Approaching agriculture in new ways requires new perspectives on how to view things. One of the main differences between conventional and sustainable agriculture is the relative reliance on external inputs. Conventional agriculture relies on large amounts of fertiliser. At a recent soil health day we attended, two of the speakers made similar remarks which are great examples of a new perspective. Jay Fuhrer said: “When you think of a handful of bacteria, think of a little bag of fertiliser”, and Willie Pretorius said: “Bacteria are nothing more than tiny bags of slow release fertiliser”. An important thing to point out about sustainable agriculture is that no-one is saying farmers should be growing crops without any nutrients, we are rather concerned about the source of these nutrients. Where conventional agriculture is looking to the bag (fertiliser) for nutrients, sustainable agriculture is looking to what is already in the soil (life, such as bacteria) for the supply of nutrients. There are so many nutrients already in the soil, especially in organic matter. They just need to be made available to plants, which can only be done through a healthy soil life.
Another example of a new perspective was when Jay Fuhrer said: “Soil health is replacing the old sunshine carbon (fossil fuels) with new sunshine carbon (green plants)”. I thought this quite profound. Conventional agriculture relies on tilling the soil, and then fertilising to produce crops. Tilling the soil requires large amounts of fuel (fossil fuels), as does the production and spreading of fertiliser. Healthy soil, which has a good structure and an active soil life, does not require tillage and large amounts of fertiliser to produce a crop. The basis of a healthy soil is having sufficient carbon levels. Carbon is transferred from the atmosphere (carbon dioxide) into the soil through photosynthesis (Read: Photosynthesis – the true source of soil carbon). This means sustainable agriculture relies on a renewable energy source (sunshine) rather than a non-renewable energy source (fossil fuels) for production.
I don’t know about you, but this new perspective is an attractive prospect to me.