The use of fertilizer goes back thousands of years. Egyptians, Romans, Babylonians, and early Germans all are recorded as using minerals and/or manure to enhance the productivity of their farms.
By the 19th century, guano and manure, which had been used in the Andes for at least 1500 years, was taken in large quantities from Peru and Chile to Europe and the USA, a practice that was impractical and expensive. This was one of the first attempts at marketing the distribution of fertilizer but due to high production and distribution costs the new business did not take off. But that all changed in the middle of the 20th century as synthetic petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, and weed killers were developed by large petrochemical companies and the ability to distribute them worldwide became easier and more cost effective.
As new innovations were developed in the second half of the 20th century, farmers began to use these technological advances to boost yields—synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides became commonplace on farms, in backyard gardens, and on front lawns as well.
This was part of the “Green Revolution” which was said to have contributed to widespread eradication of poverty, averted hunger for millions, raised incomes, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, reduced land use for agriculture, and contributed to declines in infant mortality. But was it really all it was cracked up to be? Was it as good as we were told by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) ?
The Green Revolution was a set of technology gains that increased agricultural production through the adoption of newly created high-yielding varieties of corn, grains, wheat, and rice. The revolution was also associated with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, water irrigation, and mechanical tillage from newly designed tractors and plows. All these together were seen to improve ‘traditional’ outdated methods that were viewed as inefficient and unable to “feed the starving world”.
At the same time new high-yielding plant varieties were developed through selective breeding, however, they soon reached their limits and agricultural scientists turned to the creation of new strains that did not exist in nature; genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
GMO’s provide resistance to certain pests, drought, spoilage, and chemical treatments. Some are resistance to herbicides and led to the widespread use of a newly developed chemical called glyphosate, commercially known as Round Up, which kills all weeds and invasive plants.
The Monsanto Corporation developed Round Up and released it to market in 1974, but it would be the 80’s before Round Up became widely used as Monsanto engineered many types of GMO’s that were resistant to Round Up. While it kills all other plants somehow the GMO engineered plant grows without a problem. There is a major problem, however, as the soil that was treated with glyphosate is “killed” and no longer contains the biodiversity required to provide proper nutrition to the plant. Not only are unwanted vegetation and plants killed but also the unseen and microscopic fungi and bacteria that are the true regenerative miracles that are found naturally in untreated “alive” soil. The soil is dead, the plant is void of nutrition, and ultimately humans do not receive the diverse vitamins and nutrition they need either.
According to Robert Kremer from the United States Agricultural Department, “glyphosates not only kill beneficial microbes and bacteria but encourage the spores that produce the fungi responsible for sudden-death syndrome that affects both corn and soybeans. Glyphosate “locks up” manganese (PDF) and other minerals in the soil so that they can’t be utilized by the plants that need them. It’s also toxic to rhizobia, the bacterium that fixes nitrogen in the soil”.
GMO plants, for those who are not informed, grow fast and look great when viewed in a grocery store by a consumer. They appear to be healthier than their non GMO, naturally grown counterparts. From the perspective of the large, industrialized corporations who now dominate the growing and distribution of grains, fruits, and vegetables, the GMO plants are more drought and pest resistance, grow faster, are easier to store and transport long distances, and look better for longer once they make it to the grocery store.
It may help the bottom line for big corporations like ADM, Cargill, Bayer, and Nutrien but these fruits and vegetables do little to maintain your health and provide the nutrition density your body needs to build its own immune system and fight off diseases.
In summary, below is the process followed by large industrialized farms:
- Spray Round Up
This “modern miracle” produces food that is not healthy and causes tremendous harm to the environment. But the downside doesn’t stop there. While almost universally these “advancements” have been seen as a great technological improvement with another supposed benefit being that fewer people would be needed to grow more food thus people would be able to leave their farms and move to the city for a better way of life and higher paying jobs. The United State Department of Agriculture has pushed this “modernization” since the 1930’s and their persistence has made an impact. The number of small farms has been on the decline for decades as one farmer after another gave up and was eventually bought or pushed out by massive corporations.
Think about all the small farmers and families that lost their farms and livelihoods. And somehow, the United States government led by the USDA saw and actively promoted this movement as a good thing. This was seen as facilitating the exodus from farms and rural life so people could move to a big city and get a high paying job in a factory or a large corporation. And this was seen as a good thing? How could this possibly be framed up as something positive?
Both the Ford and Rockefeller foundations are credited with financial support that made “The Green Revolution” a reality and a scientist by the name of Norman Borlaug, known as the father of “The Green Revolution” won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work.
But no one championed “Big Ag” more than Earl “Rusty” Butz, secretary of the USDA under Richard Nixon.
“Blustering, boisterous, and often vulgar, Butz lorded over the U.S. farm scene at a key period. He plunged a pitchfork into New Deal agricultural policies that sought to protect farmers from the big agribusiness companies whose interests he openly pushed. He envisioned a hyper-efficient, centralized food system, one that could profitably and cheaply “feed the world” by manipulating (or “adding value to”) mountains of Midwestern corn and soy. Patron saint of the Fast Food Nation, Butz lived to see his dream realized. He died in his sleep, a quiet end for a man whose career shook the earth, causing untold acres to succumb to the plow. Yet his legacy still thrives, and will not likely die as gently as the man.” – grist.org.
And all the time that he worked for the USDA he served openly on the Board of Directors of several agricultural companies including Ralston Purina. Talk about a conflict of interest.
Our government just can’t leave agriculture alone and at the start of this Presidency Joe Biden announced he is expanding a program for farmers not to farm and leave land “fallow”. While the intentions may be good this shows just how out of touch our politicians are. We need more small farmers, not less, and Biden’s plan will not hurt the big corporations at all. In fact, I’m sure they are lobbying for this as they will gain more and more market share of our food distribution network.
Perhaps not surprisingly 50 families and/or individuals own over 31 million acres of land with Bill Gates actively purchasing huge swaths of farmland over the last decade. The fact that the wealthiest people in the country are buying up large swathes of farmland shows you that there are many things here at play that simple folks like us do not understand or are privy to. (The reasons for the wealthy buying more and more land are the subject of several future articles I will write).
Let me get to the point. Our country has been completely duped by the supposed good that has been brought about through “The Green Revolution”. We have been, and continue to be, taken advantage of by the USDA and our government. More and more small farmers are being replaced by massive corporate farms that are doing little to help our environment or the health of our citizens. It has been one big con job – just like so many other issues that are coming to a head.
My own father-in-law, who grew up on a small Iowa farm, got out of farming in the early 70’s but still was still very much sold on the advancements that were happening at that time. For a time, after he got out of farming, he sold and distributed chemical fertilizer and never thought anything negative of the new “advancements”. This is no knock on him as he was one of the greatest human beings I was ever around (he died of cancer about 5 years ago). He was led to believe all this technical innovation was a miracle and I’m sure at the time it most certainly looked like one.
Industrialized farms cause a multitude of problems and the ones caused by synthetic chemicals are at the top of the list. One of the worst chemicals is a herbicide developed by Monsanto Corporation in the early 70’s called Round Up. It is directly linked to cancer and Monsanto was later forced into a settlement of $11BIL. But not only is Round Up cancer causing it also has further negative impacts to our environment. It completely kills not just the unwanted, supposedly invasive plants, but also all fungi and bacteria that is found in alive and healthy soil. Quite simply it “kills the soil”.
Round Up is only one negative part of the modernized agriculture system. The system requires the soil to be tilled down to bare dirt each fall with larger and larger amounts of chemicals needed as the soil is depleted further and further. The soil becomes mostly clay and sand and either blows away or is eroded by rain as it does not have the fungi, bacteria, roots, and living matter that hold it together. The things that we don’t see, nearly invisible to us, are quickly killed and the dirt that is left is unable to bind together and decompose as God intended it to do. Thus, every year, inch by inch, the topsoil is removed and either blows away or floats downstream.
The supposed “miracle” of modern agriculture has come at a high environmental cost—namely the wholesale pollution of most of our streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and even coastal areas, as the topsoil along with synthetic chemicals run-off into nearby waterways and eventually into our drinking water or our major rivers and lakes.
When the chemicals and topsoil run off into our waterways, they cause algae blooms sometimes big enough to make waterways impassable. When the algae die, they sink to the bottom and decompose in a process that removes oxygen from the water. Fish and other aquatic species can’t survive in these so-called “dead zones” and so they are diseased or die. The Gulf of Mexico where the Mississippi River exits is one of these dead zones. The poisoning of aquatic life is a major problem here as well as worldwide and humans who eat diseased fish can themselves become ill or develop cancers or other chronic illnesses, thus completing the circle wrought by pollution, much of it caused by modern industrialized farming.
Fortunately, there is a solution and that is eliminating these GMO’s, along with mechanical tilling, and the use of man-made fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. This can be accomplished by “Regenerative Agriculture” which uses ruminant herbivore animals such as cows, sheep, goats, and pigs to provide natural soil tilling, mowing, and of course “fertilizing” as they turn grass and plants into urine and poop which is deposited back on to the soil.
These practices, which are the subject for past and future articles I have written, provide a dense thick blanket of diverse plant life and build alive soil teaming with worms, fungi, and bacteria. A well-maintained farm does not expose dirt to the sun but allows plant life and its roots to grow deep into the ground. We are just now starting to understand the importance of fungi and bacteria that grow throughout the soil and are the building blocks of nature that help us to build natural immune systems to wart off diseases and virus attacks. I recommend you read a book by Joel Salatin, Greg Judy, or Gabe Brown or catch some of their talks that can be found on Youtube. If you want to learn more about fungi, including mushrooms, a recent documentary called “Fantastic Fungi” is out on Netflix. Another great documentary that recently came out called “Kiss the Ground” was well done and shows the real success story of a California farm that was worn out and pretty much like a desert until Regenerative Agriculture practices were put into place.
Kiss the Ground is a full-length documentary narrated by Woody Harrelson that sheds light on an “new, old approach” to farming called “regenerative agriculture” that has the potential to balance our climate, replenish our vast water supplies, and feed the world.
I recently met with an old acquaintance who was shocked when I told him I was going to retire and wanted to become a “farmer”. In fact, he laughed out loud. I am interested in finding solutions, not simply arguing about is wrong with our country and world. I want to make a difference in our world and moving to a farm and “getting back to the basics” is something I am dead serious about, even if it may sound ridiculous to some.
Science is not always the answer. I believe the best solutions are usually found by looking at nature and understanding why God designed things the way he did. In farming God has always provided us a better way and the “circle of life”, which is what regenerative agriculture is all about, could have tremendous positive impacts in our country if more people can get educated, learn more about the movement, and move out to the country to get started.