Challenging the old thinking

Beneath the surface
with David Law
Forward Farming

It’s hard to change the habits of a lifetime – or an understanding of what is possible - when your education is based on accepted, but limiting, chemical science.

So, if one-metre-long ryegrass roots don’t surprise you, then you’re already streets ahead of the status quo.

Whakatane dairy farmer Alan Law, whose farm has been on the Total Replacement Therapy programme for two years now, was digging a drain in his paddock when he uncovered unusually long ryegrass roots.

Ryegrass and clover make up a standard New Zealand pasture cover, but conventional scientists and seed sales people will tell you the only way to grow roots that long is to plant traditionally long-rooted plants, such as chicory and plantain – certainly not ryegrass, which has an average root length of 150mm.

The efficacy of long-rooted plants to reduce nitrate leaching by 30 per cent is the reasoning behind the 10m riparian strip planting solution, a ‘solution’ that scientists say will likely need to increase to 10m to meet regulations.

However, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that one-metre-long ryegrass roots across a whole farm would mean nitrogen leaching basically coming to a stand-still.

We have used natural science to achieve what we have today.

We first had to reduce Alan’s dependence on applied nitrogen, but we had to replace synthetic nitrogen with something for the pasture to continue to grow. The target became growing clover so  prolifically that it harnesses nitrogen from the atmosphere itself.

We went against conventional science again, which insists the ideal soil pH is 5.8-6. We have found the ideal pH in which to curate a healthy soil, with prolific clover growth able to photosynthesise organic nitrogen, is 6-7.

The right pH will encourage the natural synergy between biology and plant: thriving biology in the soil allows long roots to establish, which in turn encourages biology to thrive.

Another challenge we’re targeting is the sequestration of carbon in the soil and reducing methane emissions.

It is commonly believed by mainstream science that the only way to sequester carbon is by growing trees, but again, that comes down to a poor understanding of natural processes or knowledge of the sciences: chemistry, in symmetry with biology, will change the physiology of soil, roots, plants, animal health and human health.

There are two types of carbon – carbon in the top layers of soil (litter) that decomposes over time and stays fairly static in its carbon readings; and the liquid carbon pathway, which takes carbon down the roots of plants.

Chemical scientists are overlooking the role of the liquid carbon pathway, because what we are measuring via soil carbon testing is proving that we can indeed gain carbon in soil.

A lot of the scientific theories we use originate outside of New Zealand, but we are comfortable with that; it would be foolish to assume that New Zealand-based science is the only correct science.

If the government is looking to radically challenge farmers to change their practices, to reduce future carbon emissions and clean up our waterways, then it needs to overhaul its quickly-becoming-archaic advice for modern political thinking.

Because 95 per cent of New Zealand’s fertiliser comes from chemical fertiliser companies, that means 95 per cent of the advice given to our politicians is based on chemical solutions.

Even if a biological opportunity like Total Replacement Therapy was presented, the die-hard 95 per cent would challenge it.

To move forward, the 95 per cent needs to be culled heavily because the danger of keeping these advisers is that they will use their energy to defend their old traditions, which have got us into the mess and pollution we are in today. You can’t fix a problem with the same advice that created it.

The underlying worry for farmers going forward is that Government won’t recognise the progress made in mitigating pollution and sequestering carbon and will bash everyone with the same club in the form of a tax.

Government must listen to biologically thinking scientists without being cross-examined by the old guard.

There has been a lot of brilliant work done in New Zealand and overseas to meet the challenges ahead, but this progress is being slowed by a reluctance to think laterally about the solutions already on our doorstep.


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