I’m going to tell a story, one that I hope you read to the end as, no matter what you’re doing now in whatever job – retired, at school whatever, this story affects you every day and it’s one that can have a happy ending for all of us.
Back in the 70’s and 80’s I had the privilege to grow up in Rural New Zealand. There was plenty of hard work, yet what came of that was self-reliance, resilience and always lots of adventures. Many of those adventures were based around rivers and swamps, which I guess were hands-on Natural History lessons, not that we knew what that actually meant at the time. Today, we look at the Discovery Channel or look up Google. Back then, it was swim in it, climb it, dive into the mud to catch it. Our normal back then would today be called extraordinary abundance and what followed is my observation and research into what’s happened to our environment and food production simultaneously.
To give you an idea of the abundant life in the swamps in our district, where we used to go camping by the Waitoa River not far from Te Aroha, it was hard to get to sleep for the frogs croaking and the odd mate cutting the strings on your hammock. The old river courses were full of ducks with between eight to a dozen ducklings each. There were eels in every water course which we caught and cooked on the fire, and over the summer there would be schools of mullet that swam from the sea at least forty kilometers away.
Swamps and waterways are probably one of the greatest expressions of our environment, so we just need to take a look at the farms bounding the swamps to see what was going on there, as what comes from the farm, ends up in the swamp.
The good farms in the district did 600lbs of butterfat an acre. That converts to around 600kg a Hectare of butterfat. In today’s language this is 1000kg of milk solids per hectare. To put it another way, it took 2.5 cows per hectare of land to produce enough milk to make a ton of whole milk powder.
The farms were more productive and profitable than those same farms are now, with a simplistic and practical approach. There was no bought in feed, with stock numbers at one cow to the acre or in today’s terms 2.5 to the hectare, and there certainly wasn’t the environmental degradation and the population was a damn sight more healthy from the food produced then.
Through the middle of the 80’s farming practice in the district was to apply 150kg of superphosphate per hectare and lime every three years. You could say things were going pretty well on the farm.
The greatest change in New Zealand Agriculture slipped in unbeknown to most, yet over time we are able to track back to see where the problems began.
Superphosphate had been made by mixing Guano/bird dung with sulphuric acid. The source of the Guano at the time was Naru Island in the South Pacific. Farmers were told the great result achieved from this product was because of the phosphate portion, although this was somewhat true, there certainly was little or no recognition that the parent material had derived from sea birds and was loaded with other minerals and trace elements from the sea, all required for healthy soils, pastures, animals and consumers.
The resource in Naru ran out in the mid eighties and the two main fertiliser companies Ballance and Ravensdown who jointly own The New Zealand Phosphate Company went looking for new supplies.
Anyone following this issue would know the New Zealand Phosphate Company purchases phosphate rock from disputed territory in the Western Africa. The product contains phosphate at about the same percentage as the Naru product, but does not contain the minerals of the sea, yet does contain large quantities of heavy metals such as Cadmium.
The biggest issue of this new product is it doesn’t work. The response to farmers at this stage was just put some more on and it will be fine. The recommended nutrient levels which were indicated by the type of soil test taken took a sharp rise; Farmers will be well versed in the Olsen P test which determined the amount of phosphate extracted from the soil by using the Olsen method. These recommended levels from years of trial data suddenly changed from Olsen P 15ppm to levels of Olsen P 40ppm and above, yet there was no correlation to production increase. I remember the rhetoric of if you don’t put your super on you’ll go broke, or you gotta get your Olsen P up. These tactics were firmly rooted in fertiliser sales talk and are still part of sales today.
Accepted Industry testing systems have stated that over 60% of New Zealand soils are in excess of the phosphorus required for maximum production, yet these products are still being applied.
What wasn’t taken into account as the amount of superphosphate applied went from 150kg hectare to applications as high as 500kg hectare is that the acidic part of the product, sulphuric acid, was wreaking havoc on the soil substrate releasing aluminium, an extremely toxic element to soil biology, and also blocks other essential nutrients from getting into the plants.
Aluminium Hydroxide is a major component of the soil and is a very useful structural component of the soil yet, when exposed to acid, the hydroxide is converted to H2O (water) which leaves free aluminium ions to do the damage.
The second part of the damage caused by the acidic fertiliser is done to an element only recently regarded as essential to agriculture and essential it certainly is. Silicon is always found in oxides and hydroxides known as silica minerals. I don’t want to bury you in chemistry here but the simple way of describing the issue is that silicon needs to be in hydroxide form to become available to microbes and plants, yet when exposed to acid the hydroxide is removed from the silicon and degrades to silicon oxides.
This all may seem inconsequential, but if you are relying on pasture in your farming system, there’s a major problem which nobody’s been talking about, which is grasses require silica for production. Most of the scientific work on Silicon has been done on rice, sugar cane and some cereals which are all grasses. The increase in available silica has been shown to increase production by up to 40%, and farmers had no idea as there has been no accurate tests for available silica in the soil. Even today, it takes a trained eye and three aluminium tests before you can accurately identify silicon deficiencies. It is essential for cell reproduction, disease resistance and stem strength to name just a few properties.
Farmers were now facing dropping production but they didn’t know why! Most talk revolves around the weather but farms were losing their resilience to adverse weather conditions, yet they continued to follow industry recommendations and best practice.
Best practice was about to change again as in the late 80’s. Shell Oil had done a deal with the Government as part of the Think Big projects in which natural gas would be turned into synthetic nitrogen at Kapuni in Taranaki.
Now the fertiliser companies had a new weapon as, by adding synthetic Nitrogen to the soil, farmers would unknowingly tap into the humus store in the soil to bring about dramatic growth. As most farmers now know the original applications brought tremendous results yet, as time has gone on, it’s got to the point the grass won’t grow unless more is applied. Unbeknown to them they were actually mining soil fertility in the process decreasing the carbon levels in the soil at around 1% a year.
At this stage, it’s going from bad to worse. Pastures are not lasting like they have in the past, and new cropping regimes which are being introduced to grow maize to increase production, rarely make up for what’s being lost. As part of growing up on a peat farm, we had grown maize as part of bringing soils into production, but what was offered from industry was a total destruction of all soil microbiology with several sprays, fungicides, seed treatments. I could see that the result would not be pretty.
The other option was chemical regrassing where glyphosate is applied and new species of grass sown which were better than we had seen before – well that’s what industry kept saying. All that was really happening was they were selecting grasses that were more suited to the downward soil fertility. In reality, the species were always going to be of lower nutrition and would end up going the same way as the original pastures unless real soil fertility was attended to.
The costs were rising and farmers hadn’t noticed these practices were destroying the soil biology. No one had even bothered to look before, and who was to know that by using chemicals they were killing off the majority of the beneficial fungi in the soil. Some species of fungi break down trash, wastes, animal fecal matter into humus and other species interact with plants to provide nutrients in a symbiotic relationship with the soil.
So now we are getting to some major issues as fecal matter is making it into the water ways, which has been a big discussion point as to the environmental damage caused by farm runoff. What’s even more disconcerting is that a major part of the soil biology which also lives in fresh and sea water is a single cell organism; cyanobacteria which keeps this planet oxygenated and, in the process, sequesters the most carbon of all Earth’s organisms, which is being systematically destroyed.
As you can see the original biology of the planet has met the perfect storm of destruction, and no one has taken any notice!
A little background. Cyanobacteria are the original life form on Planet Earth, the originating source of all nutrition in the ocean, the source of available nutrient in the desert after rain, sequester more carbon than any other organism on the planet and while doing so oxygenate the atmosphere, harvest and store nitrogen in the carbon they sequester in soils, they have incredible ability to repair their own DNA and are climatically robust as they can handle desert heat and polar freezing, yet cannot handle man made chemicals.
The other part to bring into the equation is that over 50% of cyanobacteria utilise silica in their structural formation, meaning to function they require available silica as silicic acid. Water tests taken from Government run farms with high superphosphate use had no silica in the water denuding any opportunity to have healthy waterways with adequate nutrients to function as nature intended. Water through forest, mountains and the plains usually carry some dissolved silica, and many of the renowned sources of healing waters such as lords in France carry large quantities of dissolved silica.
Thus the soils and waterways are devoid of the foundation of life.
The destructive pattern continues in the use of chemicals to clean waterways of vegetation, in which local governments are the greatest users of ag chemicals in the country. Their argument is that it is a cost saving method, yet really is it that simple that they cannot even read the labels of the products they use on the waterways? Many labels state “not to be used near water, toxic to fish and other water life”.
Fecal matter enters the waterways from degraded soils and where there is no cyanobacteria to digest this material into food sources for tadpoles, white bait, fish ducklings, etc it is then inhabited by the likes of e-coli and campylobacter. What’s even more disturbing is that studies into e-coli show that exposure to ag chemicals increases antibiotic resistance exponentially to the point the waterways in Christchurch are now unsafe to swim in due to any chance of infection being untreatable.
So with shutting down the soil and water natural biological systems much of the applied synthetic nitrogen is entering the Canterbury aquifers with many bores with nitrates over 5ppm. On the face of it this is well below the World Health Organisation maximum safe level of 11.3ppm nitrate in drinking water, but as I found out at a conference I recently attended, that 11.3ppm safe level had come about as the maximum levels babies could stand before they died of nitrate poisoning (otherwise known as blue babies.) Recent studies in Norway over a very large portion of the population show that levels of 5ppm of Nitrate in drinking water will eventuate in over 20% of the population getting colorectal cancer. From that study and many others the reality is that the real safe level of nitrate in drinking water is 1ppm and below.
So now we can see how we got to be in such a big mess as far as our food production, water way degradation and ultimately the downward spiral in our health outlook.
This now is an environmental and health disaster and we have to look at what’s behind this. Any sane society would pull the plug on superphosphate, synthetic nitrogen and chemicals straight away. Obviously, we are not sane, or maybe the powers that be have lost the plot or are connected financially, or is it really true that we are what we eat, and the worse it gets, the stupider the parameters of society are.
One of the major fertiliser companies Ballance Agri Nutrients sponsors the Regional Council Environmental Awards. The Councils are the largest users of chemicals in the country and now they are trying to utilise Overseer, a computer simulated environmental plan which is owned by the New Zealand Phosphate Company, to regulate farmers on environmental issues created by themselves. The Government granted five million dollars to Overseer to help get this tool to a regulatory standard, yet no sign of actually dealing with the issues whatsoever, only a tool to regulate and tax farmers for environmental issues they created themselves.
In today’s world it’s really easy to test for just about anything. For example, we can do a total phosphate test which tells us how much phosphate we have in our soils. Most Dairy farms in Waikato/ Bay of Plenty Region have between seven to twelve tons of phosphate per hectare in the top 150mm. That’s about one hundred tons of superphosphate that’s not been used.
At present, pasture use rates that equate to one thousand five hundred years of phosphate before we will run out. To give an idea of how bureaucracy is hand in hand with the problem, Environment Waikato put out a study showing that over 50,000hectares in the Waikato was over the recommended safe level of Cadmium in the soil of 1ppm. Over that level it wasn’t safe to build houses and have human habitation. The only place cadmium contamination in the soil comes from is Superphosphate. The report went public and because of the industry involved it was removed the following week, and Environment Waikato went to some lengths to try and retrieve all the copies.(bad luck) Shortly thereafter the safe level went to 2ppm without any explanation.
These problems can actually be solved in the blink of an eye, and all it takes is a change in attitude, a little education and about half the budget farmers currently spend on fertiliser already to bring that change. Yes I’ll say it again so you know it’s not a typo.
“…all it takes is a change in attitude, a little education and about half the budget farmers currently spend on fertiliser already”
This can be monitored from start to finish, with production, actual farm profit, product quality, measurable carbon increases, nutrient levels and environmental outcomes, such as lowering nitrates in waterways below 1ppm.
Take a total soil test which indicates the “total amount of nutrients” that you have in your soil.
Take the “normal available nutrient test” and compare the two. With this information any limiting deficiencies or toxicities can be identified.
Mix the required ingredients and spread on the land and let nature do its thing. It is quite remarkable given the right ingredients and environment.
Monitor what’s happening and enjoy!
That couldn’t be true because Industry says it can’t be done, but remember the one saying that is the one who’s admitting they can’t do it, and those that can’t do it bring the biggest pressure on the farmers, such as Dairy Companies, Councils, Fertiliser Companies, Banks, Research Institutes such as Dairy NZ, Agresearch and on and on.
The reality is science has caught up with farming, in that it is possible to understand the role of varying species of fungi, from digestion of animal and plant wastes, the ability to break down radioactivity, their own natural antibiotic production to keep the likes of e-coli and campylobacter under control and the methods to cultivate the species and inoculate the land. It is possible to take material from the ocean loaded with cyanobacteria and inoculate the soil and waterways.
There are natural deposits of materials that can be utilised to bring the available silica levels up in the soil for very little cost, which in turn will help bring the waterways back to the healthy state they once were. There are deposits of natural minerals worldwide which, when blended properly, can increase the earth’s natural electrical and magnetic field which is known to increase biological activity and actual production.
It is all possible. I’ve seen it, been part of it, done a huge amount of practical research into all of these subjects, and I’ve seen the results, whether winning national food awards for beef quality, or increasing carbon in the soil by 18tons per hectare in twelve months, measuring nitrates in our water that leaves the farm below the necessary 1ppm for good health to the last test of undetectable nitrate levels.
We are not immune from what we have created in the environment. Either step up or be prepared to suffer the consequences.
About the Author
Ewan Campbell was born and grew up on a Waikato (New Zealand) dairy farm. He stayed working and managing the family farm until he purchased his own farm in the Waihi area. In addition to a life education on the land, Ewan trained as a Soil Consultant with Brookside Laboratories from America. Ewan also discovered the electrical matrix in the soil along with patenting a “natural soil conditioner” that activates the earths electrical matrix. He is also responsible for developing several other soil amendments and animal health products, marketing his own meat brand – Cambrian Meats, and going on to winning several awards for meat quality and innovation.