You Are What You Eat
Regenerative Agriculture: A Revolution Taking Seed
| Paul West
| Paul West
You’ve no doubt heard this turn of phrase bandied around countless times in your life. You know, eat healthy food, be a healthy person, eat junk food… you get the picture. When we think of food we tend to focus on the impact that it has on us as consumers, but how often do you take the time to consider the impact on the ecologies of where that food was created? Feeding a global population of over 7 billion people is no small feat and with nearly 50% of the planet’s landmass being used for agriculture, the environmental impacts of feeding a planet full of hungry mouths are staggering.
Conventional agriculture is responsible not just for feeding us, but for widespread deforestation and habitat clearing, soil degradation, the introduction of a dizzying array of chemicals into delicate ecosystems, draining of aquifers, increasing salinity, drops in biodiversity, the list goes on. How many among us, especially those of us who would consider ourselves environmentalists, could sleep easy at night, knowing that what we eat is having such dire impacts on our planet?
Had enough doom and gloom yet? I sure have. Is this another one of those insurmountable issues where we all go to hell in a handbasket? Au contraire my food loving friends, our food systems have enormous capacity to be agents of environmental regeneration, to increase biodiversity, increase soil organic carbon and increase the water holding capacity of the landscape, all while providing a viable living for farmers and providing us consumers with delicious, nutrient dense food.
So what’s the diff? How can food production be such a powerful force of destruction, while still having the potential to be one of the most significant tools we have for combating a whole raft of environmental and climate issues? I’m sure that you’re all well aware of the evils of industrial farming and the crimes of this complex against the environment, communities and us as individuals, and that they are far too numerous to rattle off here. So instead, let’s have a look at a few of the good guys, the farmers who are challenging the extractive nature of modern farming and who are hoping to leave the joint a damn sight better than they found it.
Charles Massy: farmer, ecologist, and a leading voice for regenerative agriculture. Photo Sean Davey/The Deal magazine
Charles Massey is a sheep grazier, academic and author of the incendiary Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth. The book, among many things, is an account of Massey’s transition “from an unknowing, chemical dependant farmer with dead soils, to a radical ecologist farmer carefully regenerating a 2000-hectare property to a state of natural health.” The book is a revolutionary call to arms that calls on farmers to use agriculture as a tool to develop deeper relationships between the human and non-human worlds. Through interviews with fellow Australian regenerative farmers and through his own experiences, Massey demonstrates that through changing our mindset to work with nature rather than against it, farms can see not only improved environmental outcomes, but crucially, more productive and profitable business outcomes as well.
Massey fiercely questions the approach to agriculture in Australia that was essentially transposed from the fertile lands of England and Europe to an entirely different continent, without consideration for the challenges of the new landscape or seeking to understand the knowledge of the people who had tended the landscape for millennia. Massey argues that we need to shift from a “mechanical mindset”, where we view the earth as a resource from which to extract profit, to an “organic mindset”, where we view ourselves as an inherent part of nature and it’s cycles, not separate from it. Through his work, Massey suggests that profound change can be made to the Australian landscape and that we can hope to heal some of the damage that post-1788 agriculture has wreaked upon this land.
Another multigenerational-farmer-turned-regenerative-farming-renegade is Colin Seis, a sheep farmer and creator of a system of farming known as pasture cropping. Seis had witnessed the decline of his family farm under the influence of chemical agriculture, costs and salinity kept rising, fertility was falling and trees were dying. It wasn’t until the farm was devasted by wildfire in 1979, that Seis was forced to reassess his approach to farming. With the farm in financial ruin, Seis could no longer afford expensive chemical inputs and pasture seed, so instead decided to let the native pastures return to the farm and to manage the pastures using the principles of Holistic Management.
After a slow start, Seis started to witness significant improvement to his land, but it wasn’t enough to fully repatriate the land after decades of abuse, he needed something else. Like all good ideas, it came about one evening when he and fellow farmer Daryl Cluff were trying to solve the world’s problems over a few beers. The two pondered why cropping and grazing were farmed separately and couldn’t come up with a good reason beyond tradition. The result of that night’s session was the agricultural system known as pasture cropping, in which an annual cereal crop such as oats or barley is sown into a perennial pasture without tilling the soil. Farmers utilising this system can expect higher crop yields, high animal production from cropped land, increased fodder for livestock, high rates of carbon bio sequestration, improved water holding capacity in soil, improved biodiversity and importantly, happier farmers.
Both the work of Massey and Seis acknowledges the fact that the settler farmer approach to Australian agriculture post-1788 was deeply unsuitable to the Australian landscape. They both recognise that Aboriginal people were responsible for successfully managing the nuances of the Australian landscape for thousands of years and that any serious approach to Australian land management would need to learn from these practices.
Bruce Pascoe is a Bunurong man and author who has sought to address the commonly held misconception that Aboriginal people were hunter gatherers and practiced no agriculture in his book Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident. Pascoe draws on the journals and accounts of early European settlers and explorers to deepen our understanding of what the Australian landscape was like and how it was managed before European settlement. Reading these accounts, we can only begin to understand the richness and fragility of this continent, as well as the profound understanding of landscape held by the people who tended it.
In some ways Pascoe’s work is deeply saddening in that it offers a tiny keyhole of insight into a natural treasure that has been lost, though on the other hand it has fired important discourse around the future of agriculture in Australia and the importance of acknowledging the unique challenges of the Australian continent. When asking how we will sustain our population with agriculture in the centuries to come, who better to seek counsel from then the people who sustained themselves from this landscape for thousands of years.
The work of these farming and thought pioneers is a direct challenge to the status quo of how our food is produced. Instead of accepting a future where our landscapes are continually desecrated in the name of profit, where we as consumers are provided with chemical laden, nutrient poor food as recompense for our apathetic cooperation in a broken system, these individuals paint for us a much different picture. The offer us a future where people and land share a deep connection, a future that fosters life, a future that regenerates the damage that our food system has done to the planet. There’s a revolution taking seed, and if you’re presented with the chance to support farming systems that give more than they take, remember, you are what you eat.