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This bullsh*t might save the world - composting cow manure with biochar | Thomas Rippel | TEDxZurich

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This is shit. Or rather, cow manure. One cow produces 25 tonnes manure every year. And thats great, because manure is a fantastic organic fertiliser. Its chock full of nutrients to grow our grains and vegetables. Humans have been using animal dung as fertilizer for ten thousand years. Without it, agriculture would have never been possible. And that was true until about a hundred years ago when we started using petro chemical fertilisers like nitrogen. And soon after that manure as a fertiliser started to become much less valuable. Today, manure looks more like this. This is a manure pit in Switzerland. Or like this: A manure lagoon in the United States. Now, a lot of these farms or let me call them what they are: animal feeding factories. They don't grow the food for their animals themselves anymore. So to them, manure is not a precious fertilizer instead it is just a problem that has to be managed. This is but one of many aspects of how our industrialized agriculture today has become so broken that many now believe that our only ethical response maybe to become vegan. I'm here to tell you: Please do keep eating meat and cheese! We need animals for sustainable agriculture. But please stop eating meat and cheese from animals that were fed on human food like grains and corn and soybean. Instead, only eat meat and cheese from cows that were fed on grass like they were meant to. I am going to tell you how that one choice is going to allow us to tackle some of the greatest challenges we're facing today. Climate change, global soil degradation and world hunger. In Switzerland, farmers still tried to use manure as an organic fertiliser as best they can. But in the winter pastures are covered with snow so the cows are being kept indoors. So the farmer has to store the manure in a manure pit until he can bring it out in the springtime. The problem is that after a while manure starts to rot and all those precious nutrients start to turn into toxic substances like ammonia and evaporate. Puff. And all those pressures nutrients are gone. In Germany alone, 600,000 tons of ammonia evaporate like this every year. And standing next to one of those manure pools can feel like you're inhaling acid And in fact ammonia causes acid rain. And when brought out to the field, that manure seeps into a groundwater and rivers and causes massive greenhouse gas emissions. Let me take a step back and tell you how I got mixed up in all this shit. So I originally studied economics in China where lived for three years until I got dangerously ill from the food I was eating there. I had to take a timeout and I was getting really paranoid about food so I decided to move from a country with probably the lowest food safety standards to... well, here, Switzerland. I went to work on an organic farm close to Bern and that was the first time that I got winter up this problem: organic fields being sprayed with half rotten manure. Now I always assumed that organic agriculture is equal to sustainable agriculture. But spraying fields with half rotten manure didn't fit into my idea of sustainable agriculture. And in fact, this whole manure business is not very sustainable at all. Let's put aside the fact thatI came home smelling like shit. And taking one shower wasn't enough to get that smell of me. That manure, when brought to the field is so aggressive, it literally burns the plants. And the soil takes a real beating as well. Earthworms that are the backbone of a healthy fertile soil come rushing to the surface suffocating. Only to be picked off by birds. Now I thought there's got to be a better way to do this. A better way than spraying our organic fields with half rotten manure. so I did some research and I came across an interesting master thesis. Where I really thought this is something we ought to try out. Oktoberfest is just behind us so I'm sure you've all had a chance to eat some nice sauerkraut. But have you ever wondered why everything in your fridge will go bad at some point but sauerkraut will stay good basically forever? Well, the reason are these fantastic bacteria called lactic acid bacteria. They take sugar in the kraut and convert it to lactic acid, making sauerkraut sour. And thus stopping all other rotting bacteria In sauerkraut production we end up with these leftover juices: sauerkraut juice that is chock full of lactic acid bacteria Now some people like to drink that ... Its supposed to be great for your digestion but let me tell you: I've tried it and I prefer a cold beer and so the most other people so this juice ends up as a waste product. Millions of liters of it in Switzerland alone. So i thought:why don't we take that sauerkraut juice and put it into the manure To conserve it and stop all the nutrients from getting lost. I told some friends about this idea got them all excited about it. We met with some top scientists in Switzerland and put together a concept to actually implement this. So I called the CEO of the largest sauerkraut factory in Switzerland and told him about this idea and he was actually quite open to it. Now I just need to find a farmer who would be willing to join us on this. I ended up getting an indication to give a pitch at the annual meeting of the Swiss Organic Pastor Beef Association I was all excited and told the group of farmers pretty much what I had just told you now and I asked them if anyone would be willing to join me on this. And the room went silent. No one put up his hands. It was not very encouraging at all. But after almost everyone else had left one courageous farmer from the Alpine region of St Gallen, Mister Pirmin Koller, came to me and said: You know what, now it now that no one else is listening I'll give this a try with you. So, together with the Zurich University Applied Sciences we put together some research parameters, and within a few weeks, were pouring thousands of liters of sauerkraut juice into Pirmin's manure. And you know what? It worked! That manure didn't smell anymore, and all those pressures nutrients didn't turn into toxic substances like ammonia anymore and evaporates. And Pirmin's grass turn just a little greener as well, making his neighbor's little bit jealous. I guess sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence. So suddenly this wasn't just the crazy idea anymore. A whole bunch of people got really excited about this. The World Wildlife Foundation awarded a grant. And at the Falling Walls conference in Berlin we won the first prize out of a thousand projects. And that caused quite some media attention Swiss and German TV did segments on us and we got a whole lot of coverage in Swiss and German newspapers as well. And that was great, because after that farmers from all over Switzerland all the way to America and Australia contacted me. And within three months we had six pilot project up and running But, as the results started to come in we realized that manure has a much higher buffer capacity then we originally anticipated. We needed about ten times the amount of sauerkraut juice to conserve the manure over a six-month period. Instead of a few thousand liters we now need it tens of thousands of liters. And that's not great news because it's not Oktoberfest every day so we don't have enough sauerkraut juice available to really scale this idea I realised that if I want to tackle this manure problem I'm going to have to understand farming from the ground up so I decided to become a farmer. I'm now in my third-year a four-year vocational training program to become an organic dynamic farmer living in working on the farm. But not just any farm. I work on an organic cattle farm where they do something pretty special with their manure. They turn their manure into pure fertile compost. Now let me quickly explain to you how that happens and how that is going to help save our climate and soils and help make the world's most disadvantaged regions food independent again. I'm gonna have to go back three thousand years to the Indios of South America South and Middle America was home to some highly advanced civilizations With cities as large as 300,000 people. When we Europeans were still taking a dump in our backyards and dying of the plague, they had already figured out an intricate sanitary system. They would use clay pots as their toilets. When they were done doing their business in the pot, they would sprinkle charcoal in the pot. Now this charcoal, today we call it biochar, is extremely absorbent. Like a sponge it soaks up all the nutrients, stopping them from getting lost. So when that pot was full, they didn't just end up with a pot poop, but an extremely fertile pot of poop. They would probably bring that out to the fields and plant some beans or corn and have fantastic yields. But with the Indios probably didn't know was that biochar has a negative carbon balance and it stays in the soil for thousands of years. So they ended up creating the world's most fertile soils: the Terra Preta. And we marvel at them even today five hundred years later So at the farm work I'm at, the farmer has been implementing a system for the past 15 years that mimics the Indio clay pot toilets. He would make his cows a clean bed of wood chips and biochar over the winter instead of storing the manure in a manure pool. Those cows would live and sleep there every day and every second day he would add a new layer of wood chips and biochar. Thus conserving the manure. In the springtime we would take all that woodchip-biochar-manure out of the stables and compost it. Now composting is just a little bit like baking. You have to take the right ingredients in the right amounts and mix them up in just the right way. So we take that woodchip-biochar-manure and we add a little bit of freshly cut grass and a little bit of finished compost and a little bit of clay and we mix it all up and that's when the magic happens: A whole army of microorganisms starts to take apart all that organic matter. Devouring it. That composting process turns really hot. Over 70 degrees celcius for three weeks And those microorganisms take apart all organic matter including antibiotics and growth hormones and whatever other chemicals might be in there. And the heat sanitises the manure of pathogen bacteria. So when all that organic matter is broken down to its chemical building-blocks a whole new army of microorganisms takes those building blocks and puts them together to pure fertile soil. In this form, all of the nutrients are locked up safely, or leaching into the groundwater. I'm now involved in an EU project where we're turning this concept large-scale on the farm with 1500 cows. So this concept is applicable on every scale. From the Indio clay pot toilets all the way to large-scale cattle farms. With this method we may turn desolate soils fertile again. People may grow food locally again where they have become dependent on food aid or on multi national fertilizer companies And by making soils fertile again we may lock up billions of tons of carbon in the soil reducing atmospheric co2 and thus global warming. Grass and clover grows on billions of hectares of land worldwide That is not otherwise usable for agriculture. These wonderful animals: cows, goats and sheep may unlock this abundant resource to us and on the land were we grow grains and vegetables for ourselves, those crops need lots and lots of nutrients so we cannot grow them on the same patch of land every year. The soil needs time to recover. Growing grass and clover replenishes the soils nutrients so growing grains and vegetables for humans and grass and clover for animals on the same patch of land is part of a sustainable cycle. This is called crop rotation. But growing grains for animals in monoculture can never be sustainable because it continuously depletes the soils nutrients making us dependent on petrochemical fertilizers. So I have a vision for world where cows only eat grass and clover from sustainable crop rotation and from pasture. I imagine a world where the number of cows on this planet is not determined by our appetite for meat but by the amount of grass and clover available to us through this wonderful symbiosis I imagine a world were every farmer composts his manure with biochar giving us all the organic fertilizer we need to grow our grains and vegetables without needing petro chemical fertilizers. And this vision has already started. And maybe one day we will be able to build up soil fertility to such an extent that we may lock up all the co2 in the soil that we have pumped into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels So I have a message to you: Please make buying meat and cheese a conscious activity. There are few choices in our everyday lives that may have such a profound positive impact. please only buy locally grown grass-fed beef and cheese! thank you!

Video Details

Duration: 18 minutes and 21 seconds
Country: Switzerland
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDx
Director: TEDx
Views: 253
Posted by: swissbiofarmer on Mar 1, 2015

Thomas Rippel has a vision to turn the world's soils into a lush paradise, reverse global warming and reduce world hunger by living in symbiosis with cows and composting their manure with biochar. For this vision, cows should only eat grass and clover from pastures like the alps and from crop rotation. And the number of cows on this planet should not be determined by our appetite for meat, but by the amount of grass and clover available to us in this wonderful symbiosis. And lastly, farmers should compost the manure of their cows with biochar, giving us all the organic fertilizer we need to grow grains and vegetables for humans without needing any chemical fertilizers.

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