Developments in IT are having unusual flow on effects. More and more people are starting to use their mobile phone apps to tell them about the food they are eating – where the food came from, how it was grown, what is its nutritional value, is it organic. And these people want it to be organic but they also want good food. But does organic food really provide better nutrition?
In our journeys we spend a lot of time on farms across southern NSW. Farms big and small and everything from grazing & cropping to large-scale horticulture. Something that caught us by surprise is the poor quality of soils on many farms that are certified organic. We had an idealised view of organic farms having rich crumbly chocolate soils, abundant growth of healthy green crops and pastures, and plenty of productivity, even in dry times. The opposite was often the case, why so?
Before the early 1900’s farmers had to rely upon soil organic matter to provide good quality soil with plenty of nutrients. See our newsletter “Organic Matter Matters”. They had no choice because chemical fertilizers and pesticides were not available. As farmers ran down their bank of soil organic matter they came to rely upon the timely arrival of these chemicals to maintain production. And as the organic matter continued to decline, soils became harder and stored less rainfall, to the point where were are now. Addicted to and dependent upon fertilisers and pesticides (and irrigation).
So what happens when a farmer makes the jump to organic when all he or she knows is conventional farming practices and a dependence on chemicals to maintain production? They stop using chemicals but the soil organic matter is not there to keep them going or to stay in business. All of a sudden they are trapeze artists without a net!
We have a problem. Huge demand for organic produce at the consumer end, especially in the cities, without a solid farming foundation to supply the produce. What can we do about it? It means we have to look at farming from a different perspective with a new mindset and smarter management practices. The old recipes no longer work. We are moving up from playing drafts to playing chess!
Managing soil biology is the answer
The first step towards smarter management practices is feeding the soil. Soil is a living thing and like all living things it needs water, food, and shelter. Organic matter is essential to provide all three – storage of rainfall, food and shelter for soil biology. Rebuilding your levels of organic matter means keeping the soil covered with living plants ALL THE TIME. You can also add organic matter as compost, mulch or manures.
Why is soil biology so important? There is a lot of talk about the importance of microbiomes in the human gut and microbiomes around roots at the moment. In simple terms, plants use their “guts” (roots) outwards. Gut and root microbiomes significantly improve health, development, and fitness of their respective plant or animal hosts.
Image source: https://medium.com/@thryve/the-development-of-the-gut-microbiome-f060a6ba41bf
Do we find the same microbiology in guts and around roots? Not really, it is another case of parallel evolution where the different microbiomes in guts and roots do a very similar job.
The key question for farm managers, especially those going down the organic path, is “can soil biology replace my need for fertilizers and pesticides”? Let’s look at these one at a time.
This is “the big one” for organic farmers. You can use the traditional method of ploughing out all weeds or you can use rotations and cover crops to keep the ground covered. Weeds are opportunists and love bare ground. And work done by ASM has demonstrated that improving soil health or quality can favour the plants you want so they out-compete weeds. See our case studies on “Billilingra” and “Macfield”. Most crops and pastures are adapted to better soils anyway, so you can help them along by building up your soil health.
Better nutrient supply and uptake
Organic matter can supply not just N, P, K but all 13 of the nutrients needed by plants. Soil biology feeds off organic matter to break it down into soluble forms that can be absorbed by plant roots. This is particularly important for phosphorous. This is a slow release form of nutrition unlike the “all at once” provided by most fertilizers. Healthy soils with sufficient organic matter allow nitrogen fixing bacteria to remove nitrogen from the air. Another well-known example of nitrogen supply is rhizobium bacteria in legume inoculants that make nitrogen-fixing root nodules on legume crops and pastures. Gut and root bacteria produce vitamins such as riboflavin and vitamin B12. Root bacteria produce plant hormones that regulate plant growth and gut bacteria seem to regulate animal behaviour.
Gut and root microbiomes suppress diseases. Bacterial inoculants in agriculture and forestry are considered equivalent to probiotics for animal health. Probiotics stimulate plant and animal defence systems and out-compete disease-causing microbes. In plants, root genes switched on by soil bacteria are involved in defence responses. Seeds may harbor a reservoir of probiotics for their seedlings. Plant root exudates can stimulate particular microbes that they need and suppress those they do not want. This is well known in the scientific community.
In conclusion, farmers CAN run their businesses without chemicals and keep producing with less costs to themselves and their environment. A particularly important advantage for Australian farmers is better water use efficiency. This means that the rainfall you receive is captured and stored by your soils without running off to be lost from the property. When rains falls you can be confident that it is stored and ready to be used by the crops and pastures on your farm. In this way you build up a buffer against dry spells. Your place will be green and still producing while your neighbours will be suffering.
So, to revisit the initial question “does organic food really provide better nutrition”, people increasingly want organic food but they also want it be healthy and full of nutrition. And they are prepared to pay more for it. Therefore, “the answer lies in the soil” and it goes Beyond Organics.