How Agriculture Took A Wrong Turn
Grab a nice glass of wine and have a read.
Let’s get you up to date:
Agriculture has been a method of survival for over 10,000 years, and most of it through the labor of human sweat and animals. It wasn’t until the late 19th century and early 20th century, with the help of mechanical equipment (i.e. tractors), did agriculture increase in productivity. With the advancement of railways, highways and boats, logistics became more efficient, and agricultural products were soon distributed on a global scale.
At the beginning of the 20th century, scientists discovered nitrogen fixation. Ammonia (NH3) is the key nutrient that plant roots take from the soil, giving plants vitality. However, plants can’t absorb this directly from soil, but bacteria can. The traditional way to add more nitrogen into the soil was: feed a cow hay, have the cow shit, put the nitrogen rich poop back into the soil, allow bacteria to break down the nitrogen and the plant will absorb it. Genius cycle, right? Yes, but way too slow. Enter scientists. Using temperature and pressure, scientists Fritz Haber & Carl Bosch produced Ammonia identical to that the bacteria makes. Considered by some to be the most important invention of the 20th century, these chaps were awarded a few nobel prizes, and in 1913 they started a chemical company, IG-Farben.
However, before Haber & Bosch’s discovery became popular with Ron the farmer, power hungry leaders of European countries figured out Ammonium Nitrate makes a great ingredient for a bomb. Hence, Ammonium Nitrate became mass produced for weapons and warfare during WWI. Towards the end of the war, there became a surplus of Ammonium Nitrate, and it was discarded into the fields and country side. Months later “explosive”, vibrant growth and vegetation appeared. The results looked obviously healthy for the plant, and Haber & Bosch began mass producing agricultural fertilizers. Shortly afterwards, IG-Farben became the largest chemical company in the world.
Their efforts significantly affected the world’s food supply and population, pushing the approx. figure from 1.6 Billion to today’s 6.7 Billion. No other invention of the past 200 years has had such an impact on our planet, neither cars, spaceship or computers.
Nearly one century after its invention, the process is still applied all over the world to produce 500 million tons of artificial fertilizer per year, 1% of the world’s energy supply is used for it (M.D. Fryzuk, 2002), and it still sustains roughly 40% of the population (M. D. Fryzuk, 2004). Billions of people would not exist without chemical fertilizers.
As important as this invention may seem, was it really a good thing? Today’s soils are becoming more depleted than ever, and there are even traces of fertilizers in the produce we consume, and human embryos.
Our soils are just as important as the air we breath, and the sunlight we bask in, but we seem to forget this.
Why are soils important?
It is the richness of life in the soil which will feed the plants, because a plant, like a vine, does not directly use the nutritive elements in the Earth. Vines use a double strategy to feed, which involves both leaves and roots. The leaves are approximately responsible for 95-98%, with the remaining 2-5% provided by the roots. What’s interesting though, is the collection and absorption of minerals from the soil is not carried out directly by the roots but by the intervention of auxiliary organisms, called symbiotic fungi (mycorrhiza), which in exchange for receiving juices from the roots, give the plant the minerals they collect (Nitrogen, Potassium, etc.) When adding soluble fertilizers, especially potassium rich fertilizers to the soils, it depletes these beneficial fungi.
Another disadvantage of fertilizers is that they are a salt based compound. When you apply a fertilizer to a vineyard, it’s like sprinkling crystalized salt on your vines. Once it rains, or water is applied, the salt crystals dissolve, and the vine picks up the nutrients. The problem occurs when you have hot vines, sunbathing during the summer months, you add fertilizers and the vines become very thirsty, just as humans become thirsty when they consume salts. Once water is obtained, either artificially through drip systems or organically through the soil or rain, the vine becomes less balanced, pushes more water into it’s fruit, which tightens the bunches, creates a weaker skin wall, and the fruit and vine becomes more susceptible to disease.
These are just a few of the problems that fertilizers cause, but the bottom line is inorganic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides deplete nutrients in the soil, disrupt the natural rhythms and cycles of the vine, and are using tomorrow’s land for today’s crop.
Through the past several decades, farmers and activists have formed groups abstaining from chemicals, and an organic farming movement has transpired known as sustainable agriculture.
Sustainable agriculture is characterized by a systems perspective of stewardship of the natural and human resources; it comprises three goals: environmental health, economic profitability, as well as social and economic equity (Mityr, Smith, Zucca, 2009).
There are three categories of sustainable farming methods; sustainable, organic and biodynamic. Mike Benziger, winemaker at Benziger Family Winery, says sustainable farming is a voluntary practice, “It’s really up to the grower to police himself, and it’s up to his honesty and his integrity. There is no reason he can’t use chemicals one day and the next day go back to his sustainable practices. It’s just not regulated by anyone. Organic farming is a step in the right direction. Organics focus on the elimination of synthetic fertilizers and synthetic pesticides, with special attention paid to the health of the soil. Biodynamics is a much higher form of organic farming, that uses holistic approaches such as lunar and solar cycles to invite the environment to produce the product.”
“Organic‟ essentially describes the farming practices used, referring to a system using organic manure which largely excludes synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, chemicals or growth promoters of any type, including hormones and antibiotics (Gil, 2000). From the beginning of the conventional farming movement, critics pointed out the unnaturalness of these chemicals and regarded their use as a wrong way to produce food (Kirchmann et al., 2008). Many farmers were told the use of these chemicals will provide more food and money for their families, but the practical farmer knows that instinct coupled with sober judgement and experience can achieve a great deal, very often more than abstract knowledge (Koepf, 1976).
Throughout the last two decades, many studies have shown that organic farming provides better soil health and is superior to conventional farming with chemicals such as fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides (Gray, 2010). Most recently, a study of nine farms in England, published in the journal, Environmental Microbiology, found that organic farms have a much more diverse range of fungi living in the soil than on conventional farms. Dr. Christopher Van Der Gas, of the CEH, said that use of herbicides and pesticides, as well as constant tilling of the soil breaks down the fungi on intensive farms (Gray, 2010). Dr. Gas also says, “On organic farms….there is a more diverse range of microbes living in the soil. This helps the crops grow without the expense of artificial fertilizers. For most people it is about what you can see above the ground. But the below ground diversity of the organisms in are also key.”
Biodynamic agriculture is an advanced organic farming system, developed from eight lectures on agriculture given in 1924 by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), an Austrian scientist and philosopher, to a group of farmers near Breslau, Germany (Diver, 2010). Steiner gave a series of lectures entitled Spiritual foundations for the renewal of agriculture, with instructions on how to produce organic food supplying spiritual forces to mankind (Kirchmann et al., 2008). The Agriculture Course lectures were taught by Steiner in response to observations from farmers that soils were becoming depleted following the introduction of chemical fertilizers at the turn of the century. In addition to degraded soil conditions, farmers noticed a deterioration in the health and quality of crops and livestock (Diver, 2010).
A biodynamic farm is viewed holistically as a living, self-contained system that functions in concert with the wider world within which it lives. Each farm’s goal is to be a self-sustaining entity responsible for its health and wellbeing without outside additions. It is the antithesis of commercial industrialized farming (Sonya, 2010). Emphasis is placed on the integration of crops and livestock, recycling of nutrients, maintenance of soil, and the health and well being of crops and animals; the farmer too is part of the whole. Thinking about the interactions within the farm ecosystem naturally leads to a series of holistic management practices that address the environmental, social, and financial aspects of the farm (Diver, 2010). A biodynamic farmer has to intimately understand the rhythms of the farm, the dynamics of its location, soil structure, weather patterns, water needs, and overall strength and weaknesses (Sonya, 2010). Biodynamic farmers recognize there are forces that influence biological systems other than gravity, chemistry, and physics (Diver, 2010).
“Biodynamic farming aims to generate fertility and health from within the farming system,” Demeter-USA Executive Director Jim Fullmer said. Like organic farming, biodynamics prohibits synthetic chemicals inputs such as fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides and does not use genetically modified seed (Benziger, 2009). Composting, particularly done on site, is the foundation of the system and biodiversity is the lifeblood (Sonya, 2010).
In a nutshell, biodynamics can be understood as a combination of “biological dynamic” agriculture practices. “Biological” practices include a series of well-known organic farming techniques that improve soil health. “Dynamic” practices are intended to influence biological as well as metaphysical aspects of the farm (such as increasing vital life force), or to adapt the farm to natural rhythms (such as planting seeds during certain lunar phases) (Diver, 2010).
What sets biodynamics apart is the use of homeopathic “medicines” or “teas” called preparations, in addition to the biodynamic calendar that charts astronomical cycles and their relationship to the sun, moon and planets. Each preparation is composed of natural ingredients, such as quartz or chamomile that is incorporated into the farm through compost or water.