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Industrial Agriculture vs Regen Ag!

You often hear it – “industrial agriculture is evil” from those in the “Regenerative Agriculture” (RA) movement. But what is the difference? The momentum of RA is significant. But, simplified, I will suggest it’s dangerous. It is viewed as if it is Natural Law with a focus on Mother Nature. So, as a Christian, I will challenge it and suggest that it’s a trap for many and that it demonises sensible and smart agriculture.

Ironically, the world mourns starving African children and people open their hearts to sponsor; a child, a well, food parcels or a food-aid concert. But the truth is that what will do most for starving Africa is a judicious adoption of Industrial Agriculture. As a past dryland farmer myself, of 5,500 ha in a desert climate and a 35 year no-till promoter of reducing pesticide use, I agree with many sentiments of regen ag. But it has some very problematic ideology. How can we grow more food in Africa without using fuel, fertilisers, pesticides, tractors and smart breeding? These are important tools for quadrupling their production, which is keenly needed to stop starvation.

While Africa has smart phones and smart cars, it has limited smart farming. Look at agriculture in the western world, they all use smart industrial farming. The west feeds their people, so why should Africa rely on food hand-outs? Surely they have the social license to feed their own 1.3 billion people, which is projected to double by 2050? We may even find that when they have more food that their birth rates may decrease. Industrial agriculture has given the west tremendous prosperity. But, yes, it includes strategically removing some trees, applying fertilisers, managing weeds and diseases and good genetics.

Sure, we can give them a fish, but we do better empower them to fish into their future? I have doubts that the west will let them farm as we have done. I know Africa can increase their production 10 fold and without soil loss. No-tillage and residue retention farming globally has been a huge success. Currently, in Africa tillage and overgrazing is all too common! But for us to say that farming must now be done in a non-industrial or organic way will confine Africa to food dependancy.

When you listen to Regenerative Agriculture champions (eg TED talk by Gabe Brown the simple message is “monoculture is bad, even deadly”. He says “monocultures cause a loss of biodiversity and soil damage which then leads to drainage which causes the nutrients to be washed into rivers. Less biodiversity leads to lower nutrient cycling and more fossil fuel use and less soil biology. Then farmers need to fertilise more which increases weeds so we have to spray more herbicides and many are chelators which bind the metallic nutrients making the crops deficient and susceptible to diseases so we need to spray fungicides and they hurt soil biology and so then we need more insecticides which is not good for humans and we lose our pollinators.” Wow! How simple and indeed, this is simply too simplistic.

Then the continues. “Our current crop model is about killing things and farmers are going broke and producing foods that are not nutrient dense, we are losing up to 65% of the food value and causing numerous human diseases.” Virtually all of these assertions are false or dangerous.

His suggestion to fix this is by applying five principles which are in his book that you can buy. That’s great to know that he has the answers and that I need to buy his book and save the world. These five principles are no-tillage, keeping residue, rotating crops of diverse species, keeping roots alive in the soil as long as possible and incorporating animals in agriculture. Interestingly, most of these practices have been in use in agriculture for decades and I would argue that this is actually conventional industrial agriculture.

The only recent principles are no-tillage and keeping the soil alive with living roots. No-till has been widely adopted (>80%) in Australia for 25 years, but is only 22% adoption in the USA. Also, the talk implies that all these principles can be applied uniformly and globally. As if they were Natural Laws for global agriculture. Clearly this is not the case. Let’s have some perspective, discussion and reflection?

In dry agricultural environments receiving 150 mm of annual rainfall and lots of dry heat (20 times this rain in evaporation) the argument is troubling. Keeping the roots growing most of the year is impossible. Similarly, having livestock could also send a dryland farmer broke as his farmland erodes. This would undo the great gains of the last 30 years of the no-tillage agricultural revolution.

This “new way of farming” apparently will not kill the soil, our communities, our peoples nor and nature while the old way apparently does. These are some dangerous assertions in the regen agriculture philosophy. It is also ammunition for activists who already believe that farming is evil and may lead to the banning of many of the cheap tools that have been safe and valuable in agriculture. In war time you would call this “friendly fire”. If this message was confined to North Dakota then I would say, “all the best”. But my W Australian Minister for Agriculture has become a convert with no appreciation for our wonderful no-tillage revolution. Indeed, she has no real knowledge but she has the power to remove safe farming tools. Similarly, such simplistic views influence global decision makers, including in Africa where food insecurity is real because industrial agriculture has never happened at scale.

All ideas need to be tested with frank, honest, sceptical and open-minded discussion. It is easy to criticise other farming techniques when your mouth is full. Ironically, the biggest food health problem in America is obesity. For well-fed farmers to demonise safe technologies globally, and those that made them wealthy and not consider its global impact is reprehensible. When you drive throughout Africa, as I have done, you realise that even the old technology is absent. In the meantime people go hungry. Africa needs fertilisers, pesticides, no-tillage, stubble retention, modern genetics and careful livestock management. Too many good agronomists remain silent in challenging RA, this could have serious food security ramifications.

To suggest that monocultures are dead and do not exist in nature is dishonest. There are monocultures everywhere in nature. Look a little wider – I have witnessed many tree monocultures in many parts of the world, including my own native, untouched vegetation. Further, to suggest that there is no biological soil life in monocultures is also absurd. Just ask any microbiologist? Wheat residue has dozens of different food components.

In fields where I have grown continuous wheat for 13 years there are millions of different microbes in a spoon full of soil and their diversity is rich. I have feed my soil crop residue from a harsh climate. Alternative, diverse crops like; chickpeas, millet, lupins, barley and triticale have failed to perform. Only wheat and canola have made me money. This experience will be different for others – but it says that RA, as preached, is not Natural Law. If I had a farmers market just down the road from me with 20,000 people, where I could get 5 times the price of others for a bulk commodity, with almost no freight cost, then that would be different.

The idea that you do not need to replace nutrients when grain is removed is fanciful. While the nutrient pool can be better extracted with increased microbial activity through no-tillage is true, it will eventually run low. So many places in the world do not start with deep fertile soil with 100 years of applied phosphorus. Nearly half of the sandy soils in my State started agriculture with 1-2 ppm of P, almost no OC, very little S and low K and this was 60 years ago. To suggest that these soils could have been farmed with RA and no fertiliser is absurd.

In contrast, I was impressed with the use of covers by the specialist David Brandt on his farm. His story is pragmatic and the use of them has rectified his shallow duplex soil challenges that were inactive and too wet from late March until the soil warm enough to plant corn. I have visited farmers in west Kansas who were enthusiastic about covers but it had hurt them financially and they had retreated. Similarly, researchers in dry Colorado who have done years of covers research showing where environmental evaporation is high that the benefit of covers long term was negative.

In contrast, Brasil had three no-till champions in the 1970’s, in Herbert Bartz, Nona Pereira and Franke Dijkstra. They could only make no-tillage work by incorporating covers into their warm and wet farming regions. The legendary work of Rolf Derpsch and Ademir Caligari began here and covers and no-till were born. Here, they are a necessity and a miraculous cure for their erosion problems.

Using a photo of soil in the Ted Talk, which has been damaged by 17 years of continuous soy in Argentina, without a proper context is stick-man folly. These farmers know this is not what should be done but government taxation rules force strange agronomic practice. One thing I learn from my year in North America is that “you should never criticise an Indian until you walk a mile in his moccasins”. May we all have the courage to keep asking questions and look for the greater good of ensuring global food security.

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