My special guest last night on Voices from the North was scientist Andreas Kurmann. Now here’s a man on a mission.—to restore health, harmony and productivity to farms, rivers and the coastline of the Far North. Rarely have I interviewed anyone with such contagious enthusiasm and with the qualifications and experience to physically create the simple, biological, low-tech solutions to do the job.
Andreas Kurmann grew up in Switzerland near Central Europe’s largest body of fresh water—Lake Constance. He watched with dismay as that lake’s water became less fresh by the year, reaching a pollution peak in the late 1970s. School children in shore-hugging communities had to spend a week each year collecting and carting away algae that proliferated in response to the pollution. The lake was dying and many species of fish (like trout) were dying with it in the oxygen-depleted waters.
The three countries bordering the lake – Switzerland, Germany and Austria – spent many arduous years hammering out a solution. In the end they did so, by monitoring ammonia (nitrate) and phosphate levels from all sources (domestic, industrial and waste water treatment facilities). Everyone had to meet the same standard or risk being fined; it was as simple as that.
At the time, Kurmann worked with water treatment for a local body council and was admittedly sceptical of the ability of everyone involved to restore the health and cleanliness of the lake. But, in the end, these three countries and all pertinent parties were successful. The water quality really turned the corner in 1997 and presently the lake is as clean as it was back in the early 1950s. Once again trout and other endemic species of fish abound. It is a true environmental success story.
Andreas Kurmann claims New Zealand’s ‘Clean Green’ image is a myth. Many of our rivers are filthier than Lake Constance was at its worst. Our major polluters are, in most cases, farmers. But Andreas sees clear, simple solutions to the messy waters. And he doesn’t think it will take long to implement and attain positive results. I tend to agree. The monitoring of water quality has been practiced here for years. All we need now is the will to get things done. The job should be easier than it was in Europe. We are only one country and we only need to make one significant change—in the way we farm and fertilize our pastures and orchards.
Kurmann’s passion is for microbes, the bacteria, enzymes and other tiny creatures we can’t see with the naked eye, but which make up the life of the soil, water, plants and animals and which perform countless vital functions. The average human adult contains 3 kilograms of microbes, without which we wouldn’t be able to digest and assimilate our food or make it bio-available to the trillions of cells ion our bodies. Similarly microbes in the soil are critical to the retention and movement of minerals in the soil, making them available and absorbable for plant life.
Conventional farmers have had to use increasing amounts of chemically derived urea (nitrates) and super phosphates (these are sometimes made of naturally-occurring phosphates enhanced with sulphuric acid) to get the same positive results on their farms as they did when they first began to use chemical fertilizers. Why? Because these products kill soil microbes, thereby increasing erosion (water is held in the soil by micro-organisms) and the leaching of minerals.
Andreas recently performed an experiment. He pounded 40cm long tubes into the ground of five naturally-managed farms (those applying naturally-occurring fertilizers) and brought the tubes containing cross-sections of soil into his laboratory. He did the same for five adjacent conventionally-managed farms (those using chemical fertilizers). He added enough water to saturate each soil sample and tested mineral content in leached water. He then added natural rock phosphate to each sample and retested the leached water. The results were astounding! In the worst case, the organic farm’s soil had 60% less leaching of RPR (Reactive Rock Phosphate) than soil from its neighbour. In the best case it was 170% better. As Andreas says, conventional farmers need spend no more than they are now to get better results and to cause less pollution. All they need to do is change the fertilizers they use. That’s all.
“Nothing happens unless first a dream”
– Carl Sandburg
Andreas Kurmann is a man with a dream to change the ways in which we live and use the earth’s resources and thereby improve the environment and, coincidently, our quality of life. And he has the enthusiasm, knowledge and skills to get the job done.
Current projects include the building of a prototype algae reactor which he envisions vastly improving the water being released from waste water treatment plants (like the one near Taipa in Doubtless Bay) and at the same time producing ethanol for fuel (Kurmann stated during the interview that post 1999 vehicles can run on fuel containing up to 85% ethanol without any engine conversion) and organic fertilizer for the garden. From waste come riches. This is a much needed possibility as, sadly, today most treatment plants in the Far North don’t comply with regulations.
Finally, Andreas would like to see us change the way we flush the toilet. As my previous guest, Richard Robbins of the Far North Environment Centre stated, our current system of flushing is Victorian technology using huge amounts of clean water to deal with solid and liquid wastes. Kurmann would like to see us using wormerators instead. For those interested in finding out more follow the link.
Here’s a link to Andreas Kurmann’s own website:
Our complete interview is below:
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