At Chief, we try and speak to farmers as much as we can. We're not farmers, so we want to learn about where the food that goes into our products comes from. Recently, I had a debate with a conventional farmer about the use of fertilisers, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides (he was for them, I am against them and was arguing for regenerative agricultural practices) so I thought I'd share the key points here in the interests of continuing the debate.
The argument for Conventional Farming
The farmer mentioned a line that comes up a lot, essentially that we need Conventional Agricultural practices to feed the world. This includes the use of fertiliser, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides "to allow plants to grow as healthy as possible".
Chemical fertiliser allows these farmers to "accurately manage nutrients to supply plants with exactly what they need to produce high yields of quality product". His strong belief was, if you don't use fertiliser you're mining your soil and reducing its capacity to grow food.
He believes we "can't feed the world going back to practices from the previous century" [essentially organic or regenerative farming practices] and that "science tells us there is no yield to gain in these production methods over conventional agriculture."
Before I dive into my response, I need to be clear, I have nothing but respect for all farmers. At Chief, we donate money to causes that support farmers because we respect the fact that none of us would be here without them. With that deep level of respect as the context, here's why we have questions about conventional agriculture.
Petroleum Based Fertilisers
Petrochemical fertilisers are produced using large quantities of petroleum and other fossil fuels. These make up the most common and cheapest fertilisers like ammonium nitrate, super phosphate and potassium sulfate.
By definition this means they’re unsustainable as we have a finite supply of petroleum. Rather than wait until we run out, maybe it’s a good idea to start looking at alternatives now?
But, perhaps more importantly, according to the science from people who don't sell these types of products (here's an example), these synthetic fertilisers may be great for visible growth in plants (conventional farmers would refer to this as "yield") but there’s not much benefit to soil health and by extension animal and human health.
In agricultural ecosystems, even the most fertile, these nutrients will, in time, be depleted and will have to be replaced. Nutrients can be replaced in different ways but soil fertility is much more complex than nutrient availability alone and the presence of soil organic matter is also a critically important component of healthy, fertile soils. The introduction of synthetic or chemical fertilisers has contributed greatly to increased agricultural production; however, they do not add or maintain soil organic matter and their continued use can damage the soil. Modern, broad-acre farming, which largely has been dependent on chemical fertilisers, has greatly increased agricultural productivity but has also, in some locations, contributed to a loss in soil organic matter and a general reduction in fertility and long-term sustainability.
- Christopher Johns, Research Manager, Northern Australia and Land Care Research Programme
There are other types of fertilisers. As just one example, animals provide great fertiliser, which is why eating meat that's managed according to regenerative practices is a good thing for the planet.
And there are other ways to maintain / recycle fertility in the soil, here's a brilliant example from Peter Andrews OAM, a farmer from Bylong in the Upper Hunter Valley:
There are clearly other ways to feed the world and look after our planet than the use of chemicals. Don't get me wrong, chemical supports can have their place, but it seems to me that the pharmaceutical industry's business model in farming is the same as it is in health - convince farmers and doctors to treat symptoms with their chemicals instead of the causes and gain a customer for life.
Herbicides, Fungicides, Insecticides
In terms of herbicides like glyphosate, there is emerging science about the damage that this neurotoxin we’re spraying on our food is doing to human health. For example, it now seems to be a key contributor to the exponential growth of autism which is on track to affect 1 in 3 kids by 2035 (that’s not a typo, in 1975 it was 1 in 5000, today it’s 1 in 36). Here's a relevant article that references studies.
We’ve seen similar explosions of other diseases of inflammation like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease and cancer. This is part of the reason why many countries have already banned its use.
The use of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides also ignores the importance of soil health, in particular the fungi and bacteria that are an important part of the ecosystem. Soil is a lot more than just dirt, and less organic matter in the soil negatively impacts the soil’s ability to retain water and therefore it's drought resilience.
What about yield?
Our question to farmers who talk about yield is, what are you measuring? The amount of green matter, not the nutrient levels in the food, right? Over the last 50 years the amounts of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and vitamin C in conventionally grown fresh fruits and vegetables has declined significantly. Where is that trend going to take us in the end?
By simply logic, if we have less nutrients in our food then we will need more food. If have more nutrients in our food, we need less food. Maybe nutrient density is just as important as yield?
And yield also fails to measure inputs. If you need more and more chemical inputs to get the same return, where does that end? Do farmer become unsustainable simply from a financial stand point?
Is yield, by itself, a good measurement?
There are no easy solutions, but we believe if we look at where the trends are taking us it's clear we can't keep doing what we're doing. We need to ask questions and find better solutions.
And the more questions I ask, the more it becomes apparent that the solutions are there waiting to gain acceptance. As consumers, we can fast track change by choosing where we spend our dollars - with those who are leading the change towards practices that regenerate the land.