A New Model for the 21st Century
A newer science that is not tied to petroleum profits is emerging to challenge the industrial approach to agriculture and gardening. Of course, the enormously powerful and politically connected corporate giants like Monsanto, Bayer and Dupont will continue to make money, but after 60 years of dominance, the “Better Living Through Chemistry” model can no longer hide its fatal flaws. Mountains of evidence now point to the effects of chemical agriculture: poisoning the earth, driving global climate change, causing major health problems, killing pollinators and destroying the life of the soil. The good news is that a more long-range, wholistic view is starting to take its place. This new approach is being called Biological Agriculture and Gardening.
This “new” method is based on an entirely different model or paradigm of plant culture. Instead of the war mentality that birthed the pesticide-fungicide-herbicide and chemical fertilizer approach, the biological approach employs the same cooperative relationships that Nature herself has long employed successfully for survival and sustainability. Instead of seeing bacteria as germs, fungi as diseases and insects and weeds as pests; the biological model sees Nature as brilliantly creative and diverse, and basically good. The scientific truth is that few insects, bacteria and fungi are harmful and most are beneficial or essential to plant development, plant health and subsequently for human health.
Instead of becoming fixated on symptoms of poor health and bad management and blaming Nature; and instead of seeing soil, plants and human health as separate, the biological approach is wholistic, seeing the soil as a living ecosystem that is interconnected with the lives of plants, chemically, biologically and systemically. Whereas the chemical approach regards soil as the dirt that holds the plant up so chemical fertilizers made from natural gas can provide NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) nutrients, the biological view is that soil is billions of livings beings that have evolved with plants to function as the digestive and immune system of plants. Long absent from the chemical equation is the vital role of micronutrients which, although not needed in large quantities, are critical in helping plants to produce complete plant compounds and essential oils that are important for natural defense.
One pioneer of biological farming, Fred Kirschenmann, believes that new and future models of agriculture will “…produce multiple food crops on limited acreage with reduced energy inputs, using biological synergies in which the waste of one species becomes the food for another.” In order to understand this biological method and the soil science upon which it depends, I attended the Acres USA Conference in December. Founded 40 years ago by the late Charles Walters, Acres USA has been an education vehicle for farmers, ranchers and orchardists who have rejected the chemical method, and who are looking for practical solutions and products to succeed with a non-toxic and more realistic approach.
The talks I attended at the conference were taught by farmers or consultants to farmers who are applying these ideas to hundreds of acres, and who have to be economically sustainable as well as ecological. So if some of these principles sound airy-fairy or even spiritual, know that they are grounded in practical science. Great strides have been made in the last 10-15 years in studying soil biology and the soil food web. So now to many of us, it is common sense that plants have evolved with soil organisms and microorganisms over thousands of years. It is now clear that their natural intelligence to survive has developed a complex system of mutual benefit. These symbiotic relationships have profited both the above and below-ground populations of what can be seen as a single ecosystem, almost like diverse organs of a single organism.
John Kempf, a young and rising star in the biological movement, referred to the soil as the digestive system of the plants. Like other speakers at the Acres USA Conference, John is focused on soil chemistry and uses various instruments and soil-testing labs to understand specific soils and to measure the effects of various treatments to the soils. His investigations show clearly that there is a direct relationship between the organic content and mineral balance in the soil and the vitality of the microbial populations. And further, they show that the health of these soil life populations is directly connected with the nutrition and health of the plants, which is directly connected with the nutrition and health of humans and animals eating those plants.
The soil functions as the plants’ digestive system by digesting raw and complex materials both organic and mineral, into simpler forms that can be absorbed and metabolized by the plants. The simple presence of a nutrient like phosphorus, does not mean that the nutrient is in a form that can be utilized by plants. And because this digestive process is carried out by the diverse populations of soil organisms, the biological method includes introducing populations of naturally occurring soil bacteria and beneficial fungi that have been propagated in a laboratory, and providing organic matter and minerals that will support and increase the microorganisms already in the soil. Beneficial bacteria and beneficial fungi digest raw materials both by consuming soil materials, and through the release of various acids which are the by-products of their metabolism. These acids dissolve minerals and chelate them (make them available).
The beneficial fungi, mycorrhizae, function as extensions of a plants root system, increasing the absorbing area up to 700 times, and bringing water and nutrients. In exchange, plants are very generous with the nutrients produced by their photosynthesis, which they send out through their roots for their partner fungi. In addition there are nitrogen-fixing bacteria which take nitrogen from the air and make it into a soluble form that plants can utilize. And there are fungi which produce antibiotic substances to protect the plants from diseases, and others that outcompete pathogenic fungi on the leaf surfaces.
This is only a simplified explanation. As scientists are turning their attention below ground, new organisms are being discovered all the time and we will be learning more and more about how to apply biological thinking to growing plants and food.
If we are able to successfully transition from chemical to biological agriculture and gardening, there will be many benefits. Right now most farmers and many gardeners are dependent on petroleum-derived inputs that become more expensive every year. With biological farming and gardening, although inputs are still necessary, many, like compost, can be locally sourced from the waste-stream. In addition, because the method is supporting natural systems, the effects can be dynamic. Instead of fighting against the natural forces of Nature, if we feed the microorganisms they multiply geometrically: hundreds becoming millions or billions, very rapidly. In this way, the home-owner can make her own fertilizer and soil innoculant.
Not only do these microorganisms directly benefit plants, but they feed other organisms in the soil food web, like earthworms, which then supply literally tons of castings to feed plants, aerate the soil and improve the soil texture and water-taking capacity.
Instead of depending on fossil fuels shipped long distances and driving climate change, and instead of poisoning our planet, the biological method is earth-friendly and produces nutritious and healthy food. This is a shift from quantity-driven agriculture to quality-driven agriculture and the results can be: higher nutrition, more flavor, disease and pest resistance, less dependence on toxic controls, increased shelf life, lower veterinary and medical bills, reduction in carbon emissions and reduced climate change, and better use of water and nutrients added to the soil.
These are just some of many reasons I believe biological farming and gardening will be replacing chemical agriculture and horticulture in the not-too-distant future. However it is still a new science, and much work needs to be done to learn and to apply it in the most practical, economical and local ways.