a natural process, and it does so at a rate and scale that allows for healthy soils to replenish in time for plant life growth in ecosystems to not be halted to the ecosystems detriment.

The loss of protective vegetation through overgrazing, ploughing and fire makes soil vulnerable to being swept away by wind and water.

Plants provide protective cover on the land and prevent soil erosion because plant roots hold the soil in position and prevent it from being blown or washed away.

All business relies on predictability and sustainability, and so does farming – we need to be wary of practices that result in topsoil degradation and erosion that happens too quickly and unpredictably.

One thing is clear – it takes much longer to grow healthy topsoil than it does for it to disappear if mismanaged. (some say 1000 years for 1cm – using the five principles of soil health this can be done faster) 

What good is it if our topsoil washes away? All you will be able to look forward to is a thank you note every Christmas from your neighbouring farmer for your topsoil that is now on his land.

We reiterate that everything in farming revolves around the soil we have!

Let’s look at some of the consequences of using modern-day agricultural methods on the health of our topsoils.

  • Tillage
  • Pesticides
  • Herbicides
  • GMO Crops

The above-mentioned management practices, that large agricultural companies have sold over the last couple of decades have achieved:

  • Poor water penetration
  • Poor water retention
  • Poor soil microbiology
  • Compaction
  • Dysfunctional mineral and water cycle
  • Decreased insect population (pollinators)
  • Mineral depleted food (empty food)

The story that has been told is that we must use chemicals and large seed companies seeds to be able to feed the world population. The truth is that these management practices work for the purpose of mass production, but they are not sustainable over a long period of time. One-third of the world food production is wasted or lost, and less than 1 Billion people are starving. We are producing enough food already, the distribution is just distorted.

We cannot reduce the health and nutrition needs of humans down to: ‘We need to produce as much food as possible, as quickly as possible’. We are causing more damage by farming according to this perception – to the point where the land we farm will be too damaged to use. An example of this is  the washing away and/or degeneration of our life-critical topsoils. 

To try and put it simply, many farming practices created to mass-produce food, for example using chemicals, do more harm than good. Pesticides may kill parasites and life forms that are damaging crops quickly, but the same chemicals and pesticides kill the microbial life and the various insects and pollinators that are crucial for the whole production system as a whole. We must not always think of killing everything. 

Furthermore, the quality of the food we produce will be a poor excuse for sustenance, high in chemical influence and low in nutrition. This produce will, in turn, be consumed by the livestock that becomes the meat we eat.

The effects of unsustainable farming practices are already clear; Discovery paid out R3.4bn rand for Oncology treatments during 2018, and the incidence of cancer has doubled since 2010. 

Obviously, not all cancers can be attributed to agriculture, but more and more scientific papers are linking various pesticides and herbicides to various cancers. Another obvious point is that the food that we as humans and production animals are eating is mineral deficient, because of the use of chemical agricultural practices, including the use of synthetic fertilisers.

Our world is complex, and of course, our health and survival does not rely on agriculture alone. We live in a society with many challenges – pollution, over-population and mental health issues arising for many reasons, to name a few. With so many contributors to a society that is becoming more unhealthy, we cannot avoid taking responsibility for solving the problems we can.

We have to ask: How many of our chronic diseases can be linked to the food we eat? 

How many farmers, farmworkers and their families suffer from cancer or chronic diseases that are now linked to various agricultural chemicals? What can we do to begin solving these problems?

Globally $100 Billion is spent on Nitrogen fertiliser per year. This is for both crop and pasture production. Between 10 – 40% is taken up by plants, meaning that between 60 – 90% is leached into water, volatilized into the air or immobilised in the soil.

The USDA estimates that the cost of removing nitrate from US drinking water is more than $4.8 billion/year. 

Nitrogen run-off from farmland is the single largest source of nutrient pollution contributing to the massive “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico (Ceres 2014)

We don’t need to have all the answers, we need only look at the clear information we already have to know where and how to start improving our farming practices.

Mineral depletion in Vegetables (1940 – 1991)

Average of 27 kinds of vegetables:

  • Copper – declined by 76%
  • Calcium – declined by 46%
  • Iron – declined by 27%
  • Magnesium – declined by 24%
  • Potassium – declined by 16%

Mineral depletion in meat (1940 – 1991)

  • Copper – declined by 24%
  • Calcium – declined by 41
  • Iron – declined by 54%
  • Magnesium – declined by 10%
  • Potassium – declined by 16%
  • Phosphors – declined by 28%

Source: Thomas, D.E (2003). A study of the mineral depletion of foods available to us as a nation over the period 1940 – 1991. Nutrition and Health, 17: 85 – 115.

Large agricultural companies have sold and marketed the belief that we cannot produce food without the use of chemicals and have ignored the soil biology that has sustained the earth for millions of years. 

If you think that you only need nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus to get a harvest to know that a plant needs more than 42 elements to produce healthy, nutrient-dense food.

In his book “Growing a Revolution”, David Montgomery describes how history has repeated itself – empires have fallen because they have not looked after their soil.

We must change our agricultural practices if we want our children to farm our land for the future of agriculture and the people who will need to eat the food produced to survive.

Biology Trumps Chemistry

Vigorous biology can overcome imbalanced chemistry

Perfect Chemistry cannot deliver optimal results in the absence of biology

What Must Happen?

In Freiburg – Germany, there is a bench in front of the old town hall with a clear message inscribed on a plaque. The message is: our Great-Grandfathers planted the trees that are currently being chopped down, and the trees that are planted by this generation will only be chopped down by the Great-Grandson.

 The idea instilled in the citizens of Freiburg is that the fruits of efforts made today, whether they like it or not, will only be experienced fully by future generations – regardless of whether those fruits are rotten or ripe.

This is a complete mind-shift from a current attitude of instant gratification. 

I suppose it is the same mind-shift that must be taken by beef farmers to change the way profits are calculated – we must calculate profit per hectare of land and not profit per animal.

Have you as a farmer ever considered – what the effects of today’s actions are going to be on your descendant’s ability to farm this land?

Interestingly – the fourth verse of the old national anthem is: 

Skenk ook ons die krag, o Here!
Om te handhaaf en te hou.
Dat die erwe van ons Vadere
Vir ons kinders erwe bly:”

In his book “Dirt to Soil”, Gabe Brown describes five principles that we must follow to improve and sustain soil health. They are:

  1. Limited Disturbance
    • Mechanical and Chemical
      • Tillage destroys soil structure and kills microbes, specifically mycorrhizal fungi
      • Chemicals are harmful to the soil biology
  2. Armour
    • Always keep your soils covered
      • Cover Crops
      • Green planting
      • Crop residue
  3. Diversity
    • Strive for diversity in both plant and animal species 
  4. Living Roots
    • Maintain a living root system in the soil if possible
      • Without photosynthesis there would be no soil
  5. Integrate animals
    • Nature does not function without animals

How often do you hear that farmers are the custodians of the land? This privilege of being classed a custodian can only be given to those who use these principles.

Climate change is a reality and the seasons have changed.  Our dry season is longer and temperatures are on the rise. The first rains in the summer of 2018 were only recorded in January of 2019, already they were about half of the average levels of rainfall received over the previous 10-20 year period.

Farmers in South Africa had to plant so late in the 2018 – 2019 season that the risk of the crops getting frost is a reality.

How often must we assess our situation and really consider whether it is worthwhile planting cash crops in now nearly semi-arid areas? What is the risk of planting a cash crop? 

Remember the bank does not bank yields (for the beef farmers – weaning weights)

Is it not every business’s role to assess the threats to its business continuously?

Climate change and the state of the ecosystems we farm in must be more part of this equation now – we ignore it at our peril.

James Blignaut mentioned at the Landbou Weekblad regenerative conference in Reitz – that only Natal and Mpumalanga can carry on with conventional cash cropping and stay profitable, the rest of the country will have to change to regenerative agriculture to either become profitable or stay profitable.

How many failed harvests must we have before we realise that planting cash crops is not viable?

Is it not time that we have a complete mind shift and start looking at what used to be in the west of the country, namely savanna?

Ruminants have converted grass and lignified grass into protein, for centuries, it is only humans who think we must plough the land and plant something, at a higher risk, and then transport the product to the feed mills to feed animals in confinement. Do we really think that we can improve a system that nature has refined over thousands of years? 

It is obvious that every farmer must monitor his own situation and the area where he farms to determine how he can become sustainable. Sustainability is superseded by the more important need for regeneration. 

Farmers must ask: how can I improve my soil and, in doing so, also become regenerative in my farming methods? It is not enough to be sustainable, we must improve constantly, remembering that good is the enemy of best. Consistency is the answer to success.

The rejuvenation of your soil does not start with the implementation of principles but rather with the commitment to understanding ecological functions. You must know the why before you know the how.

Why do we have to improve our soil health regarding cash crops? 

Reducing your input costs is probably the main reason why any farmer should start with the implementation of the 5 principles of soil health. 

The other reason is that we must optimally use our natural systems and, specifically, our rainwater. It must penetrate the soil as quickly as possible and it must be retained in the soil for as long as possible. Nitrogen is the most abundant element in the atmosphere – Nitrogen is not the limiting factor in planting cash crops, Carbon is. We are ignoring the fact that with healthy robust soil biology, we don’t need chemical fertiliser.

There is no recipe to improve your specific soil in the area that you farm. There are, however, the 5 principles that should be implemented.

The farmers who have implemented the 5 principles have substantially lower input costs, and also have a higher drought resilience than farmers that use conventional cash cropping practices.

Dr. Elaine Ingham mentions in her talks that clients, who have implemented the soil health principles and where the micro-organism life is optimal in the soil, have a 70% water saving on their farms.

We must implement farming management practices where we restore the soil, for the future of our farm and for our children.

“Overwhelmingly the evidence suggests that restoration does pay” (Crooks & Blignaut – Investing in natural capital and national security)

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