MIKE BERWICK AM
To save the planet and feed the populace means a transformational change in the way we grow food and fibre. This article looks briefly at the big picture, the challenges and local opportunities.
The Big Picture
Agriculture feeds seven billion people, but of any human activity, has the single biggest impact on the environment. This is not surprising when half the planet’s habitable land is devoted to agriculture. We are now learning how to feed the populace while restoring ecosystems, the atmosphere, soils, waterways, reefs and oceans.
Consider this statistic: wild mammal by weight (biomass) amounts to four per cent of the global total. 96 per cent is humans and their domestic animals.
If we are to feed everybody on the planet and deal with pollution, climate change, habitat and species loss, we need a new approach to farming and grazing, for every crop, in every country. Douglas, sitting between two World Heritage areas, with its catchments draining to the Great Barrier Reef lagoon, and our economy dependent on a healthy environment, is a great place to start.
The latest term describing the concept of repairing nature while growing quality food is Regenerative Agriculture (‘Regen Ag’ for short). It’s an appropriate name, and means what it sounds like – growing food while we regenerate the landscape, soils and waterways. Another name is biological farming, learning how nature can work for you rather than fighting it with repetitive cultivation, toxic chemicals and synthetic fertiliser.
Agriculture can move from environmental pariah to saviour.
You can’t blame our farmers; we all eat, food is cheaper than it has ever been, the producer’s margin is thin, the risks are high and farmers have generally followed the advice of governments, agronomists, fertiliser and chemical companies.
If we now expect farmers to restore the soils, waterways, wetlands and in some cases forest, we need to pay them for their “public good” ecosystem services, either in the price of their produce or paid directly for the service (eg farmers being paid to draw carbon from the atmosphere or carbon sequestration).
Ecosystem services are those things we take for granted and use for free but upon which life depends – clean air and water, healthy soil, biodiversity, nutrient-rich food, beauty, recreation, the dizzying array of organic molecules, and life itself. Carbon sequestration is the best documented and funded of the wide range of ecosystem services primary producers can supply and be paid for.
This is where practice has lead science – the dedicated farmers try it, it works, and later science finds out why. This is different to splitting the atom-where the unbelievable energy released was predicted long before the US tested the first nuclear bomb. Science is neither good nor bad – it built the technology, the chemical and pollutants that created modern industrial farming, and now it has laid bare the environmental impacts of the practices it preached.
Now science is unpacking Regenerative Agriculture into its component parts. As a relatively new concept, practices and definitions of Regen Ag vary, some work in one setting and don’t in others.
Regen Ag can be defined by the ecosystem services it provides: food, biodiversity, carbon storage (in trees and soil), the water cycle and a functional, if altered, ecosystem.
The Local Scene
In cultivated cropping such as cane farming, we know what the impacts of “modern” farming are, and we are beginning to understand how to grow food and fibre in a restored landscape with minimal impact. The proponents say it helps their bottom line too because such systems need less inputs (fertiliser, cultivation and weed and pest controls) without losing production.
Almost universally that means regenerating soil health and ecosystem function – not necessarily returning land to forest but making it functional by restoring waterways, wetlands and floodplains thereby creating corridors, filtering water and storing carbon in vegetation and soils
Both take time and usually money too. Do we want farmers and graziers to look after the environment as well as supplying food and fibre? Then we need to pay for the public good ecosystem services they supply, the same as paying for food.
First-regarding soil health – it was believed not that long ago in the cane industry that the soil just held up the plant and it was fed all that was needed. But that formula led to a decline in productivity, despite the availability of modern fertilisers, chemical soil analysis, weed and pest control chemicals.
The Sugar Yield Decline Joint Venture, co-ordinated by the Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations (BSES), the peak, industry funded sugar research body, concluded it was declining soil health. Now their successor (Sugar Research Australia) runs a major program on soil health, charged with producing a “soil health scorecard”.
Regular cultivation, compaction, synthetic fertiliser and chemical sprays combine to deplete the soil of its biodiversity and reduce it to a bacterial dominated system. Losing its carbon, its density increases, water holding capacity decreases, pathogens and pests get a free run.
The principles of building healthy soils in cropping and intensive grazing systems are:
- Minimal or zero till
- Multiple species in rotation, or at the same time
- Never leave the soil bare
- Always have a living root in it
- Have a plant animal rotation (or add a soil ameliorant like compost)
- Avoid compaction
- Don’t poison it
Humans have performed some of these things on a small scale for millennia but even then excessive tillage clearing and grazing pressure has led to widespread land degradation, eg desertification in North Africa and the Middle East where agrarian society first emerged. Modern technology, offering precision agriculture, soil and leaf analysis, remote sensing and measuring environmental impact all provide amazing amounts of useful data so we can learn to feed seven billion people with minimal impact and restoring damaged ecosystems where we can.
There are farmers growing cane, restoring the health of their soil, moving to minimal till, using GPS controlled tractors, permanent beds (that you don’t drive on), growing legumes and other species in rotation or at the same time and sequestering carbon in the process. For mechanised farming the transition can be expensive, it takes time for soil health and its benefits to materialise. Vested interests naturally resist change but Bayer (which bought out Monsanto), the biggest of the agri-chemical company targeted for its chemical and genetically modified seed (the so called Green Revolution) are producing and advocating biological farming products, specifically promoting them at cane farming forums in Queensland.
Besides a move to rebuilding soil health and adopting biological farming, Regen Ag means, in our local landscapes, restoring ecosystem function by revegetating waterways and wetlands. This can be very expensive and rarely provides any direct benefit to the farmer but the public benefit is enormous so it is reasonable to expect the public purse to contribute or pay in full.
Mulgrave farmers have been particularly proactive in waterway restoration with farmer field days planting and maintaining rehabilitated areas assisted by meagre Landcare grants. The landscape transformation over the last 20 years is evident to regular visitors.
It is the combination of restoring soil health in cultivated land, restoring ecosystem function, changing land use, for example from cropping to agroforestry or to grazing ending regular tillage and reducing nutrient input, that all add up to Regenerative Agriculture.
Because every farming family has a vital story to tell, with valued opinions and ideas to share, our Editor extends an invitation to local farming families and businesses to share your stories for a series of future articles. Please share via email email@example.com or give Jayne a call on 0421 207 303.
From shared ideas, new and big things can grow.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR / Mike Berwick BSc (Vet) was Mayor of Douglas Shire from 1991 to 2008. He was awarded an Order of Australia for his contribution to local government and the conservation of Daintree Rainforest. For his contribution to planning, he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Planning Institute of Australia. Since leaving local government, Mike works on sustainable agriculture in the reef catchments, and across Australia.
NEXT WEEK / A deeper dive into ecosystem services, how primary producers can supply them and how this can be a new source of income to help fund the transition to Regenerative Agriculture