Replacing Roundup with Regenerative Agriculture Practices

BioCycle’s REFOR17 is underway this third week of October (2017), following Northwest Biosolids’ BioFest 2017.  The keynote presentation is by geomorphologist and environmental advocate  David Montgomery. I am attending. Sally Brown, biosolids researcher extraordinaire, has been spreading for several years now the word about her University of Washington colleague Dr. Montgomery.  I pre-ordered Dr. Montgomery’s new 2017 book Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life, and, having been inspired by his writings of how urban residuals can help revolutionize agriculture, I was determined not to miss the opportunity to meet him.

Dr. Montgomery introduced me to “regenerative agriculture.” This term is among the hottest themes in California’s environmental program leadership, and he uses the term interchangeably with “conservation agriculture.”  My hope is that, while “organic farming” does not have the capacity, due to the stupid National Organic Rule, to embrace biosolids, regenerative agriculture might do so. As the Wikipedia definition of regenerative agriculture reveals, this is a newly emerging movement focusing on soil health, rather than on chemical inputs, “organic” or not.  Dr. Montgomery, calling this the “fifth agricultural revolution,” describes its three principles: 1) minimal soil disturbance, 2) permanent ground cover, and 3) diverse crop rotation. He claims that, with regenerative agriculture, crop yields improve, costs of inputs decline and farm profits increase. Adding urban organics to the soil, including biosolids, is a key to this revolution. This is great news for us.

Dr. Montgomery’s message reinforces the need of the wastewater industry to develop a closer link between biosolids and soil health, as I argued in my Topsoil article (9/18/2017).  I am uneasy with the application of biosolids products to the soil surface of no-till farms because of the risk of phosphorus release to surface waters.  This route seems unavoidable with field crop cultivation practices that rely on herbicide for weed control.  I have been seeking a set of soil management practices that would deliver biosolids organic matter and nutrients closer to crop roots, not close to the soil surface.

In my search of science literature for tillage options, I scared myself. My investigation of no-till agriculture, which means heavy doses of herbicides, revealed a flurry of recent journal articles involving glyphosate and GBH (glyphosate-based herbicides). This is the broad-spectrum, inexpensive and ubiquitous herbicide Roundup and related products from Monsanto upon which most no-till agriculture dependsThese new articles have the disturbing message that Roundup may NOT be the safe, benign chemical that Monsanto has been telling us it is. The new science reinforces the message in recent articles from responsible, popular press coverage (see National Geographic).  In my conversation with Dr. Montgomery, I learned that he, too, is concerned by the emerging science with Roundup.

I try to keep environmental and health risks in balance. After all, I authored a paper about the connection between biosolids odors and “somatic disease” (read mass hysteria), so I avoid being hysterical myself.  I was reminded of the hysteria phenomenon in the very recent 10-6-2017 article Pumpkin spice air freshener prompts hazmat scare at Baltimore school, 5 hospitalized. If pumpkin spice can send people to the emergency room, are biosolids odors really such a stretch for doing the same?

People have real difficulty judging risks. This is not a statement of our current political climate, either. The Michigan Technical University’s Jennifer Becker, a presenter at the WEFTEC 2017 Session 509 on biosolids products, commiserated with the me on risk perception deficiencies among her students. She had complained that her students could not distinguish the high risks arising from sex and sports activities and the low risks from chemicals in her lab and in the environment. But, as with Dr. Montgomery, Dr. Becker expressed to me her concern for risks arising from reliance of modern, no-till agriculture on herbicides, specifically Roundup. Hmmmm.

Why the concern with Roundup’s glyphosate? Well, one review of science articles published in 2016 and 2017 concluded human and animal health effects from GBH do not sustain Monsanto’s old, oft-cited advertised claim that Roundup is the safest of all chemicals.  Scientist from various disciplines have raised sufficient concerns that some countries have banned Roundup and others are considering it (Concerns over use of glyphosate-based herbicides and risks associated with exposures: a consensus statement).  The European regulators have designated Roundup a probable carcinogen. Scientists have examined pathways that plausibly linked glyphosate and its carrier chemicals to endocrine disruption (Prepubertal subchronic exposure to soy milk and glyphosate leads to endocrine disruption. Residues of the herbicide are found in human food, particularly soy and corn fructose products (Presence of glyphosate in food products in South Africa of which maize or soybean is the primary constituent, and pass into the human body (Glyphosate in German adults – Time trend (2001 to 2015) of human exposure to a widely used herbicide).  Researchers have discerned effects on sperm health in rats (Reproductive toxicity of Roundup herbicide exposure in male albino rat and Effects of glyphosate exposure on sperm concentration in rodents: A systematic review and meta-analysis), and this seems an explanatory animal model for the finding of low sperm counts among agricultural workers.  One piece of good news, among a group of 114 volunteer nursing mothers in Germany, no glyphosate was detected (Determination of Glyphosate Levels in Breast Milk Samples from Germany by LC-MS/MS and GC-MS/MS).

Taken all together, this recent science on glyphosate is worrisome.  Modern agriculture relies on glyphosate-based no-till management. What would farmers do if society, industry and government were to turn against glyphosate and GBH because it is shown to cause cancer and metabolic diseases?  Can farmers turn confidently to conservation agriculture, crop rotation and green manures in place of glyphosate, and how would this change biosolids applications?

This is where Dr. Montgomery’s “organic-ish” conservation agriculture and “regenerative farming” comes into play.

An emerging network of soil, plant, and weed scientists are doing creative work in conservation agriculture.  A recently-minted PhD from Penn State, John Wallace, is working with innovative weed control, now through Cornell University’s agriculture extension facilities. In his recent paper, Cover Crop-Based, Organic Rotational No-Till Corn and Soybean Production Systems in the Mid-Atlantic United States, Dr. Wallace affirms the capacity of this system to control weeds, but says, “The paucity of adequate machinery for optimizing establishment of cash crops into thick residue mulch remains a major constraint on CCORNT [Cover crop-based, organic rotational no-till] adoption.” John Uzupis, Synagro’s technical services manager, made a similar observation in his presentation on P management; farmers are no longer equipped to bury biosolids.

This is where organic farmers come in to play.  While organic farming has strict rules against biosolids, it is the driver for deployment of equipment for subsurface injection of pelletized poultry litter.  Might this be used for subsurface injection of biosolids?

Conservation agriculture of the kind proposed by Dr. Montgomery promises higher per acre profitability.  He has hope that the inertia of past practices and the lack of education and communication can be overcome.  Best of all, Dr. Montgomery is wide open to our mission in wastewater treatment, to our goal of resource recovery and to the results in building soil health. He speaks of Dr. Sally Brown’s work, he gives a shout out to Tacoma and Tagro, and he thanks the leaders of Northwest Biosolids. It is great to have an advocate.

I throw out here some tasks for the biosolids profession that align with conservation agriculture:

  • We need to build upon the concepts of conservation agriculture and its amplification as “regenerative agriculture” to establish a new role for biosolids as a tool for building soil health in modern farming.
  • We need to track the development of equipment for the subsurface placement of biosolids pellets close to seeds.
  • We need to place biosolids into a program of fertilization at the time of strategic minimum tillage in a crop rotation system, just ahead of a crop like field corn, which has a high need for nitrogen.
  • We need to place biosolids in the nutrient marketplace as a source of natural biopolymers for building soil structure and sustaining soil microbes, and as a source of trace elements that replace micronutrients harvested with crops. 
  • We need point to the relative low risk of weed seed and pathogen transmission, which is a positive feature compared to manures.

Sounds like a tall order, but this is set within the HUGE vision that Dr. Montgomery puts forth in his book: “Imagine trains coming into cities full of food, fiber, and fuel, and leaving full of compost, biochar, and biosolids, returning to the fields what we took from the land in an endless cycle flowing into cities and back out to the fields. Is this a utopian fantasy or a prophetic vision? Maybe both. [This is] … a blueprint for a diverse, resilient agriculture capable of maintaining soil health and supporting dense human populations…, [as we] move farmers from conventional farming toward more sustainable, organic-ish practices…. So how can we brand soil health to provide consumers the information necessary to make the well-informed choices they deserve and desire? I suspect that the best approach would be some kind of “soil safe” certification from a national association of regenerative, soil-building farmers.”

Wow, that is a vision worth embracing!  Ours is a modest role -- providing a great source of organic matter rich material full of micro and macronutrients. We offer precisely what conservation agriculture needs, an Organic-ish Biosolids.