“Upon this handful of soil, our survival depends. Husband it, and it will grow our food, our fuel and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it, and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.”
From a Sanskrit Text 1500BC
Soil principles have been on the boil from around 2010. Gabe Brown and the Soil Health Academy have given them a lot of air. Bob Rodale, son of the original J I Rodale, outlined a set of principles for regenerative agriculture in 1989. His principles were much broader and rightly included economics, profitability, happiness, people and community, which RCS has covered in other sections of our educational materials.
Nowadays, there are various soil health-specific versions published by different groups, and while the order of the principles varies, there is total agreement on some of their content such as;
- The need for biodiversity
- The importance of plant productivity
- The role of soil biology
- The importance of livestock
- The need for groundcover
I developed the RCS soil health principles independently of others and am happy with the general level of agreement. Because the RCS approach to agriculture is based on universal principles, it was critical to get it right before we could expand our business model from grazing to cropping. The only “principle” I disagree with in the Natural Resources Conservation Service list, is the one about tillage. I agree that reducing or eliminating tillage is in the best interests of soil health, however I consider it to be a tool rather than a principle.
In agriculture, we only have two choices about the way we run our ecosystems
- We can manage in a manner which causes ecosystem health (including soils) to spiral downwards towards desertification.
- We can manage to regenerate ecosystem health, where health, profits, production and well-being will spiral upwards.
We can only manage for improvement or damage to an ecosystem. There is no in-between. Each direction is a cycle which develops into a spiral, either up or down. Ecosystem health, like the foundation of a pyramid, is the foundation of any agricultural business and drives both productivity and profitability. The goal is to feed the following (adapted from J I Rodale):
- Biodiversity, leading to
- Healthy soil, leading to
- Healthy plants, leading to
- Healthy animals, leading to
- Healthy food production, leading to
- Healthy people
I have been working with and developing fundamental principles for 30 years, and I have learned through this process that the order is important. It also took me around 20 years to realise that a principle for people and management must head the list. The RCS version of soil health principles can, when applied to any system (horticulture, tree cropping, broadacre cropping or grazing), can transform soils, plant production and the economics of agriculture. Our principles, in what we currently believe to be the correct order, are:
- Plan, monitor and manage for soil health (human intervention comes first)
- Maximise living plant production (to feed soil biology)
- FOCUS on soil biology (generally ahead of soil chemistry and soil physics)
- Introduce and maintain biodiversity (natural systems need it)
- Maximise thickness and availability of groundcover (protect the precious topsoil)
- Livestock are nature’s recyclers (turn lignin and cellulose into fertiliser)
Dr Terry McCosker
Founding Director of RCS Australia