Soil health is ‘agricultural homeopathy’

Omnia Fertiliser has launched its Chemtech Agri lab in Sasolburg, which specialises in biological analysis and the analysis of soil, sap and ­irrigation water. MD Trevor Grant has called the lab ‘the Nasa of agriculture,’ and says the most effective farmers today are those who apply a range of sophisticated technologies to ­realise the highest yields, product quality and profits. Yet at a recent SA Fertiliser Society symposium, Prof Martin Fey of ­Stellenbosch University suggested the current emphasis on soil health was little more than ‘agricultural ­homeopathy’ and said farmers could make discerning and self-interested decisions about nutrient management. Gwenda van Zyl asks Omnia’s Dr Johan van Biljon why they feel scientific analysis is so important for the farmer.
Issue date 18 May 2007

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Prof Fey said the ­current trend of focusing on soil health is ­“agricultural ­homeopathy” and that ­farmers could make more discerning and self-­interested decisions about crop nutrient ­management. Omnia obviously takes a different stance. Why is this?
I don’t think that it is a different stance, it is merely that we add to the “normal” approach. We follow a holistic approach embedded in the Nutriology® concept. The biological life in the soil is important and was neglected in the past. The soil is alive and if we neglect it we will not have the best environment for crop production. By managing the microbial diversity we aim to reduce the loss of pathogens in the soil and cycle nutrients within the root zone. If we want to farm sustainably, it is time to rectify not only chemical and physical ­degradation but also biological degradation.

According to Prof Fey, “consumers must realise that most people have an agenda. Knowing something about the scientific method will enable you to see through possible agendas and determine which advice is true, which is exaggerated and which is false. Ask for the data behind the claims, for the ­scientific paper … and where the research was undertaken.” Is there a way farmers can verify results from the Omnia lab, or are Omnia’s recommendations the final word the farmer must heed? Farmers can have peace of mind because the Omnia lab is ISO (international) and AgriLASA (southern Africa) accredited. This accreditation means that this lab adheres to not only local but also international standards. We are confident of our ­methods and use well-documented guidelines as a point of departure. One must also remember that these guidelines are not recipes or rules cast in stone. The agriculturalists’ knowledge and experience make the information work to the benefit of farmers under their specific conditions.

Do farmers have any guarantee that their profits will increase if they make use of your services?

The Nutriology® business model is one of value-adding and aims to create prosperity. In the past we have had contracts with farmers under specific conditions where we guaranteed increased profitability. If the “current practices” win, we would pay out the difference, but if the Nutriology® approach wins, we want to share in the increased profits. I think that is enough proof of our confidence in our people, ­products and technology. It is also true that the benefits realised by the farmer will vary from year to year and from one area to the next. This is because many of our products help the farmer manage negative plant reactions that are a response to stresses such as heat, drought or cold. Our approach, in ­general, is to limit risk and to buy the crop time should such stress be experienced.
On the issue of new products on the market, Prof Fey said specialities such as humic substances, silicate compounds and bacterial inoculums sometimes boost plant growth. But he said that before farmers are taken in by arguments about how they work, they must remember that the soil already contains plenty of these substances. Why do you feel it is important to boost them in the soil?
Soils in SA are generally low in organic matter. We do not think that it is economically feasible to increase the amount of humic substances across a field, but prefer to create pockets of potential close to the crop’s root system, using humic substances especially combined with microelements. Regarding the bacteria (Omnia does not sell bacteria), one needs carbon in the soil to feed them. It is not only bacteria that are important but also fungi, proto­zoa and nematodes. This is where the OmniBio™ technology can make a huge contribution by creating a well-balanced soil food web to the benefit of the crop.

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Prof Fey claimed that the near-neutral pH target is an expensive myth ­perpetuated by advisers with ­horticultural ­appreciation of soil ­chemistry. He said lime does move, but slowly, and that coarse lime ­particles are only valuable if the crop takes 100 years to mature. Do you agree? At the same symposium, Omnia presented a paper on liming, which was very well received. The essence of the paper is that the pH (acidity), the acid saturation, the cation concentration in the soil and the cation ratios must be considered. Just focusing on a single aspect can be very irresponsible and dangerous. Particle size is one of the factors that determines the quality of the lime. The smaller the particles, the quicker the reaction time.

Is there a growing demand in SA for advanced technology in farming?
You cannot improve what you do not measure, and the advantage of technology is the increase in the sensitivity of the information. The tremendous growth in OmniPrecise™ (Omnia’s precision farming service) and OmniSap® (plant sap analysis) is proof of the growing demand for advanced technology.

Do you think the push for technology in agriculture is greater in countries where farming is not subsidised?
Definitely. Our farmers are not ­subsidised and realise how important it is to reduce risk and optimise yield, which will result in improved profitability. Without ­subsidies, there is no room for error.
Are the services at the Omnia lab aimed only at the wealthy farmer, or can an emerging farmer afford them?
Soil analysis is a must for commercial and emerging farmers. We are involved in several emerging farmer projects and work hand-in-hand with other role-players to bring technology to the emerging farming sector to improve yields. Farmers who have an established relationship with us do not, as a rule, pay for the basic soil analysis.

Are the lab’s recommendations affordable?

The lab only does the analysis. The plant nutrient proposals are made by the agriculturists. If it is not ­economically ­feasible to implement the entire ­proposal, interventions will be prioritised. It often takes several years to build soils to ­levels that support optimum yields.

People have hinted that the sudden demand for biofuels will create a shortage not only of food but also of fertiliser. Do you think this will be the case?
Planning well in advance is important for any business. If the fertiliser is ordered well in advance, there should not be a shortage. Taking delivery is also important because of the dips and peaks in the fertiliser business in SA. The availability of transport during the peak season can be a problem if delivery is postponed until planting time.

Contact Omnia on (011) 709 8888. |fw