‘Soil & trees’ as economic infrastructure

As part of a new pandemic trend, doughtnut economics which emphasises social and ecological progress in measuring prosperity, brings us literally back to our roots – the soil.

Text by Samantha Mok Hsu Wei

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 the 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 the 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,” stresses Tang 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.”

He then asked: “Is a pro-environment, pro-agriculture, and pro market-based principle possible? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’ ”

Debunking Agricultural Myth

While climate change has become a common topic of discussion, we rarely hear of people talking about soil at all. In fact, the World Economic Forum reports that ‘soil is one of the least understood and untapped defences against climate change’.

How so?

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,” Tang reveals.

“Imagine investing so much input cost to kill everything in the soil, with only your crop which lives on? This is how it’s been for even monocrop food plantations like rice, corn, soy – the entire biodiversity and ecosystem are eliminated while we invest capital to keep such crops alive in the name of GDP and ROI!” Tang continues.

This has undoubtedly instilled the widely accepted myth – that agriculture land can only be used for 10 years of agricultural activity before having to exploit more forest areas for more farmable land.

Trees as Infrastructure

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”.

Dr Billy Tang (centre) flanked by Jimmy Kang, Head of Engineering and Samantha Mok (all cofounders of PWD Smart Farmability) Credit: World Bank Group Malaysia

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” (see diagram of Doughnut Economics).

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 because without regeneration, there is no life,” Tang warns.

Soil Health Restoration ‘Miracle’

In the 1990s, Tang and his team of agriculture researchers were selected by former 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,” recalls 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 highway was a cut-and-fill site – buried underneath the soil were 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 six months, we brought the earthworms back to the land. Not only did our teak trees thrived along the highway, neighbouring durian plantation owners had approached us saying that their trees were fruiting like never before,” he recalls with pride.

Ever since that project, 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,” notes 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, 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.

This is a powerful example, not often quoted, of how with the right technique and patience, soil regeneration is possible even in apparently hopeless cases.

Statewide Soil Regeneration

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 Tang. “This way, even developers can contribute to carbon sequestration and biodiversity protection without compromising their business interests.”


Going all-natural lowers costs

Property developers can become part of the solution by ditching synthetic fertilisers and pesticides in their developments, says expert farmer

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 continues to soar. On the flip side of the coin, developers have also experienced 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.

He adds: “Picture a skyscraper draping with greens – it gives people the impression that it’s healthier to live in the building but the reality is you’re breathing in those chemicals which contractors use to keep the plants aesthetically pleasing.”

“I only know of a handful of landscape designers who are passionate about integrating biodiversity and nature’s ecosystem with quality urban lifestyle.”

So, is the natural way better for property developers? Both scientific and business logic point towards a resounding ‘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.


If you wish to have a conversation on how developments can optimise their practices to build a better environment for people and nature, you may reach out to Dr. Billy Tang via billytang@pwdsmartfarmability.com

About Dr. Billy Tang Dr. Billy Tang Chee Seng is an agriculturist by profession and a private researcher for over two decades. His involvement in agriculture & agro-based industries has instilled in him the passion for sustainable farming and environmentally sustainable businesses. In 2020, he was appointed by the Ministry of Economic Affairs to become the official representative for agriculture focus, to contribute his views on urban farming in Malaysia which will be documented in the 12th RMKe (Rancangan Malaysia Kedua Belas), which was the first phase execution for Wawasan Kemakmuran Bersama 2030.

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