A Naroques

Return to earth – soil quality

Albert Howard had sought special permission to introduce cattle with foot and mouth disease into a herd he had grazing on fertile pastures. Not only did his herd remain unaffected but the foot and mouth infected animals got better; a viral disease cured with good nutrition.  Amazing then, that there seems to be no current studies to see if the same applies to ourselves, as surely it must. Localised populations living off their own produce grown in highly fertile fields have been shown to have not only extraordinary health but also physical endurance.  Howard describes a London school which switched its vegetable growing from chemically fertilised to manured soil. Outbreaks of colds, scarlet fever and measles stopped.  Thus, he said, it’s essential that the labelling of food indicates how it’s grown – in fertile or exhausted land.  A study conducted by the 600 family doctors Cheshire in the 1930s in which expectant mothers were given a diet of fresh food from good soil had this to say in conclusion.

“Nutrition and the quality of food are the paramount factors in fitness. No health campaign can succeed unless the materials of which the bodies are built are sound. At present they are not.”

Worldwide, good soil has largely gone from our agricultural land. Its demise has several causes. The plough began the job, fertilisers chemicals and industrial agriculture finished it off.  “The fact is that no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for plowing.” This sensational opening sentence of Edward Faulkener’s The Ploughman’s Folly would have ended with him on the stake in earlier times. It challenged the use of the one implement, the Moldboard plough, which defined popular notions of the farmer. His argument was as follows;

  1. When humans began settled agriculture they planted their seeds into rich black soil, the result of millions of years of decayed plant and animal life. To control weeds before sowing they would drag small branches or brambles over the fields.
  2. Someone came up with the shape now known as the Moldboard Plough which when pulled through the earth turns the top layer of soil over. Initially pulled by the farmer, later by his oxen, this turning over of a few cm of soil gave crops such a jump on weed competition it became standard around the world and acquired a mythical status as a bringer of abundance.
  3. Horse and oxen teams became larger and ploughed deeper, settling at around 15cm for several hundred years. The annual scraping of the plough at the same depth created a ‘plough pan’ , a compacted layer of earth. Yields began to fall because roots and water could not circulate freely.
  4. The tractor allowed deeper ploughing. This broke through the centuries old ‘plough pan’, initially increasing yields. Conclusion – the deeper you plough the better it is. Agricultural  text books asserted that “unploughed, the soil is infertile”.
  5. Nature leaves all vegetation on the surface. Burying that vegetation 20 or 30cm down with the plough means that it can’t be broken down correctly because the bacteria required to do can’t survive at that depth. This un-decayed vegetation prevents capillary action, the means by which water spreads through soil.The surface drys out. The soil gets blown away.
  6. Eroded soil becomes harder and harder to work, leading to increasingly violent interventions which exacerbates the problem.
  7. Following nature’s methods of leaving all residues on the surface, and no longer turning over the soil is the only way to avoid a total failure of our agricultural system.
  8. Such a system would be so much more fertile, give such better yields, and for such a reduced amount of fuel that adopting it (which he was sure would happen) will change geopolitics.

Understanding of soil organisms is still very limited. Every time a field is ploughed an infinitely complex world gets turned upside down. Imagine doing the same thing to the ocean. The plankton find themselves on the bottom, the bottom feeders blinded by the sunshine at the surface. Slowly, the survivors orientate themselves, but whilst doing so can do little of their essential work. Then just as they sort themselves out, the same thing happen all over again.

I had already witnessed a cut and dried example of the Ploughman’s Folly. In the large lower field there was a central rectangle that had been kept as pasture. It was only in the last couple of years when the former owner got rid of his cows that this pasture had been ripped up and now formed part of the larger field. Passing through the old pasture whilst sowing the field from one end to the other,  I watched as the sticky, pale clay turns into a rich, dark soil and back again. In just 50 years of ploughing and cultivating the soil had been visibly destroyed. This was a story familiar to whole communities of europeans as they colonised America. Initially they inherited untold acres of virgin, highly fertile land. Within a few years of continuos ploughing and cropping, the yields dropped. So they headed west and started again. But eventually there was nowhere further to go, so they kept ploughing , accepting the decreasing yields. Within a generation, the result was the dust bowl; over cultivated, used up earth that blew away in the millions of tonnes.

Following the dustbowl, there was a time when the current union of governments and corporations in the pushing of industrial agriculture was not the case. Every year the US department of agriculture publishes a yearbook for farmers. The one from 1938 begins:

“A certain man had a fine horse that was his pride and his wealth. One morning he got up to go out to the stable and he found it empty. The horse had been stolen. He stayed awake many nights after that thinking what a fool he’d been not to put a good stout lock on the stable door.  It would have cost only a couple of dollars and would have saved his most prized possession. He resolved that he would give better protection to the next horse he had but he knew he would never have one as good as the one he had lost. The United States has been like that about its soil. The well being of future generations must be secured if the nation is to continue to live. One of the great national objectives is to pass on the soil on to our descendants as nearly unimpaired as possible.”

But the profits of industrial agriculture overran government departments and 80 years later, the US continues to lose more topsoil every year than it did during the dustbowl. Between 10 and 20 tonnes per hectare (a hectare’s about a football pitch) per year. In Europe it averages between 5 and 10 tonnes. Globally we’re losing 30 football fields of soil a minute.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Related Posts