Column: sustainability and regenerative agriculture

How “sustainable” is the new biotech future, and can it, will it, be “regenerative”?

It is spring after all. But what kind it will be, we know not. I am anxious to know if we will get a boost in growth following a fall that had poor regrowth after the summer dormancy period.

As most of you know, there is a spurt of growth in May and June, and then in July and August, growth slows to a snail’s pace and then, in September, there is a short smaller burst of growth following the summer heat.

That fall regrowth is dependent on sufficient moisture. So I guess we didn’t get enough, although I thought we had good fall rains. You get what you get.

As it is spring, a rancher who “farms” the land gets to thinking about what to reseed and how to do it.

Reseeding is usually done when production has dropped to something less than optimal. Optimal is a balance between costs of production and value of production. Preferably the value is more than the cost.

What we don’t know here is how sustainable our practices are. I am talking about hay crops and maybe our home garden crops.

Easy tweaking with fast-acting chemicals can boost production. But we have to be mindful that we can use up valuable organic matter if we don’t have biological life in the soils to help manufacture new soil components.

While the aim is to replace what we take out of the soil when we harvest a crop, we may not be able to keep that up, cost effectively.

Some soils experts will say that we are using up organic matter to the point where the protein value of the crops is going down.

This situation has led to a focus on the concept of “soil health,” which essentially means soil can sustain itself at this optimal level of production almost indefinitely, or with just a bit of tweaking which should cost little.

If the crop is grazed, then up to 90 per cent of the nutrients are returned to the soil, hopefully with an active microbiology component, that in turn stimulates soil formation.

This is beginning to approach what we call “regenerative agriculture.” This is supposed to improve the soil at a sustainable higher level of functioning and production.

Many agricultural devotees shun the term “sustainable” because it suggests a stable level of production but perhaps at a level below the potential of the soil and crops produced.

There is always a financial component to the calculation. The soil health movement is aware that there is no fertilizer bill from the microbiology population once established and if management is good to great.

Some of our soils are not balanced, in that certain mineral components tie up others.

For example, excessive magnesium ties up calcium, which is a critical element for fertility.

Now all this is quite technical and baffling.

A recent article in Country Life (which is not an organic magazine) said: “Researchers can now identify the microscopic organisms on which roots depend and are discovering ways to make their relationship even more effective.”

The author went on to say: “… lipochitooligosaccaries (LCOs) represent a promising next stage.”

These are “signals,” not nutrients. This is baffling to us uneducated farmers and ranchers.

Developing the use of these substances is so complicated that Mosanto and Novozymes – two big biotech corporations – have teamed up to develop them for the marketplace.

What they do, apparently, is speed up the relationship between plant roots (which absorb nutrients) and beneficial micro-organisms.

It almost sounds like the farm-level manager is dependent on the supply of products from businesses so big and complicated that we cease to have control of our production once we introduce these sophisticated technical processes.

So how “sustainable” is the new biotech future, and can it, will it, be “regenerative”?

We have got to figure this one out! The “we” is agricultural researchers, advisors and producers, both the wise ones and the new entrants with a higher level of technical training.

It tires me just trying to pronounce “lipochitooligosacharrides,” so I will just say “LCOs.” That is a big enough mouthful.

David Zirnhelt is a member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association and chair of the advisory committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching program which started at Thompson Rivers University in Williams Lake in January of 2016.

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