Reviewing the 5 Cycles of Regenerative Agriculture
Well, this week, I invited back Dr Christos Miliotis. Christos’ background is he’s a medical practitioner, but he is obviously very passionate about biodynamics, regenerative agriculture, soil technology, and utilising natural resources to draw carbon out of the atmosphere and solve climate the climate crisis. I always enjoyed talking to Christos because he has an open mind and some great ideas, and I think they’re worth sharing with you.
This is a theme that we explore on the podcast frequently. I would hope to have more focus in this coming year on soil technology particularly. I note that coming up in July there is a regenerative agriculture conference up in Brisbane organised by Terry McCosker’s RCS Group, which I’m hoping to attend, if not in person, certainly virtually, because there’s a great array of speakers.
One of those speakers is Fred Provenza, who I had the pleasure of interviewing on my podcast, talking about nourishment and getting the wisdom of animals’ natural instincts about what to eat, learning from it, and learning about primary nutrients and secondary nutrients within foods. I must invite Fred back on because it was such a wonderful talk, the discussion that we had, and it was a wonderful book that he also published called Nourishment.
Another speaker, of course, is Charlie Massy, the author of The Call of the Reed Warbler. One of the things that I mean, I’ve least heard Charlie Massy speak so often, and I can’t hear him often enough, to be honest. He has the five cycles which we need to focus on in regenerative agriculture. Well, as a society, really.
Those five cycles are (1) the solar cycle, which is using those solar panels that come with plants to capture the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and move it into the soil.
I mean, while Elon Musk is offering millions of dollars of rewards for solving the carbon sequestration issue, we, you and I, all know the answer to that because we studied it in first-year high school, and it’s called photosynthesis. Charlie Massy refers to that as the solar cycle.
Then there is (2) the water cycle, which is all about getting organic nutrients into the soil to make the soil more absorbent to water. I know one of our guests, Grahame Rees, once said to me that when soil is dried and degraded, it can sometimes take 5, 10, 15 or 20 minutes for the water to penetrate a few centimetres into the soil. In the process, not only is water rolling off the land but so is the soil. Two really important resources were lost.
But if the soil is rich in organic matter, it takes somewhere between 10 and 30 seconds to absorb a few centimetres into the soil. The water cycle is critically important because if we have an organic matter within the soil, then we have rich soil.
It’s interesting also, while we’re on the topic of soil, to mention that when I was writing my book, I realised learnt that it takes nature about 500 years to grow, to develop, to form one inch or two and a half centimetres of soil. So 500 years. Soil is a very important resource for many reasons, but how long it takes to grow soil or form soil is another important reason why it’s an important resource.
But in a well-managed regenerative farm where animals are used constructively, and I take you back to another guest, Allan Savory, who said that it is not the resource that’s the problem, it’s how the resource is managed. Many of us hear a repeated message of what a problem animal agriculture and industrial agriculture are, and therefore we should avoid eating meat.
Relationship with Animals
You will know as a regular listener to this podcast that it is not the view that we take. We’ve had a relationship with animals for millions of years. We should continue to have that relationship.
If a farm is well-managed, and that means by rather than just leaving animals to graze in what’s called said stocking, so many of you would have driven along the road and seen huge paddocks and animals scattered over a wide area that’s called set stocking where they just left for months on end and slowly but surely denuding the soil, and that’s not a great way to be.
Another way of doing it is with regenerative agriculture, tightly packed herds, which are moved frequently from one paddock to another, allowing that soil area to regenerate. You might not come back, bring animals back onto that patch for about two or three months. During that time, they eat the plants. They defaecate, they urinate, they trample, and they leave microbes from their urine, which is all about improving the soil. A well-managed, and so they move stock around, and that’s the big difference between set stocking and regenerative agriculture.
Well, on a well-managed farm or from regenerative agriculture, soil, one inch or two and a half centimetres of soil can be grown in 3 to 5 years compared to 500 years. So that is a phenomenal potential, and that is the water cycle about having organic matter within the soil.
Soil Mineral Cycle
Another important cycle that Charlie Massy talks about is the soil minerals cycle, and we’ve focussed often on nutrient-dense diets being important. That is the key to if you needed an overriding principle about what you should eat, the heading of it would be a nutrient-dense diet. A nutrient-dense diet includes some of the…
When we look at the periodic table, remember the periodic table in chemistry in high school? 118 elements. I think we might be up to 120 now, but anyway, 118 elements. Well, 50 or 60 of those elements are required for the human body. Where do those elements come from? They come from the food that we eat.
Now you can grow food using fertiliser, superphosphate, potassium, nitrogen, and phosphorus, and you can make plants look pretty impressive with those three or four elements. That could go to market, and you would buy those plants, but they wouldn’t necessarily have the 50 or 60 elements from the periodic table, which we need and which would define a nutrient-dense diet.
Relationship with Bacteria
How do those minerals appear in the food? We have an important relationship with bacteria, with microbes, with fungi, in the same way, that we’ve learnt that our relationship with microbes is critically important to human health, in the oral cavity, in the gut, so important to have a healthy microbiome.
A soil microbiome is equally important because carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere and brought down into the plant, converted into sugar and exchanged in the roots with the microbes. There’s this kind of exchange that feeds the microbes, the sugars and the microbes and mycorrhizal fungi break down the minerals within the soil and pass that onto the plant, which we then eat or animals which we eat, eat. We end up with those elements.
The soil mineral cycle is a really important one. With that soil mineral cycle, with those microbes, I remember Charlie Massy saying to me that hearing him say to an audience that a teaspoon of healthy soil contains about a billion microbes and a cubic metre of healthy soil contains 27,000 kilometres of mycorrhizal fungi hyphae.
They are the fine hairs that extend from fungi through the soil, which literally break down minerals and make them available to a plant. Now, if fungicides, herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers are used, then the mycorrhizal fungi and the micro microbial makeup of the soil have significantly degenerated, and a lot less carbon is sequestered into the soil.
It’s interesting to look at the soil profile of one. I remember visiting a farm of Robin Kate Milner. I remember visiting a farm there and seeing the soil profile of where regenerative agriculture had been going on for some time. You can see the darkness in the soil and where the weather is the use of fertiliser, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. The depth of darkness of the soil, which is carbon, is something like 12 inches.
Whereas in the areas where regenerative agriculture has been going on for many years, that depth can be significantly deeper, running several feet. This is how we sequester carbon into the soil.
There we have the solar cycle, the water cycle and solar cycle photosynthesis, the soil cycle involving biological material in the soil, and the soil mineral cycle being about a healthy microbiome within the soil, and then the full cycle that Charlie Massy talks about is biodiversity of which he has had observed on his own property with the return of the Reed Warbler, the Call of the Reed Warbler, which apparently hadn’t been in his Monaro property for 150 years. But because of a regenerative approach to agriculture, we have an increase in biodiversity.
Biodiversity is a great metaphor for resilience. For example, in the mouth, in the gut, if you have a broad, diverse microbiome, you have a healthy microbiome, and therefore you are more resilient to disease. Similarly, within nature, the more biodiverse, the more diversity there is in terms of flora and fauna, and the healthier that environment is. biodiversity is the fourth cycle that Charlie Massy talks about.
Human Social Cycle
The fifth cycle is arguably the most important cycle, which is the human social cycle, which is how farmers make their decisions and how we in the city as consumers can help them support those decisions. The human social cycle is actually the cycle that ultimately will drive the change. It’s fascinating for me to observe.
I remember when we were up in Uralla several years ago before the pandemic, just at the height of the drought, visiting Tim Wright upon his, I think his 4000-acre property, and he showed us around the property, and we drove down a road where on one side of the road was his property which had lots of shrubs. Lots of trees. Yes, it was at the height of the drought. The grass was brown, but there was a ground cover.
Literally, on the other side of the road was just desolate, open, bare ground that was exposed. There were a few animals grazing in the distance, set stocking Tim’s property was divided up, the 4000 acres was divided up into 200 paddocks or something very tightly packed.
The contrast between the two was, was huge. I kind of thought to myself, what is that farmer thinking when he looks across the road at Tim’s property, a successful sheep and cattle farm, and says, what? The climate presumably is the same for both sides of the road? Well, actually slightly differently, I would argue.
Anyway, exposed to the same rainfall, if you like. I wonder what is going on in that farmer’s head. Why does he not think, “Well, what am I doing wrong? That his property looks so much more organically rich and resilient than my property?”.
That’s an example of the human social cycle at the farm, at the farm, at the face there, at the coalface, if you like, of the farm or the farm face. For us, as consumers, it’s the choices we make when we go shopping and how we support those kinds of farmers. That’s why I’m really proud to be a regular user of Ooooby (out of our own backyard).
The wonderful team run by Murat and I try to support farmers, and I’ve had the pleasure of visiting some of those farms in New South Wales, specifically Justin Hartley and Duck Foot Farm and Phil Labours and Moon Acres Farms. It’s just such a privilege to support farmers like that in their endeavours.
Ooooby is a facility online ordering that we use at home, and I shop at by regenerating farm mates, you know, whether it’s ethical farmers, Dom O’Neil or Grant Hilliard’s Feather and Bone, which I believe is opening up very close to me here in Bronte or Sam the Butcher, whatever I find, and surely through Ooooby, you know. There are many opportunities to support regenerative farmers and grow meat. That is the human social cycle, which is so important.
One of the really interesting things was a slide that Christos shared with us in this week’s podcast, where he showed a slide of a stretch of land, which was probably no more than two metres across. On one part of that was grass that was growing, and it was very, it hadn’t been mowed or anything like that.
The temperature on that ground level was around 19.5 degrees. Another patch of that grass had just been mowed, and right next to it, the ground temperature at that point was about 24 or 25 degrees. Then right next to that was an exposed there was no vegetation on this land, on this part of it. And we’re talking about a stretch that’s no more than a metre wide.
Within that small patch of grass, you could really see the difference that vegetation makes between the temperature and the gradient within that very small area from 19 degrees to 24 degrees where the grass was cut. This is at ground level and to the exposed ground of 42 degrees. Huge difference.
It was an opportunity this week to re-engage with this. I always find Christos’ ideas really quite inspiring, and I love the way he uses materials, natural materials. I thought that one slide, which was showing the temperature at the ground cover, was really quite a compelling thing. It’s always worth listening to. I hope you did find it stimulating. I hope this finds you well. Until next time.
This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health, and related subjects. The content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences, and conclusions.