Feeding the world's population remains a daunting task backed by many fears; thus, fertilizers have been the solution to that problem since the Green Revolution (mentioned in my previous post on the history of agriculture). Over the course of the last 100 years, the increase in scientific knowledge about plant nutrition is astounding; but somewhere along the way, these exciting discoveries of how to make synthetic ammonia, nitrates, phosphorus and potassium in massive quantities and in forms that soils can uptake, distracted people from the harmful impacts man-manipulated cultivation has on nature. The distraction arises from the ease fertilizers introduce into our lives. Agricultural chemicals were received as a godsend. Before the Industrial Revolution, farming was labor intensive and done all by hand. Plus, we did not have the scientific understanding of wholesome nutrition, biochemical pathways, and the impacts chemicals have on the molecular biology level. When fertilizers enter the scene, they show immediate effects. Just drive through an affluent neighborhood and marvel over the emerald green lawns. What we see, like many things in life, is simply the surface, a glittering/glossy paint job over a rotting foundation. The quick-fix paint job only lasts so long. Unfortunately, the illnesses, immune disorders, birth defects, asthma issues, intestinal dysfunctions, and cancer that have been prevalent over the past thirty years can be linked to synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and chemical food preservatives. Some farmers know now, after years of study, that natural processes can be adapted on farms that yield bigger harvests, more healthy plants with greater immune resistance to disease and insects, and rich fertile soils, just by working with nature and becoming cognizant of multiple forces at work (One Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka).
Some say researchers and scientists should be philosophers first and fore-most to ponder how problems arise and what the overarching goals are for humanity before applying the solutions. If humans were to speculate first on what they actually need to survive and achieve happiness, then possibly our means to certain ends would be drastically altered. The fine-tuned soil food web is truly majestic, complex, and still unknown in its entirety to man; but, with the invention of the Scanning Electron Microscope, the invisible world in the soil is now visible. The effects synthetic fertilizers have on soil are continuously being discovered. Before diving into the actual chemical pathways and mechanisms being disrupted in the soil by fertilizers, let us first consider why humans do not wish to know the truth about fertilizers. If we can deal with this issue, then we can truly see what is unraveling beneath our very feet.
The acts of fertilization are, by nature, aggressive and demanding tactics that are ego-driven, and ultimately harmful to the already balanced ecosystem. What do I mean by ego-driven? The answer to this question calls for a discussion about human behavior and tendencies of society as a whole. Modern scientific agriculture holds no vision or consideration for what the human goal is, and what exactly it is that humanity should create? In fact, many research testing centers never report all of their findings on fertilizers; rather, they report how results show higher product yields, and when fertilizer application does not show greater yields, these tests are dismissed as experimental discrepancies. This practice is simple marketing governed by profits and margins, after all these research facilities are funded by businesses who are in business to sell chemical fertilizers. But how did all of this get put into motion? Where did it all begin? This philosophical question points to the very essence of humanity: our ego. Every man has their own, individual, customized perception of their own self-worth, their own validation.
Ego defines human behavior, and it is governed by the Law of Human Nature. The implications of individual egos merged with the collective egos of mankind directly relate to the problems humans face with food production, not to mention the current state of affairs on planet Earth. The Law of Human Nature is the Law of Right and Wrong. These laws are not like the laws governing nature here on Earth or the universe. Rather, they entail the facts of how humans behave, plus how they ought to behave. The rest of the universe is much more simplistic. Electrons and molecules behave in a certain way, and certain results follow, end of story. On the other hand, men behave in a certain manner and that is not the entire story, for all the time you know they ought to behave in a different way (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity). Humans did not make this law of Human Nature, but they find it always pressing on them, something they should obey.
The divergence from morality in the case of humans (or the way they ought to behave) is due to the human ego. The original recording of the emergence of the human ego is found in the Bible with the story of Adam and Eve: the Fall of mankind. Eve exercised free will to express her own ego to the detriment of her mate, Adam; thereby, throwing off the perfect harmony and balance in the Garden of Eden. Philosopher and World Friend, Adi Da, calls this existence before the Fall, Prior Unity. In the beginning, all things were one. This idea of oneness between all people and all things is based on the understanding that the Earth is a single system and humankind is a single whole. But humankind has never acted as a single whole after the Fall, and that is due to the ego inherit in every human being, which conflicts with the higher human values also simultaneously inherit in all of mankind. These values such as forgiveness, respect, love, honesty, prudence, temperance, justice, courage, and hope help promote and sustain the fragile balance of life. Without them, chaos and confusion descend into a downward spiral of self-centered wastelands of hate, envy, infidelity, war, apathy. Despite the ego, though, humans do experience peace and happiness when they live purposefully, and practice moderation. Happiness is a state of mind that can be achieved, yet so easily lost if not constantly sought after, worked on, and remembered. Happiness, does not just happen, and unfortunately, it is not permanent once obtained. Such is the nature of time, every second, a moment passes...
On the track to fertilizers, human ego is the motivation behind the application of chemical fertilizers and the reason why Earth's natural ecosystems suffer. I can argue that this force of human ego is constantly checked with the force of something "higher", something bigger than themselves, something unseen, just felt, this law of Human Nature that is omnipresent, the Jiminy Cricket if you will, the Holy Spirit, perhaps? But before we speak of the positive force, let's explore a moment more on the negative force.
Humankind functions on the principle of ego--or separate identity and separative activity. Separateness--or ego-"I"--is the idea of "difference" (Adi Da). That idea inevitably manifests as the process of "objectification", control, and destruction. Simply put, egos never unify. Now, in comes C.S. Lewis with his study on the Law of Human Nature, separate altogether of the laws of nature. C.S. Lewis points out that all humans are haunted by the idea of a sort of behavior they should be practising, also known as fair play, decency, or morality. But in fact, they do not practice morality. Rather, humans exist "separate" from this law of human nature, or at least they are constantly trying to unite with the law, but fail to consistently abide by the greater moral values that gnaw away at them on the inside.
C.S. Lewis analysizes this "decent conduct" that humans ought to fulfill in order to benefit the human race as a whole. His conjurings reveal this invisible "positive" force that works on us, "Human beings, after all, have some sense; they see that you cannot have real safety or happiness except in a society where every one plays fair, and it is because they see this that they try to behave decently. It is perfectly true that safety and happiness can only come from individuals, classes, and nations being honest and fair and kind to each other. It is one of the most important truths in the world." The Moral Law, or Law of Human Nature, is not a fact about human behavior in the same way as the Law of Gravitation is a fact. It is not a mere fancy either, for we cannot get rid of the idea. Consequently, this Rule of Right and Wrong, or Law of Human Nature, must be a real thing--a thing that is really there, not made up by ourselves. Because of this, we have to admit that there is more than one kind of reality; that, in this particular case, there is something above and beyond the ordinary facts of men's behavior, and yet quite definitely real--a real law, which none of us made, but which we find pressing on us (page 30, C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).
Now, humans know that nature is beautiful. We also know that it existed well before us for billions of years. The time is now for us to work with nature in order to yield what we need to survive. Unfortunately, we've been pillaging nature to feed our extravagances, and to whose benefit? Certainly not ours. Sickness is all around us, we cannot escape this truth. Fertilizers represent something man-made, but they are symbolic of something much more deep. They represent the Industrial Revolution--a drive to pursue technological development without consideration of the Earth or to future generations. Two roads exist, one that leads to destruction, the other to creation. The road to materialism has scorched the Earth and led modern society to half-hearted functioning. Journalist Steven McFadden in his online book, Call of the Land, writes about a road of respect and spirituality that encompasses a spiritually evolved era in which honesty, forgiveness, respect, caring and sharing are paramount for all individuals. As mentioned earlier, philosopher and World Friend, Adi Da, calls this new human civilization Prior Unity. This idea of oneness between all people and all things is based on the understanding that the Earth is a single system and humankind is a single whole. Again, this is not just about fertilizers. The concern about the use of fertilizers represents principles that support the egoless culture of Prior Unity versus the ego-Culture of Separateness.
On a real-time, scientific level, soluble chemical fertilizers (man-made) are detrimental to the harmony of soil food webs, not to mention our water supply, which affects the entire food chain on Earth. What the majority of people believe now is that nitrogen from an organic source is the exact same as nitrogen from an inorganic source, and that plants cannot discriminate between nitrogen from manure versus nitrogen that is sprayed on in the form of blue powder mixed with water. This is not accurate, however. Man-made nitrogen comes in different molecular structures than do natural nitrogen sources.
The fast path:
Synthetic fertilizers supply consistent amounts of precise nutrients to the soil. They act on soil immediately -- unlike organic fertilizers that need to break down before absorption. This immediate efficacy is especially beneficial to dying or severely malnourished plants. Synthetic fertilizers are easy to use and their effects are almost immediate. Synthetic fertilizers are convenient to use and easily available in gardening stores. However, Dr. Elaine Ingham at Oregon State University, along with others, started studying soil cultures and particularly the amount of bacteria and fungi in soils, something they coined fungal to bacterial biomass (F:B ratio). What they discovered was fascinating. In soils that supported old growth timber, which were soils least disturbed by the hand of man, fungi outnumbered bacteria ten times or more, whereas in agricultural soils, or soils that had been tilled and cultivated, the fungi to bacteria ratio was almost equal 1:1 or less. Dr. Ingham and her students noticed between these different soil colonies that plants preferred soils that were fungal dominated versus soils that were bacterially dominated or neutral.
Soil culture is a fungal dominated ecosystem that keeps nitrifying bacteria in check around the roots of plants and trees. Fungi create acids that inhibit the growth of nitrifying bacteria. For unknown reasons at the present time, nitrites versus nitrates weaken immune systems of plants. Nitrogen in the form of ammonium (nitrates) increases disease resistance in plants exponentially.
The soil food web is crucial in this picture in what form nitrogen is released by the players in the web. Organisms in the soil release waste in the form of plant-available ammonium (NH4). Depending on the environment, this can either remain as ammonium or be converted into nitrate (NO3) by special bacteria. Soils that are dominated by bacteria generally have an alkaline pH, due to the bioslime produced by bacteria. This more basic environment promotes the nitrogen-fixing bacteria to prosper and thrive. On the opposite spectrum, fungi produce more acids that lower the soil pH and greatly reduce the amount of bacteria. In these fungal dominated soils, the majority of nitrogen remains in ammonium form. All of this is crucial in understanding how fertilizers disrupt the systems. Chemical fertilizers mostly come in the form of nitrates (NO3). Interestingly enough, scientists are even discovering now that plants which get their nitrogen from nitrates are less able to produce secondary metabolites that are used to ward off disease, insects and predators. Furthermore, chemicals in the form of fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides affect the soil food web negatively. They are toxic to some members, deter others, change the physiological environment, and prohibit specific fungal and bacterial relationships from forming when the plants can get free nutrients, thereby bypassing the microbial-assisted method of obtaining nutrients.
It's almost like thinking of a dead zone, but this is paradoxical thinking of course. You wouldn't think by "helping" a plant with the addition of free nitrogen would in actuality kill off bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes. Once they're gone, then the earthworms go hungry, plus they get irritated with the fertilizers too. Earthworms are a key indicator of healthy soils, since they are the organic shredders. So they're gone and the soil structure begins to deteriorate, and watering becomes problematic. Adding the synthetic fertilizers is analogous to nuclear radiation, you create a nuclear dead zone leaving the soil lifeless in a sense. In all reality, it's not lifeless, it's just dulled. The spirit or life force of the soil is dampened, it is no longer rich in life. This brings up an interesting topic and something I wish to discuss in future posts, the narcotic effects of dead food and how they deaden our spirit and perpetuate the cycle of our "separated" state from higher morality. If the soil is dulled or deadened, then the food it produces is the same. We are what we eat aren't we?
The very story unraveling here sounds very similar to the story of mankind. The Fall was a result of ego, which at the very heart of the matter is pride. Ego means not trusting nature and its implicit balance, rather thinking me, myself, and I are more important and better than any other power, force, or school of thought. We take it upon ourselves to fix everything by our own methods, and in the end we simply destroy it. Now is the time we must return to nature. How can we heal the land, heal ourselves, and immerse ourselves in the mercy and blessings that Nature promises us?
Luckily, we live in a day and age when humans have very evolved brains to address this question of organic and sustainable farming versus agriculture that applies fertilizer.
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