Throughout this week, two reg ag practitioner-experts will debate the contentious issue of glyphosate in a series of articles.
Is glyphosate critical to regenerative agriculture?
- Today Marcus Link from New Foundation Farms responds to Hungarian regenerative agriculture consultant, Attila Kökény.
- Read Attila’s opening statement, Marcus’s first response, and Attila’s subsequent response below.
- Both correspondents will deliver closing statements Attila tomorrow.
- The views of the correspondents do not necessarily reflect the views of the 8point9.com team.
MARCUS RESPONDS TO ATTILA:
We both agree on the importance of Holistic Management (HM) which to me is about a lot more than the management of grazing operations.
Savory’s recognition was that all human affairs including wealth management depend on the photosynthetic process which makes HM an “interaction-outcomes-improvement” research framework. “Plan, monitor, control and re-plan” is its mantra. It is born out of the recognition that we can continuously develop our living knowledge of the ways in which we are in relationship with what is in our stewardship. This is why Savory lobbies for HM to be used as a tool for policy making. Policy is, after all, one way in which ideas end up shaping human actions and create different kinds of futures.
Probably the single most important device in the HM toolbox is the root cause analysis. When we have a symptom such as “perennial weeds” which interfere with our crop, the root cause analysis allows us to move from managing symptoms with glyphosate to remedying causes by building a stacked enterprise out of our understanding of how the weed works.
I don’t have enough information to assess your specific context properly, and of course context is everything. Yet, I believe it serves to illustrate the principle if I make a few assumptions.
The kind of weeds you have described on your arable land are usually found in woodland clearings. Woodland soils are similar in pH level to what is ideal for cereals in arable soils, and both soils for different reasons are nutrient rich. Yet, the cereals and deadly nightshades each prefer different fungi-microbe ratios: cereals prefer higher bacterial levels, deadly nightshades more fungi.
Here, we might be approaching the root cause: fungal development in the soil would have been interrupted regularly when the arable soils were tilled. However, with the change to the no-till regime the fungi are now able to thrive in the presence of the nutrients. They are kickstarting the process of regeneration by creating conditions favourable to the nightshades, the seeds of which are spread by wildlife.
In this way, the weeds can be regarded as ecosystem health indicators because they can tell us what is going on; they help us read the patterns of the ecosystem. Any species expresses itself when the conditions are right; their lifecycle then impacts and changes the conditions which creates a succession dynamic as other species follow. In ecology, this is called community dynamics and it is one way in which we can holistically inform our decision-making.
High nutrient levels and little organic matter in the soil means that we likely have a low carbon-nitrogen ratio. This favours the fungi as the microbes have no carbon to feed on. As nightshades prefer fungi and arable crops prefer higher microbial levels, we would want to get the carbon levels up, ideally in a truly regenerative way following the principle of feeding not the plant but the soil (which then feeds the plant). At a basic level, we could consider mulches and develop rotations of cover crops, but we could also introduce agroforestry to create arable lanes and grow pasture which we graze with livestock – not least for the source of potent living fertiliser laced with microbes. The livestock also serves as a transition tool between the pasture and the arable crop.
Gradually, a complex ecology emerges which stacks integrated layers of biodiversity and enterprise on the same land whilst sequestering carbon and improving the water cycle.
ATTILA RESPONDS TO MARCUS:
It’s difficult to go into all the details in a short article, but perhaps it needs to be clarified what is myth and what is not? The first agricultural erosion event at the beginning of the Holocene was not a worldwide event, but Dr Jean-Philippe Jenny has studied sediments from 632 lakes around the world, and between 4000-3000 BC every continent (except Australia) shows significant erosion in sediments, coinciding with the disappearance of tree pollen. In other words, deforestation was already widespread then, due to the spread of agriculture, even though the Earth’s population is estimated to have been less than 10 million.
Today, 8 billion people wait every day for access to affordable food – but at least 828 million still do not have it.
The primary goal of agriculture has always been self-sufficiency, feeding the community, creating food security, with a single ideology: survival. For a long time, production was carried out in small family farms, as it is today in the Global South – i.e. many people are equally poor, and although the vast majority of people worked in agriculture, famine was a regular event.
The industrial revolution led to the intensification of agriculture, with more and more pristine ecosystems being destroyed to feed the growing urban population, as in the case of Leontino Balbo Jr’s 50,000ha organic sugar operation, where until relatively recently the pristine wooded savannah of the Cerrado was home to 160,000 species of plants, animals and fungi.
The farm now grows a single perennial crop in a monoculture for 6-7 years, with a competitive ability that supresses almost all other crops – this is the reason it is easily grown without herbicides. In such dense vegetation, it is not surprising that the survivors of a diverse ecosystem (that has been destroyed to grow sugar cane) find a habitat, but for me this is not a positive result, but rather disappointing. In what you call the “imperial” model, at least 20 different crops are grown over these years, with cover crops of 5-10 species complementing the main and successive secondary crops, providing grazing for animals and attracting a wealth of insects and birds. [Editor’s note: You can hear directly from Leontino Balbo Jnr here.]
In sectors based on perennial crops, such as grazing, orchards, vineyards and sugar cane plantations, the widespread availability of direct seeding machines means that herbicides are easily avoided and the soil is not tilled. Mulching instead of burning increases fertility, but as soon as you leave the world of perennials, weeds became a nuisance.
And 90% of the world’s plant-based calorie intake is based on annual staple crops, which suffer significant yield losses without weed control.
I understand that you don’t think weeds are a problem, but I have yet to meet a customer who wanted to buy creeping thistle instead of bread.
The basis of my argument is always practical: a farmer is only viable if he can make a profit. From that profit he can develop, pay rent, buy new animals, send his children to school, pay taxes and loans. If a farmer cannot make a profit, he will quickly lose his farm. Over the last 13 years we have lost 30% of the farmers.
This is true everywhere, from the half-acre rice farmer in Sri Lanka to the vast sugar cane growers, who need reliable, efficient technology to support themselves and their customers.
We know how the “imperial” regenerative model provides livelihoods and I can provide detailed evidence that the regenerative technology I use provides financial security for the farmer and excellent food quality and quantity for the customer. From a 600 hectare farm I can feed 19,000 people a year with high quality wheat alone, plus four other crops to feed at least the same number of people. If I were to switch to certified organic, that number would be reduced by around 20-40%, while destroying the soil with tillage.
So my question is: how does ecosystem management and deep regeneration provide livelihoods and food security for the population? Ideas are nice, but they can only be widely adopted if they are able to provide livelihood for the farmer. Can you tell me exactly how much food your farm produced on how many hectares, how many people it fed and how much profit it made?
Without knowing this, it is difficult to judge the viability of a deep regeneration model.
MARCUS LINK RESPONDS TO ATTILA:
There is the myth that the agricultural revolution was a uniform thing that happened to all humans everywhere about 12,000 years ago. It persists in spite of the evidence in favour of a plurality of humankinds which did different things in different places and by and large produced two kinds of design approaches: the imperial and the custodial.
The imperial approach separates humankind from nature, divides the world into resources, and views these and the land as commodities. It tends to regard evolution as a matter of competition in the face of adversity. Its economics borrow the term supply chain from the slave trade to organise extractive activity on the assumption that such chains mean greater economic benefit which can then be geared towards greater efficiency and competitive advantage.
This shows in its approach to agriculture in the simplification of formerly complex landscapes in favour of monocultures at enormous scale, which are, of course, the opposite of ecosystems.
It is possible to farm in ways that builds ecosystems. This is sometimes referred to as regenerative agriculture. Whilst regeneration is an outcome, the term is often misused to label practices. Given the low baseline of soils degenerated by decades of mechanical and chemical abuse, such practices are likely to show signs of improvement when the regime is even only slightly altered.
No-till reduces the impact on the soil and allows it to rest, and because of the rest, life returns if there is enough water for the latent biology. This is when we find ourselves faced with an abundance of ‘weeds’. Enter the weedkiller glyphosate, an apparently simple solution which promises to deliver croppable monocultures for humans and regeneration for soils.
This is, however, a flawed systems design approach. There are no weeds. There are only ecosystem health indicators that act like a mirror to our worldview and its practices. No-till may be a good if misguided start, but glyphosate is where it then already ends. We need to collaborate with biodiversity above and below ground. The enemy is not the weed but our design approach.
The custodial design approach understands humankind as of nature, as one species in the interdependent larger-than-human community. It understands land and ecosystem processes as part of this community. In this view, evolution is an outcome of collaboration and yields improve when reciprocity is greater.
The job here is to steward non-linear, complex, anti-fragile ecosystems in which food grows, abundantly. To differentiate this from the glyphosated version, I call this deep regeneration. Some say that we cannot operate agriculture at scale to feed the world with deep regeneration.
I am reassured not just by many examples from the history of humankind but also from current practitioners such as Leontino Balbo Jr. who has shown that we can produce organically with yields 25% higher than conventional practice at 30,000+ hectare scale when we understand our crop as part of a complex ecosystem with biodiversity levels which rival nearby national parks.
OPENING STATEMENT BY ATTILA KÖKÉNY:
This is a good proposition, because food production that is based on principles of regenerative agriculture can only be truly sustainable without external inputs.
In the current supply and trade structure of Western civilisation, commodities are produced on the largest land. An important activity in arable cropping is weed control, which farmers have practised for more than 12,000 years by tilling the soil.
This is about the same time as the first man-made erosion sediments appeared in lakes. Dust Bowl events were already blowing and mudflows were washing away ploughed topsoil at the beginning of Holocene, even though the ox-drawn ards tilled the soil only to the depth of current minimum tillage technology.
Think of the Greek and Spanish deserts, where rocky, barren land was once sea to sea forests and grasslands. These fertile soils have all been eroded by agriculture, which has also disrupted small water cycles, terminated local rainfalls, and turned once rich lands into man-made deserts.
Agriculture has eroded several metres of fertile topsoil all over the world and the intensification of this activity continues to cause incalculable economic, environmental and health damage.
The eradication of this Stone Age technology only began in the 1960s with the introduction of no-till farming, after the first herbicides such as 2,4D, Atrazine and Paraquat appeared. These highly toxic herbicides are dangerous to use (although, interestingly, no one is campaigning against them worldwide), so no-tillers were relieved when glyphosate entered into market. However, farming is still dominated by tillage, which is responsible for the 60-70% humus loss of our soils.
This degenerative technology can only be reversed by regenerative agriculture based on no-till. The simplest regenag is holistic grazing, as there are no more weed problems that require tilling or herbicides.
In arable farming, cover crops, crop rotation, mulching and grazing all help to reduce weed pressure, but there are no miracles.
Weeds don’t just go away, they reduce yields significantly and put our health at risk with toxic chemicals, like tropans.
Besides annual weeds, it’s the ever-growing number of perennial weeds that cause the biggest headaches.
So the farmer can choose to till the soil 5 or 6 times a year when, for example, Canada thistle appear on the fields, exhausting the plant and causing staggering structural damage, moisture loss and erosion to soil, or successfully control them with 2 to 3 drops of glyphosate per square metre in a no-till system.