Restoring Biodiversity with Soil Microbes
The Urgency To View Soil As An Economic Infrastructure
As the world enters one of its biggest resets since the Industrial Revolution, urban citizens are beginning to feel the effects of a fundamentally flawed economic system - and every nation’s policy makers are struggling to come up with strategies to pandemic-proof their own country in terms of food supply chain, health care system optimisation, and the most popular of all - catching up with agriculture.
During the 23rd Edition of the Malaysia Economic Monitor (MEM) in 2020 by World Bank Group, which zooms in on the country's economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, panelist and paraplegic farmer Dr. Billy Tang has put forth his vision in ensuring resilience in Malaysia’s food and agriculture sector - which is through regenerative agriculture.
And regenerative agriculture is only possible through soil health restoration.
“Soil health is human health,” Dr. Billy Tang mentions during the MEM panelist discussion, “Healthy soil can fix climate change and alleviate poverty while addressing deteriorating public health, all by bringing biology back to our soil, which in turn restores important trace minerals into our food chain.”
“Is a pro-environment, pro-agriculture, and pro market-based principle possible? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’”.
The Power Of Soil
While climate change has become a common topic of discussion, we rarely hear people talking about soil at all. In fact, the World Economic Forum reports that ‘soil is one of the least understood and untapped defenses against climate change’.
Basically, a spoonful of healthy soil contains more living organisms than the world’s human population. The biological diversity in the soil is the foundation of all terrestrial life on earth. These microorganisms help trees to grow and thrive, and the trees in turn will absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, loading the carbon into the soil.
This process is called carbon sequestration, or in layman terms, carbon farming. The fact is that soil is our greatest ally when it comes to combating global warming and restoring nutrition back into our food chain, because it absorbs more CO2 from the atmosphere than it releases, which makes soil one of Earth’s greatest carbon sink agents.
Unfortunately, due to unsustainable human activity, our soils have degraded; its capacity of carbon sinking is only 50-66% of what it used to be.
“Conventional agriculture practices, mostly monocrop plantations like palm oil, cocoa, and rubber, have caused our soil to degrade with the frequent input of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides,” Dr. Billy Tang says during his interview, “imagine investing so much input cost to kill everything in the soil, but only your crop lives?”
“This is how it’s been for even monocrop food plantations like rice, corn, soy - the entire biodiversity and ecosystem is eliminated while we invest capital to keep crops alive in the name of GDP and ROI.”
This has undoubtedly instilled the widely acceptable myth - that agriculture land can only be used for 10 years of agriculture activity before having to exploit more forest areas for more farmable land.
A Better Representation Of Nature In A Revamped Economics Framework
We know for a fact that the economy depends on Earth as a source. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, we have been constantly extracting and exhausting matter from our planet to be converted into national GDP; timber, oil, clay, metals, wild fish - everything that drives a nations’ economy is 100% dependent on Earth’s resources.
Inversely, nature is almost always sidelined during board meeting discussions - viewed as a voiceless stakeholder and a minority issue to be considered in our traditional linear supply-demand economics model.
In 2012, an economist from the University of Oxford, Kate Raworth introduced a new economics model in her Oxfam paper entitled “A Safe and Just Space for Humanity”. The model is called Doughnut Economics, which skyrocketed in popularity after the world was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this revolutionary 21st-century economics framework, an economy is only deemed as prosperous when “all 12 social foundations are met without overshooting any of the 9 ecological ceilings”.
Considering the fact that soil health is the foundation of regeneration, and that our economy is fully dependent on our planet’s health to function, it is absolutely crucial for governments and giant corporations to start viewing the soil as an economic infrastructure.
“If Kate Raworth proposes that we start viewing trees as infrastructures for producing our oxygen and carbon sequestration; in the same logic, we strongly urge decision makers to invest in soil health restoration,” adds Dr. Billy Tang, “because without regeneration, there is no life.”
Soil Health Restoration Is Possible
In the 1990s, Dr. Billy Tang and his team of agriculture researchers were selected by our ex-Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad to plant 100,000 teak trees along the North-South Highway.
“Our team went to the site and tested the parameters of the soil - it was too acidic for tree planting at pH3 and all of the soil were compacted,” explained Dr. Billy Tang as he related his past experience, “any soil scientist can attest that such parameters would mean that the project is doomed to fail. Moreover, the site along the high-way was a cut-and-fill site - buried underneath the soil are all rubbish and construction wastes.”
“But the project was a success - and it was because our team of researchers spent months identifying soil-fixing microbes that could restore the acidic compacted soil to its prime state. Within 6 months, we brought the earthworms back to the land. Not only did our teak trees thrive along the highway, neighbouring durian plantation owners have approached us saying that their trees are fruiting like never before,” he adds.
Ever since that project, Dr. Billy Tang has dedicated his career to studying how soil biodiversity can shape better, healthier, and more effective food and agricultural systems without damaging the ecosystem.
“It is conventionally believed that food security comes at the expense of planetary health, but that is not true”, concludes the paraplegic farmer, “I have long known that agriculture has the potential to become a solution for climate change instead of contributing to the problem.”
In the 2000s, Dr. Billy Tang and his researchers have gone on to restore the biodiversity on 73 plots of monocrop plantation land. Within 10 years, the dead and diseased soil returned to life, and is now blooming with a rich flora and fauna biodiversity profile.
How Developers Can Be Part Of The Solution
Having a green-lung as part of a property development has become a rising global trend as the demand for homes and settlements with a utopian paradise continue to soar. On the flip side of the coin, developers also experience increasing difficulty in maintaining the beauty of these gardens despite outsourcing landscape maintenance contracts to agencies.
“Coming from a landscape designing background myself, I can personally say that the landscape design industry utilizes a lot of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in the garden maintenance process,” Dr. Billy Tang relates his experience, “so picture a skyscraper draping with greens - it gives people the impression that it’s healthier to live in the building but the reality is that you’re breathing in those chemicals contractors use to keep the plants aesthetically pleasing.”
“I only know a handful of landscape designers who are passionate about integrating biodiversity and nature’s ecosystem with quality urban lifestyle.”
Is the natural way better for developers? Both scientific and business logic point towards a ‘YES’. Plenty of research papers published by various universities and institutions have extensive data on how going the natural way using microbes and biodynamics have critically reduced business input cost while raising returns significantly.
In 2018, the government of Andhra Pradesh in India has committed 8 million hectares of agricultural land to demonstrate Zero-Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) by 2024. The aim was to make Andhra Pradesh the first state in India practising 100% natural farming. This means that by 2024, there would be no input cost injected into the state for agriculture; thereby demonstrating that regenerative agriculture requires no excessive capital to raise food security without harming the planet with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
“If it’s possible for an entire state to farm carbon through regenerative agriculture, what more replicating it within a community and development,” says Dr. Billy Tang, “this way, even developers can contribute to carbon sequestration and biodiversity protection without compromising their business interests.”
Reforesting Palm Oil Plantations
Since 2018, Malaysia’s oil palm industry has been challenged with multi-dimensional issues, and is in critical need of an action plan that could fuel the industry towards a sustainable vision. Coupled with the COVID19 pandemic and conversations surrounding food security vs. planetary health, it is becoming apparent that the pressing need to address the problems with the palm oil industry is unavoidable.
Economically, palm oil tops the other crops in terms of efficiency, producing more oil per land area than all other types of vegetable oil crop. To put it in perspective, palm oil supplies more than a third of the world’s vegetable oil demand while taking up only 10% of the land. To obtain the same volume of other type of vegetable oils like soy or coconut, it would require 4 to 10 times more land than palm.
Unfortunately, despite its economic success and land use efficiency, our trade-offs include heavy environmental damages directly from deforestation, biodiversity loss, contaminant leechings, and socioeconomic concerns surrounding labour and human rights breaches.
Conversations on boycotting palm oil has skyrocketed over the years, but boycotting the industry and its products will not heal the damage that has been done. Moreover, throwing climate change into the equation adds more layers of complexity in tackling the palm oil industry’s existing environmental, economic, social, and technical challenges.
Instead Of Contributing To Climate Change, Palm Oil Can Be Part Of The Solution
“The plantation was dying, the palm trees were diseased, that’s why it was cheap.”
During our discussion on regenerative agriculture with Dr. Billy Tang, private researcher and paraplegic farmer - he weighs in his experience on reforesting 73 plots of plantation land with his partner researchers in Chaah, Johor.
“In the 2000s, these palm oil plantations were bought over for a low price from plantation owners; and the ground was mostly composed of clay and peat soil,” Dr. Billy Tang explains the chronology of his research, “having successfully restored cut-and-fill lands along the North South highway to grow 100,000 teak trees (read pg. XXX) gave our team of researchers the confidence in restoring the biodiversity on these abandoned palm oil plantations.”
Last year in 2020, we were invited by Dr. Billy Tang to visit the research sites in Johor, along together with YBHG. Dato’ Yatimah bt. Sarjiman, the Director of Agriculture Division under Malaysia’s Economic Planning Unit. As our trucks made their way through the red clay roads, the paraplegic farmer reminded us that he has not returned to visit the farm ever since his accident 5 years ago which transacted his spinal cord.
Arriving at the plantation, the group was greeted by a rich biodiversity that has been revived on dying soil; the ground was covered with over 100 species of edible herbs and ulam, and palm trees were thriving alongside various trees like rubber, banana, moringa, guava, dokong, etc.
“With this, we are demonstrating that through agroecology practices - it is possible to restore the soil,” says Dr. Billy Tang, “in just ten years, we can revive our lands and reforest our plantations through bioremedification. The most important factor to upscale this impact is a political will in protecting the environment through sustainable SOPs.”
From the tour, it was evident that intercropping (or multicropping) was a jarring missed opportunity in agriculture. On top of the aforementioned trees, the restored plantation has been growing bananas and MD2 pineapples, along with various yam and bamboo species. Through intercropping, land owners can yield more profit from a biodiverse flora & fauna profile while reducing costs on fertilizer and pesticides usage.
“When the land’s biodiversity is restored, each microbe, fungi, plant, and animal plays its own role in the ecosystem to help one another thrive,” explains Dr. Billy Tang, “this is a proof-of-concept that food security does not necessarily compromise the environment. It is possible to feed multitudes and reintroduce nutrition into our food systems - simply by restoring the soil.”
If The Solution Is That Simple, Why Has It Not Been Popularized?
In the international academic space, scholars are debating over the statement - that Earth has less than 60 years of farmable soil left. In the near future, top soil may even be hailed as agriculture ‘gold’ due to global scarcity. Thus, there is an increased hype surrounding soil-less farming and indoor farming, as scientists and capitalists race against time to solve the problem of depleting soil.
“Restoring soil health is an additional input cost that does not yield overnight results - that is why we do not hear many stories of it being done,” explained Dr. Billy Tang, “at least not yet in Malaysia.”
He then adds that scientific interest and knowledge in this area is very low in Malaysia, considering that the country has lost 20 years of agriculture wisdom to industrialization.
“We have only seen small stakeholders in agriculture, such as urban farmers, expressing the interest and passion in restoring nature. It is a good start, but for us to see any significant positive change - big players must play a role as well.”
If you are interested in innovations that could help your business end deforestation, restore the environment, and fix the current destructive food system without compromising business interest, you may reach out to Dr. Billy Tang via email@example.com