The Solution is in the Soil with Christos Miliotis

omkara Interviews

I sat down with Christos Miliotis over a cup of tea and we discussed some solutions to some of the worlds problems; global warming, factory farming and many other disturbing aspects of humanity. One of which is supporting Biodynamic farming with our food choices. Lets start with zooming into the Earth and getting a better understanding of the soil.

Steiner got it right, when he said “the earth that we walk on is a diaphragm” … if you understand a diaphragm, then you understand that it breathes. It’s the muscle that makes the soil come to life. It’s a breathing organism. Unfortunately most human interaction with the Earth and the soil proves that our collective understanding is counter intuitive to the natural breathing rhythm of the Earth. We add chemicals which kills the soil, then we have to get big tractors to chew it all up again. When they chew it all up again, they oxidise it which puts more carbon in the atmosphere. For every ton of wheat that we grow, we’re exporting to the atmosphere and to the waterways, including the Ocean approximately ten tons of  topsoil and for the record, the topsoil is our natural capital.

The non Biodynamic farmers are focusing on growing as much crop as they can (for business), for obvious reasons (the current way of life being F***ed and all that). If the farmers switched their attention to growing humus as the primary focus, everything else is a bi-product (humas is decomposed organic matter in the soil. Humus can also be found on the forest floor where leaves and plant material decompose naturally). If farmers continue to focus on producing as much non-Biodynamic produce as they can, at the expense of our natural capital (meaning the loss of fertile soils), then we will continue to run into lots of problems (i.e. global warming) because its destroying our natural systems. If farmers are only working with a financial economic system with the management of their crops, which bi-passes the natural fertility cycles, then the consequences will be: increased greenhouse gasses, not just carbon dioxide, not just methane but also nitrogen.

Nitrogen comes from chemical fertilisers and it stays in the atmosphere for a much longer period of time than carbon dioxide, like around 200 years longer. Methane which everyone’s worried about from animal farming (meat and dairy – I hate seeing animals treated like this)… Methane only stays in the atmosphere for 14 years. So there needs to be not only a cap on carbon dioxide but also on nitrogen production.

SOLUTIONS:
If you make your soil breath and you use the right plants, the atmosphere is around 78% free of nitrogen. You have to breath it back into the soil. With every breath you inhale, you breath in Oxygen and also a lot of nitrogen (78% nitrogen gas). When a plant, like the legumes, the pulses, and beans breath, they fix nitrogen, so it’s free nitrogen .. its all about breathing. The interesting thing is withBiodynamic farming, you can see the nodules on the legumes grow with very little substance. You do the most with the least input of material substance. You do the most transformations of the soil, building fertility, naturally without using ever increasing non renewable chemical inputs (which are going up and up in price, which means the farmers bottom line is being squeezed all the time). The farmers find it harder and harder, so they compensate by doing it on a larger and larger scale, meaning more chemical inputs, heavy machine inputs and again, they are going against the natural ecology of nature. They are two totally opposed processes.

SO WHAT HELPS THE SWITCH?

The plants are more than solar panels, but for now think of them as solar panels. They can harvest the energy from the sun, and in that harvesting of sunlight, they convert that to energy, chemical energy in the form of starches.

So the plants are metabolising the sunlight and biodynamic farming increases the plant’s ability to do this?

Yes and this only requires a small amount of supplements. 5 grams of what we call silica preparation (which enhances the light activity around plant)  can then convert that to stored chemical energy in the form of starch and proteins. The protein content of say grains can then go up around 20% in produce. More importantly if you work with the economy of nature, at night time, the plant changes from its normal breathing in carbon dioxide, (that process switches off) and what happens is the plant is also not only stretching out towards the sunlight but it’s stretching down towards the Earth. As its stretching its roots down below, if you create the right environment for it i.e. the soil has the structure that allows the roots to grow down deeply, then up to 20% to 30% of the sugars that the plant makes during the day time, become bio available for the bacteria and fungi at nigh time …  it’s a symbiotic relationship. The plant is feeding those life organisms, that universe of life that’s under the topsoil and all the roots are talking to each other.

HERE WE CAN SEE THAT IF YOU BUILD NATURAL FERTILITY, THE PLANT IS INTIMATELY CONNECTED TO THE SOIL AND THE SOIL IS INTIMATELY CONNECTED TO THE PLANT  …….

The way one builds natural fertility is when you allow the growth of whole families of key microorganisms and fungi. These families congregate around the roots and make the nutrients for the plant bio-available. During the day time they’re giving the plant nutrients in a slow release form, so it’s very ordered natural process with a two way nutrients steam.

The nutrient stream comes from the Sun to the plant to the soil to the microbes. The microbes then return what they’ve done through the fungi and the bacteria to feed the roots during the night. This symbiosis, this two way movement of energies and nutrients build over time a soil structure which can breath. If you bypass this natural fertility cycle, by imposing (chemicals), mineral salts with water your bleaching out that whole system, it’s incredibly uneconomical. Probably at best 30% of those nutrients go to the plant but even if they do go to the plant, what you’re getting primarily in the plant is a lot of salt and water. If you give enough salt and water to a plant in its root system it has to bring in nutrients up into the plant, it bloats up the plant, so what you’re eating is tasteless and not nourishing. The question is what happens to the other 70% ? It goes back into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, back into the waterways as increased nutrient run off, which then disturbs the aquatic system, so you get things like blooms of blue green algae. This disturbs the sensitive eco-system of the great barrier reef which has been finely tuned over millions of years. On top of that you get the insult of global warming, because if you don’t see the potential to bank carbon in the soil, if you don’t see the potential that with carbon water follows, if you don’t see that these bacteria and fungi over billions of years have built soil then you’re bypassing the natural economy.

Currently up to 60% of the carbon dioxide (build from our current lifestyle industries) is being taken up by the Ocean, so that means Ocean warming. The consequence of Ocean warming is not on the increase in the temperatures in the atmosphere with climatic change, but also this buffering capacity of the oceans to absorb that excess heat. Its that excess heat, that excess carbon dioxide that’s being absorbed in the Oceans at incredibly fast rate, over a very short period of time and it’s causing acidification. If you look at the barrier reef you’re getting acid forming which is another thing that those sensitive organisms have never been accustomed too.

How do we transition to renewable energies to decarbonise the economy in our energy with electricity, gases, fossil fuels etc. We need to transition as fast as we possibly can towards renewable energy. Even wind power comes from the sun,  it’s the heat systems driving the winds .. so it all comes down to the Sun (the centre of our galaxy). We need to understand that incredible power of working with the suns energy. Until we can harness this energy it seems that we will continue to create scenarios which become more and more disturbing for the total life of the planet.

So what do we do practically? sure we transition the renewable energies as fast as we can, sure we find more and more ways of increasing the energy conversion from the sunlight energy to electrical energy, sure we need to store that energy in battery systems. What we are forgetting is that the soil stores that energy from the sun in the form of carbon.

Carbon for the soil is a good thing. Carbon for the atmosphere is a bad thing. We have to understand that when we build the fertility of the soil everything that is produced from the soil is a bi-product. The central focus should be caring for soil, building the soil and working with all of the things that nature has: the bacteria, the fungi, they all have important functions which have been developed over eons of time. We’re just bypassing this intricate system, every fertiliser we have, every pesticide we use is killing the life of the soil (and eventually us). 

The most restorative thing we can do for the planet today is to build a fertile soil structure which can be done by cultivating humus. When you gather all of that organic material into compost, what you’re left with is a lot of dead organisms. The fact that you’ve put in so many materials and it all ends up the same colour, is partly the extraordinary thing of the organisms that have chewed up all the organic matter and have run out of food source and then they leave their bodies.  

Those bodies – or any living organism would have had to harvest carbon, they would have incorporated nitrogen into their cellular structure, as no living creature can live without protein and protein needs the basic element of nitrogen.

So instead of thinking about supplying nitrogen fossil potassium as chemical salts, the bacteria that have died and the ones that are still living in that life matrix of humus has the ideal properties to create growth. It will slowly release the nutrients, it will be of a structure where the soil can breathe, because the living ones which still keep working and building soil structure let it breath.

Think of it as a sponge, a good soil should be 50% substance and 50% airspace. In those air pockets or the channels (just like our lungs) where there is an exchange of gasses, you need that space. If you compress your lung you can’t breath. Essentially our soil is being compressed, being suffocated. The bacteria, even when you add them on top as an afterthought can’t breath. At the same time there are so many exchanges of not only gases, but there’s also this movement of water. When it rains it can percolate through the soil. The deeper, more fertile and richer the soil it means more water can percolate. But it percolates in such a manner that it still (this is what humous does) allows for the air passages to keep working. The soil can still breath.  So you’re getting a growing system which is what you need to grow plants. You need to grow the soil and not only focus on whats’ above the ground  but also what’s below.

Once we tap into the incredible economy of nature, we realise that the whole body of the plant becomes plant food for the microbes and the microbes then feed the plant in turn.

If we increased on our arable land carbon to the thickness of a 5 cent piece, across 10% of arable land, (ballpark figures) that would equal the current greenhouse gas emissions. If you take that image of just increasing the topsoil to the thickness of a 5 cent coin, that again is not the best position to put carbon. The deeper you can put that carbon bank into the soil the more stable and useful it is. That means the soil is already becoming very airy and therefore the roots can go deeper and deeper. When those roots die or when you harvest the plant that leaves behind its carbon residue body, then the earthworms go deeper down and they are your 24/7 tractors free of charge.

When the soil is healthy it has a spring to it, in other words, it is breathing. When its compacted and dusty its dead and when you want to plant again you are forced to use a lot of energy using fossil fuels to dig the soil, large tractors and so forth to break up the soil. In the process of oxidising the soil it releases the carbon into the atmosphere, creating an inefficient cycle. We need to work out how the carbon cycle and the nitrogen cycle can be breathed back into the soil and utilised by the plant. We need to create the right environment for the vegetation, the bacteria and the fungi and we do this by creating humus.

One obvious way to help support the change is to buy organic and biodynamic produce .. I understand (really I do understand) that the cost is often not viable, however we also need to take into account the cost that the cheap factory farmed produce is having on the environment and add it up that way … so whenever possible, buy local organic and biodynamic produce.

Under the soil, the soil beneath our feet, where the solution lies. We need to see this as an infrastructure and work with and not against it.