“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”
― Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

A couple of summers ago, I spent three weeks on Holy Isle, a small Scottish island owned entirely by a Buddhist community. Some people visit for a short course or retreat, normally for a week, while there are also long-term volunteers running the kitchens, gardens, and housekeeping. I was somewhere in between – a short term volunteer donating three hours a day to working in the gardens in exchange for a discount on my board and lodging.

There were many jobs that needed to be done in the several acres of garden, which would be shared out each day amongst the volunteers. I quickly became a specialist…. in shovelling pony poo. Ah, the glamour!

Vegetable garden, Holy Isle

There is a small group of wild Eriskay ponies living on the island, descended from domestic animals, and their daily offerings are a rich source of nourishment for the vegetable beds. So each morning I would collect a wheelbarrow and a spade, and set out in search of manurish goodness. It’s really not as gross as it sounds – really just recycled grass, and not at all offensive. Once I’d exhausted the supply of poo within wheelbarrowing distance of the gardens, I’d collect seaweed from the rocky shore, or bracken from the hillsides. There were also separate compost heaps for the garden scraps, encased in chicken wire cages to keep rats away.

The end result of these various additions, suitably rotted down, was a rich, nutritious soil supplement, perfect for growing delicious vegetables. What we tend to rather disrespectfully call soil (UK), or dirt (US), is actually a complex ecosystem unto itself. It is estimated that a single teaspoon (1 gram) of rich garden soil can hold up to one billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes. Look out at your back garden, and marvel!

For many centuries, farmers knew that soil health was vital. Crop rotation ensured that nutrients were returned to the soil, and mitigated the build-up of pathogens and pests (see last week’s blog post on pesticides). But then we entered the modern era, and farming, like so many other areas of human activity, became about more, more, more, and faster, faster, faster. Cue artificial fertilisers.

Artificial fertilisers are not all bad. I’d like to make that clear at the start. The Haber process led to the Green Revolution, which increased the number of humans that could be fed from 1 hectare of land (2.47 acres) from 1.9 to 4.3. Millions have been lifted out of starvation over the last 40 years. Farmers working the poor soils in parts of Africa wouldn’t be able to feed their families without artificial fertilisers.

But there is a price to pay. Only 17% of the nitrogen used in fertilisers ends up in our food; the rest ends up in soil and water. And unfortunately nitrogen is also a great fertiliser for algae and bacteria. Fertiliser that ends up in lakes and the ocean causes massive blooms of algae, which use up the oxygen dissolved in the water, suffocating other species and creating dead zones. Right now, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is hitting the headlines, expected to expand to over 8,000 square miles this summer, fuelled by the Midwest floods that washed fertilizer into the Mississippi River, which then disgorged it into the Gulf. Chesapeake Bay has another large dead zone. Around the world, 405 dead zones have been identified, affecting an area of 95,000 square miles, about the size of New Zealand.

Further, producing fertilisers pollutes the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. The Haber reaction requires burning fossil fuels, which emit carbon dioxide. And other potent greenhouse gases, including nitrous oxide, are also released while making and using fertiliser.

So, can we have the best of both worlds – feed all the human mouths without damaging the soil and killing the oceans?

According to this BBC article:

“The truth is that it would be impossible to feed a growing global population using purely organic farming methods. And because organic farming is relatively inefficient (yields are on average 25% lower) compared to modern technological methods, vast new tracts of land would need to be used, which would further impact our forests and other ecological spaces.”

It turns out that different parts of the world need different solutions. African farmers need access to synthetic fertilisers if they are going to catch up with the rest of the world in crop production, as the soil they work with is so poor. But in Africa, as everywhere else, farmers should be encouraged to “micro-dose” their crops with exactly the right amount of fertilizer, which is more efficient financially, and minimises the problem of agricultural run-off creating dead zones.

In the US, Department of Agriculture (USDA) researcher Rick Haney advocates natural methods such as ploughing less, growing cover crops, and using biological controls to keep pests in check. He says:

“We were applying fertilizers and getting these big yields, so that system seemed to be working — until we began seeing, for example, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico [created by algal blooms triggered by high nitrogen levels from fertilizer], and we started wondering if this was really working right. Are we putting on too much fertilizer? And the answer is, “Yes we are.”  It’s like instead of feeding your children a balanced diet, let’s just feed them vitamins. That’s not going to work, is it?”

He also sees a win-win in using cover crops, old-style, to not only enrich the soil but also to sequester carbon as stipulated in the Paris Accord:

“We should never have soil bare — ever. Right now, farmers leave their fields bare for much of the year. If they would only plant a diverse, multi-species cover crop, just think of the carbon that we could sequester out of the atmosphere and put into the soil on the 150 million acres of corn and wheat land in this country. We could pull a phenomenal amount of carbon back into the soil, which is where it is supposed to be.”

At the domestic, individual level, what can we do?

We can buy organic. The UK’s Soil Association, in accordance with EU law (at least until Brexit), requires that certified organic food has been grown with no artificial fertilizers. It was a bit harder to make out what the USDA policy is, although it does state that “most” artificial fertilizers are prohibited.

We can choose to use only organic fertilizers on our gardens. If you don’t happen to have access to pony poo and seaweed, you can still use compost from garden waste, leaves, grass clippings, teabags, and even paper and cardboard. (Good tips from the Eden Project.)

We can convert lawns into flower borders or vegetable beds. Lawns can be intensive in terms of watering, mowing, and fertilizing, and they are food deserts for bees and other nectar-seeking insects. (12 reasons to get rid of your lawn here.)

In a couple of weeks I’m off to Schumacher College to do a course on Gardening as a Spiritual Practice. It may not include my particular specialisation of shoveling pony poo, but I’m sure I will learn a lot. I will report back in due course!

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