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Charles Massy interview – a look at regenerative agriculture

Charles Massy. Photo supplied.

It took a drought and some deep reflection to turn farmer and author Charles Massy from a conventional farmer to one of the leading thinkers in regenerative agriculture today. Here Charles is in conversation with local food activist Kate Walsh from Real Food Projects. 

Massy will talk at the Bangalow A&I Hall on August 14 from 6pm. Other speakers will be Sue Higginson and Charlie Arnott. Tickets available at www.realfoodprojects.com/ and the Bungalow Newsagency.

1 How would you define regenerative agriculture? It can be confusing especially for those of use who aren’t farmers. How does it practically differ from organic?

Regenerative agriculture contests the industrial model in that it encompasses various types of farming that seek to enable natural systems and functions to not just be renewed but also to do the renewing: to allow self-organisation of natural systems back to healthy function.
In its original derivation, the verb ‘regenerate’ also has moral and ethical connotations. So I would say that organic farming is one of a range of practices that comprise regenerative agriculture: from holistic/ecological grazing, to agroforestry, biological cropping, pasture- and No-kill cropping; biodynamics and more.

 2 Your assertion that animals are central to regenerating the landscape, as opposed to being the problem, really turns both the argument for veganism on its head. Can eating animals really save the world? Is it now our responsibility to create a market for animals that are grazed this way?

“This is a huge topic, and I don’t want to get caught up in the vegan debate too much, as I see people’s eating preferences a very personal matter and it is not for me to pass judgment on this.
However, in explaining my own eating preferences and my attitude to grazing animals I will make these points.
Regenerative/holistic/ecological grazing is being found to have extraordinary ecologically regenerative impacts on grassland/diverse landscapes in tens of millions of hectares worldwide although not in all landscapes as your question implies. These landscapes, from desert to tropical savannahs, would not otherwise be regenerated but would continue degrading (plenty of evidence for this) without regenerative grazing. Such regeneration is positively addressing many of the destabilised Earth systems (climate, water, land-use, biodiversity, nitrogen-phosphorous destabilised cycling etc. etc.) – destabilisation and degradation that has tipped us into the Anthropocene epoch.

We tend to forget that as humans in the last million or so years of our co-evolution on Earth, that we predominantly co-evolved in the African savannahs. Here women gathered food plants, while men hunted. But the game they hunted both grazed and browsed – this is often overlooked. From my work with top landscape ecologists like Prof. Fred Provenza in USA we know that vertical food plants (shrubs etc.), as distinct to grasses, have tens of thousands of secondary or phytochemicals in them (terpenes, phenols, tannins etc.). Wild animals have an innate wisdom to select medicinal and nutritional elements in plants. Humans ingested these via meat (remember, we still have canines in our mouth), and we have become hard-wired to detect critical phytochemicals for our health and metabolism – as many of the phyto-chemicals are crucial for immune function, such as anti-oxidants etc. That is why I am comfortable eating healthy meat off healthy landscapes: it is crucial to my physiological function, and tastes brilliant because of all the extra primary and secondary nutrients in it.
Conversely, I have no truck for animals in factory farms. It is both cruel, polluting, and the animals have no chance to select a healthy diet; they have limited and poisoning rations, and so deliver unhealthy food. The industrial food they are fed is also hugely energy wasteful, and environmentally destructive in its production. So let’s distinguish between healthy, ecologically-healing meat that humans are co-evolved for, and industrial, factory farmed (CAFO) meat that is both bad for the environment and for us. So yes, eating animals off healthy, regenerative grazing systems and landscapes can help save the world.
Re. creating a market for this: yes, as in all regenerative food, this is the challenge: going round the industrial system that delivers crap food which is poisoning and debilitating people.   

3 Your book heavily focuses on the farmers who have had a crisis to lead them to engage in new ways of farming. How do we start this conversation more broadly as we can’t wait for farmers to be forced by calamity to urgently look for new ways.

Good question. We now have education/social support/collaborative networks or communities of practice around many of the regenerative agriculture practices. For example in holistic/ecological grazing, agroforestry, biological cropping, biodynamics there are some groups with very good social support and education processes that both initiate change and then support people through the challenge of change, and then create ongoing educational/support processes thereafter. These need to be publicised, along with their good work.
Moreover, given what is happening in industrial cropping soils, the drought and other factors across the country, many landscapes and industrial practices are hitting the wall. People are worried, and the shocks-of-change are accelerating. People going through these cognitive crises particularly need to become aware that there are some exciting alternate practices out there that both address ecological, financial and social challenges that degraded landscapes are causing – and that if you make the shift there are mechanisms and communities and skills to hold your hand through the process of change.

4 The organic label has been co-opted in the USA now with hydroponics and large-scale organics the norm. We are seeing similar trends in Australia. Do we need a new label that is beyond organic? One that is focused on soil or nutrient density?

Absolutely. If we could get a food system that measured both nutrient variety (both primary and secondary nutrients, such as phytochem diversity and volume) then it would be a game-changer, because the emptiness and crappiness of industrial food versus food from healthy, functioning landscapes would be totally exposed. Moreover, the greatest poison in our foods – glyphosate/roundup – is now being increasingly disclosed as an horrific health-destroyer. We should also have tests for this, as virtually all industrial plant foods are laced with it.

5 Our region is famous for rolling green and grassy hills. When you look at the landscape of the Northern Rivers, what do you see?

Compared to many of Australia’s more challenging and drier landscapes, I see a region that can grow, in wonderfully healthy fashion, a huge variety of foods suited to a range of climates (from temperate to tropical), and off many soils that are richer than most in Australia (volcanic, alluvial etc.). So yes, I see huge potential for this region to become a national leader in healthy food growing and thus also in innovation of a move to regenerative ag and healthy food and lifestyles.

6 Even if all farmers transitioned to regenerative ways, they are still held captive to the industrial food system. What else do we need to do to complete this story and create a sustainable food system?

Where do you start, as the industrial model dominates all levels in agriculture today: from government, universities, agricultural colleges, and the entire food chain. So we need to start at the school level in getting kids re-engaged with nature and healthy food and not electronics; then from schools to universities or tech. colleges we need a refocus on the basics: that the most important core subject needs to be care for our only Earth, and how it functions, and so how we must nurture it. This includes courses in ecological literacy (as is the framework of my book). Then we need markets for healthy food and fibre, so we get transparent pull-through signals to initiate change. But having said all that, I think the mounting crises of the Anthropocene and break-downs in various Earth systems are beginning to provide more of the shocks that will lead to change.

Charlie Massy will be speaking at a special event at the A&I Hall in Bangalow on Tuesday, August 14 with Sue Higginson and Charlie Arnott if you want to hear more. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased from www.realfoodprojects.com


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