You’ll be giving a series of three lectures on sustainable agriculture and human lecture. Apart from them being free and open to the public, why should people attend these talks?
Graeme Sait, CEO of NutriTech Solutions: I’ll be speaking about soil health and human health and there’ll be an emphasis on how to improve food with greater nutrient density and less chemical intervention. There’ll also be a presentation on human health where people will learn multiple techniques to extend their lives and be healthier and happier.
That’s in theory. How do these techniques translate into reality?
Well, as far as the soil story goes, it begins with the recognition that a disease – like a fungal disease in a crop - is not due to a deficiency in the fungicide, but rather that there’s a reason behind everything. And it’s invariably linked to nutrition. We understand that plants have measurable immune systems that are fueled by a balance between a whole range of trace minerals and major minerals. This balance is important because every mineral affects other minerals.
How does one measure these different mineral levels?
With soil tests. These are very much part of what we do. You measure the soil, you measure the leaf, you get the nutrition right. That’s half of the equation. The second half is that you need to have all of the biology present, or as much of it as possible, in order to support the plant by feeding it and destroying pathogens, for instance. Disease resistance in the soil is about having the right amounts of minerals and microbes.
So, a healthy soil basically means healthy plants…
If you’ve got a healthy plant, which basically means one with a robust immune system, and a soil that’s filled with all the beneficial molecules, you won’t have any disease. Disease is a symptom of a lack of those two things. And the way that we’re farming currently the whole thing is just turning in on itself and becoming a horror show.
What comes after the soil tests?
You start by adding different minerals whilst recognizing there are several key links to the whole equation. The most productive area in the history of mankind was the Great Plains in the US. That region produced more biomass, more plant matter on a yearly basis, than anything we’ve ever done with truckloads of urea, until we ruined it about fifty years ago. What made it so productive? Nitrogen is the abundant mineral on the planet and where did they get it from? From where you’re supposed to: there’s 74 000 tonnes of free nitrogen gas hovering above every hectare. We’re supposed to have the minerals and organisms in place to access all that atmosphere and fi x it as ammonium nitrogen in the soil. We’ve lost that ability to do so with everything we’ve done in agriculture. So basically, we believe in a scientific approach and if you look up the meaning of science in the dictionary, you’ll see that it’s an adherence to natural laws. Much of what we’ve done on the agricultural, medical and veterinary side is anything but science in fact, it’s anti-science. There’s a direct parallel with human health. The best example of the symptom-treating approach is the fact that the number one killer in the western world is heart disease, which is just about to be nudged out by cancer, followed by strokes and prescription medicine. Prescription medicine is the fourth biggest killer and that’s definitely the sign of a bankrupt system when your medicine is killing you more than all the other degenerative diseases. And, of course, Mauritius has one of the highest cancer rates in the world.
What’s the link between the chemicals we’re drowning our plants in and cancer?
There’s an absolutely profound and undeniable link. We know that many cancers have a chemical link and the reality is that we’re not just de-mineralizing our food but eating more and more chemicals in the form processed foods. For example, take white bread, which I’ve seen you eat a lot of here. When you take wholemeal flour and convert it into white fl our, you lose 80% of the foodstuffs’ nutritional value. And because the digestive process is so energy- intensive and is driven by a whole range of nutrients, by removing the nutrients from bread you turn it into an anti-nutrient. In other words, by eating white bread you lose more nutrition than you gain.
Given that agriculture is increasingly becoming a public health issue, what should government’s role be in all this?
It’s a major public health issue. In addition, you’re depending more and more tourism and on the big trend in the industry worldwide is green tourism. People aren’t going to come here for your substandard fruit and vegetables, which are amongst the worst I’ve ever seen, other than two countries in eastern Europe. Everything looks like it’s deficient in something. Ideally, government should get behind efforts to change this. It has to realize that the healthier the plant, the less the need for chemical intervention and the healthier people will be. And these things don’t cost much you can brew up beneficial microorganisms for very low sums of money.
South Africa’s been very successful at this: there are some massive composting operations, the soils are changing for the better and a lot of farmers are enthusiastic about farming again. There’s no passion in poison. I’ve just visited ZZ2, which is one of the largest food producers in the southern hemisphere – they produce 45% of South Africa’s tomatoes – and their entire operation is biological. They make 50 000 tonnes of compost, compost teas, biological inoculants, organic forms of nematicides and pesticides they have neem plantations where they harvest and ferment leaves that serve as fungicides and pesticides. They’ve mastered biological agriculture.
How do you convince big business to adopt a more sustainable approach?
The new hard science-based, biological approach isn’t a naïve concept of organics. It’s about more than just not putting any chemicals in the soil, which is basically organic by neglect. It’s also about recognizing that you have to correct the trace minerals, to brew by organisms that feed the biology just a bit of compost isn’t going to do the job. With this approach, anyone anywhere is expected to do better than in their first season, right from day one.
You believe that the soil is a living organism. Tell us more about this.
Indeed I understand that people use tremendous amounts of pesticides in Mauritius. They need to understand insects in the grand scheme of things. If there’s this wonderfully complex thing called nature, every part of it is there for a reason. What’s the reason for insects? We think that they’re just here to destroy crops so we can knock out them out with chemicals. According to Philip Callahan in his earth-shattering book called Tuning into Nature, the feelers of insects aren’t feelers at all. They’re actually complex antennae that pick up vibrations from plants. He showed that plants emit infrared radiation. Healthy well-balanced plants send out a steady flow of radiation and insects will leave them alone because they’re not geared to attack them. On the other hand, a plant that’s been jam-packed with nitrogen or is lacking some of the core trace minerals, sends out a staccato burst that attracts insects. In the scheme of things, insects are the rubbish collectors of the planet. The aim of the farmer should be to not produce garbage. This would be benefit to everyone, including to the people eating their food.
And, of course, monoculture isn’t exactly conducive to healthy soils is it?
Firstly, monoculture isn’t an adherence to natural laws, which are based on biodiversity. One crop inevitably brings a series of one pest, which becomes more and more resistant and causes more and more problems. So having a more diverse range crops makes you not only more economically resistant as you don’t have all you eggs in one basket. Also, the old mantra of modern agriculture, which was basically “get big or get out” is rapidly changing into a concept of “diversify or get out”, a concept of having multiple, interrelated, almost permaculture-like enterprises on one farm. The huge increase worldwide of farmer’s markets is a huge opportunity for farmers: they all deal in cash the more produce there is, the more people will come the better you grow and the better your food tastes, the better you do. Ultimately, if you’re not a good grower it sorts itself out automatically: no-one buys your produce.
What would you grow instead of sugarcane?
You can grow anything really you’re in a subtropical climate, you can choose almost anything. The soils here come from a volcanic heritage, theoretically they should be able to produce anything. Without being too critical, part of the reason sugarcane’s been chosen is because you can plant it and walk away without doing too much. Also, from the height and condition of the plants, it looks like the cane here is obviously missing something. So even if you’re going to stick with cane, something needs to be done in terms of soil nutrition.
Have you done any soil tests here yet?
No, but I’m about to. What I can say though is while you lost a lot of organic matter it’s not beyond repair. You’ve still got around 2% of organic matter levels in your soil. It’s a lot harder when the soil has lost all of its organic matter or has levels of between 0.5% and 1%.
And what about genetically-modified organisms (GMOs)? A big no-no or do they have a role to play?
No, they’re a greed-driven farce. I’m shocked and horrified to see that South Africa has embraced them. Many African countries refuse to go down that path as it’s to no one’s benefit other than the multinationals behind the technology. In 10 or 20 years, when the adequate research has been done, there may be some things of value but for now they’re akin to spitting in the face of god. We’re changing the amazing blueprint of nature despite the fact that we know only a tiny little fraction of the situation. Livestock, if given a choice between GM maize and conventional maize, will always go for the latter. The Japanese are waiting to see what happens to the 300 million American guinea pigs before going down that road. Europe is also fighting against GMOs.
Unbeknownst to many, soil health has major ramifications for climate change too…
Indeed, this goes beyond just soil and animals. It goes to the core of our ongoing existence, because of issues in relation to climate change. An important part of the story of the huge blanket of greenhouse gases that’s trapping heat and changing the climate is that we know recognize that the planet acts as one big organism. Small changes in temperature generate multiple changes in its metabolism in the form of extreme weather events for instance. When we get down to why this is happening, the principal single link throughout the whole problem relates to two greenhouse gases: nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide. With ice-core sampling, scientists have been able to go back 600 000 years and we know that there are now about 100 parts per million of CO2 more than at any time. Most of this increase started in the 1950s when there was this sort of post-war party fueled by cheap oil.
Where did this all come from? Well, there’s only ever been the same number of carbon molecules on the planet, which is either stored in the soil, in the biomass or the outer atmosphere. A huge amount of that, 5% to be precise, used to be in the soil only ten decades ago, before we started the extractive agriculture experiment. Now it’s only 1.5%. If you do the sums of how much that represents you’ll find that, since 1860, we’ve lost 470 gigatonnes of CO2 that used to be stored in the soil as humus. That’s now in the atmosphere. During the same period, all of humankind’s other activities - such as the burning of fossil fuels, industries, transport, the six billion lungs that weren’t there before – equates to the release of 270 gigatonnes. What we need to do as a matter of screaming urgency is to pay carbon credits to farmers and teach them the techniques to bring humus back to the soil. Agriculture has to intervene and make sure the soil has the right conditions so that the features that grab the carbon and hold it as humus do their jobs properly.
So, carbon emissions from changes in soil composition actually dwarf the sum of the emissions from all other human activities?
Yes, and recognizing that is very important. According to predictions, we’re currently going towards a global temperature increase of 3°C, which would cause huge changes. But if we continue with business as usual, the increase could be as much as 6°C.
What you seem to be recommending is a back to basics approach, particular in terms of agriculture. But how did we do things so wrong in the first place?
The tipping point was the same as it was for everything else really: opting for profitability and extraction over other considerations. Every time you harvest a crop you’re taking out some of the minerals that were in the soil. And we’ve developed this very simplistic idea that we can replace the 74 different minerals that exist in the soil with just three minerals in the form of NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium). So, basically we increasingly de-mineralized the soil and, as a result, our problems with plant health grew, because you need the minerals to support plant immunity. We then had to add more chemicals, which became a vicious circle, because chemicals actually kill the organisms that support plant life. Since the advent of extractive agriculture, or as I call it the “chemical experiment”, some ten decades ago, every year we’ve had to put substantially more chemicals in the soil that the previous year and every year, on a global level, there’s more pest and disease pressure. Last year saw the biggest single increase in chemical use, 14% in one year. It’s the very definition of unsustainable.