Monday, January 13, 2014

Chemical Agriculture 101 - Chemical Fertilizers

So what is so bad about growing commodities with synthetic fertilizers and a little help from pesticides and herbicides?

In this blog I have spent a lot of time explaining how we grow vegetables organically. I believe in educating our customers on the whys and wherefores of the organic system.

Occasionally someone will ask the question about the pervasive system of chemical agriculture. For example, isn't nitrogen in whatever form still nitrogen, and isn't it all the same at the chemistry level. Well no not really for a lot of reasons. So here goes the very short explanation of a very complex topic.

After WW II the munitions industry was looking for something to do with all the capacity they built for the war. Turns out gun powder and fertilizer have similar chemistries and in the 50's the fertilizer industry was born. With cheap oil the "green revolution" in agriculture was begun. This is not renew, reuse, recycle like we are used to, but a strategy by industry and the government to trade cheap oil for cheap food.

Yields sky rocketed with cheap fertilizers but generally soil health, erosion, and grain quality fell. Much of this cheap fertilizer was government subsidized through farm programs that promoted cheap food. The word commodity says it all, the output of our farms was thought of as nothing more than tons and bushels. Farmers delivered the "fruit" of their labors to a grain elevator that dumped it in a big pile until they got around to shipping it to a processing plant. Who was the consumer? The farmer didn't know and had no relationship with the person using their product. It was a path less traveled just a couple of decades before when my father sat on a curb in the fall and sold watermelons to passers by and most of my grandfathers corn and hay was used to feed livestock on my father's farm.

Back on topic to the chemical fertilizers. Substances like anhydrous ammonia are used as a source of nitrogen but they burned out the organic matter in the soil and sterilized the soil biology. Anhydrous was used during WW II to burn out the organic matter in the tropic jungle soils to make landing strips, well we are doing the same thing to our deep prarie and woodland soils.

As it also turns out, when you apply highly soluable fertilizers to  our soils the plants absorb it at a high accelerated rate. They are like a junkie on herion and many crops like corn in particular mainline nitrogen using our soils almost like a hydroponic growing medium. They by pass the way healthy plants assimilate nutrients through they symbiotic relationships in the rhisophere (friendly bacteria and fungi around the plant roots).

Plants on chemical nutrients like Miracle Grow in the garden or corn in the field, look really lush and nice to our narrow vision of the spectrum. But to the insect pests this rapid uptake of highly soluble nutrients makes the plants look out of balance and sick. The insects both good and bad have antenna arrays in their bodies that are sensitive far outside the visual spectrum. To these pests the large corn field mono-culture screams, I'm sick, I'm unhealthy, I'm out of balance. These insects were created to remove and eliminate the unhealthy plant, whether just one or a whole field. So they gear up to do their job.

See Chemical Agriculture 102 - Insects and Pesticide

In an organic system, there are checks and balances of good insects that keep the bad ones from getting out of control. But because the poor farmer now has an insect infestation on her hands, she now turns to pesticides to save the day. We'll you probably guessed that the good insects are killed too and guess which ones typically recover the fastest. Yep, the bad ones. So our farmer gal is caught in a vicious cycle that benefits the chemical companies immensely at the expense of the consumer. Some of these chemicals are so potent that only a few ounces are used on a whole acre (44,000 square feet). Pretty strong stuff.

The same thing happens with weeds, these chemical fertilizers create unbalances and havens for certain kinds of weeds and so again our farmer turns to herbicides that are incredibly potent and we have significant worries about cancers and other side effects from exposures.

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