Updated: Jun 21
Matters of the Heart
Improving the soil to enhance food yield has been a reality since man began producing crops some 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. An early Greek writer described it as “adding heart to the soil.” Many of today’s sound agricultural practices, including manuring, liming and crop rotation with legumes, and the value of silt deposits from flooding rivers, were recognized over 5000 years ago.
Few would argue that today’s large-scale, commercial fertilizer production comes anywhere near that ideal. Soil microbiologists have long argued that we’re killing the soil. Considering the evolution of the technology, the problem is that the way we enrich our earth today disregards the earth itself. These changes have come in the last two hundred years, following step with the Industrial Revolution.
The early days of organics
Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations employed of a variety of mineral and organic substances to leaven the ground, including marl (a mixture of clay and lime), plant and wood ashes, animal and human bones and waste, crop residues and green manures. Natural potassium and gypsum were introduced in Medieval times. In the early 1600’s, the first results of the effects of nutrients on living plants began to be quantified. This changed everything.
Thanks to soil microbiologists that followed over the next 200 years, we discovered that humus and its coexistence with a broad range of complex minerals and nutrients – particularly nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium – could make an extraordinary abundance of plant life possible, and add heart to the soil.
The first major deviation
BUT… the first major deviation from this principle of adding heart to the soil occurred in the mid 1800’s with the influence of the German chemist Justus von Liebig, called by many as “the father of the fertilizer industry,” which had a particularly detrimental effect.
He analyzed the role nutrients play in plant growth, in particular his development of “the law of minimum”, where he asserted that the deficiency of one nutritive element, regardless of the presence of all the other vital nutrients, will limit plant growth. However, he further postulated that plants did not get nutrition from humus, but rather from the nutrients alone, and it is this position that has had the farthest-reaching and most detrimental impact. His law of minimum in actuality ignores adding heart to the soil as it attempts to narrow the complex study of soil fertility.
His theories fueled the development of chemical fertilizers and heralded a new age of agricultural science in the 1840’s and 1850’s. He was the first strong proponent for chemistry and the chemical-industrial agriculture, and helped spur its introduction.
The beginning of large-scale commercial production
Nitrate plant, Chile. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/97510349/.
In addition to Liebig’s work, several other factors played a key role in developing new commercial resources for fertilizer: the exhaustion of Peruvian guano in the late 1860’s, which had been the major source of natural nitrogen fertilizer (plus other major and minor nutrients), followed by the demands of a population boom at the turn of the 20th century, and finally, the demands of the war.
Mining of natural deposits of sodium nitrate in Chile was the first commercial nitrogen fertilizer from 1830 on, followed by ammonium sulfate, an industrial by-product of the manufacture of coal gas in the late 1800’s. These were combined with mined sources of phosphorus and potassium in (unsuccessful) attempts to mimic the unavailable Peruvian guano. However, this was not enough to keep pace with demand.
The second major deviation
The second major departure came when German chemist Fritz Haber (1868-1934) discovered that nitrogen did not have to come from poop, or buried stone, or even industrial by-products, but could be synthesized from thin air. This was irresistible to the forces of the times. He is perhaps singular in his impact, both as someone who won a Nobel Peace Prize in Chemistry in 1918, at the same time being known as the “father of chemical warfare.” His work developed synthetic nitrogen for fertilizing and in essence feeding people, and the chemical warfare witnessed today, for killing people.
War continues to play its part
One war was over, but another war machine was gearing up. The Roaring Twenties brought madness for production, business opportunity and profits. And beyond the need for commercial fertilizer, synthetic nitrogen was needed to make bombs.
Following World War I, with manufacturers having large unused stockpiles of synthetic nitrogen, the push ensued to release them for agricultural use, dry-mixed with limestone, gypsum, chalk or ammonium sulfate. And so, began the ramp up of the commercial chemical fertilizer industry.
With the start of World War II, Congress and President Franklin D Roosevelt pushed through bills to expand industrial synthetic nitrogen production with taxpayer dollars. By 1944 a spectacular threefold increase in the nations productive capacity for both bombs and producing food helped to win the war. However, due to rationing, only the larger farmers were able to obtain sufficient quantities and most farmers were convinced to continue production at the cost of much sacrifice by promises of cheap fertilizer after the war. That, however, was to be a slap in the face of many desperate farmers, when at the end of the war the government gave away the federal nitrogen plants to major chemical corporations (one being Monsanto) who then sold the tax payer funded nitrogen back to the farmers to reap all the benefits. Regardless, major campaigns and the initial success of chemical fertilizer use initiated the marked changeover in U.S. agriculture to chemical dependency.
ORGANICS behind the scenes
Up until the late 1800’s all fertilization production was from organic sources. Even with the early synthesizing of nitrogen, by 1910, 90 percent of this nitrogen still came from natural organic materials such as cottonseed meal, dried blood, fish scrap and animal tankage.
However, by 1950, only 3.4 percent of agricultural nitrogen came from organic sources, due to synthetic production as well as the diversion of the higher quality organics to more profitable livestock feed supplements.
Regardless of the rising industrial methods of production and distribution, there have always been populist movements toward the more natural methods of fertilization and working with the soil organically. Leading contemporary scientists including Charles Albrecht and Sir Albert Howard have spearheaded organic movements, even though politico-business and cultural influences have kept it from becoming mainstream.
RETURNING TO THE HEART OF THE SOIL
There is a changing beat and a return to “adding to the heart of the soil” today. Although the costs of chemical fertilizer use have historically not been emphasized or communicated, they are now well known.
Today more and more people are realizing the detrimental effects to their health personally, and communally as a result of the chemical fertilization process and its negative effects on the soil. There is also a new realization that the same large corporate interests that have taken over chemical-based food production also produce the pharmaceuticals that treat the illnesses and pay for the science the supports it.
The connection between the heart of our soils and the health of our being is now returning to the forefront after centuries of major deviations. It is the pendulum returning to balance and the heralding of a return to “adding heart to the soil” and “health to our wellbeing”.