Charles Massyon the future of regenerative farming

Charles Massy, scientist, author, university lecturer, regenerative agriculturalist, and Australian merino sheep farmer for more than 40 years, does not mince his words when he says, “We face the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced.”

He is talking about the untold damage we have imposed on all of the earth’s nine sustaining planetary systems and human health through agricultural mismanagement. Behind the veil of endless abundance of food brought to us by industrial agriculture lies an insidious reality that is having a devastating impact on human and planetary health.

Massy is a leading figure in a growing community that shares a different agricultural story, gaining a global voice as a key solution in healing the planet back to health and regeneration. Regenerative agriculture takes a holistic approach to land management and food production, focusing on enabling the natural systems within landscapes to renew themselves. Such practices include ecological grazing, cropping with biological inputs, cropping into native grasslands, agro-foresty, food-forestry, agro-ecology, and biodynamics.

Massy is making an urgent call to turn the tide on industrial agriculture. His highly acclaimed book on regenerative agriculture, ‘Call of the Reed Warbler‘ is his vision of, ‘a new agriculture and a new earth’. In it he calls for, ‘an underground insurgency’, a revolution from the ground up, ‘where regenerative farmers and consumers support the agricultural industry to nourish our communities through healthy food and love and care for the planet.’

Industrial agriculture boasts a lengthy list of negative impacts ranging from a massive increase in desertification, billions of tons of lost topsoil every year, critical loss of bio-diversity, dangerous atmospheric and water pollution, an antibiotic crisis, untold number of deaths and ill-health from pesticide exposure, and a quarter of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions.

Industrial agriculture is negatively impacting the nine interconnected earth systems, and climate change is just one of them. We may have fixed the ozone layer, but industrial agriculture is also driving biodiversity loss, nitrogen and phosphorous loading, ocean acidification, land conversion, air and chemical pollution. Massy says, “We are pushing beyond safe levels, and we don’t know when we get to the tipping point. […] Industrial agriculture has played a significant role in destabilizing these systems, and regenerative agriculture can play a vital role in their restoration.”

As Massy explains, inherent to the regenerative philosophy is to view, “healthy land function as the asset,” not crops or livestock. They are valuable tools to be used as part of the regeneration of the five essential landscape functions. These functions include, “the solar function, the water cycle, the soil mineral nutrient cycle, biodiversity, and the world views we bring to our landscape.

All five are interconnected. If you damage one of these systems, you hurt them all. And if you regenerate one, you regenerate them all. It is this process that drives human and planetary health. Regenerative agriculture aims to increase the biodiversity of ground cover and healthy soils to maximize the solar-energy cycle. Increased soil moisture and more organic matter, when broken down, improves the soil structure and enhances the ability to capture water—further feeding a healthy cycle and web.

Regenerative agricultural practices nurture soils back to health, increasing carbon-rich soil organic matter. ‘The result: essential microbes proliferate, roots go deeper, nutrient uptake improves, water retention increases, plants are more pest-resistant, and soil fertility compounds. Farms are seeing soil carbon levels rise from a baseline of 1 to 2 percent up to 5 to 8 percent over ten or more years, which can add up to 25 to 60 tons of carbon per acre.’

Massy shares the conclusions of the highly respected group of Australian scientists called the Wentworth group. ‘At a global scale, a 15% increase in the world terrestrial carbon stock would remove the equivalent of all the carbon pollution emitted from fossil fuels since the beginning of the industrial revolution.’

The opposite is so with industrial agriculture. Massy points out, ‘Long-running trial data now reveals that high synthetic nitrogen inputs deplete soil carbon, impair water holding capacity and, as a result, end up being obtusely counter-productive by leading to depleted soil nitrogen. Modern use of fossil fuels (which vastly increases heat loads) and wide application of industrial fertilisers and farming techniques have grossly distorted the global cooling system through interference with the water cycle and vegetation cover.’ In contrast to industrial agriculture, regenerative practices mean soils retain carbon and water, and photosynthesis is optimized, effectively cooling the earth.

“Glyphosate enhances the damaging effects of other food-borne chemical residues and environmental toxins […] The impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body.”

Massy concludes, ‘The simple fact is that regenerative agriculture can restore the water cycle to health, retain more moisture in the soil and earth systems, and that plays a key role in climate amelioration…’

It is not only planetary health that is at stake. There is mounting evidence that the rise in modern illnesses correlates to the increased use of pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilisers in industrial farming. There is a critical fact: our future health and wealth are dependent on the health of the soil. As Franklin Roosevelt once said, “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.” For Massy, ‘To ignore this ever-changing interaction between ourselves and our own environment – and especially regarding the food we eat and the water we drink –is to ignore a key subterranean issue as to why western civilisation is characterised today by massive and rising levels of unanticipated modern diseases.’ Industrial chemical inputs leave a complex trail of destruction that leaves our foods bereft of nutrients.

As a scientist, Massy has done his research and works alongside other scientists worldwide, investigating the health impacts of industrial chemical inputs. The evidence is substantial and points to a direct correlation between the increased use of Glyphosate since the 1990s and the increase in modern biophysical and mental health illnesses. Glyphosate is the world’s most widely used herbicide, with nearly a million tonnes being sprayed globally per year, causing massive biological disruption. In his book, Massy shares American scientists Samsel and Seneff’s conclusions, that the consequences of this ‘disruption, link to, most of the conditions and diseases associated with a western diet’ including ‘gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, and Alzheimer’s disease’ to name a few.

Glyphosate enhances the damaging effects of other food-borne chemical residues and environmental toxins […] The impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body.’ Massy adds, “It’s in most of our industrial foods, in most of our bodies and even in breast milk.” It crosses over some of the critical barriers in our bodies that stop toxins getting in, like the gut lining and into the blood/brain barrier.

It is a simple fact, unhealthy food production makes healthy eating impossible. As soils are de-mineralized and stripped of nutrients, it depletes the nutrients of foods grown in these soils. Meat produced in factory farms and on overgrazed land is also devoid of crucial ingredients. Food processing, packaging, and transportation of foods also lead to further nutrient degradation. The chemical inputs from fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides are in our foods. As Massy writes,’ Not only are many of these toxins directly harmful to human health, but […] this toxic load imposes on our bodies and immune system a further need for nutrients.

As a farmer, Massy spent many years following industrial agricultural practices, wreaking havoc on a landscape that his family has been custodians of for generations. It was a critical drought in the ’80s that left Massy depressed, in debt, surrounded by a dusty landscape that led him to rethink the way he managed the land. It was a harsh reality to face, but Massy came to recognize that he was landscape illiterate, and if things were going to change, he needed to learn how to read the landscape. He returned to university to do a PhD in human ecology, which not only led to him write his book, but also marked his transition to establishing regenerative practices on his land.

Being landscape literate cannot be just learnt in scientific reports and textbooks; it evolves from a deep connection to the land.

Hugely influential to Massy’s understanding of the earth is the enormous wealth of knowledge held by Australian Aboriginals. Local Elder and friend; Rod Mason continues to be an instrumental teacher. Regenerative farming is not new to Australia. For the ancient indigenous Australians, every aspect of their being both physical and spiritual was and is connected to holistic and regenerative land management. Massy quotes Bob Randell’s, Yankunytjatjara Elder and traditional owner of Uluru, ‘concept of country. We lived on the land as people of the land […] Our way used to be “The land owns us,” and it still is that to us […] It has given me the responsibility to care for my country, care for my mother, and care for everything […] around me. The ‘Dreaming’ are the unwritten laws that every Aboriginal child is born into. They provide the social, cultural, and physical guidelines that connect every Aboriginal to the land. The songlines are tracks taken by the ancestors as they brought the earth to life and held a complex web of information about each landscape they traversed. This information has been passed down through stories and ceremonies over the generations. It is why today Aboriginals have such an inherent understanding of the land, its cycles, the water systems and the interconnectedness of all elements that make the landscape fertile.

“Being landscape literate cannot be just learnt in scientific reports and textbooks; it evolves from a deep connection to the land.”

Rod Mason, indigenous land manager, demonstrating Aboriginal cool-burn patch burning(ABC South East NSW: Bill Brown)

Charles Massy’s farm during the worst drought on record – huge contrast to the bare neighbour

Landcare field day participants burning a small patch using Aboriginal cool-burning techniques.(ABC South East NSW: Bill Brown)

Society’s view of the land links inextricably to how it looks after the planet. One cannot underestimate how critical humanity’s role is in managing landscapes. Massy is hopeful that regenerative agriculture is starting to accelerate as the innovation curve seems to be shifting positively, “from the early adopters into the early majority.” For the past three years, vast areas of Australia have been severely struck by drought and by the more recent horrific bushfires. These devastating events could be the catalyst that drives the much-needed shift locally. Massy’s land near the Snowy Mountain region has been hard hit. Although the bushfires did not touch his property, the drought is parallel to the one he experienced in the ’80s. This time his land remains covered in grassland; he has de-stocked and feels comfortable that the natural systems are in order, for maximum renewal when the rains come.

While industrial agriculture takes a reductionist, linear approach to land management, regenerative farming embraces complexity and systems thinking, seeing each of nature’s functions as integral to nurturing wholesome environments, enabling ecosystems to flourish. For Massy, ‘The properties of the parts can be understood only from the organisation of the whole […] There is a fundamental unity in the structure and function of life.” This is how you build resilience. It is here that regenerative agriculture offers so much learning and is integral to the success of other industries wanting to shift to the circular economy. As Massy says, “When you combine resilience and sustainability, it forces you into holistic systems thinking.” He writes, ‘We need to change our mindscapes before we can change our landscapes.’ It is the antithesis of the industrial, mono-culture machine-driven domination of our food systems, which is “driven by some of the biggest multinationals and pharma companies operating on an economic rationalist philosophy of growth and greed.” It is why Massy is calling for “an insurgent approach, challenging the great power bases of society.” A revolution from the ground up where consumers and regenerative farmers support one another to transform our food systems and foster a resilient and healthy future for humanity and the planet.

For Massy, ‘We humans now constitute an overwhelmingly dominant and increasingly dangerous determining factor in the destiny of this planet. This is because we have arrogantly placed ourselves outside the functional parameters of earths operating systems.’ He sees regenerative agriculture as “possibly the most effective answer to many of the global environmental and humanitarian challenges we face.” The time has come for us to reflect, reassess and reignite our connection to the natural systems that enable our existence on earth. As individuals and consumers we have the power to drive change, to demand a regenerative food system that not only nourishes the earth, but ourselves and the health of our children.

Works Cited

  • Charles Massy, ‘Call of the Reed Warbler’, (Australia: University of Queensland Press, 2017).

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