Before European settlers came to Australia, the soil ecology and hydrology of the landscape were very different. Native plants and grasses played the role of pulling down masses of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and building good soil. In the early 20th century, an area the size of Britain was stripped of native vegetation for farming grain and sheep, now known as the Wheatbelt. Modern day farming and land management methods however have dried out the soil, reducing vegetation and photosynthetic activity. As a result, the Wheatbelt in Western Australia has experienced the most abrupt and significant climate change in the continent.
Since the 1970’s the Wheatbelt has also seen a decline in farms from 10,000 to 4,000. Farmers are completely dependent on the agronomist, fertilizer manufacturers and the banks. High costs, low profitability, corporate driven agricultural policies together with climate change don’t offer much incentives to new farmers.
“Wheatbelt farmers need to shift their mindsets and management to produce food and fibre whilst regenerating lands that have been severely degraded. We need to build resilience in our eco-systems in the face of a changing climate, and it needs to happen very quickly”, said Louise Edmonds, CEO of Intuit Earth, an organization that is spearheading regenerative agricultural education for farmers around the wheat belt in Western Australia.
“Industrial agriculture feeds plants junk food like MacDonald’s which sets the plants up for pests and disease, so these corporations have a lot to answer for. They have infiltrated every single institution that provides advice and research to agriculture by funding them, so the research then swings in favor of these corporations rather than in favor of the public or the environment. Fertilizer manufacturers make the soil and the farmer dependent on them,” Louise Edmonds told The News Tribe. “Agricultural chemicals are like drugs, which when used on the land, destroys its natural fertility, immunity and balance making the soil dependent on chemicals. It’s the same as if your body was constantly on antibiotics, it would completely kill all the good bacteria and severely damage your organ function.”
Andre Leu, International Director at Regeneration International and author of the book “Poisoning our children” told The News Tribe, “There are no studies that say Pesticides are safe for humans, and hundreds saying they are not safe. The chemical compounds in fertilizers and pesticides which then leach into our foods, cause oxidative stress which is the leading cause of cancer, chronic inflammation and other auto immune diseases in humans.”
Diane Haggerty, a sheep and grain producer for over 25 years went from convention farming to Natural Intelligence Farming. “Very early in our farming practices we observed the link between soil hydrology and crop productivity. We conducted soil tests and realized we needed to improve the quality of our soil. After following leading soil and climate scientists we stopped using fungicides and chemical fertilizers and adopted natural mixtures. We also changed the way we managed our livestock, by switching from grain feed to a strict pasture feeding system. We originally started with a free choice mineral system to build the immune system of our sheep and assist with transitioning away from grain supplement and removal of internal parasite drenching. These steps decreased our operational costs hugely and we had happier, healthier animals and healthier soils. After observing 10 generations of livestock we have seen the epigenetic progression in the animals has also improved biodiversity and revitalization of the landscape. Just recently a grass has been discovered on our lands, that has not been seen for many years across WA.”
Louise’s biggest concern is the loss of soil carbon, the most essential nutrient which fertilizers destroy. “Carbon sequestration is a very powerful climate change mitigation strategy. In the 1850’s some soil carbon levels were measured at 18%, today we have less than 1%. If we don’t intervene and arrest the degradation of the environment quickly it will turn into a desert. In the last one month, research has been published that suggests that soil carbon is 6 times higher than the ocean and atmospheric pools. Science is now suggesting that if we increase the soil carbon by 4 parts per thousand per year, we can sequester the entire legacy load of carbon into our soils in 25 years. What that means is we can return to the climate we had prior to the industrial revolution.”
Pulling the atmospheric carbon from the atmosphere will give us other benefits as well, improving our water quality, address issues of eutrophication which is damaging our marine and aquatic environments and killing the great barrier reef, increase the nutritional quality of our food, address health issues and many of the degenerative and auto immune diseases that we are facing these days which is a result of a lack of nutrition in our food.
“It can be done right now by changing our agricultural management practices,” Louise went on to say. “Under regenerative management we have sequestered 22 tonnes of carbon dioxide in our soils per year for 25 years. We have 400 million hectares of human managed land in Australia, if we sequester just 2 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year we can draw down 5 times Australia’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.”
As climatic and economic risks mount farmers may encounter further limits to production and profitability, which will affect the long-term sustainability and viability of Australian agriculture, an industry which is currently producing food for 120 million people. The value of soil carbon is yet to be realized as a commodity which could be added to our exports list.
The writing is on the wall for West Australian farmers, we have come to a point where we must realise the value in improving the health of our land, our crops and livestock, not just because it will be better for the environment, but because it is an investment into our own health and the future of an industry.