What we know About the Soil is Much Less Than What We Don’t Know; but it is a Start.
“We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.”
-Leonardo da Vinci
“To understand the birds, you must first understand the plants. To understand the plants, you must first understand the soil.”
-William H. Durry
For centuries and centuries, farming was a dismal but necessary way of life for over 90% of the world’s population. Those that didn’t farm generally collected rent on the land of those did, rode horses, drank imported wines, or became an officer in the military and went off to war. The peasants that worked the land, planted crops, tended the harvest and then split the spoils of their labors with the landowner, were at the whims of weather, insects, disease and often poor yields. This began to change about a century ago when a brilliant German chemist, Justus Von Liebig made a number of discoveries as to how plants responded to certain elements such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and eleven others. This lead to the commercialization of mining and processing of these elements across most of the agrarian world.
Of all the necessary minerals required for healthy crop production, there was only one very important element that was very difficult to access through mineral deposits and that was nitrogen. But then a couple more brilliant German scientists solved the problem. The “Haber Bosch Process,” developed by Dr. Fritz Haber, and yes, Dr. Carl Bosch, used massive amounts of heat and pressure to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere where it comprises about 80% of the gases that encompass our world. The process was originally developed around 1910 to produce munitions for the German army, but November of 1918, WWI came to an abrupt halt and so did the market for nitrates and munitions. The next obvious market was in crop production, and agriculture has never looked back. For the past century, an abundance of cheaply mined and processed fertilizers has generally improved the diets of mankind. Starvation now only occurs due to political or logistical issues, not because of a shortage of food.
However this revolution toward bountiful crops has come with consequences, mainly too much of a good thing. Nitrate levels in the world are double what they were a century ago, and that additional 50% is virtually all man-made. It now often settles in groundwater, contaminating potable water in agricultural communities around the world.
Satellite image of the Gulf of Mexico’s “Dead Zone
The excess use of phosphate fertilizers has resulted in excess nutrient run-offs that pollute the watershed and ultimately accumulate at river mouths in concentrations that disturb water quality and habitability. These areas are referred to as “Dead Zones” as the nutrients feed algae. Algae then blocks sunlight from the ocean and consume most of the available oxygen. Dead zones impact those fish and crustacean-rich areas that feed much of the world with protein-rich harvests. The largest of these dead zones is at the mouth of the Mississippi River that drains vast agricultural regions of the center of North America. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone is massive, about the size of Rhode Island, and has destroyed much of the fishing industry in the region. So we know a little about how the soil supports crops and we are learning more; with modern analytics, we are learning much faster. This is very good and it is beginning to help us realize that certain aspects of plant science had been overlooked. It is now time for a correction; “Better living through Chemistry” has worked for a century and now it is time to consider a more natural approach towards crop production, like “Better living through Biology.”