Is bad Science killing our farms?

It is refreshing to see Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy proclaiming that innovative farmers hold the key to getting through tough times. But his announcement stands in stark contrast to a recent article in the NZ Farmer (March 14) by leading New Zealand soil scientist who suggested that science had proved that any innovation is just wasting tax payer's money, particularly when related to soil fertility.

When you study the background of this prominent soil scientist, the reasons for his entrenched views become clear. His PhD is in Chemical Soil Science and his career has been forged that synthetic arena. Given his life-long commitment to chemical science, it's almost inevitable that he would regard biological concepts as 'pseudo science' that are unworthy of consideration.

This perspective is hurting our farms.

How? Because Chemical Science is dominating the NZ fertiliser industry, a lack of attention is given to the biological life in soil. That's a very bad mistake, because these organic life forms play an absolutely critical role in determining the productivity levels of our farms. These organisms do the following:
  • Soil organisms make nutrients available to plants
  • Soil organisms retain nutrients in the soil
  • Soil organisms build beneficial soil structures
  • Soil organisms increase root growth and improve root architecture
  • Soil organisms suppress disease by competing with Pathogens
  • Soil organisms Break down Pollutants
  • Soil organisms in the rumen help cow's digest food more efficiently
See what I mean? Any approach that neglects the role of soil biology is woefully inadequate and, at best, produces only short term gains.

Having talked in depth with soil scientists, it is clear to me that all of the sciences – Chemistry, Physics and Biology – are necessary for any soil and fertiliser debate to be balanced. Over the last 10 years, there have been advances in soil conditioning precisely because all of the sciences have been incorporated. This more balanced approach has allowed innovative farmers to produce better soil physiology, better nutrient-dense feed, and healthier cattle.

Interestingly, most of these advances have come from outside New Zealand, predominantly from the United States. And I have had the privilege of working with some of these leading edge people; Elaine Ingham (Soil Foodweb); Neal Kinsey ( Kinsey/Albrecht); Arden Andersen (she has linked unbalanced soil fertility to the decline of human Health).

Is New Zealand catching on?

Yes it is. In spite of the chemical emphasis, there has been an increase of businesses and innovative farmers who are adopting a more biological approach. As a result, many farmers are crying out for New Zealand scientists to give them a better understanding as to biological reasons behind the the good results they are witnessing on other farms.

One Canterbury farmer took things even further.

Owning two farms side by side, he adopted two distinct approaches to soil fertility. One farm was treated with standard chemical systems, while the other was run on biological principles. He then asked scientists to compare the two farms.

Great approach. Should yield interesting data, right? Unfortunately, conclusions were hard to come by because the scientific steering committee that oversaw the results failed to have any biological representation.

That's such a shame. It doesn't take a Rocket Scientist to foresee that the conclusions won't be factually balanced. Propaganda that favours the current fertilizer politics will prevail which will only continue to prop up an unbalanced approach to fertiliser science.

So here's my challenge to New Zealand's soil scientists: Take the blinkers off and widen the scope of your research. Work in partnership with the other sciences and pay more attention to the soil organisms that seem to be hugely beneficial to farm health.

That can only lead to better farming in our great country.

David Law


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