Ace Agriculture CEO adds his voice to the ongoing debate on Sustainable Agriculture and specifically Regenerative Agriculture.
Q: Let’s just get straight into it, what is Regenerative Agriculture and why the sudden interest in it?
A: Thank you. Regenerative Agriculture is actually not new. Experts have for a long time expressed concerns about the unintended consequences of modern day farming practices. These practices such as deep ploughing, mono cropping and extensive use of chemical pest control systems and fertilizers though largely credited for the Agrarian revolution seem to have over time, had some not so positive effects on critical ecosystems. The call for sustainable farming is therefore not new, perhaps it is just getting louder.
Regenerative Agriculture is an approach to farming that emphasizes rehabilitation and conservation. It champions approaches that regenerate rather than deplete the soil, maintain ecosystem biodiversity and increase resistance to climate change. It advocates for alternative means of producing food using techniques aimed at lowering unintended environmental and/or social impacts of modern day intensive farming. The main concept in Regenerative Agriculture is soil regeneration but I like to think about it from a broader perspective.
Q: What are these ecosystems that are being affected and what are the concerns?
A: Human beings don’t live on this planet in isolation; we have to coexist with other life forms in nature and we must manage the environment in a way that allows these diverse life forms to thrive within ecosystems in which they do best; if these life forms thrive, we thrive. There are diverse ecosystems that provide important ecosystem services to mankind. We get clean air, water, food, medicine, clothing, waste management, pollination and even shelter all directly or indirectly from nature.
There are eight major ecosystems and these are farm lands, lakes & rivers, forests, mountains, grasslands & savannah, oceans & coasts, peat lands and urban centers. All these ecosystems have in one way or another been affected by human activity. Modern day intensive farming has contributed to the pollution and depletion of these ecosystems and that is why we must now focus on sustainable intensification. Regenerative agriculture is a sustainable way of utilizing farmland ecosystems.
Q: You did not mention any specific challenges?
A: Well there are a number of obvious and some not so obvious indicators that things are changing and not for the better. Many farmers are noticing for instance that they have to use more and more inputs to achieve the same levels of production that they used to achieve before. Soils are depleted and lack the capacity to sustain crops without the use of large amounts of external inputs. Pollution is rife in many urban centers; getting clean drinking water is getting more and more challenging each day; water bodies are polluted and some are drying off completely; outbreaks of stubborn insects & diseases; glaciers are melting away; a good number of plant and animal species are disappearing from the face of the earth – of particular concern is the declining population of bees which are very important in the food production process. We are also witnessing the death of traditional seed preservation systems.
Q: Wow! Whose responsibility is it to restore the natural order of things?
A: It is a collective responsibility really. We cannot assign or leave this responsibility to a select group of people, conservationists or institutions. Everyone has to play a part – the Government, the Private Sector, Non-Governmental Organizations, the Media, Universities & research institutions and even private citizens especially farmers.
What people need to realize is that their actions have a direct impact on the environment. Those who discharge factory effluent in rivers in Nairobi for instance need to realize that the same rivers are used downstream for irrigation and the same waste water effluent they thought they had ‘cleverly’ gotten rid of ends up back on their dinner tables as food.
Farmers also need to realize that indiscriminate use of fertilizer can lead to pollution and buildup of greenhouse gasses. Nitrogen, for example, is a very important nutrient. However, excess Nitrogen in the soil is easily leached from the soil into waterways. Nitrogen can also be transformed into Nitrous Oxide, a gas that has a higher global warming effect than Carbon Dioxide.
Q: Are there institutions or farmer groups showing interest? Are you partnering with anyone on your quest for sustainable farming?
A: Yes. A good number of organizations are currently involved in sensitizing farmers on the long term benefits of regenerative agriculture and sustainable farming practices. We are currently working with SNV Netherlands Development Organization and World Vegetable Center on a project anchored around regenerative agriculture, seed systems and traditional African vegetables and the response from farmers has been very positive. There are challenges but the farmer groups we are working with have shown keen interest and are adopting some of the practices.
We are working to rope in other players such as the Kenya Livestock Research Organization, JKUAT, County Governments, Ministry of Agriculture, Agricultural Inputs Services Providers and the media to support this initiative. We are also open to working with organizations such as Biovision Africa Trust, Kenya Markets Trust, Kenya Climate Innovation Center and other institutions that have shown interest in supporting the development of sustainable farming and market systems.
Q: Is the shift towards Sustainable Intensification an all-out war on chemical use and technology in agriculture?
A: No. Not at all. We are calling for collaboration and also for an integrated approach. I think that manufactures of chemical interventions and modern technologies are very important in this journey because they have the infrastructure and network required to reach farmers; they also have huge capacity for research and development. Many of them are already offering alternative non chemical solutions to pest and nutrition management. Sustainability is in the best interest of all agricultural inputs providers because if farmlands get depleted and farmers loose hope, we will have no place to sell our products and services.
Personally, I believe in an integrated approach that prioritizes cultural, physical and biological production and control systems. Soil management practices should be guided by soil analysis done by accredited laboratories like the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) Laboratories, Crop Nutritional Laboratories (CropNuts) and Soil Cares. These institutions have the capacity to analyze soils and advise farmers on best management practices; this will avoid indiscriminate use of soil additives that many times do more harm than good.
Also, in regards to pest control, proper identification of the pathogen should precede any control measure. I have on many occasions for instance, witnessed farmers rushing to buy fungicides to control physiological problems such as blossom end rot. We must educate farmers on such issues.
A: What about technology?
Q: We are not against technology. In fact we can be considered a technology company ourselves considering the services that we offer like greenhouse construction, irrigation and drilling. Some sustainable farming and regenerative agriculture techniques are actually fairly sophisticated technologies. Technology is extremely important and is part of the solution.
Q: Is sustainable farming achievable?
A: Absolutely. Farmers must however learn to take a longer term approach as opposed to making farm management decisions based on three month crop cycles. A good crop rotation program for instance can last for several seasons or several years. Farmers must accept to make trade-offs for the sake of conservation and rehabilitation. It is a tough call for many farmers in the beginning but the long term benefits are enormous.
Q: What are some of the regenerative techniques that you are advocating for?
A: Regenerative Techniques are quite simple and relatively easy to implement. Many farmers are already practicing regenerative agriculture; the term regenerative agriculture may be new to them but the practices are not. Such practices include minimum tillage/zero tillage; crop rotation; use of cover crops; intercropping; integrated farming; composting; manuring; controlling soil erosion using contour ridges, tie ridges, grass strips, trash strips, stone lines or vegetation like grasses; soil moisture retention through mulching or use of shade nets, zai pits etc.; preserving or protecting pollinators; agroforestry; smart irrigation; use of alternative non chemical pest control and plant nutrition systems etc. All these work together in harmony with nature.
Q: You speak of non-chemical pest control systems and nutrition products, are there examples of products and methods that work?
A: Yes and there are a number of institutions offering alternative solutions such as Real IPM, Koppert Biological Sciences, Dudutech, Kenya Biologics, Zelena Grow, Organix Limited, Farmtrack, Koffar Organic and Natural Inputs, Avocado Society of Kenya etc. They offer a number of products and traps for disease and insect control. They also offer a wide range of soil management products and organic fertilizers. Companies like Osho Chemicals and Amiran have both chemical based and non-chemical product lines. The more visible and known products are the pheromone traps and sticky traps but the array of products available for use in regenerative agriculture is very broad.
Other products that are used to control insects and diseases include beneficial insect predators, beneficial fungi (EPFs – Entopathogenic Fungi), beneficial nematodes (EPNs) and beneficial virus. Comprehensive details about these products can be found on the websites of the organizations I have mentioned.
We are also tapping into the tacit knowledge of farmers who since time immemorial have used crops like Mexican Marigold and Tithonia to ward off pests or produce plant teas for use as pest control and for nutrition.
Q: I notice that you use the word Sustainable farming a lot and sometimes interchangeably with Regenerative Agriculture, is it one and the same thing?
The two basically apply the same techniques and ultimately have the same overall objective. However sustainability focuses on avoiding degradation by maintaining the current state. Regenerative agriculture recognizes that there are ecosystems that have been negatively impacted and need fixing and therefore focuses on restoration; it largely focuses on improving damaged soils and the supporting production ecosystem to restore productivity. Once restoration has been done, continuous management for sustainability purposes must follow. That is why, in my opinion, the two go hand in hand and cannot be separated.
Q: As a company that offers greenhouse construction as a key service, do you think that you are guilty of contributing to ecosystem degradation?
A: Ha! You know, this is a common misconception that I hear quite often. The greenhouse effect that is responsible for rising temperatures in the atmosphere is caused by greenhouse gasses not greenhouses and these gasses are not produced from greenhouses. In fact, I would argue that greenhouses being micro environments with very high photosynthetic activity are actually important carbon sinks.
The greenhouse effect is a process that occurs when gasses in the earth’s atmosphere trap the sun’s heat in much the same way as greenhouse covers trap heat within the greenhouse. The greenhouse effect by the way, is not necessarily a bad thing because it warms the earth making it a more comfortable place to live in. However, excessive deposits of these gasses into the atmosphere leads to excessive heat buildup which is harmful to the environment and to human health. It is therefore extremely important to maintain ecosystems that act as carbon sinks like forests, oceans and peat lands and also to minimize activities that release greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.
Q: What are some of these greenhouse gasses?
A: Most people know about carbon dioxide and methane. However, there are others like nitrous oxide and even water vapor. Artificial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons also contribute.
Q: What are the biggest threats to farm land ecosystems in your view?
A: Well, I would go for dead or damaged soils, diminishing farm ecosystem diversity and climate change. As a result of climate change we have more severe weather that is increasingly unpredictable. Excessive droughts and flooding affect farming activities; soils are no longer as productive as they used to be and farm ecosystem diversity has been greatly affected. Poor farming practices contribute to all these. An uninformed farmer therefore is his/her own biggest threat.
Q: Are you a proponent of organic farming?
A: I am a proponent of Restoration and Sustainability. If organic farming fits within this definition then yes I am. However, I am careful not to vilify or alienate anyone especially any player within the agricultural value chain. We need all hands on deck and we need a long term and balanced approach. Any practice, technology or product that helps to restore and maintain productivity in a sustainable manner is worth considering. Our objective is to improve lives in a sustainable manner.
Q: What plans do you have as an organization in regards to regenerative agriculture?
A: Well, we are doing a lot of fact finding on regenerative agriculture and we are sensitizing farmers on the same. Of great interest to us at the moment is no till farming. It aggregates and holds soil together preventing erosion, maintaining soil moisture and maintaining soil biodiversity. It really is an interesting concept. We are also researching more on farm level interventions that farmers can use to fight pests and nourish the soil and their crops. We believe that most of the solutions to the problems that farmers are facing can be found in the farm; with help from researchers and other stakeholders, these farm level solutions can be developed into regenerative and sustainable technologies and products.
Q: Your final comment…
A: Well, let us think about the future. If we damage farm lands and the environment for short term benefit, we will be passing on a very serious problem to our children and grandchildren. Let us adopt farming and grazing practices that rebuild degraded soils, maintain or improve soil biodiversity and reverse climate change. Let us be mindful of the carbon cycle and water cycle in everything that we do. It is a collective effort as I have said before, we need all hands on deck and together we can improve ecosystems that provide critical ecosystem services to mankind.
Q: Thank you. That’s a good place to end it..
A: Thank you too. God bless.
Clifton Opala is the founder of Ace Intergrated Services, an Agricultural Services Firm offering end to end solutions to farmers. The firm specializes in Construction of Greenhouses, Shade structures & other Farm Structures; Irrigation Systems Design and Installation; Farm planning, establishment & Management; Ground water identification & Drilling, BDS and Farmer Training. The firm also has capacity to design and conduct Baseline and Impact Assessment Surveys for Agricultural Interventions.