Soil is the start and end point for all terrestrial life. We rely upon the health of our soil just as heavily as we rely upon clean water and air, and yet we rarely hear of campaigns for clean soil.
Plants grow by pulling carbon from the air. When plants respire, excess carbon is drawn down and deposited in the soil, where it is fed upon by the microbial life underground. Just as our gut requires a diverse range of microbes to properly digest our food, so does our soil need a diverse range of microbes to properly sequester carbon.
The ability to do this is directly influenced by the extent to which the soil is disturbed. Half of all the land available to support life on Earth is now used for agricultural production, leading to a total loss of 50 to 70 per cent of the carbon it once held.
Globally, the human impact on soil health is responsible for one third of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere since industrialisation.
A good news story is the one about a scattered group of farmers near Dubbo, in the heart of the NSW Central West and Orana regions are using regenerative agriculture to improve the health of the soil and the biodiversity of the land.
Dubbo is built upon sweeping plains, with the tablelands of the Great Dividing Range to the east and the Darling Plains to the west. It is a city and region proud of its farmers and graziers. But it wasn’t that long ago that Dubbo was attracting attention for its long-standing drought, record low dam levels, fish kills and dust storms.
I have driven into Dubbo when the wind was kicking up bare fields of dry soil which floats across the sky in an orange haze. The loss of this topsoil and the knock-on effect on future land use, water cycles and the atmosphere is what regenerative agriculture aims to remedy.
Fourth-generation farmer Bruce Maynard is well-known within the world of regenerative agriculture. He lives on 1400 hectares halfway between Narromine and Trangie. His forebears were the first to grow wheat west of Dubbo and both his grandfather and father were award-winning growers on the international market.
Mr Maynard is known as the “King of No Kill Cropping”, a method of growing commercial crops and fodder that maintains biodiversity and soil health by expunging the plough and limiting soil disturbances.
He believes the devil of climate change is the increased specialisation of agricultural production, and he speaks with light-hearted melancholia for the mixed farming of his predecessors who he says would have kept “a fair menagerie of not only sheep and cattle, but pigs and poultry and those sorts of things – when farms were more self-sustaining.”
Mr Maynard goes on to say: “Regenerative agriculture is about the diversification of living interactions. Rather than the land being used to grow singular, homogenous crops, and then left fallow and bare when not in use, a variety of plants and organisms are introduced. While they may not have a market value, they produce living biota that improve the health of the topsoil.”
Mr Maynard points out that the continued process of mechanisation and specialisation within agriculture not only affects the land, but the communities it supports. Bigger producers are optimising their crops for a market that rewards bulk production, which means smaller producers are being bought out.
“The school bus doesn’t run; the football team is just a distant memory, and the last shops are closing… because there’s only a few large farms left. “In the next five to ten years, in areas that are flat and suitable for cropping, watch the robots get adopted really, really fast.”
“Then that will drive the next… reduction of people. When you look out behind me there’s the occasional scattered paddock tree and that sort of thing… those items in the landscape become quite the enemy of even automated agriculture – [because they] want everything flat, barren, and monocultural.
“If we continue down this line of simplification, this will only hasten the mass extinction event that we’re already in amongst. This is seen in the large reduction in insect numbers.”
“No Kill Cropping” came out of Mr Maynard’s experiments in the 90’s with livestock grazing regimes that encouraged biodiversity. To maintain this diversity of life within his paddocks, he developed a method of sowing crops into existing grasslands with minimal disturbance to the soil and surrounding biota.
“What we’re actually adding is just an annual plant into a complex functioning grassland, so when the conditions are right, bang, it goes fast.”
He describes how the Wiradjuri maintained the land through their interactions with it. Such as knowing which animals to hunt and which animals to protect and using fire in a way that encouraged changes in the flora and fauna in a way that benefitted the Wiradjuri, while also sustaining natural cycles.
So it is good news to hear some more good news: French fry giant McCain Foods has made a sweeping series of environmental and climate change commitments that could change the way southern Alberta potato farmers grow their crops.
McCain, the largest manufacturer of frozen potatoes and french fries in the world, announced earlier this week that by 2030 it will only source potatoes from farms that practice “regenerative agriculture.”
“It’s a big step, because it requires a lot of change compared to the practices that most farmers are engaged in at this point,” said McCain Foods president and CEO Max Koeune.
In addition to the commitments around regenerative agriculture, McCain Foods made a number of other environmental pledges this week all aimed at helping the company reduce its overall carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2030. The environmental commitments announced include sending zero waste to landfills by 2025; making 100 per cent of packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025; and moving to 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2030.