This is the World Organic News for the week ending 22nd of June 2020.
Jon Moore reporting!
Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!
The trouble with “knowing” is it leads to certainty, certainty leads to errors and these errors usually come from the unintended consequences of “knowing”. It may well be part of the human condition, it is certainly part of the current industrial agricultural paradigm.
From Dr Christine Jones’s last episode came the following:
No amount of NPK fertiliser can compensate for compacted, lifeless soil with low wettability and low water-holding capacity. Indeed, adding more chemical fertiliser often makes things worse. This is particularly so for inorganic nitrogen (N) and inorganic phosphorus (P). An often overlooked consequence of the application of high rates of N and P is that plants no longer need to channel liquid carbon to soil microbial communities in order to obtain these essential elements. Reduced carbon flow has a negative impact on soil aggregation – as well as limiting the energy available to the microbes involved in the acquisition of important minerals and trace elements. Lack of trace elements increases the susceptibility of plants and animals to pests and diseases.
The interesting, unintended consequence of using artificial NPK is the “retraining” of the plant physiology. It is a common error and part of a pattern of hubris. I think it was in Salt, Sugar Fat that I found the following story: When the fat, carbs and protein of food were discovered, some bright spark decided we had all we needed to create powdered baby milk. Armed with this knowledge they did so and babies died. What was missing? Trace elements. No one knew about them so they weren’t considered.
In the same way NPK seemed to power plants along but the reality, over time, was dead soil and the need for extra NPK and trace elements. That’s fine, we’ll just use cheap oil to grow food with artificial fertiliser. What could go wrong? Once we headed down that short term gain line of reasoning, we eventually ended in a glyphosate drenched world of cost shifting.
Let me explain.
Glyphosate annihilates weeds, hooray! It doesn’t affect any life form but plants because it works on the shikimate pathways in plants which animals don’t have so therefore it’s safe to spray on everything we don’t want growing. In fact a Monsanto advocate suggested the stuff was safe enough to drink. I kid you not. Anyway this is the sort of nonsense we get when hubris is taken to the extreme. Now it turns out glyphosate probably damages the microbiome of animals, humans included. Doses may have to be fairly high given the legal actions around the world by individuals with cancer who’s jobs exposed them to the stuff constantly.
From a University of Texas at Austin study, exposure to glyphosate, in honey bees, tends to reduce the immunity of the bees. It turns out the gut microbiome, in bees and it would appear humans, is connected to the immune system and that glyphosate disrupts the gut microbiome immunity connection. Nothing that would have been apparent to the developers of glyphosate. Yet here we are, Bayer bought Monsanto and now has to foot the legal consequences of Monsanto’s chemical. Yet the effects of glyphosate ripple through the ecosystems of the world.
Not dissimilar to the neonics we discussed last week which were intended to stop insect predation on corn seeds but which ended up killing the parasitic wasps that predate on slugs eating corn crops. In effect turning the slugs into mobile insecticides.
I recall Joel Salatin saying something to the effect that we humans are really good at hitting targets but very poor at asking if the targets were worth hitting. He was referring to CAFOs, Confined Animal Feeding Operations, also known as feedlots or criminally inhumane factory farms. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. But we still do, over and over again.
The thing is, most of these missteps, NPK fertilisers, CAFOs, neonics were all developed for commodities. If you are in the commodity game you are a price taker. The only way to make more moola is to increase production from a given area. Output becomes the only game in town.
Imagine you are a corn farmer somewhere in the world. You generally grow 10 tonnes per hectare. You find a “miracle” fertiliser that allows you to grow 15 tonnes per hectare. Your income has just gone up 50%. But this sort of thing can’t stay a secret for long. In a couple of years all your fellow farmers/competitors are also growing maize at 15 tonnes to the hectare. What happens to everyone’s price then. Let’s think about it. The market for maize hasn’t increased by 50% in a couple of years but the supply has co the price per tonne falls to meet the supply. Now you are making what you did three years ago, having to grow more maize to do so and with greater costs because that miracle fertiliser continues to increase in cost each year.
This is, generally, what happens with every major production breakthrough in commodities. Nowadays we have farmers trapped into these systems, making less each year and having to increase production just to stand still. Production, I might add as a sort of foreshadowing, that’s dependent upon artificial fertilisers. But what the hey, the supply chain is solid, each part knows what it’s doing and inputs arrive just when they’re needed. What could go wrong?
Well, a series of droughts could potentially bankrupt a farmer who had to borrow to purchase the seeds, the chemicals and the diesel to run their equipment. This has been the case since at least the sixth century BCE. Where money lenders acquired extensive property holdings in Ancient Greece as they bankrupted family farms and this led, eventually, to a revolution in Athens to redistribute land. That could never happen now? Could it?
Never underestimate the power of hungry people.
But it’s not just droughts. It’s basic economics. By not relying on the extra costs of imported fertility but instead using regenerative techniques like rotational grazing, cover cropping and so on, it is possible to grow not quite as much as chemically driven production but say 80% of that output with say 10% of the costs. It doesn’t take long for the economics to work in favour of the 80% production model.
The 80% production model has other benefits too. Apart from the obvious biological, water retention and soil health benefits, there is the advantage of being tied to the seed/chemical supply chain.
I was in our local rural supplies place the other week and overheard a conversation between the manager and a farmer. The gist of it was twofold. Electric fencing hardware, chargers etc, all come from New Zealand and with the lock down over there, the factories were shut. No replacement parts, no new chargers. The other discussion was over herbicides, pesticides and NPK fertilisers. Guess where they all came from? That’s right: The People’s Republic of China. Again the supply chain had been closed down. Not much stock was kept on hand because the supply chain “knew” when there was demand for particular products and would ensure they were available, just on time. Only now they weren’t. The look of horror on the farmers face and embarrassment on the managers, I will not forget quickly.
Become an 80% producer and you will automatically become more resilient. I would also argue that given the correct application of regenerative methods, production will quickly outgrow the 80% mark. In a regenerative system the most important input is the mind of the farmer, in the chemical industrial system it’s the supply chain. Which seems like a safer way to live?
I know which I feel more comfortable with.
From next Spring we will ramping up our systems using pigs and ducks as the animal inputs, barley, spelt and wheat as our winter grains, peas, broad beans and buckwheat as our cover crops, maize as our summer grain, pumpkins, melons, spuds and beans as our feed and food crops and garlic on 25% of our land as our cash crop. Every rotation will be put in place to ensure perfect growing conditions for the garlic. We could “plough” the whole place and put it all to garlic but I don’t think the taste would be the same. All the goodness of the sunshine trapped in the rotations and poured into the garlic will create flavour to die for. When I say sunshine, I mean the energy from the sun trapped in each of the rotations and added to the soil. For more on this sun capturing idea, read the blog post Fractional Farming link in the show notes.
And with that it only remains for me to say:
There’s a link to a Udemy course in the show notes entitled “Growing a No-Dig Garden” if you’d like some more formal assistance in your gardening. You can also go to or send people to Episode 207 where I discuss growing a quick response garden to get yours happening swiftly.
Remember in this unusual time, if we put in the ground work now, we can all change the world, even if its only a little bit to start with and we will begin the process of:
Decarbonising the air, recarbonising the soil!
Thank you all for listening and I’ll be back next week.
Growing a No-Dig Garden on Udemy
Or copy and paste this link:
Light Farming: Restoring carbon, organic nitrogen and biodiversity to agricultural soils Christine Jones, PhD Founder, Amazing Carbon http://amazingcarbon.com/JONES-LightFarmingFINAL(2018).pdf
[Podcast] No Insecticide Means More Predation, Less Slugs
University of Texas at Austin study