Raymond, senior student in the School, is professor of soil science and plant production at Nelson Mandela University. He speaks at least a little of seven languages. At his home in the town of George, he harvests rainwater, uses solar energy and produces organic food. The Cape currently faces a severe water shortage crisis.
How Organic Wins
Raymond Auerbach, Western Cape
At age 16, I joined the Soil Association of South Africa, and started my first organic vegetable garden at home, to my mother’s delight (and surprise)! I dropped out of high school to join anti-apartheid protests at the University of the Witwatersrand. So I finished school by correspondence, while working at Vanguard Booksellers, which gave me the opportunity to read broadly in philosophy, art history and political economics.
Taking an oath
After matriculating, aged 17, I travelled through Europe, taking a third-class boat ticket from Cape Town to Lisbon, and then hitch-hiking and motor biking.
I was horrified at the state of the rivers of Europe, which were severely polluted, although the culture, art and architecture of Europe were inspiring. Sitting alone on a beach west of Lisbon, I noticed while playing with the sand that it was completely inter-penetrated with particles of polystyrene, and this pollution (as well as the rivers) troubled me greatly. There and then, I took an oath to myself to learn to produce food in a way which did not damage the environment, so that the soil and the web of life would not be destroyed. And also to devote my life to helping people to deal with rural poverty.
Respect for the Earth
For three months I attended the University of the Witwatersrand, majoring in Maths & Philosophy. But it became clear that the link between soil conservation and human health was not understood in academic circles.
Dropping out of university, I started an organic gardening apprenticeship at Hermanus near Cape Town. I was given the task to dig a field for three days, after which my mentor said, “You’ll do – most apprentices decide after the first day that perhaps they did not really want to become gardeners”! The next year, I arranged to undertake a Bio-Dynamic Farming apprenticeship in Australia.
Four years later, I returned to South Africa, full of self-confidence, ready to change the world. I had worked very hard and learned a lot about organic farming; however, I still had a great deal to learn about running a business and about sustainable development. Some harsh life experiences and a series of wonderful teachers, including one who brought me to the School, helped me to learn a little humility.
I farmed organically for twenty years, then trained farmers for twenty years. Now I am a professor of soil science and plant production at Nelson Mandela University. The twin golden threads of sustainable rural development and organic food systems have remained my guides throughout my career. Soil care is at the heart of both.
Conventional farming supplies fertiliser to ensure maximum plant growth, and kills pests and diseases with agro-chemicals. The chemical fertiliser is water-soluble and finds its way into rivers and groundwater; the poisons enter the environment through the food chain, and residues may also be present in our food.
By contrast, organic farming increases the soil’s nutrient and water-holding capacity, as well as decreasing soil acidity and increasing soil organic matter. It also develops the soil biology (earthworms, aerobic bacteria and beneficial fungi) by using compost and organic matter to build colloidal humus. This humus holds water and nutrients, and gives soil a crumb-like structure, which allows tiny roots, air and earthworms between the soil particles. These aerobic conditions are essential in stimulating balanced soil life and improving water use efficiency. Living organic soil allows for the healthy and abundant growth of crops, and aerobic conditions mean that beneficial aerobic bacteria and fungi thrive, and out-compete the anaerobic bacteria and fungi, which are mostly pathogens responsible for disease.
Healthy soil is vital for continued human existence, and the ecological role of soil as a great storehouse of carbon-rich soil organic matter and humus should be understood. Ploughing, chemical fertilisation and use of poisons depletes soil carbon, pollutes the environment and poisons both the soil and our food.
Water shortage crisis in the Cape
In most areas of the Eastern Cape, rainfall has decreased over the past twenty years, from about 550 mm in the growing season to below 430 mm. A rain-fed crop requires at least 500 mm of rain in the growing season. So without building up the water-holding capacity of the soil and developing rainwater-harvesting techniques, most of the Eastern Cape is likely to encounter regular crop failure in the near future. Organic farming systems can build up colloidal humus which results in improved water and nutrient holding capacity in the soil, and better water-use efficiency. Organic farming can thus help vulnerable communities adapt to the decrease in rainfall and the increase in temperatures. We have also researched techniques for using water more efficiently in urban areas using rainwater harvesting, recycling and solar energy.
Organic yield = Conventional yield!
My comparative long-term organic research trials have shown that organic farming brings about aerobic conditions, builds up soil carbon, and over a period of three or four years, changes the soil so that the soil micro-biology is dominated by beneficial organisms. Also by bringing in rock phosphate (which is a natural rock dust, acceptable in organic farming systems), organic yields rise to compare with conventional yield levels. Many critics of organic farming claim that it cannot feed the world; my research shows otherwise! These findings can help African small-scale farmers improve their livelihoods and cope with climate change.
Communities are also threatened by changes in eating patterns, with processed food often replacing traditional whole grains and fresh vegetables. Survival requires a balanced, reasonable approach to food production and consumption, and healthy food systems need information and education.
Obesity relates to how the food is grown, as well as how it is processed, and what we choose to eat. The quality of food has deteriorated steadily over the past 70 years. As yields per acre increased threefold thanks to seed breeding, chemical fertilisers and poisons, a dilution effect has seen nutrient density decline, so that our food is less nourishing than it was. We have lost about 15% of protein in grains, and many minerals and vitamins in vegetables as well.
Although the agronomists argue that they now produce more nutrients per acre, we eat our bread by the slice, not by the acre! And the obesity pandemic illustrates the poor quality of food! Our work on Organic Food Systems has seen good research not only on organic food production, but also on food processing, food preparation and food choices.
As the world urbanises, urban people grow fatter because of industrially produced food and many rural people are still malnourished as they cannot produce enough food! Helping small-scale farmers to grow, sell and consume healthy food has been rewarding.
Soil is life
Clearly, then, I am passionate about organic farming, about aerobic soils and healthy food systems and about the need to reduce pollution so that the carbon goes into the soil where it is useful, rather than into the air where it creates a poisonous greenhouse!
Soil is life, and if we do not respect the fragile, thin skin of Earth, we will find ourselves increasingly hungry!
For me, philosophy gives tools to observe without bias, to develop our capacity to listen, to learn from the wise about the essence of reasonable human behaviour and to take a long-term view of human existence. This should not make us complacent on the one hand, nor should we be panicking. But if we care about our grandchildren we need to stop abusing the Earth.
In isi-Zulu we say “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” – a person derives their humanity from other people (or “I am because we are”); this is the Zulu definition of Ubuntu (being human). I hope that my life’s work has been of some use to local people. Certainly, it has been a privilege to live in this beautiful part of the world, and in turn, it has been very good to me and my family!
Raymond with Christina, his wife, in their rain-water irrigated vegetable garden at home