• Koenraad Duhem

We're in 2021, let's start talking "bio"

Updated: Feb 1

As the founder of HumaTerra, I want to extend you my warm wishes for 2021. The new year wishes are mostly about wishing your family and friends health and prosperity for the coming year. I wish a healthy life to you, your family, and your soils. The correlation of your soil’s health and human health are more closely related than many would believe. This is an extensive topic which I will expand on in greater detail in future posts. As we enter 2021, I would like to open my first post of the year talking about “bio.”

I want to draw a very broad picture on a radical: bio and briefly explore how we graft this to our modern-day farming and food production practices with the shift to a bio-farming approach. This approach encapsulates HumaTerra’s way of envisioning agriculture for future generations. It naturally leads to regenerative land management and it helps us understand the importance of how the living crops are interacting with the living organisms of the soil.

We are all probably used to the term “Bio”. At some point in your life, you have prepared and shared a “bio” which is a snapshot of your life and achievements. It makes sense since Bio is from the Greek bios (βιο) and means life. In French, the term “agriculture biologique” or “agriculture bio” is referring to organic farming and is thus based on the assumption that organic farming is more based on lifeliving organismsas a posed to its conventional counterpart. That is probably true, but it is difficult to prove because most of the analyses we use to test foods and soils are physicochemical. “Biological” analyses are still scarce and poorly operational in agriculture, be it in the foods or in the soil. Bio-chemical analysis is beginning to appear though.

My ambitions in founding HumaTerra were to encourage farmers to dig a bit deeper in the different time scales of their soil’s life and come to understand more about its (micro) -biology, -biota or-biome.

At the geological scale of time, (more than 1 million years), this 1-meter thin bio-layer has accumulated and sequestrated over 300 million years about 7,000,000 Gigatons of carbon into the lithosphere by fossilization, making the atmosphere livable for the mammals we are. We have been the beneficiaries of this sequestrated carbon consuming it as fuel, coal, gas, and reemitting it into the atmosphere as CO2. The problem is that there is no longer a balance between our emissions and the soil's ability to sequester.

We must remember we are not living or walking on a solid earth. We are living on the very fragile skin of the earth. Farmers are the dermatologists of this skin. We know what happens to our skin when it is much exposed to, too alkali or acids. It cracks!

At the human scale of time (from one year to hundred years), we have seen the effects of the mechanization and industrialization of agriculture on the biology of the soils. In the span of a few decades, the prairie topsoil's in Western Canada have shrunk from feet to inches in depth due to erosion. The loss of soil biology and the alteration of the soil microbiota has had a critical impact on the acceleration and extent of soil erosion. The use of fertilizers to compensate for the loss of this natural fertility has further degraded the soil microbiota. The introduction of minimal and no-till farming practices has led to a significant reduction in further erosion. These practices have the capacity to help restore the levels of soil organic matter (SOM) to acceptable levels (though not all SOMs are equal).

At this scale of time, there are some interesting parallels to draw between the gut and the soil microbiota. Wrong eating habits (too much sugar) or patterns (snacking) and drug consumption degrades the gut flora or gut microbiota. Wrong agricultural practices (deep ploughing) and too much fertilizer or pesticides have altered the soil microbiota and hence the soil productivity.

The rapid evolution of genomic tools and big data processing technology are now enabling the shift of human health prevention and therapy to more biology-based strategies. The unravelling of the gut microbiome has led to the implementation of better dietary practices for favourable gut health, hence global health. It also has enabled the use of alternatives to drugs for gut health, weight control with the marketing of probiotics and prebiotic.

Our gut flora is a bit like that of our internal piece of soil; some of the favourable bacteria in the soil are also favourable to the gut's health like some Bacillus species.

The soil microbiome unravelling is following the same pattern. The rapid evolution of sensors, genomic tools and biological analysis is providing enabling technologies for bio-farming and a regenerative land management breakthrough. It is important to understand that this breakthrough needs at the same time new bio-products as alternatives or complements to chemical fertilizers, but also services and interpretable data to monitor the evolution of the biology.

HumaTerra Regen Ag is thriving to provide this set of products, services, and skills. There is no miracle to expect from biology; we will always need nitrogen to produce crop protein, but we certainly can produce more with less.

Koenraad Duhem is a co-founder and the Director of Technologies and Strategic Development for HumaTerra. He has a 20-year long experience as Scientific Director in the French dairy industry and livestock sector. Long intrigued by the fertility of pasture soils and their potential to sequester carbon, in 2016, Koenraad decided to take a sabbatical to enable him to have a closer look at how a restored soil microbiology could help farmers grow better crops and achieve better margins while improving their main asset– the land. Koenraad can be reached at k.duhem@htregen.com.

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