A Naroques

Return to earth – the soil

Elsewhere, rivers ground down mountain rocks and brought these mineral rich residues to the valleys. The shallower roots of grasses colonised these areas where the deep roots of trees offered no advantage. Millennia of grazing animals passed over these grasslands, excreting 80% of their daily intake as perfectly made compost; a virtuous symbiotic relationship with the grass, but one which also depended on the worm to transport and process the surface residues.

All of our ploughings and other mechanical excavations pale into insignificance compared to the earthworks that occur naturally in undisturbed soil and which without us and our tractors sustained an ever increasing fertility. On a piece of land the size of a football pitch, the worm population will bring close on 60 tonnes of their highly fertile excrement to the surface every year. They’re an archaeologists best friend; over time they will bury and preserve city walls 18ft high. Using false teeth made from bits of glass and stone, they grind down rock particles by means of a gizzard, a muscle powered mill of a similar type to chickens. (The first time I was shown how to gut a chicken, removing the gizzard was astonishing. It’s a circular power tool with two layers of sandpaper which the chicken keeps topped up with bits of grit to grind down the larger elements of its meal) A healthy and fortunate worm can live for up to 6 years, moving over 7kg of soil. This soil, having passed through the digestive juices of the worm, is packed with nutrition for the plant that was inaccessible beforehand. Without worms, we’d starve. Don’t cut a worm in half, because it’s a myth that it will become two worms. It will die. Instead, take it carefully back to some soil, hide it from the birds, and wish it luck.

Good soil is the key to successful farming. A hundred years ago, an English diplomat based in India, Albert Howard, was in the middle of his experiments into the link between soil fertility and plant and human health. After 40 years of the kind of testing you can only do when time and labour are no object, he wrote his Agricultural Testament. In brief. Fertile soil is black, crumbly and sweet smelling. Full of organic matter it allows easy circulation of air and holds on to rain water, thus providing the perfect conditions for the bacterial and fungal life that teems within it. When first cleared for agriculture, all our soils were like this. The roots of a plant grown in this kind of soil strike up a remarkable series of relationships. There are doctor fungi that, in exchange for sugars and carbon photosynthesised and sent down to them by the plant, create antibiotic compounds to protect the plant against disease. Other fungi embed themselves into the plant root tissue and in exchange for sugars and carbon send out long thin growths into areas the plant could not otherwise reach, thereby providing it with phosphorus, zinc, copper and host of other essential minerals. A plant growing in these conditions does not suffer from disease and its health and nutritional equilibrium is transferred to the animals or people that eat it. This was not just a theory. It was applied in the field to crops from maize to vegetables, fruit trees to cotton. The results were always the same. In good soil, not only was there no significant disease but when he introduced pests and diseases from outside, they did not attack the healthy growth. Pests and parasites aren’t the enemy, they’re simply useful indicators of weak plants growing in bad conditions. The multi-billion dollar government backed corporations selling ‘crop science’ solutions are endlessly lobbying to obscure the simple fact that they would be obsolete in a world growing plants in good soil. How Howard would have despaired to see, a hundred years later, 20,000 suicides a year amongst Indian cotton farmers who, sold GM seeds and the pesticides that go with them, find themselves with dead soil, collapsing yields, rampant disease and exponential debts.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]


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