The Future of Agriculture

“Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel, and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it”

– Verdas, Sanskrit Scripture 1500 B.C.

Where are we now?

As professionals in the agriculture industry, we need our thinking to go further than sustainability when considering the future generations of farmers and consumers alike.
We need to look towards regenerative practices that nourish our land and society while at the same time develop more protable and long-lasting agricultural business models. Having a short-sighted approach leaves us with inefficient practices that are detrimental to both the soil and the crops we yield.
It all becomes quite simple when we look at the core building blocks of our land – the rst being the soil that allows for life to grow. We are a planet that is comprised of carbon-based life, the simple idea, is; the more carbon we retain in our soil, the more life we get from it. The regeneration of land and producing higher yield crops begins when we do everything we can to nurture our soil.

One example of the resulting damage of unsustainable farming methods is desertification, defined as the process by which fertile land becomes desert, typically as a result of drought, deforestation, or inappropriate agriculture – we can really see the harsh realities that await us if we don’t change this.

This is the unfortunate reality that we are living in right now, with much of our fertile land being used unsustainably.
The use of tillage equipment, fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and GMO crops have degraded our soils to such an extent that some experts predict another mass extinction of life on the planet. Don’t get me wrong, this is not about organic farming, as they use tillage for weed control. Tillage breaks the topsoil and disturbs the bacteria cultures that are critical to nurturing healthy soil and increasing the amount of carbon retained in our soils, this defeats the object of the practice and is not sustainable.

If a farmer increases the amount of carbon per hectare of land by 1%, that hectare of land is capable of holding 250 000 more litres of water. Why are we not promoting practices that encourage the strengthening of the foundations of healthy agriculture?
The conventional farming practice of planting cash crops is probably one of the biggest reasons for desertification. Cash crops are where the lands are prepared using ploughs and disks, spraying with herbicides and pesticides before planting to eliminate all the competition that might compete for moisture. In the process, many of the life forms that increase water retention and soil nutrition are killed at the same time.
There is no blunt object solution to farming – that much is clear. Agriculture is a commercial activity but the success of
farming does not rely on a commercial mindset, we are not developing a product, we are working within systems that
nature has developed over millions of years.
We cannot control nature, which is something big agriculture companies fail to understand as they continue to destroy soil in the name of science. The only way forward is to farm with nature.

The effects of this are starting to show up more and more often. For example, in the United States alone, 1 in 4 people have 2,4-D (Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid – a systemic herbicide) in their bodies.

This side effects of which can be:
Reproductive system
Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma
Parkinson’s disease
Endocrine system
Immune system

How much money is spent annually in marketing to convince the consumer that the food that is produced is healthy and wholesome? Are we starting to believe our own lies for the sake of profits?
Do we really want to use management practices that are detrimental to our whole being, from soil, animal, insect and human health?
Regardless of all our accomplishments, we owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.

What we can change

Regenerative agriculture is probably a term which is currently being used to describe many farming practices that build up topsoil and improve various aspects that are destroyed using conventional farming management practices.
The question to ask here is – can I do something better than yesterday that will improve the chances of my dependence to farm my land, without inheriting a farm that has such poor degraded soils that they don’t want to come back to the farm?

According to Gabe Brown, author of Dirt to Soil, he lists the 5 principles of soil health as being:

Limited Disturbance

Mechanical and Chemical tillage destroys soil structure and kills microbes, specifically mycorrhizal fungi

Armour

Always keep your soils covered
• Cover crops
• Green planting

Diversity

Strive for diversity in both plant and animal species

Living Roots

Maintain a living root system in the soil as long as possible

Integrate Animals

Nature does not function without animals,

There is no recipe for regenerative agriculture – we’ve tried to do it in the past with conventional methods and have failed dismally.

The fact that we don’t have a recipe for regenerative agriculture, is probably the main reason why farmers say it won’t work on their farm.
Change is the only constant and all change is hard.
But what happens if you start applying the 5 principles of soil health on your farm?

Your soil biology improves

  • Water penetration
  • Water retention
  • Improved mineral cycle
  • Improved pest resistance
  • Improved weed control

Your soil carbon increases

  • This is especially true when animals are integrated.

Your soil organic matter increases

  • Every 1% increase on the organic matter you store between 160 000 – 233 000 litres of water more per hectare.

The living root is vital for the soil biology – as the sugars excreted by the plant on the root tip, are used by the various bacteria to multiply. The larger the diversity of the plants, the larger the diversity of bacteria in the soil.
The healthier the soil the more resilient the plants are against pests, and because of the improved water retention of the soil, the plants also become more drought resistant.
Improving the diversity and getting a living root in the soil for as long as possible, is a program. This must be a rotational planting program over a period of 4 – 6 years and depends on where the farm is situated and the climate of the farm.
Adding animals to harvest the cover crops is fundamental to the success of improving soil health. If you treat your cover crop like a cash crop you can harvest twice in a year instead of once.
Depending on the meat price – the returns with beef and sheep on cover crops equals the return of a cash crop, with less risk, and you are improving your soil health.
Stacking, which is to diversify the animals on the cover crop or the veld, also helps with parasite control, chickens, pigs, sheep, goats, beef etc, all have a positive effect on the soil biology.

Conclusion

Farmers that are already using the 5 principles of soil health can cut back on the use of synthetic fertiliser – one farmer has decreased his input costs by R1000.00/hectare, on 2000 hectares, this is when it starts making sense.
If we look at the benefits of regenerative agriculture, from human health to soil health, it is only a matter of when rather than if I must change.

We have to start producing food that is beneficial to the consumer before they start demanding it.

Biology Trumps Chemistry
Vigorous biology can overcome imbalanced chemistry.
Perfect Chemistry cannot deliver optimal results in the absence of biology.

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Technology Is Not The Enemy (Part Two)

In part one of our article, we looked into the initial concepts people talk about when technology is being blamed for halting or interfering with processes.

In part two, we move on to what must be done for which the short answer is diversity, in all aspects of your farming industry such as:

  • Microorganisms
    • Soil 
    • Plant
    • Gut 
  • Insects
    • Pollinators
    • Predators
    • Prey
  • Plants 
    • Cash crops
    • Cover crops
    • Trees
    • Flowers
  • Animals
    • Production animals
    • Wild-life
  • Birds
    • Wild
    • Domesticated – free range and pasture raised

Nowhere in nature is there a monocrop, a single species animal, no insects and no diversity of bird life.

The goal we’re all after is to run a profitable business and make money. There isn’t much point in improving your farm and not reaping the rewards from it, which means only your buyers benefit from your work.

Let this be a warning though, with the effects of our changing weather patterns, where the storms are becoming more violent, the droughts longer and hotter, you cannot think you don’t have to change because it was always done this way. Be warned you won’t be profitable long enough so that your children can inherit your farm. 

How often do we hear the argument – don’t reinvent the wheel. If the wheel was not reinvented from the first time it was made, we would not have formula one racing cars. The idea here is that we need to build up and develop these simple concepts to fit the times we’re currently living in.

I will once again use the 5 Principles of Soil Health – as mentioned in the book Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown.

  1. No disturbance – mechanically or chemically

The effects of ploughing and soil disturbance is not conducive to building up your soil biology. The surface bacteria need oxygen to grow while the bacteria deeper in the soil need carbon dioxide to grow. When tilling the soil, the surface bacteria’s environment is all of a sudden oxygen deprived and this kills the bacteria, the same thing happens to the bacteria that use CO2 to multiply – there is too much oxygen all of a sudden and they die.

The other disadvantage is that the organic matter is broken down to quickly and the last stage of any organic breakdown process is carbon dioxide and water.

When we use pesticides and herbicides – we normally target a pest or a weed – the problem with these chemicals is that they are not selective in what they kill, and they have certain pathways in which they inhibit weed or pest growth. These pathways are shared between various living organisms and destroy normal flora as well – this can either be the soil biology or insects that are predators for various pests.

We must start building a robust biological environment, so that we can get the predator prey relationship in equilibrium. We will always live with diseases and if we always try to eliminate everything our plants and animals are more vulnerable to diseases.

One advantage of building robust biology that if we get our soil life to a state where the roots aggregates have been formed. These bacteria have the ability of gene manipulation in the plant, this is normally directly related to the immune system of the plant and the host animal, if our gut bacteria are functioning properly, there is a direct improvement on the lung immunology.

There was a study in the UK that showed that infants that were treated with antibiotics in the first year of life, had a 95% higher chance of getting asthma as teenagers, this was only due to the bacterial disturbance of the normal flora in the gut.

If we are serious in lowering our input costs, we will have to start looking at our microbiology in the soil, we must make our environment more resilient against drought pests and weeds.

  1. Soil Cover

We must keep our soil covered with organic matter all the time. The African sun is just too hot on our topsoil not to have cover on the soil. The difference in soil temperature can be as much as 20˚C and that is detrimental to the soil health. The bacteria cannot withstand these high temperatures. It also helps protect the soil against evaporation and wind erosion. We must be jealous about our topsoil it must not blow away, the cost of maintaining your topsoil is too high to give it to your neighbor. The other effect of cover is that it breaks the speed of the rain falling, this also prevents runoff. 

  1. Diversity 

We have mentioned it before already, we need to have a diversity in all aspects of the environment. We cannot exclude a species or group and think it is beneficial. We really must follow the moto – life creates life. If we wake up every morning and think about what we are going to kill today, we are doing more harm than good. We must create a robust environment, where the predator prey relationship is stable.  We can only do this with diversity. Plant pollinator strips, with so many flowers and various grasses and legumes so that the soil health in that strip does improve. If you can graze the strip the bigger your impact on the soil health will be.

  1. Living root

“We owe our existence to 6 inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains.” 

You must take your environment into account if you plant cover crops, in the last couple of years the east of the country did not get any winter rain, to then establish a cover crop to build up your soil is very difficult. The next cash crop will struggle if the summer rains are late and with the rising temperatures. What we must realise is that we are trying to build up soil and planting cover crops into degraded soil, there is no biology that can help the cover crop with minerals and water. We have taken the ability of the biology to make the soil environment more robust.

This will take time and we will have to look at rotations of our cash and cover crops so that we can build our soils biologically robustness before we try and challenge the environment and hope for the best. 

You must also consider once again that we need a diversity of cover crops, and the more species you plant the bigger the impact is on the soil health. The Jena project in Germany has clearly shown that a plant species diversity of 8 – 16 different plants has a greater effect on soil health than a smaller number of species.

  1. Animal impact

This is probably one of the hardest mind shifts for a cash crop farmer, to put animals on his fields, because animals compact the soil too much. Depending on the grazing management system we can loosen the soil with hoof action. UHDG will have a much better hoof action, urine and dung distribution than if the cattle can graze selectively.  Depending on the regrowth, it is possible to graze the cover crop again. 

With animals on a cash crop field we must see how we can make the money that is lost to the crop with animals. The animal must pay for the loss of income of the cash crop. 

Stacking – this is a concept where more than one animal species is used to graze the cover crop, cows can be used to graze first, a couple of weeks later, sheep, and then chickens. This has a huge effect on parasite control and you get more than one income stream from the same plot of land.

The same with pollinator strips. The flowers attract pollinators, making your own honey from the stirps is beneficial, especially for people with allergies, to the various grasses. 

We must look how can we integrate all the above principles so that we can make this function on our farm.

How do we start?

  1. Awareness

The first step in knowing there is a problem is to recognise the problem. If you don’t get affected by drought, all your chemical inputs are effective, the chemicals don’t harm the environment nor animal and human health, and you are producing a nutrient dense food. Then you don’t have to change.

  1. Understanding 

We have to fully understand why we must change, this is far more important than how we must change. If you fully understand the why, the how becomes easier to comprehend.

  1. Buy-in

You as the farm owner must make it your own. It is nobodies project; it is not an idea that the consumer can implement on your farm. You must fully buy into the process where you understand the why and how – what is in it for me.

  1. Ownership

This is your farm you have to make it happen, you are the jockey. Nobody is going to do it for you on your farm, you must apply it, there are people doing it already and we must see how can we build a community to help each other, but at the end it is you that has to drive the process, on your farm.

  1. Action

Make it happen, at this stage you are convinced that what must be done is correct and to the benefit of everyone around you and the environment at large. Now you just must take action and make it happen.

The biggest challenge however still is how do we start.

One of the most important aspects of starting is the understanding of your environment. We must take your rainfall into consideration. The lower the rainfall the longer the time will be to build up soil carbon.

We often have the idea that if we want to change something, we must change everything. Changing over to regenerative agriculture can be a process, remember you want to make the biggest impact on your soil, but you must also make money.

The growth and vigour of your cover crop is directly related to the rainfall that you will receive. The longer you have your cover crop and animal impact on the land the bigger the response will be in relationship to your soil carbon, and the disease profile of the land.

You must start with a rotation of cash and cover crops and animal impact to have a rotational system to build your soil. We need time, and remember that we are starting from a very low base and we want to build up the soil carbon to levels that we don’t know where the end point is. 

Please refer to our podcast episode on cover crops for more information on the topic.

To have an effect on the soil, the minimum period to plant cover crops rather than cash crops should be 24 months, this is taken from farmers that sell potato seeds, they cannot grow seed potatoes in the same field for 24 months. After 24 months the disease cycle has been broken.

If we plant a summer cover crop, with a variety of species grazing the cover crop, followed by a winter cover crop that can be planted earlier, into the summer cover crop. You should not use chemicals to kill of the summer cover crop, either plant green, slash or crimp the summer cover crop.  The next summer cover crop can be planted after the winter cover crop after the first rains have been received, and you follow the same cycle as the previous year.

The cover crop must be diverse, with legumes, flowers, grasses, and brassicas for example.

In terms of rotation, this table below provides a view on what you should be aiming for:

20% of Cash Crop Fields – A 20% of Cash Crop Fields – B 20% of Cash Crop Fields – C 20% of Cash Crop Fields – D 20% of Cash Crop Fields – E
Season 1 SCC SCC Cash Crop Cash Crop Cash Crop
WCC WCC HRC HRC HRC
Season 2 Cash Crop SCC SCC Cash Crop Cash Crop
HRC WCC WCC HRC HRC
Season 3 Cash Crop Cash Crop SCC SCC Cash Crop
HRC HRC WCC WCC HRC
Season 4 Cash Crop Cash Crop Cash Crop SCC SCC
HRC HRC HRC WCC WCC
Season 5 SCC Cash Crop Cash Crop Cash Crop SCC
WCC HRC HRC HRC WCC

SCC – Summer Cover Crop

WCC – Winter Cover Crop

HRC – Harvest Rest Cover

The cash crop can be any crop of choice, planted with pollinator strips.

This is only an example, it can obviously done slower where only 20 % of the fields are used as summer cover crops. The above example is 40% of the farm is being used to build up the soil. The more often the diversity of cover crops are on the fields the quicker the soil will be rehabilitated. 

I would plant the cover crops without any inorganic fertiliser so that the soil biology can recover optimally. It must be noted that some bacteria can multiply every 20 minutes in the optimal environment, so the build up of bacterial mass is phenomenal.

We must have animal impact on both the Summer and Winter cover crop. If we can have a diversity of animals on the fields the better the recovery of the soil will be. Pigs can also be used for animal impact but beware they are destructive.

If you can have stacking on your field, that you can vary beef, sheep and chicken, your impact on the soil is even bigger.

Before planting the first summer cover crop on a field correct the pH of your soil – know what was your ground zero, so that you can measure progress. 

What we want to achieve with a diverse cover crop is firstly to stimulate a diversity of microbial life in the soil. Secondly – we must feed our pollinators and various insects so that the predator prey relationship in the insect world can be restored. So a variety of flowers is crucial in a cover crop mix. Bees and honey are another source of income – the yield improvement of a soya crop has been documented already, if the bee population is healthy.

We want to put down biomass as cover so that the soil is covered,

Thirdly trees – planting trees even if they are production trees, for example pecan nuts, or even legumes for nitrogen binding. Trees create a habitat for birds and game, it also helps with the micro-climate and a windbreak. We must be creative in building our farm so that we can diversify our income from various sources.

If the diversity of game birds becomes to large, these can be harvested and sold as game birds. To niche markets. 

Nobody said this would be easy and nobody has all the answers. We as GreenBio hope to simply provide you with a playbook that you should make your own and shape to your goals and objectives.

This is most probably the most exciting time in farming, where the notion of becoming custodians of the land, really does have a meaning again. 

Thank you for joining us on this journey to fully understand and provide solutions to what we need to do as an industry to truly make a meaningful change that will impact future generations in a positive light.

If you would like to download the PDF version of both articles, please click here.

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Technology Is Not The Enemy (Part One)

Technology is often used as a scapegoat when we need someone to blame for either economic factors or declining qualities in our day-to-day lives. However, that is often not the case, and we should be digging deeper to truly discover the root of the problem.

Over the last century humans have made numerous technological advancements that have impacted our lives in many positive and not so positive way. 

Looking through the progress we as humans have made to enhance our quality of life brings up a number of key points. For example, our life expectancy is at its highest, communication is instant regardless of where your loved ones are. We are wealthier than ever before, (on a global scale). The opportunities that young people have are mind-blowing, and everyday advances are so rapid that it is impossible to keep up.

The same has happened in the world of food production. Theoretically, we produce enough food to feed the world, as 33% of the world food production is either wasted, thrown away or lost. Less than 1Bn people starve and new scientific articles now predict that the world population won’t be more than 9Bn people because of the low birth rate experienced in the developed world and developing world. This trend will also be seen in Africa that currently still has population growth.

Agriculture has not been left behind when using technology either. What we have achieved with chemistry, pesticides and herbicides has resulted in our yields having more than doubled. We can farm with animals in areas where the disease profile was so bad that the production animals could not survive. Animals have been cloned and improved to such an extent that we believe we can do everything. 

What Is The Cost of Using Technology?

Has technology failed our food production system? How often do we hear from vets that all the antibiograms that they do show that there are no effective antibiotics to treat diarrhea in baby animals? 

This is not only in production animals but also in dairies, where the daily struggle with mastitis, lung diseases in calves plays havoc with the profitability of the farmer.

What about the crop farmers that have now got resistant weeds where no herbicide works anymore? 

The race is on to find new molecules that will kill the pathogens, at what cost and for how long? Will we be able to use it in the food production system or will such a molecule be reserved for human health only, to fight the superbugs that also have antibiotic resistance to all antibiotics.

Or have we failed ourselves as food producers where we have believed everything that industry has given us for the sake of convenience and profit or even the belief that the chemical companies had the interest of the farmer at heart. What has this cost us. Even if our yields have doubled, has our profitability?

Has the industry failed us for the sake of profits? It must be at least 20 years already that people have sounded the warning signals regarding the overuse of antibiotics and antibiotic growth promoters in production animals. 

Why did we not heed the warning, or was it just too easy and we did not want to find an alternative? Rachel Carson in her book Silent Spring, predicted in 1962 what the effects of pesticides would be on wildlife, livestock, pets and humans. 

How many of our loved ones must get cancer, chronic diseases or reproductive issues, before we accept the fact that we have polluted our food system and the environment to such an extent that environmental scientists are warning about a 6th mass extinction.

We always have the choice, but we can never control the consequence – what is the consequence of our actions? 

  • Cost of production is increasing
  • Soil is degraded – Biology has been ignored
  • Human and animal health has declined
  • Corrupt science in the name of profit
  • Antibiotics, pesticides and herbicides that don’t work anymore.
  • Air, water and soil pollution
  • Wildlife – decline in populations, or extinctions due to fertility problems

What must happen when we finally get to the point that we cannot produce food, where chemicals dominate the system, we cannot ignore the fact anymore that we are destroying our soils, the air, our water supplies, and the environment.

Are humans designed to destruct only and for what – money?

When speaking to farmers about pesticides and herbicides its common to hear about their use of the least destructive product, however this is still destructive and we set a bad precedent by thinking it is less serious.

Chemistry Has Destroyed Soil Biology

It is interesting that the chemical and GMO seed companies have worked out that tillage is bad for the soil. And they now recommend no-till or minimal till, but what they fail to tell you is that, the application of inorganic fertiliser, pesticides, herbicides and the use of GMO crops, will never build your soil. 

You are wasting your time if you think a living root makes a difference, if any of the recommended chemical practices are used. 

Its doubtful there are any farms left that farm with chemicals, GMO crops, herbicides and pesticides, even if they are no-till that have healthy biologically active soil. This will never happen, with our current chemical farming practices.

We must realise that food security is paramount in any nations development and success, but it is also paramount that the food that we produce is nutrient-dense and does not harm the environment, nor the wildlife or human health and quality of life. 

Why should we even have minimal concentrations of pesticides or herbicides in our food, have we regressed so much in food production, that the minimal standards are even raised so that we can apply more chemicals?

What is the problem with determining if a chemical is non-toxic or not harmful? This is always determined what was used before, so DDT was believed to be safe for the environment and to human health because it did not kill the farmer after application. It did, however, kill the pests that it meant to control. The reality is that it is now banned in most countries, but there are still traces of the product worldwide, and the by-product DDE is even worse than the active.

The same with the various PCB chemicals, these were used in electrical devices, PCB does not ignite in transformers. PCB however does not breakdown – and they are found in the most remote areas of the world – the interesting thing is the top predators have the highest level of PCB’s and it is stored in their fat. 

This is then passed on to the next generation through breastfeeding, causing major hormonal and fertility disruptions. CFC is another product that was heralded as a new invention that is not harmful – 40 years later, after the ozone hole over Antarctica – the product is once again banned, the company has made its profit, the environmental damage has been done, but there is no recourse for the company, 

The way forward is to change our mindset and find solutions, so that we can carry on farming in the future, not only for us but for our children and grandchildren. We cannot as food producers think we are using something better or less harmful than before. With some of the products mentioned above it took up to 20 – 30 years to see the full destruction of these products. 

As farmers, we cannot afford to do chemical experiments for the chemical companies, on a global scale where the results are only seen when the next generation is born or even worse when the grandchildren are being born. Everything is being affected from the quality of air, water, soil, the survival of the various species, from microorganisms to mammals. 

The safety of a product cannot be determined by the fact that it is not carcinogenic. This is an outdated mindset and the sooner that changes the better. We must also broaden our mindset that we don’t only look at what effect the chemical has on DNA manipulation.

The biggest problem with most chemicals is that they have endocrine-disrupting properties. What is so sad with this chemical property is that the adult that is exposed, is sometimes not harmed, but the offspring is. This can result in dysfunctional genitals for both men and women, infertility, and cancers. Depending on what is affected this can also result in lower IQ and increase hyperactivity. 

The rise in chronic diseases, auto-immune diseases, can also be attributed to endocrine disruptors.

One of the scariest characteristics of endocrine disruptors, is that it affects all species that have an endocrine system. If we use a pesticide, herbicide or any other form of chemical, we must make sure that it is safe, and don’t take the word of the company for it. The measure of safe cannot be it is better than the chemical used before.

The other problem with endocrine disruptors is that they are not dose-dependent, even at very low levels they can disrupt the hormonal development of the fetus and later the child. The disruption can sometimes only be seen when the child reaches puberty.

Do We Need To Stop Farming? 

This is not the answer – we must however stop relying on chemicals and external inputs. Nature has developed such complex systems, that fight diseases, and pest for free. Everything we do must be aimed at building up – life creates life, be better than yesterday. 

We cannot have a mindset of what am I going to kill today. Nature is so complex that we can never comprehend the damage that we do if we use a chemical to kill one pest. 

The solution as always lies in soil health!

“Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel, and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it”

Vedas, Sanskrit Scripture, 1500 B.C.

It is mind-blowing that this was said over three and a half thousand years ago, and we think we can improve on the natural system. 

How do we build our topsoil that is so robust that the need for chemical pesticides and herbicides are not required? 

That they use management systems where the use of chemicals for external and internal parasites control become redundant? 

There are commercial farmers that are doing this already, it is not a hippy dream, but a solution to produce healthy nutrient-dense food.

Listen to our podcast episode with Landbou Radio on Topsoil for a deeper dive into the topic.

This has been the first part of our foray into the topic explaining why technology is not the enemy. 

Join us next week as we wrap up the conversation and expand on some of the concepts we’ve spoken about today.

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