Man v. Nature on Soil and Food: Nature 2, Man 0

While diligently planning my family’s significantly larger vegetable garden (thinking Victory Gardens), especially studying how to care for the soil, I was struck by the similar paths that soil and food have travelled during the industrialization of our food system.

Let me explain.

According to one of my favorite gardening books, Shepard Ogden’s Straight-Ahead Organic, published by Chelsea Green (a favorite publisher), the chapter on Caring for the Soil opens as follows:

By volume, a productive garden soil is 25 percent air, 25 percent water, 40 to 45 percent minerals, and about 5 percent organic matter, including a whole Noah’s Ark of plants and animals ranging from microscopic fungi and bacteria to worms, insects, and burrowing mammals.

Seemed pretty straight forward; until I read the very next sentence:

A double handful of this soil contains more organisms, mostly microscopic, than there are people on Earth.

Granted, this book was original published in 1992, so the world population was approximately 1.3 billion less than today, but there were still an estimated 5.4 billion people on the planet, so we are talking about near-astronomical concentrations for such a small space. Despite this incredible diversity, a fateful decision was made to change how we would feed this highly complex, fertile soil.

Quickly, here are three key contributors to that decision:

  1. German chemist Justus von Liebig’s determination that plants primarily need nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (mid 1800s; you’ll likely recognize this as the “N-P-K” found on nearly every bag of fertilizer)
  2. German chemist Fritz Haber’s method of synthesizing ammonia (won him 1918 Nobel Prize in chemistry; described by some as “father of chemical warfare”)
  3. End of World War II, which left the military-industrial complex with the need for new markets, since demand for explosives and warfare chemistry dropped off significantly

Industry found its way to repurpose factories by industrializing a major component in growing food – “feeding the soil.”  The products? Chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  But it turns out that the industrial food system they built, which has made many corporations a lot of money, can not be sustained (assuming a triple-bottom-line v. profit only perspective). Yes, it produces massive amounts of food, much of it inedible monoculture crops used in feeding livestock and producing sweeteners and oils for processed food.  But the price our soil has had to pay is “a legacy of death, destruction, and pollution that continues to this day,” quoting Shepard Ogden.

How does this relate to food?

Through decades of research (mostly funded by food companies), marketing claims (often contradicting other claims), and hundreds of billions of dollars spent on advertising those claims, we have ended up with food retail shelves dominated by highly processed, fake foods. These “edible food-like substances”, as Michael Pollan likes to call them, provide consumers with one or more key nutrients that are supposedly key to healthy living, at least according to the ideology of nutritionism (read more).

Unfortunately, for consumers, fake food has done a poor job mimicking the actual nutritional value, flavor and experience of highly complex, yet 100% natural, real food.  It wasn’t that long ago that Americans ate real food, which was used in preparing nearly every home or restaurant-cooked meal.

Like soil, we have not come close to understanding food well enough to replicate it in an industrial system. Some may say I’m crazy as they point to the claims and supermarket shelves filled with fake foods. But like the “death, destruction, and pollution” propogated by chemical fertilizers and pesticides, fake food has its own dark side, including obesity, diabetes, shortened life spans, fewer specialty crop farms, dead soil, dead zones in our oceans, massive carbon emissions, bankrupt local economies, etc.

It’s high time we return to a simple organic principle (no USDA labels required). Feed the soil, so the soil can feed the plants, so the plants can feed us. Even better, do so in a way that ensures we leave the soil richer and more productive than we found it – without chemicals.  That, in turn, will allow us to accelerate the supply of real food to replace as much fake foods as we can, as fast as we can.

A tall order, no doubt. But considering the alternative, do we really have a choice?

4 responses to “Man v. Nature on Soil and Food: Nature 2, Man 0

  1. Love finding your blog! I hope to link to it soon. Keep up the great work.

  2. Rob,

    The good news is that people like my good friend Stuart are working everyday to learn more about soil ecology and “fix” this issue:

    Glad I’m not the only one to have traced much of this back to von Liebig!

  3. Albert Howard in his organic farming classic of the 1940’s an “Agricultural Testament” says that “fields of the west [ now the world over] are trying to satisfy no less than three hungers: (1) the local hunger of the rural population (2) the hunger of the growing urban areas the population of which is unproductive from the point of view of soil fertility (3) the hunger of the machine avid for a constant stream of raw materials required for manufacture. All this adds to the burden on the land and to the calls on it’s fertility.”

    With growing consumerism this truth is even more in evidence today when soils and food have become dead.

    Keep up the good work in this blog!

  4. Great Post. Fits nicely with the work in “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations” by David R. Montgomery.

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