History and Us
by Gary Kline
WARNING: Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. The most poorly learned lesson in all of history is about to roll over this country.
In 1955 two dedicated soil scientists and conservation educators, Tom Dale and Vernon G. Carter, wrote Topsoil and Civilization. It was revised by Carter in 1974, not long after the great 1970 environmental reawakening that was Earth Day. Their theme, essentially, was that civilizations rise and fall according to their use or abuse of topsoil. Their subtheme was, or is, that hundreds of civilizations, great and small, have disappeared over the centuries as a result of being either oblivious or indifferent to the rapid deterioration of the one thing that most nourished them. Don’t think that it can’t happen here, because it can. Don’t think it won’t happen to this great, new nation, because it is about to. I’m here to resound the alarm as our ecological Armageddon approaches at ever-accelerating speed.
Many impending calamities and concerns, all attributable to Homo sapiens arrogantus, compete for our attention and call out for urgent corrective action, and this is one of them which has to rate near the top of the list. Serious and threatening as the deterioration and destruction of our life-blood, topsoil, is - - - and it cuts across a lot of the other impending calamities - - - there is hope and a feasible reversal of the situation. Indeed, if we approach this dire challenge promptly, correctly and with resolve, then remedial actions can take us into a whole new era of harmonious habitation of the nation and the planet.
An irrefutable subtheme of Carter and Dale is that throughout history, nearly every historian has failed to recognize what ought to be the most obvious, fundamental cause of the decline and fall of nearly every ancient nation, and they have wanted to pin the problem on wars, economic disruption, climate shifts, immoral behavior, etc. It’s more exciting that way.
But practically always, the major cause was population pressure on the nation’s or the region’s natural resources, most notably its farmable soils. The two greatest culprits, invariably induced by human mismanagement, have been erosion and soil fertility depletion. The really sobering reality is that people today, including politicians, historians and educators, are equally oblivious of the facts and unaware of how rapidly we in America are headed toward the dustbin of history.
We are fast approaching a point where most of our agricultural soils will be sterile and lifeless, the organic matter nearly burned away, the soil minerals and other nutrients mined out or locked-up, topsoil all but eroded away, water sources polluted or dried up, and then we run out of the petroleum that runs the evermore energy inefficient system that produces our mostly empty foods. What this all boils down to is we will be incapable of growing sufficient food that is nutritionally fit to eat. We can only be fit if our food is fit.
Our predominant agricultural system must be changed, for the determinant of all our lives ultimately is the thin covering, in limited, select areas, which is the topsoil from which all our sustenance (except that from the sea, rivers and lakes) derives. So far, we in America have had a free ride, but now we must pay the tab to keep going.
Mundane, yes, but the major cause behind nearly all failed civilizations has been soil erosion and depletion. If you need further convincing, besides Topsoil and Civilization, I strongly recommend you read the following:
Another subtheme of Carter and Dale is that nearly all wars start from a coveting of thy neighbor’s land and natural resources, usually after the aggressor has carelessly exhausted or ruined his own. In short, hunger causes wars. Poor soil causes hunger. A contemporary side note here is that Ukraine is one of the most agriculturally productive regions of the world. Hitler wanted it badly, and now Putin is willing to risk war for it. As a rule, if each nation or civilization first took care of its own soil and resources, wars - - - and there have been unending thousands down through history - - - would be few and far between. Instead, ignorance, indolence and avarice have reigned.
Erosion can range from gross to nearly imperceptible, and has had far more impact on the duration of societies than most of us realize. Deforestation, plowing hillsides and overgrazing by sheep and goats served to accelerate loss of soil, often down to bedrock, on valley slopes with burial by debris of lowlands, plus the clogging of rivers and harbors from siltation. In a number of cases coastal seaports wound up situated miles back from the sea and inaccessible to any ships. The seaport of Baltimore, Maryland, for instance, moved six miles downstream. Large irrigated regions became abandoned after their ditches were hopelessly clogged with silt from logging off the upper watersheds, but sometimes due to disruption of farming by wars and plundering.
Fertility depletion can occur from heavy rainfall on unprotected ground that washes nutrients and organic matter away. Repeated plowing can destroy organic matter, and repeated cropping depletes land of nutrients where farmers have neglected to replace them, such as with manuring and liming. Often the farmers and citizenry had no concept of nutrient depletion from crop removal, and seemed not to know what was going on as crop yields steadily went down and they farmed harder and more intensely until there were too little grains or vegetables produced even to feed the farmer’s family; so they moved or starved. Yet, it would be fairly simple to put an end to this perpetually repeated pattern caused by unlearned history.
Topsoil and Civilization largely focused on the Mideast and Mediterranean lands and states, plus Western Europe (in just one chapter) and the U.S. in two chapters, with the last chapter asking “Can the U.S.A. Survive?” Of course, I’m going to come back to the U.S. with my own update and perspective, but I think passages from the chapter on “Italy and Sicily” give a representative picture of the historical deterioration of a land’s productivity following settlement, population growth accompanied by land exploitation and avoidable fertility exhaustion.
As this occurred, farmers moved to the cities, which increasingly moved into industry and trade for survival and in order to purchase food grown elsewhere. Rome, with its armies, set out to conquer its neighbors, then more distant countries, and imposed tribute to garner food surpluses necessary to support its own citizenry and armies. As their population increased, they would send out people to colonize other lands or rule over distant states, sometimes causing those distant lands to become over-exploited, ruined and eventually abandoned or taken over by barbarians who knew or cared little about dirt farming. Usually they brought in goats and sheep that finished off the remaining productivity by denuding all vegetative growth. Greece fared even worse and likely can never again become a great nation.
A summary statement, or section, I found particularly insightful was in this chapter (pp. 126-7):
“The primitive methods of Latin agriculture, combined with the density of population, undoubtedly led to intensive cultivation. The soil must have been quite fertile [initially] and the climate dependable for growing barley, spelt and millet, which were the principal crops of the early Romans. - - - If the early Romans had not been almost wholly vegetarians, it would have been impossible for the land to have supported so many people. Indeed, it is likely that the density of the population caused the Latins to become vegetarians; for man, whether savage or civilized, is normally an omnivorous animal and seldom a vegetarian by choice. Since land will produce five to ten times as many cereal calories as meat calories, man nearly always becomes largely a vegetarian when he does not have enough land to produce adequate quantities of meat and other animal foods. - - - Not only must the soil of Latium have given dependable, high yields, but it must also have produced a high quality of food – grain that was rich in the proteins, minerals and vitamins essential to good health. Otherwise, these vegetarians could hardly have become the foremost conquerors and rulers of antiquity.”
Parts of the above assessment I would dispute. Nevertheless, Rome grew to control most of the old world from England to India and down to Egypt and across North Africa. When it needed more food, it conquered another country and let its own farming deteriorate. Small farmers were pushed into the cities and their land taken over by large, monied landowners who brought in slaves to work the farms. As the food and resources from colonies were exhausted or overrun, Rome fell back on industry and trade with which to buy and import food until they were beat out or had too few customers, their farm land having been ruined or abandoned, and their empire then collapsed. You may notice some parallels here to today in this country and around the world.
One way or another, agriculture is the basis of all civilizations and all economies, and topsoil is the basis of agriculture. We can do without a lot of things, but no one has yet figured out how to get along without eating. One would think we would figure out that food and insuring enough topsoil and decent agricultural land has to be our uppermost concern, and thus the conservation of our soil and other basic resources must be a top priority; however, it almost never has been, anywhere, and certainly is not today in this country. Somehow, this most important message never sinks in.
According to Dale and Carter, the farmable lands of Western Europe were settled and developed later than those of the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) and the Nile Valley. Additionally, the climate and terrain were generally more favorable. Europeans borrowed or retained the farming methods of the Romans and added their own. To a system of fallowing in alternate years, they added crop rotation (grain, root and sod). Quoting from page 168, “This combination, which kept the ground protected from erosion most of the time, furnished grain and roots for human food and grain, roots, and forage for livestock, while the legume and grass crops helped maintain soil structure and fertility.” Back then the great majority of people were farmers, of necessity.
Continuing on page 168, “This system of farming also led to a more extensive use of manure and lime on cultivated fields. From antiquity many farmers had recognized the value of animal manure as a fertilizer and the value of ground limestone [calcium carbonate] as a soil [pH] amendment, but seldom before had most of the farmers of a large region had sufficient manure to help appreciably, and seldom before had they found it necessary to apply lime to grow a crop. The Flemish and Dutch farmers had a considerable amount of manure because of the number of livestock they kept, and they had to apply lime [for calcium] in order to grow clover, since most of their soils were naturally acid and clover demands a neutral or alkaline soil [needs calcium].”
“The Dutch and Flemish system led the rest of Europe in the development of the modern science of farming because they were the first to get rid of the feudalistic, communal type of agriculture. - - - [This system] gradually spread to most other areas of Europe [and] has probably been the most stabilizing influence in modern European history.”
The Germans and Irish abused their lands and suffered malnutrition and even starvation, leading to massive emigration by the Irish and wars of invasion by the Germans. On page 183 it is stated that “Potatoes, grown for both home consumption and export, did to Ireland what deforestation and goats did to Labanon - - - . Ireland, about twice the size with approximately the same population and climate as Denmark, probably had much better soil than Denmark originally - - - . Ireland [as of 1974] has only about one-half as many people as a century ago, most of them relatively poor. - - - The productivity of their land is gone. It is the same old story - - - .”
Contrast that with the good stewardship and conservation practiced by Denmark, as described on page 182. “Apparently the Danes have found a satisfactory substitute for the ‘Nile’. It consists of crop rotation, grass, legumes, manure, and mineral [note the “m” world] fertilizers. Denmark, if isolated from the rest of Europe, could probably be said to have a permanent [sustained] agriculture – a system of agriculture that could endure for thousands of years without damage to the land. A permanent civilization could be built on such an agriculture, not only in Denmark but [conceivably] over most of the world.”
That’s the life and death challenge facing us and the preoccupation of history’s great agronomists. Unbeknownst to Dale and Carter, such a permanent agriculture had existed for thousands of years in the Amazon basin, built on the use of biochar. We also now have the means of recovering the minerals washed off lands around the world in the form of seawater extracts (such as Sea-Crop) that can be shipped anywhere in concentrated liquid form and applied to degraded, but intact, soils as a principal ingredient for restoring their fertility and tilth. What the sea extract lacks in major and secondary nutrients can be supplied by abundant ocean and lake byproducts such as fish wastes. Later I will get into these and other key ingredients for further boosting the traditional, wise agricultural and horticultural techniques for bringing about true sustainability and that needed “permanent” agriculture for establishing permanent civilizations in our country and everywhere. Could there be a greater need?
I turn now to a discussion of the United States. It is little recognized that the vast, new continent of North America was invaded and “settled” largely by people pushed out of their homeland by population pressure on the land and the natural resources of those countries. No small part of those people, mainly western Europeans to begin with, came seeking economic advantage or some means of exploiting the resources for presumed get-rich-quick returns thought to be presented and in reaction to having lived previously in disadvantaged conditions.
Declining soils and declining food production and availability were factors, but it is also true that the first white migrants to America were often from the lower classes and undesirables, as well as people who felt politically oppressed. They wished to be free of any restraint and free to get theirs without much consideration of others or the future. They began as colonists and eventually threw off the mother country that exacted food and fiber tribute and taxes from them.
This is my (GK) personal assessment without the sugar-coating. Add to that the sense that the new country’s resources were seemingly unlimited, and we can see why there was rapid and widespread waste and abuse of the soil, water, forest land, prairies, wildlife and other resources. Add to that new technologies and machinery, and we have the most extensive and rapid degradation of land and resources the world has ever seen. The pattern was to clear land, farm it for a few years until worn out, then abandon it and move west.
In the book, Dirt, Montgomery documents the colossal erosion and spoilage of lands across the southeastern U.S. from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, leading to the plantation system with obligatory slavery and pressure of desperation that was behind the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1885 and 1889. Settlers were fleeing from ruined lands in the east as much as they were rushing to virgin lands in the west. Later, they were to migrate in large numbers from Oklahoma to California and other western states, as portrayed in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
Of course, there have been examples of conservation and wise stewardship in American farming from very early on, but this has been in a minority of cases. On page 230, Dale and Carter give a summation of the more usual case:
“The early Americans were following a pattern as old as civilization and should not be unduly criticized for their waste in settling the country. They [however] caused more waste and ruin than any people before them because they had more land to exploit and better [more efficient] equipment with which to exploit it. Some ruined their land because they knew no better, and others destroyed out of greed for immediate profits, but most of them did it because it seemed the easiest thing to do.”
Despite the above statement, the authors spoke quite disparagingly about land abusers and their enablers. In my own lifetime (since 1940) America became the leading economic power in the world. Frequently I heard this was attributable to our superior ingenuity, industry, etc. It was because of our virtuous, “rugged individualism” or “capitalistic system”, etc. But, I long ago reasoned it was more due to the vast natural resources we stumbled onto and to America’s relative isolation from foreign invasion due to the vast oceanic expanses on our east and west coasts.
As Dale and Carter explain, “The people [of the U.S.] have had free enterprise in industry, freedom to exploit the land, forests, and minerals and freedom of speech and political institutions largely because the land was [repeat, “was”] rich – because there were enough resources for everyone, and everybody was free to exploit them as he pleased, until these resources showed frightening signs of scarcities.” I can recall during my college years (circa 1960) the predominant view that nature was merely a backdrop for the center stage of human activity, and that the land, air, water and biological resources were too large to be seriously harmed as we mastered nature for our convenience and indulgence. I remember arguments to the effect that nothing we did was unnatural since everything we used and did came from planet Earth and thus was meant for our unfettered use; there was even the biblical injunctive to be fruitful, multiply and subdue the Earth that justified it all.
It was with a pent-up anger at such ignorance, indifference and greed that I jumped into the 1970 Earth Day movement with a vengeance, and was subsequently rather surprised at how much of an impact that movement had in changing peoples’ views. Still, there was (and is) the backlash and continued denial that environmental impacts are anything to be concerned about or should deter us or interfere with our “right” to take whatever we want and to hell with any consequences or annoyances. Why shouldn’t our 5 percent of the world population continue to consume 25 percent of the resources? We deserve it, because we are superior.
Ever the conservationists (they worked for the Soil Conservation Service, SCS), fixated on soil and maximizing food production to meet the inevitable demands of an ever-expanding national and world population, Dale and Carter point out (pp. 230-233) that however we might develop and adapt, we still must eat. There is no more fundamental fact. Writing in 1955 and following the environmental reawakening of the early 1970s (which they viewed as distracting from the more fundamental need to address soil erosion and fertility exhaustion), they stated that the world then had enough productive land to feed the human race, but not much to spare. If allowed to do their job, the authors believed, unrealistically, that the SCS, with its land capability classification system, could fix all America’s topsoil problems.
In the belief of Dale and Carter, America need not “follow the path of decline taken by all previous civilizations”. After all, we have the lessons of history and the knowledge to conserve and use our natural resources wisely. “If we will but use these advantages, there is no reason why this nation and this civilization cannot continue to prosper and progress for thousands of years to come.” Also, “We must learn if we are to survive, that the fundamental base for our civilization is the natural resources on which it rests – that our plan for survival must start with an intelligent program for conserving and using those resources.”
There’s more to it than that. Dale and Carter ruefully recognized that exhorting and the development of conservation plans had not worked very well. We are still up against the “me first” rugged individualism that takes no heed of the future needs of society, and because of policies that permit this “freedom” to prevail, or to adequately address the programs and incentives that might change it. As I will point out later, mere “conservation”, unattainable as it seems to be, is not enough to begin with and we will need added means to both restore and build the productivity of our agricultural lands (including millions of small gardens) without using up every possible acre or doing substantial environmental harm. How can anyone, given the facts of history, be optimistic about going even further? Call me naïve, but I believe we now have some revolutionary means to do so, and I will introduce some in this article.
Topsoil and Civilization is a mixture of prescient insight, naivete, good and bad solutions and even contradictions typical of the ideas of its time - - - coming out of the Dustbowl Era of the 1930s and the governmental “conservation” response, which was undeniably very beneficial, but not sustained at a high level, it fell short of the whole need.
The Soil Conservation Service was created in 1935 and made a valiant effort to correct and redirect the many aspects of the nation’s mismanagement of its topsoil, which had gone from several feet in depth, on average, to less than six inches. Destruction and loss of soil organic matter experienced the same trend. Implementation and acceptance by farmers fell far short of expectations. The profound discouragement of Dale and Carter is expressed in their book, such as in the following passages on pages 252-3:
“While these [1970s environmental] agencies grabbed the front pages, the soil-saving program lagged, even backslid in places. Many corn-belt farmers had switched to bigger farms, larger tractors, bigger 4, 6 and 8-row unwieldy machines. Old style narrow contour strips, point rows, terraces and grassed waterways became nuisances. Carefully worked out Soil Conservation Service plans were junked and cancelled by the thousands. Grass and legumes were dropped from rotations in favor of cash crops such as corn, soybeans and oats. Fertilizer [chemical/synthetic] was substituted for what used to be legume-fixed nitrogen. Fertilizer took the place of fertility gone with eroded topsoil. The most destructive of all farming practices became a common, obscene sight: year after year corn planted up and down the slopes – at least, not [planted] on the contour.” Today corn is America’s biggest crop and export product, yet its nutritional value has plummeted, along with that of wheat. It should be no secret why that has happened.
A subtle effect of the easy availability of chemical fertilizers was to enable abandonment of mixed farming, leading to most farmers either exclusively growing crops and monoculture, or exclusively raising livestock so that the former farms had no available manure and the latter farms, particularly at concentrated feed lots, had excess manure, serious pollution and disposal problems. Yet, manure alone does not do the job. This is one of the hardest points to get across to organic growers. In fact, it may be argued that World War II was started by the Germans due to poor food supply and nutritional quality as a result of overuse of manure on their farmlands and ignorance of the need to supply mineral nutrients that return dollars on the dime, given time.
“The ages-old reason for this revolting development is that in the short-run it is easier and more profitable to exploit the soil with continuous corn than to conserve it [for the long-run]. Faced with large machinery payments, rising farming and living costs, expenses of school or college-age children and so on, the farmer’s goal becomes the dollar. Appealing to his social conscience to save American civilization by solidly investing 15 or 20 percent of his income to install a complete conservation program will get a variety of responses from the farmer, frequently a terse, ‘Drop dead’.” Yet, I can recall a time in the 1950’s when Iowa farmers drove Cadillacs. More recently, they were committing suicide in alarming numbers because of hopeless indebtedness. Modern chemical agriculture had betrayed them. “Get big or get out” in reality was a formula for getting big, going broke and being forced out. Today the American family farm is all but gone.
“With soil losses running up to 40 tons per acre on millions of acres of rolling to steep grain-belt land, this country is in trouble. These losses should not be over three to five tons. This fertile mud is polluting streams and rivers, bringing with it [chemical] pesticides and herbicides and fertilizer chemicals. - - - [various agencies] and the Soil Conservation Society of America can devise soil-saving techniques for any new situation, but if experience is a reliable guide, far less than half the farmers will apply them. That is not good enough to insure the general welfare of the 250 to 300 million people we see not far down the population road.”
That’s where we are today, with farmers now being less than one percent of the population. Evidently, the subject of our long-term survival is simply too annoying or boring to be bothered with for the majority of America’s citizenry as well. Scattered throughout Topsoil and Civilization are photos of mudflows and virtual gullies caused by erosion and stupidity. On page 256 is a photo of a water supply reservoir draining a 462 square mile area in Texas behind a 35 foot high dam. The next picture, taken 22 years later, shows the reservoir filled to the brim with silt equivalent to a square mile six inches deep. Whereas most of America’s streams once ran clear, a majority are now brown and carry toxic pollutants. They must be “treated” and sterilized before the water can be safely consumed.
After giving the appalling figures and photos of formerly arable lands lost to erosion and fertility depletion, plus the decline of farmers, etc., the authors put forth some of their practical solutions and perspective on future needs, which I have touched upon, and will provide my own solutions as well.
Not adequately covered in Topsoil and Civilization are two aspects of America’s rapid soil and fertility loss and the export of both existing and applied plant nutrients leaving the farms in harvested crops, and the way in which the excessive and simplistic application of NPK (or just N) fertilizers has accelerated soil nutrient loss and the destruction of soil life and soil organic matter. This has caused a severe loss of mineral, vitamin and protein content of commercially produced foods (lacking nutrient-density), leading to the meteoric rise of death-dealing degenerative diseases and today’s exorbitant “health care” costs. We’ve got it all upside down.
While he does not accord an equal importance to minerals, Montgomery, on page 205 in Dirt, gives a good discussion of the role and importance of soil organic matter. “Soil organic matter is essential for sustaining soil fertility not so much as a direct source of plant nutrients, but by supporting soil ecosystems that help promote the release and uptake of nutrients. Organic matter helps retain moisture, improves soil structure, helps liberate nutrients from clays, and is itself a source of plant nutrients. Loss of soil organic matter reduces crop yields by the activity of soil biota, thereby slowing nutrient recycling.” I point out that the ancient farmers could hardly have had any knowledge of soil nutrient minerals and their role in plant or animal nutrition, and thus which nutrients were lacking or sorely needed. Still today this knowledge is largely missing among farmers, gardeners and consumers.
Writing after 1970, the authors point to a call by the Soil Conservation Society of America, based in Ankeny, Iowa, for a National Land Use Policy, which some may recall was scuttled by Richard Nixon. They add (pp. 255-6) that “At one time the great hope was that the local soil and water conservation districts would be given powers by their respective states to regulate agricultural land use, that they would, in time, support this development, and that the topsoil of the United States would be safeguarded for the foreseeable future as every farm and ranch operation was brought under such codes. This has not evolved, which is the saddest limitation of all.” Perhaps carrots will work better than sticks, but farmers have to be shown that doing it right pays off, and in the short term.
At the end of the Second World War in 1945, it was thought that there would be a rush to the rural areas and establishment of thousands of new small farms. Instead, the opposite happened and we got suburbia and commuting to city jobs with a rapid, continuing decline in family farms. The authors note (p. 256), circa 1974, “The phenomenal development of farm mechanization [yeah, technology!] has brought a transfer of rural population to the metropolitan areas. Interest in the land and its problems on the part of the general public has declined. The 47 people each farm worker feeds in the U.S.A. see no problem except prices.” Is the situation so depressing and hopeless?
My sense is that this situation has not significantly changed, and what few farmers there are left today, if not running mega farms, have gotten the short end of the economic stick. Instead of a national land use policy, we have a cheap food policy, and are learning what the full meaning of cheap is. If we want the quality of food to improve (save for what we grow ourselves) and we want more soil protective measures taken by more family farms practicing more environmentally-responsible methods, our society is going to have to provide the needed economic and other incentives to present and future farmers. Isn’t good food worth this? Serious consideration needs to be given to a soil depreciation allowance for farms as an investment in our country’s health and future.
In their book’s last chapter, “Can the U.S.A. Survive?”, Dale and Carter endeavor to answer that question, giving the negative and positive aspects and applying their proposed solutions, globally as well as to America. Remember, their ideas and recommendations come out of the era from the mid-fifties to the mid-seventies, when the U.S. population had reached somewhat over 200 million (in about 1969). We are now at about 350 million.
The authors ask (page 259), “What lies ahead? Fifty million acres are eroding at a highly accelerated rate. In 25 years, 59 million more acres of good land will have been taken over for urban uses; airports, subdivisions, factories, parts [sic, ports?] and so forth. That is 100 million food acres off the production line. (In 1970 we had about 400 million acres of cropland [about 2 acres per person].) If population increases as predicted, by 1999 A.D. our food safety margin may have grown thin, even though we have additional land that can be brought into production.” But, at what cost? And when that occurs, then what?
Pessimistically (or maybe realistically), following Dale’s death, Carter writes, “Numerous devotees think science can save us from any situation we get into, including the approaching exhaustion of some natural resources. This author has his doubts. He is inclined to think the odds favor a repetition of history; that the cycles of [human] nature are irresistible, and that the systemic deterioration of the environment is almost inevitable. - - - Thus far, the technology of destruction has outrun the technology of conservation and restoration.”
Continuing this frank assessment, Carter states (pp. 262-3), “The odds very much favor a continuing steady decline in the basic stock of topsoil in the United States. - - - Losing topsoil means losing minerals, and one can go out and buy NPK in bags (or even more sophisticated mixtures) and spread them on the land. It also means losing organic matter and micro-organisms, which are not so easily come by.” True enough, but Carter apparently was unaware that the effects of persistent and ever-increasing chemical NPK applications results simultaneously in the removal of critically needed trace elements, further compounding crop production and quality problems and soil loss. This is the now pervasive and ever-worsening condition of most of today’s agricultural soils and behind the lowered nutritional quality of our foods, which is unsustainable for our nation’s soils and our health. Here is precisely where seawater extracts and biochar come to the rescue. I’m sure Dale and Carter never heard of either of those being used. There are other new developments they could not have foreseen which may allow us to push the “restart” button.
Dale and Carter called for more money to be put into soil conservation. They felt that if the people were made aware of the facts and saw that erosion and resource depletion threatened our civilization’s future they would pressure politicians to provide money and pass laws to force farmers to conserve our topsoil or be taken to court. They were also of a mentality that we needed to convert every possible acre to food production to feed our nation and the world’s impending population increase, but they also believed we could fairly easily go to zero population growth, pointing out that in 1970 Japan actually did that. I think that remains the case in modern day Japan.
Even though there is evidence that higher education leads to voluntary constraint on procreation, I think it is unrealistic to think we will get world population under control soon enough. Furthermore, it is foolish to think in terms of expanding into evermore marginal lands until we have first restored the many millions of acres of abused and abandoned lands, which conceivably can be restored with more recent and revolutionary measures, some of which I will spell out in the hope this will lead to a meaningful turn-around in our treatment of the land from which over 90 percent of our nourishment is derived, and paying the respect Mother Earth is due. What we do to our Mother, we do to ourselves.
So, where do we go from here? Really, we don’t have much time and major change is overdue.
In their single-minded fervency for growing the most food possible, to the max, Dale and Carter advocated (pp. 234-5) diverting the flows of rivers for hundreds of miles to irrigate 30 million acres of arid lands to produce bumper crops; clearing and draining 100 million acres of forest, grasslands and marshlands to make good farm land; and “properly” clearing and draining areas of jungle; plus irrigating semi-desert areas around the world in order “to help bring these unused lands into production, and the yields from them should give all the people of the world more food and a higher standard of living.”
Is this really what we want, to convert every bit of diverse landscape into farmland? First, we need to get serious about population control and, secondly, we should go back and restore all the millions of acres of abandoned and exhausted soils that Topsoil and Civilization has catalogued. The means to do this are more feasible than was generally imagined even a decade ago. In that regard, I can side with this statement (from pages 240-2), “Man has the knowledge and tools with which to destroy rapidly the soil and the plant and animal life it supports, but he also has the knowledge and tools with which to build soil and increase its productiveness much more rapidly than under natural processes [an example given was planting adapted native grasses and controlling grazing pressure on Texas rangeland formerly made bare from cattle grazing]. Man can apply his knowledge and skill toward soil building, rather than soil destruction, if he chooses to do so; and instead of making deserts of all the lands he occupies, he can make deserts [and formerly arable land] bloom.”
In seeming contradiction to the call to convert all land and maximize yield per acre, Dale and Carter wrote (p. 237) the following: “Farm production cannot be increased indefinitely by the use of chemical fertilizers, because chemists do not know the exact formula for a so-called complete fertilizer, since chemical requirements vary for each area, depending on what is already in the soil.” Actually, I contend that by the use of even natural fertilizers and professional soil testing we are very close to knowing that “exact” formula, and it comes close to being a uniform, balanced fertilization that works very well for almost any soil and any crop to be grown. Strangely, the authors also wrote (p. 139), “The irrigation, clearing and draining of new land is not the solution.” So, what is?
Continuing in their surprisingly unorthodox downplaying of chemical fertilization, the authors state (p. 237), “The heavy use of chemicals also tends to speed up the oxidation of organic matter in the soil, and this, in turn, tends to speed up erosion; ultimately making the soil more difficult to farm. Furthermore, the cost of fertilizers will eventually become excessive, just as in the case of hydroponics. In other words, commercial fertilizers are useful to supplement the natural fertility of the soil, if other good conservation practices maintain proper soil structure and organic matter, but chemical fertilizers can never take the place of good land management.” There are some more recent solutions for the long haul in regard to these limitations as well. Such measures could well get us to that old goal of agronomists, a permanent agriculture, which today we might call sustainable agriculture. When it comes to the costs, I ask what expense is more justifiable than enabling the feeding of people and insuring civilization’s very survival?
When I was a teenager, the term “conservation” was a rallying cry to those who gave a dam about the loss of wildlife and degradation we could see going on around us in what became termed “the environment.” Anyone holding out for preservation on an extensive scale was asking for perpetual heartbreak, and thus one had to come to terms with the concept of “wise use” and hope it was not just a guise for exploitation. On page 237 Dale and Carter give their definition of conservation as follows:
“Conservation of soil, water, plants and animal resources does not mean hoarding these things for future use, but using them efficiently and in such a way that they will last and become more productive. This can be done, but to do it, man must co-operate with nature – not assume that he is the master of nature. The conservationists of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service have a fairly simple formula for using the land while improving it. Use the land within its capabilities, and treat the land according to its need for protection and improvement.” They noted as well a concept of “sustained yield harvest” then being used by the U.S. Forest Service. Basically, this boils down to harvesting no more timber than is grown and replaced each year.
That understanding had a certain wisdom to it; however, while studying wildlife and fisheries around 1970 at Oregon State University, I came to see all this high talk as something of a ruse because I saw almost no cases where habitat improvement actually got carried out , and I concluded that man seldom does, or can, improve upon nature. I can recall in a class on conservation of natural resources challenging a professor about thinking of wildlife as simply a crop to be harvested. He couldn’t get away with saying that after Earth Day. Birdwatchers now far outnumber hunters, whereas they used to be snickered at.
Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization was written during the period of 2008 to 2012, bringing the data on topsoil and its handling forward around 35 to 50 years. Montgomery is a geologist and a Professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington. Dirt was written at a lab station at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. As he states in the preface, as a geologist he was trained to ignore and dismiss soil as a nuisance overburden formed (somehow) in an eye-blink of geological history. His interest in soil (a.k.a. dirt) was prompted when he chanced to find and read an out-of-print book written in the 1950’s titled Topsoil and Civilization. Here’s how he describes that encounter (p. x):
“It was one of those moments when an inspired story burrows into a receptive brain. Everything clicks and you see things differently [as happened for me from reading the works of Dr. William A. Albrecht]. I found the narrative gripping, and it stayed with me throughout my geological studies. Soil, of all things, brought down ancient societies that abused their land and paid the ultimate price, leaving a legacy of degraded, worn-out fields and impoverished descendants.”
With respect to correcting and averting the problems, Montgomery concludes the preface by saying (p. xiv):
“What can we do to start rebuilding and restoring agricultural soils? Public investment should support agricultural research that is focused on working with soil ecosystems rather than working against them. A new approach could include reducing subsidies for conventional erosive farming practices, increasing support for development of perennial crops and lower input, no-till farming, promoting practices that increase soil organic matter to both sequester and improve soil fertility; and adopting policies to improve the viability of small-scale, organic farms. We don’t have to choose between sustainable agriculture and feeding the world. In many cases crop yields from so-called alternative agriculture can match the output of what we call conventional agriculture. And no matter how one looks at it, restoring native [or pre-existing] soil fertility will become increasingly important for sustaining agricultural production in a post-oil (and most likely post-cheap fertilizer) world.” In this connection, we can learn much from what the Cubans did for food self-sufficiency following the oil and trade embargo imposed by the U.S.
When I first read Dirt in January 2013 I made the following note at the end of the book: “There are no really new or breakthrough ideas here. This is not revolutionary.” Indeed, it is the usual grab bag of ideas and practices associated with organic agriculture, which is not going to do the job. A new agriculture will have to get us beyond ordinary organics. If you go back and look at Montgomery’s solutions, you will see that there is not much recommended that actually would “rebuild and restore agricultural soils” or does anything more than hold the line.
In my view, as monumental and revelatory as Dirt is, it contains serious errors and omissions. There is no indication he was aware of cation mineral ratios, uncovered by Albrecht, which largely govern fertility, and he says little about trace minerals. In addition, Montgomery has overlooked some needed and viable proactive steps that truly can bring about revolutionary and lasting improvements to agriculture. I plan to address these further on.
As I wrote on that last page, “The author is essentially stuck in a manure and NPK mentality and Sacred C.O.W. (Conventional Organic Wisdom) mode. He does not have modern eco-agriculture knowledge or recognize the major role of mineral nutrients needed (in addition to organic matter) for complete and balanced soil fertility. Where Montgomery does talk about specific minerals (calcium and potassium), what he says does not match my understanding or throw much light on their importance or what they do. In a discussion of the amazing properties of Terra Preta soils incorporating biochar (pp. 142-4), he totally misses the point of their significance and promise, explaining the phenomenon as a sort of super-composting project.” A major part of soil erosion protection and drought resistance hinges on providing full and correct fertilization for which natural materials and methods exist. Many incredible, new biological and pro-biotic products, used in small doses, are coming on the scene. We are finding that the real trick is properly and fully nurturing the beneficial microbes that feed our crops and, in turn, our livestock.
As if anticipating these criticisms and inadequacies, Montgomery writes (p. 240), “Clearly, more of the same [chemical agriculture?] won’t work. Projecting past practices into the future offers a recipe for failure. We need a new agricultural model, a new farming philosophy. We need another agricultural revolution.” In my view, present day family farmers are owed restitution, which our society should provide by way of enabling them to rapidly transition to a new era of eco-agricultural practices. New farmers should be offered the same sort of incentives to get started in sustainable and regenerative methods and stay there. We owe that to ourselves. I think the key concepts and pieces are available and I will outline them. It’s just a matter of putting them together and implementing them.
In his final chapter, Montgomery makes a number of statements (pp. 244-46) that match up with the precepts that I will outline.
“ - - - if our society is to survive for the long haul, our political institutions need to focus on land stewardship as a mainstream – and critical – issue. - - - The worldwide decimation of forests and fisheries provide obvious examples [of resource destruction and depletion], but the ongoing loss of the soil that supplies more than 95 percent of our food is far more crucial. - - - this challenge requires more people on the land, practicing intensive organic agriculture on smaller farms - - - the bottom line is that we have to adapt to the capacity of the soil rather than vice-versa - - -. We need to enable peasant farmers to feed themselves, and generate an income capable of lifting them out of poverty, while making them stewards of the land through access to knowledge, the right tools, and land to both feed themselves and grow a marketable surplus.” But beyond identifying the needs, what are the proactive and revolutionary solutions?
The term “organic” (coined by J. I. Rodale) in relation to agriculture and horticulture is tied to the use or application of organic matter to the soil as its distinguishing feature. It has always been a confusing term and came to mean essentially “anti-chemical”. To take the place of the half-measure of organiculture, I propose the term “nutriculture”, which places the emphasis on nutritional quality in plants or crops and full nutrition of the soil. It centers around a concept I coined back in 1991; namely mineral-augmented organics (MAO), with an emphasis on mineralization to complement the provision of organic matter or humus. Interestingly, the champion of worldwide soil remineralization, John Hamaker, titled his 1982 book The Survival of Civilization.
Over time, the MAO concept was enhanced with the notion of complete and balanced fertility in adequate amounts, i.e., the ABC’s of full fertility, involving the 20 or so nutrient elements now known to be required for healthiest plant or crop growth. Our complete, mineralized organic fertilizers (BLOOM line) are a generic way of addressing the full fertility goal. A corollary of this is nutritional pest control, in which a high degree of resistance to insect pests and diseases, as well as rot resistance, is achieved through proper nutrition, guided by professional soil testing.
Most recently, incorporation of biochar for nutrient and moisture retention, plus the fostering of beneficial microbial populations, has been added, along with the use of seawater extract and ocean-derived byproducts (such as fish and crabshell wastes), and all of this ideally integrated through vermiculture and the production of a synergistic super fertilizer. Properly fed earthworms can do phenomenal things for restoring poor soils, and they were the principal originators of most topsoil. Such a combination, along with a variety of other organic materials, has the fantastic potential for restoring and rebuilding deteriorated soils all over the world, as well as making them truly sustainable for decades and centuries in a way that no previous system (other than making Terra Preta soils) has ever done. Instead of seeing those soils as lost, we need to see them as recoverable. I anticipate doing a detailed follow-up article on this consortium of techniques in the next month or two.
Nutriculture is the name proposed for this revolutionary, new agriculture, taking us into a bright and transformative future that I have christened The BLOSSOM Era, where every sort of existing farmable and restorable land can be made to bloom, bringing about that long-sought permanent agriculture for a permanent civilization, thriving in harmony with nature and all of humanity. In this connection, I have identified 10 basic precepts to be followed and maintained for entering The BLOSSOM Era.
1. Agriculture’s sane future path
2. Far beyond ordinary organics
3. Adding the Mineral dimension
4. Creating ideal nutrient balance through soil analysis
5. Growing highest, nutrient-dense, flavorful foods
6. Striving for maximal health
7. Restoring and improving soils
8. Safeguarding Earth’s environment
9. Aiding a return to the land
10. Fostering food self-sufficiency worldwide
As Ed Schultz would say, “Let’s get to work!”
© 2014 Gary L. Kline
All Rights Reserved