Thomas Rippel on This Bullsh*t Might Save The World at TEDxZurich (Transcript)

Swiss bio farmer Thomas Rippel discusses on This Bullsh*t Might Save The World at TEDxZurich.

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Thomas Rippel – Swiss bio farmer

This is shit! Or rather cow manure. One cow produces 25 tons of manure every year. And that’s great because manure is a fantastic organic fertilizer. It’s chock-full of nutrients to grow our grains and vegetables.

Humans have been using animal dung as fertilizer for 10,000 years. Without it, agriculture would have never been possible. And that was true until about 100 years ago when we started using petrochemical fertilizers like nitrogen. And soon after that, manure as a fertilizer 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 may be to become vegan.

I’m here to tell you: please do keep eating meat and cheese. We need animals for a 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 try to use manure as an organic fertilizer 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 precious nutrients are gone. In Germany alone, 600,000 tons of ammonia evaporate like this every year.

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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 our 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 I 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 wind of 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 that I came home smelling like shit, and taking one shower wasn’t enough to get that smell off me. That manure, when brought out 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. 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 the sugar in the ‘kraut’ and convert it to lactic acid making the ‘sauerkraut’ sour, and thus stopping all other rotting bacteria.

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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. It’s 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 and 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 needed to find a farmer who would be willing to join us on this. I ended up getting an invitation 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 hand. It was not very encouraging at all.

But after almost everyone else had left, one courageous farmer from the Alpine region of St. Gallen, Mr. Pirmin Koller, came to me and said: “You know what, 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, we 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 precious nutrients didn’t turn into toxic substances like ammonia anymore and evaporated. And Pirmin’s grass turned 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.