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A film by Marcus Vetter

About the plan to save our planet

COMING SOON

A film by Marcus Vetter

About the plan to save our planet

COMING SOON

The story

About the plan to save our planet

In the past, agricultural monocultures of genetically modified crops promised to end world hunger. Instead, what we now behold is depleted soils, rare diseases originating from the use of highly poisonous pesticides, and patented, non-reproducible seeds in the hands of a few large corporations – and still hunger persists. Alexander Mathews, a German-Indian entrepreneur, has a bold idea. He would like to transform agricultural monocultures back into flourishing oases. Using a unique irrigation and cultivation system that can generate a much higher yield than all past existing irrigation systems, he wants to wean farmers off their dependency on large corporations, thus giving them back their financial freedom. In collaboration with farmers, he is developing biodiverse agricultural systems that not only create new habitats for plants and animals but are also economically much more profitable. Seeing his idea suddenly spread like wildfire among billionaire investors, he has realized that his dream could come true faster than he ever would have thought.

“Biodiversity causes oases to crop up everywhere amidst a monocultural desert.”

Alexander Mathews

Argentina

genetic mutation, caused by pesticides

It is a warm summery day in February. Jessica Sheffer, a 14-year-old girl from northern Argentina, crawls arduously through the hot sand in front of her cabin on National Road 14. After a few meters she breaks down, exhausted. She waddles like a lizard. Her backbone is curved upwards in a semicircle. Her head sits low on her neck, as if someone had sewn it to her shoulder blades. “This will kill Jessi,” says her mother soberly.

“At some point her neck will be so bent that food will get stuck in her esophagus. Soon after Jessica’s birth,” her mother continues, “the first anomalies appeared. A body developed that did not follow the rules of anatomy but rather those of uncontrolled growth and gravity.”

They went from one doctor to the next, but no one was familiar with this mysterious illness. Only one American doctor said that it could be a genetic mutation, caused by pesticides. “Have you ever come into contact with poisons?,” he asked Jessica’s mother. “Once?,” she answered. “Thousands of times.”

Since their youth, Sheffer and her husband had worked as day laborers on the fields of the soy monocultures. Day after day they had sprayed insecticides, without any protective clothing or masks. Methyl bromide, carbofuran, glyphosate – she lists the poisons as easily as the names of the children in the neighborhood who suffer from similar illnesses. “In our area,” thus she reports, “the number of deformities quadrupled within ten years.”

National Street 14

Treatment of monocultures with pesticides

(„Photo: Stefan Krause, Lizenz: FAL“)

The landscape along National Street 14 used to be a paradise still rarely met with in Argentina. The woods were dense and the rivers pure, and the jungle was home to monkeys, coati, and even jaguars, the kings of the rain forest. The natural surroundings were so luxurious that the inhabitants did not worry when agribusiness discovered the fertile strip of land for itself. They willingly gave up parts of their seemingly endless reservoir in exchange for steady jobs. And even when, in 1996, the American company with the holy-sounding name Monsanto chose northern Argentina as a vast market for its gene products, they accepted it in the name of progress and sought comfort in concepts like pest management and biotechnology.

But then, about ten years ago, things started to change. An ethnic German carpenter named Vogel got more and more commissions for children’s coffins. The hospital’s senior physician, Gomez de Mayo, found himself confronted with more miscarriages than occur in all of Buenos Aires. Searching for responsible people, Jessica’s mother was met with silence. No politician wanted to talk, and certainly no farmer. They had signed contracts with the agricultural lobby stipulating that they would not speak with the media.

southern India

10.000 hectares irrigation systems

15,000 kilometers further east, Alexander Mathews stands before the council of elders of the town of Uppinavalasa in southern India. Next to him the Deputy CEO of Tata Projects Limited, one of the largest conglomerates in the world, Prof. Ralf Otterpohl, Director of the Institute for Wastewater Management at the Hamburg University of Technology and Jörg Fingas, Manager of the Tübingen Secretariat for “Climate Farming.” These men have come to present to the council of elders an socio-eco-economic-village project that the Indian company would like to support. An Indian interpreter translates into the local language.

Alexander shows a piece of porous pipe that, as he explains, is laid 10 – 30 cm under the earth to irrigate the soil. Thanks to its porosity, the tube releases only as much water as the plant needs. As a result, the system needs 70% less water and, depending on the crop, produces over 100% more yield in comparison with 98% of the irrigation systems used worldwide.

Since high profits can be made this way, Mathews has already gotten billionaire investors on board who want to invest in the installation of the pipe. A 270-million-dollar investment is necessary for the first “unit” of 10,000 hectares. The money flows into training, testing, and pipe production companies that are in general established locally as joint ventures. The raw material for the pipes are old car tires, all recycled on-site. The farmers make their fields available, must invest no money, and share in the profits. This way, the farmers could repurpose large parts of their fields, which for financial reasons they have so far only been able to cultivate as monocultures, instead of in other fruits or grains, thus escaping dependence on only one species. Farmers who have not dared to take part in the first phase of the experiment can now see with their own eyes, how the harvest progresses with the new irrigation system. In the following crop year they themselves can participate. Thus the idea can spread like wildfire, without the need of expensive persuasion efforts.

Innovationen

ideas related to the sustainable use of the world’s finite resources

In all subsequent 10,000-hectare units hooked up to the new irrigation system, the investors profit from the investments that have already been made into the pipe infrastructure. The potential profits are astronomical. Alexander pauses before continuing: “Biodiversity causes oases to crop up everywhere amidst a monocultural desert.”

Alexander Mathews has long believed that one can only check multinational concerns like Bayer and Monsanto with ideas that are economically more profitable than theirs and that thus guarantee a higher return on investment. “The destructive power of capitalism can only be conquered with its own weapons.”

And he believes that all of the necessary inventions have already been developed – but on their own they did not have the power to be economically feasible. His porous irrigation pipe, which can achieve more than 100% higher crop yields, was pioneered as early as the 1980s by a French company which, after years of capital-intensive development work, had to declare bankruptcy. And so he bought up the company’s shares and and together with his partners Mr. Meissner and Mrs. Pilarski developed the idea of subterranean irrigation further.

Over time he added other inventions to his portfolio – from a recycled paper house to a “sewer-independent toilet.” Alexander sees himself and his allies as recycling eclectics – they take the best ideas and the most promising inventions in the sector, uniting them in a meaningful cycle in which each invention enriches and valorizes the other. Most of the ideas related to the sustainable use of the world’s finite resources pass through Prof. Dr.-Eng. Otterpohl’s office at the Hamburg University of Technology. Otterpohl`s chair is like a forge of future ecological innovation.

Alexander now passes the microphone to Jörg Fingas, one of Otterpohl’s longtime colleagues. Ten years before, Fingas began developing pyrolysis ovens, so-called micro-gasifiers, that, instead of burning wood, gasify crop waste – without producing any soot or smoke. The widespread practice of slash-and-burn agriculture and the burning of crop waste on open fields results in gigatons of carbon being released unused into the atmosphere each year. It also causes the famous “Southeast Asian haze,” a kilometer-thick cloud of soot particles that blocks the sunshine, often for weeks at a time.

“Biodiversity causes oases to crop up everywhere amidst a monocultural desert.”

Alexander Mathews

terra preta

soil turns into a carbon reservoir

Fingas wanted to solve two of the worlds biggest problems with one simple idea. Not openly burning crop waste, but rather using it in pyrolysis ovens to create energy, also saves the remaining forested areas from being cleared for firewood. What’s more, for taking carbon that has already been emitted into the atmosphere and put it back into the earth, there is a proven and old technique: vegetable carbon. It occurs as a by-product of the pyrolytic gasification of crop waste. It is virtually a “waste product” of this kind of energy creation. “It is most effective when the biochar is enriched through a purification process in sanitary facilities,” Fingas says. Biochar enriched with phosphates in this way has large pores and works like a sponge. Furthermore, it fixes nitrogen in the soil and increases the activity of soil fungi and bacteria. In no time, this organic charcoal fertilizer can even reverse the salinization of soils depleted by monoculture cultivation. In a test project in Senegal, Fingas succeeded in increasing the rice harvest from 3.5 tons to 8 tons, without using additional chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Biodiversity-oriented agriculture is the only “industrial sector” that can systematically remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and thus counteract climate change. All other environmental technologies can only reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

We make humus instead of sludge,” Prof. Otterpohl adds approvingly. “Like in the terra preta soils of the Amazon Basin, the soil turns into a carbon reservoir. … The ancient Amazon peoples managed to turn their organic waste into the world’s most fertile soil.”

Otterpohl’s idea is the integrative approach to combining the topics of energy, water, agriculture, and soil structure. He is the leader in the production of new decentralized sanitary systems that transform waste water into humus and clean drinking water without using an expensive sewage system. The deliberate addition of specific bacteria guarantees a low-risk fermentation, and, thanks to the addition of biochar, a fertile, long-lasting humus is created on the model of the pre-Columbian Indios. Thus Otterpohl uses a “waste product,” sewage, combining it with vegetable carbon to transform it into an extremely effective organic fertilizer. By closing the materials cycles, the available nutrients are put back into the field. Ralf Otterpohl firmly believes that the sanitary systems of entire cities could be organized on the basis of this technology in the future. The organic fertilizer produced in the process could then fully replace noxious chemical fertilizers. In addition, yet another of humanity’s problems would be solved at a stroke. For even today 2.5 billion people have no access to toilets; and their human waste is badly needed as a raw material in this cycle.

“We have created a social, ecological and economical sustainable cycle, that not only will save our planet from a climate collapse but is highly interesting for investors. For only when investors see sufficient profit potential do such ideas have any chance in our profit-oriented society.“

Alexander Mathews

organic fertilizer

Organic crop waste is transformed into energy

The enormous benefits of the combination of all these individual ideas become clear when they are enumerated one by one. Organic crop waste is transformed into energy and biochar using pyrolysis ovens. This biochar is combined with the sewage from wastewater treatment to make organic fertilizer and is thus introduced into the earth.

In this way, previously emitted CO2 is neutralized, and soils depleted by monocultures are made fertile again. By replacing the world’s wood stoves with pyrolysis stoves, deforestation can be stopped. And at the same time, deadly lung diseases are combated; for cooking over an open fire kills more people in Africa than AIDS.

Prof. Otterpohl is now fully in his element: “Moreover, the transformation of monocultures back into biodiverse landscapes creates habitats for a greater diversity of species. In this way, we can counteract mass species extinction – every day, an estimated 200 species of animals and plants die out.”

“And the bottom line is,” says Mathews: “We have created a social, ecological and economical sustainable cycle, that not only will save our planet from a climate collapse but is highly interesting for investors. For only when investors see sufficient profit potential do such ideas have any chance in our profit-oriented society.“

NGOs – here Alexander Mathews is certain – cannot bring about such global changes. “Nature is underpriced.” And thus Mathews would like to convince the pension funds and institutional investors of this world to invest sustainably both in nature and in exploited farmers, who are one of the most important pillars of our societies and were once the guardians of nature. For only in this way can the habitat of our planet survive for future generations and only this way would trillions in savings be invested in something truly valuable.

“We make humus instead of sludge. Like in the terra preta soils of the Amazon Basin, the soil turns into a carbon reservoir. … The ancient Amazon peoples managed to turn their organic waste into the world’s most fertile soil.”

Prof. Otterpohl

The film

in development

The research for this film will take us to Senegal, India, Iran, Ethiopia, and Sardinia – everywhere that Alexander Mathews is establishing pilot projects and seeking likeminded people. We shall be there, when he convinces farmers or investors to participate in his idea. We become acquainted with various startups, inventors, scientists, and entrepreneurs whose ideas contribute to closing the cycle. All these people have the same goal, namely to prove that 7.5 billion people can only be fed in harmony with nature. And only when small farmers are given back the dignity that has been systematically stolen from them in recent decades can a vision of this kind be successful.

The film will show that there are alternatives to the multinational chemical corporations’ ideas for feeding the world – alternatives not purchased with deformities and genetic mutations as on National Road 14 in Cordoba. When the first oasis springs up there amidst huge soy plantations, then animals, insects, bees, and birds will return to their original habitat and let a paradise emerge. Further investors and farmers will follow the example and prove that there have long been alternative ideas for sustainably feeding the world. Ideas that allow all involved to earn enough money, without being exploited or having to exploit others.

Mathews looks invitingly at the council of elders. For a period of time he has been in negotiations with a company that owns the patent for producing the rare carbon-compound graphene from methane. Graphene is 50 times more conductive than copper and 100 times harder than steel. Graphene could revolutionize the lifespan of batteries, and scientists are working on a technology with graphene to get drinking water from the ocean. Airbus wants to build lighter airplanes with it. With his biogas partner Oliver Nacke, Alexander Mathews is already recycling biomass into methane in India; he would only need to add another container that transforms methane into graphene – a whole 7 kilograms per day. The translator now looks intently at Mathews, who pauses for a moment.

“One kilogram of graphene costs 30,000 US dollars on the world market today – one of the raw materials in its production is worthless crop waste, which is still being burned on the fields. It is your garbage. And it is worth hard cash.”


„Only when we as a society understand that our waste is a valuable raw material will we cease to extract more from the earth than it can reproduce.“

Jörg Fingas

Protagonists

Alexander Mathews

“Biodiversity causes oases to crop up everywhere amidst a monocultural desert. We have created a social, ecological and economical sustainable cycle, that not only will save our planet from a climate collapse but is also interesting for investors.“

Jörg Fingas

„Only when we as a society understand that our waste is a valuable raw material will we cease to extract more from the earth than it can reproduce.“

Prof. Dr.-Eng. Ralf Otterpohl

„The soil turns into a carbon reservoir. The ancient Amazon peoples managed to turn their organic waste.”

Director Statement

By Marcus Vetter

The refugee crisis and climate change are among the most urgent problems of our age. Just how closely they are linked to one another is something I first realized thanks to the movie HUNGER, which I made for ARD in 2008 with the SZ journalist Karin Steinberger. We traveled for half a year through Mauretania, Kenya, India, Brazil, and Haiti to understand the causes of HUNGER.

“When all these people one day have nothing to cook, a large number of them will head for Europe. For they have nothing more to lose, other than their lives.”

Dr. Suman Sahai

In India we met relatives of farmers who had killed themselves with pesticides after going deep into debt on account of genetically modified seeds. In Kenya we visited the Masai, who, because of climate change, had already suffered through a drought lasting many years. At that time, only a small residue of the proud snowcap of Kilimanjaro could be seen; it had already nearly melted away entirely. In Brazil, we drove kilometer after kilometer through soy monocultures and were witnesses of the deforestation of the gigantic rain forest. And then in Haiti we saw what happens to a country when it no longer has any forest at all.

The small farmers, who could no longer subsist on their fields, first became charcoal burners and, when the last tree was felled, ended up in the slums of Port au Prince, where they could often afford nothing other than mud cake. When the overuse of natural resources enduringly outstrips the rate of regeneration, societies collapse – just as once happened to the civilizations of Easter Island, the Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula, and the ancient Mesopotamians. And in all fallen civilizations, collapse was preceded by a long phase of high deforestation rates leading to the total degradation of the soil.

On our journey we encountered people who often had to walk kilometers to find the last tree populations for their firewood. The Indian geneticist Dr. Suman Sahai, who we visited in India, said something that today seems quite prophetic: “When all these people one day have nothing to cook, a large number of them will head for Europe. For they have nothing more to lose, other than their lives.”

7.5 billion human beings live on planet Earth. Using the justification that they must feed all these people, multinationals have annihilated whole rain forests to make room for huge monoculture plantations. After only a few years, these fields already contained depleted and overly saline soils, whose lifespan could only be artificially extended using pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

In this way, huge stretches of woods, the lungs of the earth, became desert. The inhabitants lost their living space and fled to the cities. Thus due to their negative CO2 balance, these companies are partially responsible not only for climate change but also for the worldwide refugee crisis. Some scientists, such as Professor Guy McPherson of Arizona, say that we have already passed the point of no return and that global warming, thanks to a self-reinforcing feedback loop, will lead to the destruction of mankind. Even the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking remarked in a recent interview, with a tinge of sarcasm, that he would give the world only 100 more years; after that it would have to find another planet.


„I am interested in economically mature solutions that could solve the food problem for billions of people without systematically extracting more from the earth than is given back to it.“

Marcus Vetter

Credits

Director: Marcus Vetter
Producer: Ulf Meyer
Director of Photography: Georg Zengerling
Sound: Aljoscha Haupt
Producer Uruguay: Mateo Fernandez
Executive Producer and Co-Author: Juan Villaverde

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