The Canberra Times: Scientist Maarten Stapper takes us inside his Canberra garden

We last met agricultural scientist Dr Maarten Stapper when he was working with grains at the CSIRO (Kitchen Garden, August 31, 2004). Since then, he has featured on the ABC’s Australian Story (2009), about his road into biological farming systems and withdrawal from the official world of science.

He wants to help farmers harness the power of natural soil processes to regenerate and create healthy soils, to improve the quality of food, animal feed and landscapes, and make them more resilient in a variable climate.

Read more from Goodfood, March 7, 2016 

 

Outback Story: Restoring the Balance

“The shift to agro-ecological farming is fundamental to the health and wellbeing of the people of our planet,” says former CSIRO scientist and now regenerative consultant Dr Maarten Stapper. “Using regenerative agriculture we can feed nine billion people with half the fertilisers and 80% less chemicals, and increase yields by half for traditional farming systems in developing countries by stimulating soil biology.”

Click here to read the full article from Outback Magazine, issue 101, June/July 2015

WellBeing: Farming for the future

Agriculture may be what feeds us but industrial farming methods are threatening our planet. How can farmers produce enough food to feed a swelling population in a way that benefits the Earth, themselves and their communities, and anyone who eats? Solutions exist — we just need to embrace them.

Adopt agroecological systems

New agriculture systems are needed and “agroecology” seems to be a winner. Agroecology seeks to apply ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable food systems, farming in a way that overcomes the need for synthetic fertilisers and chemicals. It encompasses organic, biodynamic and biological farming systems.

One of agroecology’s major benefits is it helps to replenish lost stores of carbon in the soil. According to farming systems agronomist Dr Maarten Stapper, the harsh synthetics used in current farming methods ignore the delicate balance of microbes, humus, trace minerals and nutrients in the soil. “A healthy system is based on healthy soils, but our farming methods have degraded soils by 20–80 per cent across the world,” he says.

“We need to improve the amount of carbon in the soil. Agroecological farming puts carbon dioxide back into the soil as plants capture the C02 and transmute part of it to soil organic carbon through the stimulation of soil microbes — life in the soil — and earthworms become active and create castings,which are mainly carbon. We can double our carbon in the soil in two to three years. It’s absolutely amazing to see that happening.”

Dr Stapper says many farmers in Australia and worldwide are switching to agroecology after personal experiences. “They see the landscape going backwards. Some people have problems with health and they change their farming to use less chemicals. Lots of negatives lead individual farmers to create big change.”

Yet, adoption rates for agroecological methods are still low, he cautions. There are few advisory services to guide farmers, few R&D dollars have been devoted to agroecological methods and, equally, successful agroecological farmers need a “green thumb”: an intuitive sense of what’s good for soil, plants and animals.

An easily adopted option is biological agriculture, a practice that’s emerging in the US and helps farmers move profitably, gradually towards organic farming. Dr Stapper says farmers incrementally create healthy soils using biological inputs while still using, but minimising, “synthetic inputs that work against biology and balance”. Costs decrease over time, yield remains high, soil — and food — quality increases and profitability is enhanced as conventional farmers avoid the unprofitable transition phase of converting to certified organic.

Says Dr Stapper, “Biological farming merges the principles and best practices of organic farming and modern farming to make the best path of food production for the future.”

 

How can you help speed up the shift to more sustainable, more ecological — and, yes, more productive — farming?

1. Lobby for all levels of government to work with stakeholders to create public policies, regulatory frameworks and international agreements that encourage more ecological farming practices.

2. Ask your local council to educate farmers in agroecological practices and take the lead in managing community ecosystems.

3. Farmers: research innovative practices, give them a shot — and share them with your neighbours.

4. Anyone who eats food: vote with your dollar for more locally produced, seasonal, high-quality food that’s grown in an ecological way. And ask for it at your supermarket.

As Dr Maarten Stapper says, “it’s the consumer that’s in charge of the whole system.

Click here to read the full article published in WellBeing, May/June 2015

Farm Weekly: Back to basics at Pingelly soil seminar

Published in Farm Weekly, Thursday, August 13, 2015, page 7.

SOIL health is one of the key factors for profitable farming: it may seem an obvious statement but soil is too often placed down the pecking order in from management decisions.

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Narrogin Observer: Talk reveals secret is in soil

“On September 9, I was extremely fortunate to attend a seminar in Dowerin given by Dr Maarten Stapper, a farming systems agronomist, entitled Soil Health for Profit – a cropping and mixed farming forum.”

Click here to view full article.

Published in Narrogin Observer on 18th September 2014.

GM Showdown at Ausveg Debate

Maarten participated in the Great Debate about genetically modified (GM) crops at the 2013 Ausveg National Convention. Four speakers had been handpicked in the GM debate on the pro and against sides. Where does the horticultural industry want to go?

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Bush Telegraph: Hands up for GM-free food

“More than 40 members of the Border Landcare Organic Group (BLOG) gathered at Wallangarra on Saturday to hear Dr Maarten Stapper and show their opposition to genetic modification (GM) of our foods.”

Click here to view full article.

Published in Bush Telegraph on 28th May 2013.

Higher Nutrient Density with Agroecological Farming

Maarten was invited to give a paper about the health outcomes of organic-biological farm practices at the 3rd International Conference on The Science of Nutrition in Medicine and Healthcare in Sydney, Australia, May 3-5, 2013.

The conference brochure states that the overarching theme of the 2013 Nutrition in Medicine conference is ‘Modifying the price of progress‘. We live in a fast-paced, 24/7 society driven by technological advancement with predictable effects on human health. Progress may come at a price, but the cost to human health is often identifiable and modifiable. Nutritional science, genetics and genomics, and clinical application of this science through nutritional and environmental medicine, hold the key to the underlying causes of illness and disease and are core to good medical practice. 

Maarten takes this opportunity to raise the awareness of agroecological farming outcomes to scientists and professionals in medicine and healthcare, including questioning the safety of GM food.

Higher nutrient density with agroecological farming | Abstract

World-wide industrial farming practices are degrading soils and bringing about dependency on the use of more synthetic fertilisers and chemicals, which increase chemical contamination of foods and the environment. Their continuous use affects the health of humans and soils. It decimates the abundance and diversity of soil-microbes which greatly lowers the nutrient density of food. Synthetics in food are also increasingly associated with chronic diseases.

Soils are the foundation of life on Earth. Through degradation and urbanisation we are losing one percent of the world’s arable land per annum. Most attention in the news and science focus on issues of human health, food security, biodiversity and climate change, usually without their direct connections to soil health and associated food quality.

Healthy soils and healthy humans are both dependent on an abundance and diversity of beneficial microbes. Producers’ soil awareness and consumers’ healthy food demand are now leading more to farming practices that use far less synthetic fertilizers and chemicals, or none (ie. organic). Such agroecological, low-external input farming improves food quality, soil health, landscape biodiversity and farm profitability. Associated soil carbon sequestration, reduction in GHG emissions and increased soil water retention help slow global warming.

Agroecological farming is still being treated as ‘alternative’ and receives little R&D as it works against vested interests. It has, however, received science-based endorsements in several UN agency reports as the way to feed the increasing world population. This without a need for Genetically Modified (GM) food whose long-term safety hasn’t been proven.

Consumers, supported by nutritionists, are driving the process of change. An important skill consumers, gardeners and farmers do need to (re)develop and use is the capacity to be biosensitive, that is, to trust nature and to be in tune with, sensitive to, and respectful of the processes of life.

Arena: From Green Revolution to Agroecology

This article by Maarten was published in Arena No.122: 33-36.

Summary points

  • The critical renewable resources of soil and water are being used up, with costs being borne by farmers. The soils of one-quarter of the world’s arable land are in a highly degraded state, while agricultural land is being lost through urbanisation and further land degradation. What are we doing with this precious resource?
  • In India whole villages are changing from high-input, high-risk, unprofitable Green Revolution farming to agroecological farming using improved indigenous knowledge. This move is happening world-wide and  has led to so-called alternative farming practices that follow agroecological principles, for example, ’organic’, ‘biodynamic’, ‘low external input’, and ‘biological’ forms.
  • Abundant and diverse soil biology ensures that under all circumstances there are beneficial species active to undertake any task. Symbiosis is this balanced, mutual interdependence of different species. It is a protective mechanism in nature that develops in response to compatible needs. Such systems run on carbon, water and nitrogen free from the sky.
  • Science and governments are influenced by multinational corporations and stick to the current path of industrial agriculture. Personal values, habits, experiences and intended outcomes influence scientists to remain with the current paradigm as they formulate their hypotheses, develop experimental designs, pose experimental questions and complete data collection and analysis. The current powers that fund research thus keep getting the answers they expect.

New farming techniques for biodiversity, health and climate

The core of life on Earth is the daily requirement of food for people and all living organisms in webs of life, or ecosystems. These natural, self-organising ecosystems, which have provided food for millennia, are increasingly being taken apart—by ecological destruction and changing climates caused by ever increasing world population; industrialisation, including food production using cheap oil; deforestation; and urbanisation—all driven by economic growth and consumerism, and all affecting the health and wellbeing of people and earth. This increasingly puts pressure on food availability and price. Hence food security has become a major global issue and will remain so, especially given ongoing degradation of soils, depleting water resources, peak oil, global warming and a population of nine billion people by 2050.

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Healthy food from vibrant communities in healthy biodiverse landscapes

Paper presented by Maarten at the XIX International Conference of the Society for Human Ecology in Canberra, Australia, February 4-8, 2013.

Summary

Producer awareness and consumer demand are leading to farming systems using less synthetic fertilizers and chemicals. Such systems improve resilience, food quality and landscape biodiversity. Required knowledge network invigorate communities.

Abstract

Current modes of food provisioning have originated from cheap oil through industrialisation of food production and processing, and increasing food miles in globalised markets. It has lead to rural communities dying, increasing food wastes, ill-health of people, degrading soils, depleting water resources, diminishing landscape biodiversity, and exacerbates global warming. Science, institutions and governments though only tinker at the edges and treat symptoms rather than the cause of problems in these complex systems.

Consumer demand for ethical and ecological food is leading to changes in food provisioning through farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture and urban farming; connecting rural with urban, local production with consumption. Food sovereignty can be achieved with a transformation in food production from industrial to agroecological, which minimises use of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals, and regenerates soils and landscapes.

Agroecological low-external input farming has been endorsed by UN agencies as the way to feed the world. Strengths are the greater use of local resources, knowledge and skills, with linkages in communities. Such production systems produce healthy, nutrient dense food. Associated soil carbon sequestration, reduction in emissions and increased soil water retention help slow global warming.

Successful transition requires governments at all levels to create an enabling environment for production, trading and consumption of local food. Education of students, consumers and producers in preventative health of self, plants, animals and earth is critical. Science must develop a unified methodology to study holistically agroecosystems, with governments, producers and consumers connecting with scientists to solve problems encountered in local practices.