Time for
regeneration of our soils?
Author: Peter Searll - EnOrmus Bud We know that our soil health is depleting at a rapid rate, alongside the direct impact on our well-being. There is currently much concern among farming circles about rising fertiliser costs. Business Insider predicts that these costs are expected to rise between 32% and 69% during this (2022) growing season alone. This is obviously a concern for rising food prices and the knock-on inflationary impact. For many crop farmers, fertiliser costs are 50% of their input prices. The World Bank indicates that the sharply rising input costs places food security under increasing pressure.
This provides us with a unique opportunity to reconsider how we are growing our food and medicine, with a three-pronged approach. It will help to build resilience and increase our food security in the medium term. With agriculture there are no quick fixes, but if we follow this proposed path, we can place ourselves in a much better situation compared with the pursuit of the same strategies that were used before.
Align with natural processes
While this seems straightforward, many of us have forgotten that natural processes and cycles are the most efficient use of resource. As a simple example, if we irrigate during the heat of day, we lose more water to evaporation. Furthermore, the plants’ stomata are closed, making water and nutrient uptake through the leaves less effective.

We may have neglected the role foraging animals play in natural processes. This is evident on the great savannahs and grasslands, where large herds of antelope and other foragers used to pass seasonally. This kept the grasses short and most importantly these events distributed a huge amount of natural fertiliser (manure and urine) that kept the soil fertile. Regenerative agriculture implores farmers to integrate livestock on their land to mimic these natural processes.

Aligning with nature’s processes requires a shift in perspective, where we move away from “dominate and control” nature, to working with nature. Biomimicry, (learning from and copying nature) teaches that we should create the conditions conducive to life, and let nature do the work. Nature is willing if we prepare and conserve the natural environment.
Not only are fungi the great recyclers of our planet, they are also a critical part of the soil food web. Fungi symbiotically provide nutrients to plants in exchange for sugars produced by plants through photosynthesis. Fungi are like a second set of roots, enabling plants to get the minerals they need from anywhere connected to the living fungi. These remarkable beings integrate development with growth, which is the most resource efficient strategy. Each thread or strand of mycelium grows in its own chosen direction, yet the fungi will connect and network if left undisturbed in the soil. This is what we mean by integrating development with growth. We end up with a wonderful and fertile soil food web.
Are we destroying our soils faster that we can build them?
Understand that soil is living
This is the key ingredient to regenerate our soils: knowing that healthy soil is actually alive. We have disregarded this knowledge, and often see our fields as a chemical factory for us to control. Therefore, we use synthetic fertiliser as routine practise. However, if we get the soil biology right, nearly all other aspects of soil health will fall into place – like structure and chemistry. Along with fungi, a healthy soil biota comprises a rich diversity of bacteria and other living entities, such as earthworms and numerous other tiny creatures. If we create / allow a healthy soil food web, and work with nature, we can grow just about anything.

In fact, the word agriculture comes from Latin, from ager (field) and cultura (to grow). Agriculture is about nurturing the soil, going way beyond adding a limited set of chemicals. Our overuse of synthetic NPK has greatly diminished the life in soil3, and actually contributes to CO2 emissions3. A regenerative approach achieves the opposite. The longer we continue along the current industrial farming path, the worse the damage and the costlier the fix.

In regenerative agri, the three most important properties for healthy soil are:
  • having organic matter in the soil (remember the animal manure or compost),
  • having a balanced microbial community and
  • keeping living plants in the soil.

This last point is crucial, if we leave a field fallow, we limit the beneficial life below ground, because we deprive the bacteria and fungi of food. Living roots keep carbon going into the soil and feed the microbes, so we should never leave the soil uncovered! Cover crops are gaining prominence to achieve this and provide additional revenue opportunities as a cash crop or forage. So, it’s a win-win and should always be employed.

A critical implication of knowing that soil is living, means that we can grow soil and make unproductive land arable. It is renewable with the right knowledge and care. The alternative leads to infertile and dead soil.

Use life friendly chemistry
There are many reasons for using life friendly chemistry over and above the need to keep the soil alive. Dr. Zach Bush has amply demonstrated the link between harmful synthetic chemicals in the soil and on plants to the rise of chronic disease and cancer rates. Glyphosate has been shown to be carcinogenic and is banned in many countries, but not in South Africa. As the father of medicine, Hippocrates said “let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food.” Recent studies show that food grown regeneratively is substantially more nutritious than conventionally grown food5, seven times healthier in fact. It is more nutrient dense, with a broader spectrum of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals which promote immunity and longevity.

Beyond human health, we are poisoning our insects and our water resources. The environmental impacts of chemical farming are far-reaching and thoroughly destructive.
Nature recycles everything, there is no waste. Many corporates advocate ESG issues (Environment, Social and Governance), and Net Zero is the target for resource usage, where everything is recycled. We live on a finite planet, and infinite uncontrolled growth is practically impossible. Like nature, we must recycle all our resources, which we can’t do if they are toxic. Which completes our circle of aligning with natural processes.

What about the money?
There is always risk in farming and managing these risks as best as possible is sensible, indeed essential. Let’s contrast the scenarios of staying our current path with a regenerative one.

On our current course, fertiliser continues to become more and more expensive, raising our input costs and lowering our profitability. Over time, we need more fertiliser to get the same yield, and the soil health diminishes further. This course leads to the death of our soil.

The regenerative path may produce lower yields initially when we reduce the use of synthetic fertilisers. We need to do this over a 3-year period to bring the soil back to vibrant life, with a 30% reduction in fertiliser in year 1 and a 60% reduction in year 2. At the same time, we need to begin to add life, either with cover crops, manure or compost, microbial teas, or direct treatments. Once we hit year 3, our yields should be back to where they would be if we stayed with the conventional approach. However, there is a big difference. Our soil is now much more fertile and needs less synthetic fertiliser and insecticide. Therefore, we have much lower input costs, and a more valuable resource to grow food. This will sustain us much longer into the future. We have built resilient soil, able to endure drought, disease, and pests much better than previously. It is also likely that food grown this way can command higher prices.

In conclusion, there is a hidden opportunity amidst rising fertiliser costs. It is time for us to consider ways to farm that are better for the land, people, and our world. If done correctly, regenerative agriculture is also more profitable. Working with nature, nurturing the life in the soil, and using life friendly chemistry is all we need to do.