Looking after the soil is a perhaps the most important long-standing tradition of sustainable farming practice, but only recently has the wider agricultural community started waking-up to this fundamental need. An expansive, cultural “war on soil” has been under way for millennia and is deeply embedded in our psyche. Truly sustainable economics and widespread prosperity can only be based on the viability of the land and its soil. The inclusive application of the full spectrum of beneficial farming methods now available to us could achieve this very end.
This piece first appeared in the Biodynamic Association journal, Star & Furrow, Winter 2013 (revised October 2014)
The problem – chemical farming
Rivers Trusts’ Chief Executive, Arlin Rickard, asked at their 2012 Exeter conference, “What has happened to our soil science in the UK?” We might also ask, “What has happened to our agriculture?” as there is perhaps no better illustration of our wider economic mess and the irresponsible culture that has been created than in this sector.
It has been understood for over half a century that both ploughing and chemicals destroy soil structure by degrading and oxidising microbial activity—the two basic practices that underlie our conventional food production, but which in turn destroy the maintenance of our vital water cycle on which it depends. Yet, by ignoring this, or worse, suppressing the knowledge of it, we have allowed a succession of flawed farming practices—of which GMOs are only the latest—in over 5,000 years of a “mining-the-land” mentality, which we can now no longer afford to maintain.
Presently in the Cotswolds, up to 70 tonnes of topsoil per hectare per year are now being lost in the worst affected areas2—valuable carbon (humus) that could have aided rain-water infiltration to recharge the aquifers is simply lost. Consequently, normal or “base” flows in rivers have reduced by 20% in just two decades—in places, the rivers themselves are clogged with topsoil, and the fisheries destroyed.
Rivers Trusts, along with the Environment Agency and our monopolist water companies, are struggling to deal with the consequences of modern farming. Large grants are distributed to deal with the effects: Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs), Catchment Sensitive Farming, biofilters for pesticides, field buffer strips, cover crops, and so on; all instead of actually addressing the fundamental causes—i.e. the continued and widespread use of farm chemicals. As the toxic farming practices that cause these problems are subsidised, this approach rapidly descends into the economics of the madhouse—not dissimilar to our wider economy.
After nearly two decades of Nitrate Vulnerable Zones, 69% of these show no improvement in water nitrate concentrations, while 31% show a significant worsening3—the authorities do not even appear to understand the reasons why.
Agricultural chemical contamination that accumulates in our aquifers is a major limitation on, and incurred cost for, the UK’s public water supply, with at least one major UK water company now doubting its future commercial viability as a result of consumers’ inability to pay the higher bills incurred. (Reflected in 2014 by below inflation rate rises in water bills; with water company staff layoffs).
Increased flood and drought risk arises directly from this degraded farmland, as does the soil’s inability to properly recharge the aquifers. All UK household insurance is now surcharged to meet the cost of the resulting raised flood risk, while those 20% of UK properties at risk are increasingly forced to install and maintain expensive Individual Property Protection measures, in addition to all the stress and misery involved—just some of the concealed costs of chemical agriculture.
The solution – natural farming
Self-interest and partisan thinking can blinker us all—however, traditional farming wisdom has long held the answers, not least because it is founded on carefully crafted environmental knowledge developed over countless generations, and thus different from the widely broadcast, yet selective and incomplete science led by profit and politics that prevails in government planning today.
Dealing with the effects rather than the causes has become central to our economic activity. Our healthcare costs are inflated by obesity and the many other effects of nutritional breakdown. Medical and agricultural “progress” may be based on very impressive science, but much of this is the wrong science—a science that cannot possibly connect the dots to address the interdependent nature of all these growing and costly problems.
There is still strong resistance to natural farming methods, with a huge commercial inertia rallied against it, well described in a recent New York Times editorial,
. . . there are dozens of time-tested strategies that our best farmers and ranchers have begun to use. The problem is that several agribusiness advocacy organizations have done their best to block any federal effort to promote them, including leaving them out of the current farm bill or of climate change legislation at all. . . . One strategy would be to promote the use of locally produced compost to increase the moisture-holding capacity of fields . . . 5
The EU is little different—at the very least, as a simple result of government incompetence.
Australia leading the way
Tough economic conditions, climate change, and poor soils are all vital prompts for change, and now all this is becoming familiar in Europe. In Australia, these factors have long combined to create new agricultural ways of thinking. The continent that brought us Yeoman’s Keyline System and Mollison’s Permaculture continues to innovate in natural farming practices by adapting other techniques, such as Mob Grazing and, from Japan, Higa’s Effective-Microorganisms (EM or Bokashi)—all with good success, and which could be complementary to existing Biodynamic approaches.
Gloucestershire farmer (and Nuffield Scholar) Rob Richmond has applied US and Australian Mob Grazing on bio-diverse pastures with low levels of additional nutrient (composted manure at rates as low as 1 tonne per hectare) to enhance the soil microbiology, and as a great way to improve livestock nutrition and health, while transforming soil carbon (humus) content—increasing it at 0.8% per annum. This typically adds 200,000 litres of rainwater storage per 1% carbon added per hectare (which is variable according to the soil type and temperature).
A dynamic “Carbon Farming” movement, which turns the problems of Climate Change into opportunities, is growing around the world. Networking knowledge is one thing—cycling nutrients (which directly relates to both carbon and energy use) is quite another; yet both need a fundamental basis of goodwill to succeed—a novel social concept in our present culture.
A key element of restoring soils is availability of natural nutrient to negate the need for energy intensive and soil degrading artificial fertilisers. Livestock are the main potential providers; but two other major potential natural sources—green household waste and sewage—are problematic. Aerobic composting can be tricky on a municipal or urban basis, with diligence required for controlling malodorous fumes, flies, rodents, and associated pathogens. Problems which, understandably, require the Environment Agency to exercise great caution before approving the siting of new composting schemes, but more often not doing so, and thus depriving farmland of the bulk of available green waste, further burdening landfill and encouraging incinerators.
Higa’s EM, increasingly known as Bokashi composting, is a multiple-use, symbiotic consortium of beneficial bacteria, yeasts, and fungi, producing an anaerobic fermenting process, but so different from the putrefaction normally associated with septic breakdown of waste. An immediate benefit is that this fully contained process reliably overcomes the potential odour, pest and pathogen problems that can otherwise limit the siting of them in urban situations.
Bokashi composting appears to offer a practical way of engaging people in understanding and rebuilding a relationship with soil and water—a transitional step towards recycling-networks, with allotment groups and community supported agriculture schemes.
The need for practical solutions is important in the vast expanses of Australia, where sufficient animal manures are often not available in the arable farming areas, nor urban waste streams. But here, EM is brewed into activated liquid biological fertilisers using either waste produce from farms, or organic molasses, and sometimes used along with artificial fertilisers.
This delivers a more natural and complete nutrition to the plants than the pure chemical form, which also makes much more efficient use of the available nutrient, and also maintains plant vigour and increases plant sugar content, while deterring weeds, and growing soil carbon content.
Not qualifying for organic accreditation does not seem to worry the Aussie practitioners of this particular method. Their main interest is the long-term viability of their farms and the overcoming of otherwise severe operational challenges. In this, there may be some important lessons for European agriculture.
Benign and beneficial farming methods should not need excessive regulation. These are mainly required for the toxic farming practices (and associated problems) that have arisen during the past half century and that have become a huge burden to all farmers as well as the taxpayers. Standards for maintaining or increasing soil carbon content while growing more nutritious food are important—areas where Biodynamic farming has long excelled.
- “Fix the soil, and the rest will fix itself.” Barney Hughes, Summer Hill Farm, Junee, NSW, Australia. Film: Regeneration: Saving our soil. (Water21 & Lifeworks Foundation 2009)
- Kat Gorham, Cranfield MSc dissertation, 2010 (Water21)
- F. Worrall, E. Spencer, & T.P. Burt, Journal of Hydrology, 2009
- Gary Paul Nabhan, Our Coming Food Crisis, New York Times, July 21, 2013