More Food, Less Nutrition for Longevity
All earthly life depends ultimately on plants - for plants are the only living organisms able to create life from inorganic matter. This is accomplished through the fascinating process of photosynthesis, by which plants utilize the sun's power in order to convert water, minerals from the earth, and carbon dioxide from the air into carbohydrates, proteins, and oils - the basic sources of energy of all living things. Science has not been able to reproduce this deceptively simple chemical conversion in the laboratory.
It has only gone so far as to develop various means of providing the plants with nourishment, so that they may draw an even greater supply of food from the soil. Soil is where nutrition begins. Soil contains the raw materials that yield shimmering fields of wheat, firm, golden stalks of corn, and juicy, plump strawberries. Decaying rock particles and rock dust form the bulk of topsoil, the surface strata that is the growing medium of most food plants.
The remainder of soil is mostly a mixture of decaying vegetable and animal wastes known as humus. Inside this rich topsoil is a complicated balance of living organisms that help the plant assimilate minerals and chemical compounds from rock particles. Funguses, bacteria, earthworms, and insects are among the many forms of life that feed on humus.
These minute animals slowly decompose plants left from the previous growing season, as well as animal carcasses and manure; they also serve to aerate the soil so that gases can be exchanged and water absorbed. As a result, sulfuric and carbonic acid is generated, which furthers the decay of rocks and releases their mineral contents, thus enriching the soil. 1
In the wild, nature maintains a constant ecological balance. Plants that have created life from the soil return to it in death, as do animals that feed on plants. Absorbed and processed by the soil, the dead are recycled into t~e living. In nature, there is no waste, no pollution.
Unfortunately, this perfect state no longer exists in the human food chain. For most of the 12,000 years since plants were first domesticated, farmers simply supplemented nature with organic fertilizers, and rotated crops or let fields lie fallow so that the soil's nutrients would not be depleted. The earth was not made to produce more than it was constitutionally able to bear. Then, early in the nineteenth century, a renowned German chemist named Justus von Liebig discovered that plants could be artificially fertilized with chemicals. To determine the chemical elements needed by vegetation, von Liebig conducted a series of brilliant experiments through which he discovered the chemical substances used by plants. He burned numerous species· of plants, analyzed the substances found in the ashes, and determined that soil was merely a mixture of these substances. If humans were to provide these chemical substances, he believed, plants would obtain all the nutrients they needed.
As scientifically sound as this conclusion may appear, it failed to take into account that soil is more than its mineral content. Von Liebig all but ignored the organic, living components of soil that are contained in humus. Being a laboratory chemist, he failed to understand that the myriad network of underground life - from moles, mice, and shrews to earthworms and microorganisms - is an indispensable, life-generating part of the soil.
To von Liebig's way of thinking, all that was needed were artificially produced nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash, three basic requirements of plants in natural form.
Death of the Living Soil By the time von Liebig's artificial fertilizers became generally available, farmers in the United States had already robbed the land of one-fourth of its topsoil as a result of poor soil management. 2 The seriousness of this loss becomes readily apparent when we consider that it takes nature 500 to 1, 000 years to replace a single inch of topsoil. Most of the early settlers and pioneers did not know how to conserve soil, and they did not bother to learn.
After all, the land was free or very cheap, and there seemed to be a never-ending abundance of it. " Get what crops you can out of the land, and when it's burned out and can produce no more, move on," was their credo. The wag~s of this random rape of the land were paid with a vengeance during the mid-nineteen thirties. Great dust storms boiled up over much of America's farmlands, blowing away clouds of black topsoil from recently plowed fields.
The prairies had been overgrazed, trees which had once broken fierce winds and held moisture in the land had been cut down years before, and the earth was dried out from over-cultivation. Thousands of "Okies" -impoverished farmers - were forced to leave their wasted farms and migrate to the still fertile earth of California and the Pacific Northwest.
Proper fertilization also involves more than the application of three concentrated chemicals to the roots of plants. More than a dozen minerals and trace elements are needed as well. Although these account for only one percent of a plant's·needs, minerals and trace elements are extremely important nutritional factors. Many human diseases result from diets deficient in these factors, which are often not obtained from foods grown in the chemically treated ground.
Chemical fertilizer manufacturers were quick to jump on the bandwagon when it was discovered that these elements were lacking in synthetic plant foods. They quickly mixed in a few, calling them such things as "power boosters".
All of these concoctions were totally imbalanced, for they did not stimulate a balance in the proportions that exist in nature. Consequently, the carbohydrate-protein ratio of many crops began to change for the worse, and vitamin content declined.
Today, most farmers, aware of the damage done by their ancestors, successfully combat the destruction of the soil by wind and water erosion. At the same time, they have found a new way to destroy the land- by forcing it to produce more than it should with chemical fertilizers.
Huge industrial farms, aptly dubbed "agribusinesses," have largely taken over the land of the small, conventional farmer who lived close to nature and consumed the crops produced. Today, the quantity of production is more important than quality, and most of America's farmlands have been polluted with artificial chemicals for the sake of profits. Ecological balance no longer exists on most farms. Today' s farmer tends to overplant a few limited crops, thereby depleting the soil of certain essential trace elements.
In the past, a farm was a self-contained environment. Today, the produce farmer buys meat from the butcher shop and milk from a store or dairy farm, instead of keeping cattle, chickens, and pigs. Because agriculture has become so compartmentalized, the farmer has sacrificed a readily available source of natural fertilizer - animal wastes. This is an unfortunate loss, for soil dressed with manure produces crops that are more nourishing and tastier than those grown in chemically fertilized soil. Chemical manufacturers insist on perpetuating the myth that there is not enough organic fertilizer to go around.
The facts do not bear this out. In fact, animal waste in the United States amounts to 2 billion tons annually, which is equivalent to the waste produced by half the world's population. 3 In other countries, manure is distributed to farms, an all-but-impossible task in the United States. Cows and pigs are concentrated in single feedlots that contain from 10,000 to 50,000 animals, and up to 250,000 chickens, and therein lies the problem. It would be prohibitively expensive to collect and transport all this natural fertilizer to fields where it is needed, thousands of miles away. Bags of chemicals, therefore, become cheaper, cleaner and easier to transport. So, instead of contributing to the food chain by a natural recycling process, animal waste is disposed of as sewage to pollute the nation's water systems. In less than a century, humans have upset the balance of nature by robbing the soil of nutrients that are never returned to it.
Even our waste is wasted. The widespread application of artificial nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash (known to farmers as NPK) brings about changes in the composition of soil which destroy or seriously disturb organisms that benefit it.
The presence of these organisms serves as a barometer of soil fertility.
If they cannot survive, it is a sign that the soil will not bear crops worth eating. The work of earthworms and microorganisms is essential, but these animals are destroyed by these' chemicals. Super-phosphate fertilizers tend to create acid conditions in which they cannot survive.
In Australia, nine-foot-long earthworms originally present in vast numbers were completely exterminated by this type of fertilizer. The destruction of living things in soil occurs because the ingredients in artificial fertilizers are so readily water-soluble. In nature, easily soluble fertilizing elements rarely occur. For example, humus harbors plant nutrients that dissolve in water very slowly, feeding plants at a rate that precludes the possibility of poisoning them and their living benefactors in the soil.
Notes 1. Balfour, C. B., The Living Soil, Devin-Adair, New York, 1952. 2. Borgstrom, George, " Food and Ecology," Ecosphere, The Magazine of the International Ecology University, 2 (No. 1 ): p. 6, 1971. 3. Environmental Science and Technology, 4 (no. 12): p. 1098, 1970. 4. Gerras, Charles, and others (editors), Organic Gardening, Bantam Books, New York, 1972. 5. The Statistical Abstract of the United States. Grosset & Dunlap, 1975. .... . 6. Thomas, Jr., William L. (editor),.Man 's Role in Changing the.Face of the Earth , University of Chicago Press, 1956. 7. Ibid. 8. Man in the Living Environment, The Institute of Ecology Report on Global Ecological Problems, 1971 . 9. Journal of the American Water Works Association, June, 19~0.
- James Robinson