Nitrogen Necrosis?

Nitrogen Necrosis?

By R.J.B.; compiled 2017 – 2020; Zama, Japan.

SUMMARY: Molecular nitrogen (N2) gas as 78% of the atmosphere creates many reactive nitrogen (Nr) “species” or forms necessary for Life, but some are potent carcinogens (Ref.). Nitrogen (N) links to Carbon (C) in natural & managed cycles but neither is fully inventoried at this time. Three main issues newly considered are: 1/. Neglected terrain, soil depth, glomalin & other factors more than double C:N base stocks; 2/. Actual in situ soil values vary at any site at hourly, monthly as well as at yearly rates rendering spot check invalid; 3/. Loss of C & N from soil to hydrosphere & atmosphere outweigh fossil fuel (FF) emissions. Solutions to complex problems of food, health, soil erosion & climate are simply met with organic farming plus reduction of meat eating.

Any field or plot has five main nitrogen sources: 1/. Humus formed by resident worms & fungi in situ in topsoil; 2/. natural biofixation by often symbiotic microbes; 3/. input (vermi-)compost; 4/. input synthetic N that is the most inefficient, expensive & ecologically destructive form; 5/. atmospheric deposition in acid rain or aeolian smog/dust. Natural & agricultural (e.g. leguminous) biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) are both about 60 Tg N/yr (total ~120) as calculated on the basis of planimetric (flat) land surface areas; when neglected terrain & topography more than double land surface area (Ref.) so too BNF rates are upped to produce >240 Tg N/yr. This exceeds synthetic N fertilizer production by artificial Haber-Bosch (H-B) process of ~124 Tg H-B-N/yr. Thus the main argument against converting to wholly organic farming due to insufficient N availability from BNF or from plant residues & animal manure composts is nullified.

Moreover, the phytomenon and biocrust often has seasonal algae as noted by Sir Albert Howard (1935): “Soil algae are a much more important factor in the tropics than in temperate regions. Nevertheless they occur in all soils and often play a part in the maintenance of soil fertility. Towards the end of the rainy season in countries like India a thick algal film occurs on the surface of the soil which immobilizes a large amount of combined nitrogen otherwise likely to be lost by leaching. While this film is forming cultivation is suspended and weeds are allowed to grow. ” I concur as this algal mat occurs in Japan too in the rainy season. As well as on soil surfaces and in rice paddy, he also said (1939): “But the forest, the prairie, the moor, and the bog are not the only areas where humus formation is in progress. It is constantly going on in the most unlikely places — on exposed rock surfaces, on old walls, on the trunks and branches of trees, and indeed wherever the lower forms of plant life — algae, lichens, mosses, and liverworts — can live and then slowly build up a small store of humus.” This too is part of the phytomenon…

Simply increasing soil surface area in fields or gardens with furrows or hillocks increases soil / air interface yet further to stimulate more phytomenon and more natural N fixation. Natural burrowing of field earthworms is essential for aerating / nitrogenating the soil matrix to depth and in proximity to the plants’ roots.

Mere chemists (Ref.) say there is insufficient reactive nitrogen (N) they class as the essential plant nutrient to ‘feed the world’ and to meet proposals of 4p1000.org for carbon sequestration “due to stoichiometric constraints” of a mean 12:1 C:N ratio in SOM humus. Agroecologist, Sir Albert Howard (1935) had earlier shown: “Humus is a manufactured product with a carbon:nitrogen ratio of about 10 to 1, prepared from vegetable and animal wastes with a C:N ratio of about 33 to 1. The conversion, which is carried out by fungi and bacteria, is naturally accompanied by the evolution of large volumes of carbon dioxide…” (see also Lady Eve Balfour, 1949.). [Note: Heterotrophic CO2 respiration/decomposition is no surprise or revelation and as a wholly natural soil process results in net increase in organic matter & soil organic carbon (SOC). Moreover, it recycles CO2 that, essential for photosynthesis, is possibly limited due to hourly/diurnal fluxes, in proximity to plants’ leaves’ needs, just as soil microbes fix Nr in proximity to plants’ roots].

Howard (1931: tab IX) also found about 10% extra nitrogen is fixed during the composting process from resident NBF. This is an important factor because (for the chemists’ stoichiometry) it means more N out than put in.

Synthetic N is a product of their Haber-Bosch process developed before WW1 as a munitions explosive and heavily marketed afterwards from surplus stock as a fertilizer purely for profit rather than philanthropy without any consideration of ecological harm.

Claims N is essential are over a century old, yet following the 1960s Green Revolution greater correlations of yields are with varieties and with increased irrigation & mechanization as much as chemical fertilizers (Fig.):-

N fertilizer over-use increased 800% between 1961-2019 with negligible yield correlation. Problems (mainly due to bad advice from agrichemical reps or remote academic chemists!) are: Wrong dose, wrong timing, wrong location and inefficiencies causing massive pollution problems of soil, air & water. Ironically, agrichemical biocides (e.g. glyphosate herbicide) destroy both fungal symbionts and N-fixing microbes that sometimes form root nodules (Ref.). Moreover, when soil nitrogen (NO3– or NH4+) levels are high, the formation of nodules is inhibited, thus yet more chemicals are required in order to maintain yields (as with the Red Queen in Alice stories). About 90% of soil N is in SOM (Ref.) and values are quoted as about 760 Gt (Delwiche 1970: fig. pg. 140) that, assuming a C:N ratio of 12:1 was used (by Reiners 1973) to estimate soil carbon of 9,120 Gt SOC (close to my estimates, Ref.!). However, C:N ratios vary widely (from about 2-30 or more). Batjes (1996) also used a C:N ratio of 12:1, but claimed only ~140 Gt N in the upper metre of soil (and 2,500 Gt C in the upper 2 m globally = 250 Gt N?). Nevertheless, neglected terrain raises all these soil N values as for soil C (Ref.) plus other factors such as BNF rates and factors like glomalin that contains: 28–45% C, 0.9–7.3% N representing up to one third of total SOC & highest organic N stock in some soils (Ref.).

The usual measurement unit for discussing the global reactive nitrogen cycles is teragrams (Tg = 0.001 Gt). Some other publications give natural, nonagricultural soil organisms fixation already doubled at about 100–300 Tg/yr of nitrogen (Ref.), e.g. Zhang et al. (2020: tab. 3) have range 58-170 Tg N/yr; these latter also have 100-136 HB-N and 32-60 Tg N/yr Agricultural N. Currently, the Haber-Bosch process is used to produce about 170 Tg/yr of reactive “synthetic” nitrogen per year worldwide (Ref.), most of which is used to produce N fertilizer (ca. 124 Tg) but only a fraction is used by crops with the remainder volatilizing to the atmosphere to cause acid rains, or leeching into waterways to cause eutrophication and to contaminate drinking water.

Fig modified from Galloway et al. 2003: fig. 3 showing N losses in Ag. – https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/53/4/341/250178#126043276

Synthetic nitrogen pollution was identified by the Planetary Boundaries as the most severe of global problems with inevitable conclusion that synthetic Haber-Bosch Nitrogen needs to be cut by 75% (Rockstrom et al. 2009 who say: “contain the flow of new reactive nitrogen to 25% of its current value”). The other major source of N pollution is from excess cattle or other stock manures; this too requires remedy by reduction of meat consumption.

This present report reviews the global N cycle situation, updated from sources such as Galloway et al. (2013) all with highly variable stocks and rates due partly to hourly & monthly fluctuations in soils (first noted by Sir Albert Howard in India, and by Lady Eve Balfour in Haughley fields as were studied by this author in 1980, published in 2000 & summarized in 2018.) thus rendering all periodic spot soil nutrient analyses unreliable. As well as massive monthly N-P-K fluctuations, the Haughley data also charts higher base N in an Organic field compared to Stockless/Chemical or Mixed fields:-

Lerman et al. (2004: tabs. I, IV) have global fluxes of Carbon linked to N-P since industrial times showing similar C losses from soils (1700–2000 = -200 Gt SOC) as FFs added (1850–2000 = +280 Gt C) plus other N perturbations.

Further, these global stocks of soil nitrogen may be substantially raised, as with Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) stocks and Net Primary Productivity (NPP) estimates, due to consideration of neglected terrain & rugosity of soils (both at surface & bedrock interfaces) and C:N ratios (Ref.). This is especially relevant to the microbial scale where most natural fixation & root uptake occur. New biofixation estimates are at least doubled from 118 Tg/yr (Ref. fig below) to 236 Tg/yr total biogenic N, plus synthetic HB of 120 Tg and 70 Tg deposited on land from the atmosphere to total about +426 Tg N/yr. Losses are ~286 tg N/yr with >80 Tg N draining to the ocean as its largest N supply. [Ocean biofixation is relatively irrelevant & unmanageable].

Below is IPCC (2013 WG1-AR5: box 6.2 fig. 1 & 6.4a) for N cycle with similar values but that diminish influence of soil erosion & river input to ocean.

IPCC (2013 WG1-AR5: fig. 6.4b) shows minor contributions of NH3 ammonia and poisonous NOx nitrogen oxides to the atmospheric N burden.

IPCC (2013 WG1-AR5: fig. 6.4c) shows the lesser N2O nitrous oxide cycle as summarized by Davidson (2009) to be between 2-4% of all manure, fertilizer & new N fixation that Tian et al. (2020) totaled just 17 Tg N2O-N/yr.

Excess N is from agriculture especially cattle & crops for meat production:-

Davidson (2009: fig. 2) N contributions from cattle stock & agriculture fertilizers. NOTE: manures with crop residues & food wastes form basis of (vermi-)compost fertilizers.

Why ocean is largely irrelevant is that its nitrogen exchange with the atmosphere is mainly passive and may be attributed to inputs from terrestrail systems with its active N fixation, rather obviously, from dissolved nitrogen as shown by (Delwiche 1970) figure below:-

The present report is not fully formatted being more a flow of interlinked issues & ideas. My aim, as a Soil Ecologist/Agroecologist (recognizing chemistry as a minor part of ecosystem functioning unlike chemists who know nothing of Ecology so are unqualified to comment), is to present basic information to allow searches for collation or to stimulate open & honest debate on key & crucial ecological issues of prime import.

INTRODUCTION and BACKGROUND

On 1st December, 2017 the Union of Concerned Scientists published an update to the 1992 “Warning to Humanity” signed by 15,000 including most living Nobel laureates that humanity was pushing Earth’s ecosystems beyond their capacities to support the web of life and that: “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, unless vast human misery is to be avoided.”  Unfortunately, in their supplement S1, they noted that: “the loss of soil productivity was listed as a concern in the 1992 scientists’ warning, but this variable was not analyzed here due to a lack of global data on changes in soil productivity.”  The current review report will show that not only is the soil situation more dire, it is also overwhelmingly more crucial and pressing that any of the other issues they flag as of serious concern.

Certainly the world was at a cross-roads a century ago during the depths of the 1914-1918 war.  The options after 1918 were continuing the temporary industrial-military-chemical route, or retaining a more benign and beneficial natural-organic way.  These were epitomized by the advocacy of Haber following the von Liebig chemical-reductionist mentality (always profit/power driven!) versus the ecological approach, now called agro-ecology or eco-agronomy and based upon truth and practicality, as espoused by Sir Albert Howard and Lady Eve Balfour who both appreciated Darwin’s humble earthworms as studied and promoted by Dr John Stephenson and Dr Wilhelm Michaelsen.  The arguments from 170 years ago, a century ago, 50 years ago, and currently, are that industrial chemicals are “modern”, “scientific” and a simple solution with no side effects (just like DDT, PCBs, tobacco, sugar, GMOs and nuclear power continue to be promoted against the will of a well-informed, educated and engaged populace).  Any objection to the profit merchants is derided as “unscientific”, “hysterical” or anti-progress.  Yet just the opposite is often true if you have time to fact check.

The actual pivotal point was earlier, around 1881-1885, when Frank (1885) published his studies on mycorrhizae and Lawes & Gilbert (1885) published their argument for artificial manures (viz. super phosphate synthetic fertilizer) that were established at Rothamsted.  The importance of Frank’s work was almost entirely forgotten and swamped by the simplistic N-P-K chemical solutions on offer, yet may ultimately prevail with the most recent biological understanding of plant-microbe symbioses e.g. studies by Dent & Cocking (2017) argue that enhanced N-fixation may reduce the need for N fertilizers.  And the arguments go back even further to von Liebig (1840) and the humus theory of Jethro Tull [which incidentally is proving to be closer to the true situation since, seemingly, “90 or so minerals in the soil are essential” (Thomas, 2007)].  These nutrients are naturally supplied to plants at correct rates, in correct locations, and at the right times, i.e., via natual biological activities – as Howard (1945) and Balfour (1975, 1977) explain.

Interestingly, Rothamsted experimental station was established by Sir John Lawes (with Gilbert later joining) in order to test the superiority of superphosphate and to determine the source of nitrogen and carbon (whether from air, as Liebig thought, or from the soil as per the humus theory).  The standard English husbandry practices of the time required 5 tons per acre of FYM per year, applied per the rotation scheme, as given by Dr Coventry: in a four course every forth year with the fallow receives 20 tons FYM, or 25 tons every five years in a five-course shift, etc. (Ref).  Thus the application of 14 tons FYM per acre at Broadbalk would be within standard practice at the time for a three-year rotation, perhaps a bit high annually.  The crop yields and SOC stores at Broadbalk are shown here – http://www.era.rothamsted.ac.uk/Broadbalk/bbk_open_access .  However, the first trial harvest in 1844 showed that the FYM treatment provided the greatest yield (Ref. tab. 1.1).

Table 11. Broadbalk initial yield wheat in 1844 (converted from Addiscott, 2005: tab. 1.1).

Grain (t ha-1)Straw (t ha-1)Total% change
Nil1,0301,2562,286-26.0
FYM (35 t ha-1)1,4321,6583,0900.0
Ash from FYM9921,2432,236-27.6
PK minerals (no N)1,1301,2942,424-21.6
NPK (73 kg ha-1 N)1,4321,5953,027-2.0

Nil is no fertilizer, FYM is Farm-yard Manure, NPK are synthetic minerals.

Simple chemical reactions, such as phosgene toxicity or Haber-Bosch Nitrogen (H-B N from here on) are poor substitutes for the much more complex basic biological or ecological interactions – e.g. Darwin’s beautifully poetic and evocative “entangled bank” – as truly modern science increasingly shows.  For example, the human genome represents the history, diversity and potential destinies of our existence and of all civilizations.  Perhaps the time has come (as Lewis Carroll proposed) to talk of cabbages or kings: Each human (king or pauper) comprises approximately 20,000 genes whereas a cabbage has twice as many with a total of 41,174 protein-coding genes in Brassica rapa, the Chinese cabbage (www.brassica.info/resource/sequencing.php; http://gigadb.org/dataset/100021).  Recent studies throw light on previously unimagined complexity in that several plants synthesize chemicals which directly fight insects and also release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to attract specific enemies of particular plant-eating insects.  This exemplifies super-symbiotic communication and co-operation between species constantly co-evolving over millennia.  Herbivore-induced plant volatiles (HIPVs) of the common cabbage (Brassica oleracea) are a prime defence responses to insect attack (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21309974).  Our knowledge of such complexity is rudimentary and yet there is an arrogance to claim we can produce more food just by adding N-P-K and using phosgene derived biocides to kill tiny insects.  The real challenge it to produce food whilst also preserving topsoil and conserving nature.  Protection of Nature is not a nicety or an hysterical indulgence, it is essential for continued survival of Life on Earth and should be realized for the priority it merits over petty commercial greed or short-term political aims.

Soil itself, whence much biodiversity springs, is finally beginning to be accepted as a complex, organic ecosystem – as Howard (1947) said: “The soil has a history which alters from hour to hour.”  The idea that organic farming produces less food than conventional is highly political and suffers from lack of unbiased study and scarcity of reliable data.  A major cause of this problem is that there is no funding for organic research comparable to the chemical agricultural organizations, and the nominal “organic” trials on these latter that I have observed are deliberately handicapped as well as being unrepresentative of working-farm models.  My own studies on several wholly organic farms compared to their conventional neighbours (i.e., not from unrealistic and unrepresentative plot experiments) reported higher yields in each case.  The generally claimed lower organic yields by about 10-20% may in part be due to experimenter bias (as was noted by Treseder, 2004 for chemicals), but may also be accounted for by the higher water content of chemically fertilized crops.  Again, data is scarce but there are some indicative studies supporting this claim (e.g. http://eap.mcgill.ca/publications/EAP38.htm).  Moreover, the supposed higher cost of organic produce would be neutralized somewhat by the removal of high government subsidies (from taxpayer/consumers) for agrichemicals and consideration of the health and environmental costs of chemical pollution and nitrogen eutrophication.  For example, in Japan the agrichemicals are subsidized by about 50%, chemical pollution levels are high and there is almost zero recycling/composting of organic “wastes” that are mostly incinerated releasing yet more N and C into the atmosphere. 

In the USA, a 2015 study found that each kg of anthropogenic nitrogen produced had ancillary costs of cascading N products averaging about $90 with total $32.88 (37%) for increased disease in humans and most of the remaining 64% for environmental damage, with a median detrimental cost of $252 ha−1 yr−1 and totalling $210 billion a year (Ref.).  About 75% of this is due to agriculture (about $157 billion) and the loss were more than twice the total yield value of corn grain crop of $76.7 billion produced in the USA (Ref.).  Since one kg synthetic nitrogen often costs less than $1 to buy, and about 200 kg ha−1 yr−1 is used (Ref.) with cost/value ratio often around 2-3 times (Ref.) so crop profits may reasonably be expected as at least double the farmer’s fertilizer outlay, but only when these hidden costs are transposed, literally “passing the buck”.  Even so, a 2013 cost-benefit analysis estimated that damages of agricultural N pollution in the EU exceeded economic benefits of increased agricultural production by up to fourfold (Ref.).  A report just out shows that chemical food costs in the UK incur hidden costs that double the real price, mainly due to pollution and healthcare costs (Ref), making organic a even more appealing and sensible option.

Proportionally, anthropogenic N pollution (and 100 Gt or ~50% excess, is Haber-Bosch N) greatly exceeds the problems of CO2 (EPA), especially since nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas (Ref.); Note one terra-gramme Tg = one mega-tonne Mt = 0.001 giga-t Gt.

Population was already rising before synthetic N, and most N pollution is due to H-B N (EPA).

Better scrutiny of the population data reveals some other key factors:

I could not find a clearer image, but this Wiki figure concisely confirms that the world population was indeed rising before fertilizers (due to education, health and hygiene?), also it reveals that most population growth was in Asia (India, China, Pakistan and Southeast Asia).

Recommended Related Reading [and some are unpublished in journals or only available online, which is due to lack of funding and severe obstruction for organic farming research, e.g. my Haughley paper (Blakemore, 2000) took 20 years to publish!].

Addison, K. (2017). Journey to Forever’s excellent and invaluable resource on Howard related publications – http://journeytoforever.org/farm_library/howard.html .

Badgley, C., Moghtader, J., Quintero, E., Zakem, E., Chappell, M.J., Aviles-Vazquez, K., Samulon, A., and Perfecto, I. (2007). Organic agriculture and the global food supply. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 22(2): 86–108.  doi:10.1017/S1742170507001640.

Blakemore 2000

Heaton, S. (2001). Organic farming food quality and human health. A review of an evidence [Internet], Bristol (UK): Soil Association. . https://www.soilassociation.org/media/4920/policy_report_2001_organic_farming_food_quality_human_health.pdf.

Halweil, Brian (2006). Can organic farming feed us all? World Watch Magazine.  19(3). http://www.worldwatch.org/epublish/1/111.

Heckman, Joseph (2007).  A history of organic farming: Transitions from Sir Albert Howard’s War in the Soil to the USDA National Organic Program.  https://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/farm-ranch/a-history-of-organic-farming-transitions-from-sir-albert-howards-war-in-the-soil-to-the-usda-national-organic-program/.

Liu et al. (2016) Nature.  https://www.nature.com/articles/srep30104 .

Mackintosh, Craig.  (2010). A ‘New’ Discovery – Soluble Nitrogen Destroys Soil Carbon. https://permaculturenews.org/2010/07/27/a-new-discovery-soluble-nitrogen-destroys-soil-carbon/.

Mann, C.C. (2018).  The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.  This is an Amero-centric biographical comparison of followers of Norman Borlaug (the chemist father of the Green Revolution) and of William Vogt (a Malthusian environmentalist) who he terms Wizards and Prophets, respectively.  This book was published after my comparisons of Fritz Haber and Wilhelm Michaelsen in 2017 (Ref.), but perhaps my analogy is better of Libig-Haberites as proponents of unrestrained chemical war on the battlefield or farm field, vs. Sir Albert Howard and Lady Eve Balfour for their Law of Return for ecological, humus-based organic husbandry.  Overlaying this is my call personal prophets’ call for much less research & publicity often wasted on Space & Oceans, and much more of both on both of Soil & Geothermals (Ref. 2015).

Philpott, T. (2007).  Reviving a much-cited, little-read sustainable-ag masterpiece.  http://grist.org/article/soil/.

Poulton et al. (2017) Rothamsted report mostly denying the effectiveness of FYM or SOM on crop productions and SOC storage in soil. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/gcb.14066

Reganold, John.  (2016) Can we feed 10 billion people on organic farming alone? https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/aug/14/organic-farming-agriculture-world-hunger.

Salatin, Joel (2011). The Politics of Food. https://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/farm-ranch/the-politics-of-food/.

Stanhill (1990) Analyses of Haughley farm data and other organic trials.

Journey to forever website and library (in Japanese too) – http://journeytoforever.org/ .

Benjamin J. Eagle (2014) ‘Man is But a Worm’ – History, Ecology and Invertebrate Agency: A study of the environmental impact of the earthworm in natural and human history 1881 – 1992. Bristol Uni BA dissertation – http://www.bristol.ac.uk/media-library/sites/history/documents/dissertations/2014eagle.pdf .  [This review by Eagle (2014: 11) comments that neither Wollny one of the earliest proponents of earthworm studies, nor Vasily Dokuchaev (the “father of pedology”) supported Darwin in his assertion that earthworms were important for soil formation and thus played a part in civilization and the history of the world.  Wollny said “He relies far too much on the prejudices of gardeners and farmers”, but surely these practical workers on the living soil know more than a chemist could find in a test tube].

American agronomist Dr. William Albrecht (1888–1974) was a prolific author.  One of his quotes: “NPK formulas, (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) as legislated and enforced by State Departments of Agriculture, mean malnutrition, attack by insects, bacteria and fungi, weed takeover, crop loss in dry weather, and general loss of mental acuity in the population, leading to degenerative metabolic disease and early death.”

Erin J. Gill (2010) Aberystwyth PhD thesis on Lady Eve Balfour – http://ladyevebalfour.org/down/Lady-Eve-Balfour-by-Erin-Gill.pdf .

History of Organic Farming – http://base.dnsgb.com.ua/files/book/Agriculture/Organic-Agriculture/Organic-Farming-An-International-History.pdf .

Peter Melchett (2012) on GMO fake science – https://theecologist.org/2012/dec/31/gm-lobby-and-its-seven-sins-against-science .

Save our Soils declaration that, however, only mentions earthworms once… http://saveoursoils.com/userfiles/downloads/1435620411-amsterdam-declaration.pdf .

Smil, V. paper http://vaclavsmil.com/wp-content/uploads/docs/smil-article-worldagriculture.pdf cf. Smil’s book pdf.

E.B. Balfour. (1947). Earthworm Experiments at Haughley. Mother Earth1(2 Spring): 29-33; E.B. Balfour. (1947). Earthworm Experiments at Haughley.  Mother Earth.  1(4 Harvest): 23; E.B. Balfour. (1949). An Acquaintance worth cultivating. Mother Earth. 3(1 Winter): 45-46.

Lady Eve Balfour’s BBC interview 11/V/1964 – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02gbt7b; somewhere there is an hour long interview with her besides a crackling fire when she was 90.

Many early organic and other difficult to source books are available via link on this website: http://www.digitalbookindex.org/subject_search/search010agricultureorganica/1 .

Information about Clara Immelwahr, Haber’s suicide wife* https://www.fhi-berlin.mpg.de/history/FriHof-Clara-ZAAC_16.2.16.pdf .

Postscript (a rambling account of various interlinking issues regarding N, etc.):-

Lord Northbourne, Look to the Land (1940: 103): “In the long run, the results of attempting to substitute chemical farming for organic farming will very probably prove far more deleterious than has yet become clear. And it is perhaps worth pointing out that the artificial manure industry is very large and well organized. Its propaganda is subtle, and artificial will die hard.

Agriculture issues are highly political and often viciously defended, particularly for chemical/GMO production when there is vested interest ($$$).  However, ethical Science should ignore all but the data, and the study by Badgley et al. (2007: tab. 1, appendix 1) from the University of Michigan presented summary result that yield ratio is 1.32 for organic plants and animals, on average for 293 reports, i.e., 32% higher than on conventional farms.

This contrasts with studies primarily authored by PhD candidates (Seufert et al., 2012 and Ponisio et al.,2014) that claimed all organic yields lower than conventional (by 8-20%), although their finding differed somewhat.  Their conclusions are rather deficient in deliberately omitting much pertinent data that failed to meet their narrow selection criteria, often because the studies were small and underfunded, but many other qualifying studies were also missed.  These two reports are also at odds with the Worldwatch Institute (2006) summary and UN-FAO/World Bank/WHO 2008 IAASTD report (the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development), that only a change from chemical farming can provide enough food.  Non chemical farming can already supply two or three times as much as chemical farms (UN report, 2011) and could double global food in 10 years.  A more recent study in Scientific American (2017) supported claims that non-intensive, family farms already supply 2/3 of food and that pro-chemical studies are often biased.  Examples of data missed by the two pro-chemical studies are those reported by Yadav et al. (2013) which included, amongst many other reports, that compost was comparable to FYM in increased rice grain yields by 20% over NPK fertilizer and some other yields in organic farming were 10 percent and 3 percent higher than conventional farming.  Also, in comparison, Badgley et al. (2007: tab. 1; appendix 1) have an overwhelming list of 293 reports from 53 countries where organic farming more often has higher or equivalent yields.  As just one further example from their paper, Widdowson (1987: tab. 9.3) reported data from the Land Economics Division of Cambridge University on the Haughley Experimental farms in Suffolk around 1981/2, summarized below, showing average organic section yields higher by ~8%. Table of 1981/2 Haughly farm yields (from Widdowson, 1987: tab. 9.3/Hogg, 2000: tab. 1.5).

 OrganicOrganicChemicalChemicalOrganic yield
 Yield (t/ha)Gross (£/ha)Yield (t/ha)Gross (£/ha)as % of Chemical
Winter wheat5.295935.744992.8
Spring barley5.045004.24322.7118.9
Oats5.174994.64353.8111.4
Mean£530.6£375.2107.7%

The Gross Margin difference (profit) for the organic v. chemical crops is £155/ha or +41.4% (but this was less an extra labour cost estimated as about £23/ha for the organic crops).  However, due to large interannual variations from 1952-1966, overall none of the yield differences was considered significant at Haughley during this earlier period (Stanhill 1990).

Nevertheless, it was already known (Mayall, 1965; Balfour, 1975; Hodges, 1977, 1981; Widdowson, 1987: 146) that the dry matter content of Haughley’s organic section crops and fodder were about 15% higher than the chemical crops, further increasing meaningful yields.  One of the latter reference (Hodges, 1981: 290) also reported a 12-yr experiment (by Schuphan, 1974) that found gross organic vegetable yields 24% down, but their dry-matter on average 23 % above the conventional chemical crops, which evens out the true result.  Organic food can have substantially higher micronutirent content, one metastudy found +6% compared to conventional (Ref.).  And a 22 yr Swedish study proved organic wheat flour had higher ash content as a percentage of the fresh weight with mean value 0.53 for conventional versus 0.67 for organic, i.e., the organic grain had 26% extra minerals (Ref.: tab. 4).  Furthermore, several comparisons are invalidated by just considering monoculture, whereas cyclical organic rotation yields can be both higher and more diverse from the same land area.

It is important to realize that since chemical agriculture is failing, we now have no choice but to adopt more organic/permaculture methods, but, ironically, chemical and genetic pollution is so pervasive that farms may not be able to obtain organic certification.

Note that Halweil (2006) presented a review of this study and also critiqued Smil’s book: “In addition to looking at raw yields, the University of Michigan scientists also examined the common concern that there aren’t enough available sources of non-synthetic nitrogen-compost, manure, and plant residues-in the world to support large-scale organic farming. For instance, in his book Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production, Vaclav Smil argues that roughly two-thirds of the world’s food harvest depends on the Haber-Bosch process, the technique developed in the early 20th century to synthesize ammonia fertilizer from fossil fuels. (Smil admits that he largely ignored the contribution of nitrogen-fixing crops and assumed that some of them, like soybeans, are net users of nitrogen, although he himself points out that on average half of all the fertilizer applied globally is wasted and not taken up by plants).”

Thus a major flaw of the Smil argument is that as low as 13% of synthetic N applied ends up in the plants and with food wastage at around 40% that means just ~8% H-B N is in our bodies.

These two deficiencies of Smil’s synthetic nitrogen advocacy, add to other objections such as:

  1. Inefficiency of synthetic N uptake and waste may be as low as 8-13% in human food.
  2. The admitted massive oversight of contribution of green manures and compost.
  3. Oversight of the natural monthly fluctuations in N concentration in field soils.
  4. Not reporting how scant is our understanding of micorrhizal role in N cycle.
  5. Not reporting the negative effects synthetic N has on soil microbes and biota.
  6. Underplaying the critical problems of synthetic N acidification and pollution.
  7. Not reporting that synthetic N makes the plants water demand higher.
  8. Underplaying the correlation with irrigation better explains the Green Revolution.
  9. Not reporting that organic or natural farming can and does supply more food.
  10. Underplaying that synthetic agrichemicals destroy as much land as they occupy.

Thus there are viable alternatives to synthetic N fertilizers that are not only natural, they have none of the undesired side-effects and externality (health and environment) costs.  It should also be emphasized that the increased crop yields with the Green Revolution – that are more due to natural and traditional varietal cross-breeding plus increased irrigation – have benefitted chemical companies and much of the extra yield has gone to feed meat stock for first world tables as much as feed third world starving, or else it is used for biodiesel.

Badgley & Perfecto (2007) also presented their summary (with two critical responses) that nitrogen-fixing legumes used as green manures can provide enough biologically fixed nitrogen to replace the entire amount of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer currently in use.  This was mainly based upon their data from Badgley et al. (2007: tab. 4; appendix 2), showing mean contribution from cover crops of ~100 kg N ha-1 yr-1 and their land data which is summarized in the table below.

Table of Nitrogen equivalency possible from (organic) cover crops alone compared to Haber-Bosch synthetic N fertilizer use, after Badgley et al. (2007: tab. 4 – with data corrected).

 CriterionWorld value
AArea of total cropland (FAO statistics)1,513.2 Mha (million ha)
BArea in leguminous forage crop (Gallaway et al., 1995)170.0 Mha
CArea remaining for use in cover crops from winter and off-season cover crops (A – B)1,362.1 Mha [note: discrepancy for 1,343.2]
DAverage N availability or fertilizer-equivalence from winter and off-season cover crops102.8 kg N ha-1 yr-1 (mean from n = 76 or 77, S.D. = 71.8)
EEstimated N available from additional cover crops without displacing production (C x D)140.0 Mt N
FTotal synthetic H-B N fertilizer in current use by conventional agriculture (FAO statistics for 2001)82.0 Mt N (82.0 million Mg)
GEstimated N fixed by cover crops in excess of current synthetic fertilizer use (E – F)58.0 Mt N [note: discrepancy for 56.1 Mt N]

Notes: Often N values are 0ften presented in Tg (teragrammes) and 1 Tg = 1 Mt (megatonne). 

Values for forage crops from Badgley et al. are rather irrelevant to calculations as, in Blakemore (2010a: tab. 1), pasture/fodder is 3.6 Gha and the total arable is about 1.6 Gha (1,600 Mha); also H-B N is about 100 Mt per annum (Blakemore, 2010a: fig. 1) used mainly on crops, thus a difference would be about 40 Mt N (or an extra 40%), if these N equivalency figures are plausible.  In contrast, Smil (2001: appendix Q from Smil, 1999) has mean global N from all Crop Residues (14) and Biofixation (33) totalling just 47 Mt N yr-1 or less than half of Badgley et al.’s value.  He also has H-B N total of just 85 Mt N with losses due to emission (14), volatilization (11) and leaching (17) totalling 42 Mt N yr-1 , or approximately 50% losses, and allows that just about 30% ends up in the crop.  Note that in balanced Nature there are almost negligible wastes or losses.  Tellingly, in Smil (2001: appendix T) the US crop production in the mid-1990s has 35% N losses (8 Mt yr-1) that may thus be assumed in most part directly or indirectly due to the 45% (10.5 Mt yr-1) synthetic H-B N input (assuming natural input processes assuage natural losses).  Thus, possibly from his own figures the contribution of synthetic N to production is just ~10%, rather than the near 45% as claimed.  In Nature, if a system could not support its needs it would obviously have soon failed, just as the artificial chemical farming model is now failing.

The study by Badgley et al. (2007) cogently shows that, contrary to the concept promoted by Smil (2001), it is feasible and possible to entirely replace the need for synthetic N-P-K fertilizers by appropriate organic management, particularly of green manure cover-crops and natural microbial N fixation and recycling in situ.  However Badgley et al. has been severely criticized in an almost equally biased, anti-organic piece by a Rothamsed manager, K.W.T. Goulding in 2009 (http://www.agbioworld.org/newsletter_wm/index.php?caseid=archive&newsid=2894) that itself relied heavily on a publication of Stanhill (1990).  However, even Stanhill (1990) found an average ratio from 205 comparisons of organic vs. conventional of 0.91 and concluded that “(organic) yields within 10% of those obtained in conventional agriculture have been achieved without the use of (synthetic) agrochemicals” [my bolding].  Moreover, seemingly most yield data are on a wet weight basis and, if we assume organic crops can have 10-20% higher dry matter, then the quality of the organic yields would therefore be about the same… or higher.

Smil (2001: 145) allows that : “Biofixation by non-Rhizobium diazotrophs is of lesser importance, although cyanobacteria (mainly Anabaena and Nostoc) in rice fields can fix 20–30 kg N/ha during the growing season. Nitrogen fixation by Anabaena azollae may have contributed between 4 and 6 Mt N/year in 150 Mha of the world’s paddies.”  Another paper quoted by Smil (2001) was Boddy et al. (1995) who discovered biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) associated with sugar cane and rice due to endophytic N2-fixing bacteria within roots, shoots and leaves of both crops.  They found sugarcane varieties hosting both Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus (formerly in Acetobacter) and Herbaspirillum spp. capable of obtaining over 60% of their nitrogen (<150 kg N ha-1 year-1) from BNF.  Since approximately 26.5 million ha are planted (Blakemore, 2016b), then if these values were globally applicable it would amount to 150 x 26.5 = ~4 Mt N year-1 for sugarcane alone, and legume intercropping or vermicomposting of manures, litter-trash, bagasse and pressmud could readily supply the remaining 40% N required for such crops. 

BNF was discovered in 1888 in legume root nodules and the potential for colonization of cereals is gaining much interest.

Nitrogen: the double-edged sword
Aggregates from microbes/fungi on wheat without synthetic N (two on left) or DAP (Di-ammonium phosphate) on right. Image from C. Jones (2014) from www.amazingcarbon.com/ .

My conclusion is that it is timely now to reconsider Howard and Michaelsen for organics and earthworms.  Or rather, since time is running out due to rapid topsoil erosion and the compounding problems facing chemical farming, it leaves us very little time and only a few options except to urgently promote more natural farming.  Only Permaculture and organic farming, with worms, can rebuild topsoils.

Yet a problem with all these piecemeal studies and reports (apart from unbalanced funding and biased reporting) is that, regardless of whether pro- or anti-organic, it is impossible to take in all the variables and ecological complexities.  The only solution (as indeed Howard, Balfour and Rodale, amongst others realized) is to have a whole-farm system approach for empirical comparison of total inputs and outputs.  Then the likely equivalent, or higher, organic yields along with lower costs (in terms of chemicals, environment and health issues), may compare favourably and indicate that organic farming may indeed meet all human needs.  All that is missing is political will which, in democracies, should come from the wishes of an informed public, making education (not marketing) and information (not vested-interest propaganda) the real key issues.  After 100 years of diversion and disruption, time now is for a change of direction towards a safe, healthy and sustainable future.

Regarding comparative yields, a summary by Heaton (2001) found a tendency for non-organic crops (or crops that are over-fertilized) to take up more water yielding higher water-contents or lower dry matter totals that were, on average of those that were significant, for organic dry matter yields were about 20% higher.  Thus the oft quoted 10-20% lower yields from organic farming compared to chemical may be partly or wholly offset by water content consideration.  This is consistent with my own studies (Blakemore, 2016a: fig. 1), those of FAO and other data – including that from Smil – showing a higher correlation of global crop yields with irrigation and the area irrigated rather than N-fertilizer or other chemicals.  I.e., chemical yields may depend more upon water (irrigation) than on Haber-Bosch fertilizers or chemical poisons.  A problem is farmers get paid per tonne and consumers buy per kilo.

Heaton’s (2001) similarly concurred that: “Crop losses due to insects have increased by around 20 per cent since 1945 despite a 3,300 per cent increase in the amount of pesticides used.”  This is also restated as “While insecticide use increased tenfold since the 1940s, crop losses to insects doubled” (Soule & Piper, 1992: 46).  It is also irksome that one of organic farming’s most useful allies in insect protection – Bacillus thuringiensis – has been kidnapped as the systemic “Bt” gene (and likely soon rendered ineffective by natural resistance from overuse).  [Incidentally, taxonomic priority strictly requires that the name for this species-complex revert to B. soto Iwabushi, 1908 (see Steinhous 2014:33; Ref.), thus the insert gene should be “Bs”].  As another example of organic crops gaining intrinsic resistance to pests, a 1979 report from Haughley Experimental farm also found that aphids were significantly less on Maris Freeman winter wheat in organic than conventional fields (Widdowson, 1987: 70; Phelan, 2004: 201).

In conclusion, therefore, the main objections to Smil’s and others’ claims that only chemical farming can supply enough food to feed the world is that, firstly, this may not be true when yield data from Badgley et al. (2007) and others is considered and, secondly, when extra 10-20% higher water content from required extra irrigation of chemical crops is excluded from comparisons.  Thirdly, Smil makes no mention of the enhanced benefits of vermicomposting and (pers. com. 2016) personally considers humus irrelevant.  Furthermore, whatever argument is put forward for synthetic chemical farming, it is by definition an artificial process and thus fails on an ecological basis which is, in reality, much too complex to fully appreciate or understand in its parts, and which is disrupted at unknown costs.  A very simple example is that natural nitrogen fixation and microbial mineralization activity at the root zone (rhizosphere) is in exact synchronicity and proximity to the plants needs due to straightforward Darwinian co-evolution.  Even the best of chemical farmers would likely get the timing or concentrations wrong.  How much better to let nature do all the hard work according to the precise biotic microclimate.

The final and wholly conclusive argument is, from my own experience and anyone is free to similarly check in an easily accessible experiment, that chemicals and cultivation depletes earthworms upon which human civilizations depend in order to recycle our organic wastes and to sustain our healthy topsoils.  Please take a garden fork and quite simply check for yourself.

In my view, the three great pillars used to justify chemical farming are disputed: viz.

  1. Organic farming cannot possibly feed the world (cf. Badgley et al., 2007; Blakemore, 2016a);
  2. Only synthetic H-B N can meet fertilizer requirements (cf. Badgley et al., 2007; Blakemore, 2016a);
  3. Synthetic biocides are needed to fight insects (cf. Heaton, 2001 and other comments above). 

Thus the idea that 20% more land will need to be cleared for organic agriculture to achieve the same crop yields is disputed as the reality is that about 50% of farmland is already used merely to support a meat eating habit.  And, as detailed below, significantly more than 20% of agricultural and natural land and waterways are already lost to the excesses of chemical farming pollution and soil erosion!  Organic farming rather aims to preserve nature reserves as reservoirs and to rotate crops for beneficial insects and may encourage diverse “weeds” as cover crops.  Moreover, as summarized by Blakemore (2016a), organic farming has the potential to reduce atmospheric carbon and adapting to climate change thereby both reducing and ameliorating these threats.  Plus, since organic farming enhances earthworms, water infiltration and storage in soils is also substantially increased which is crucial in times both of drought or flooding extremes.

Other deficiencies of Smil’s conclusion are that in more natural and organic soils there is a massive reserve of nitrogen that, however, is locked up on microbial organisms, their spores, and intractable SOM (including a large proportion at is often overlooked in humin and glomalin), these reserves are used as required without loss in a naturally functioning system.  Plus there is evidence that adding excess nitrogen to soils and too high oxidation from over-cultivation actually reduces soil carbon detrimentally (e.g. Mackintosh, 2010) by over-stimulating microbial activity and increasing erosion due to mortality of soil fauna/earthworms.  The alternatives are reduced tillage with direct drilling, mulch cover-crops, vermicomposting, rotations, and organic weed and pest control.  These are some of basic principles of Permaculture as advocated by Bill Mollison (1988) that aims to emulate Nature in reduced waste and pollution.  Moral and ethical conflict in exploiting natural activities of unfeeling microbes and plants are much less than for red meat.  Perhaps if animal production was unsubsidized and price reflected the true environmental and health costs then it would become what it should be, an occasional luxury.  Smil however, considers meat inevitable and “better” whereas non-meat diets are “frugal”, “simple”, “monotonous” or “inadequate” such that “no population would survive on a salad-and-vegetables diet”.  This ignores that perhaps half of India is vegetarian with fantastic cuisine, Buddhists and Confucianists eschew meat, and that the traditional Japanese diet is similarly mostly vegetable based but includes just fish.  So it is possible!  Smil’s (2001: 221) conclusion is: “there is no way to grow crops and human bodies without nitrogen, and there are no imminent substitutes for the Haber–Bosch synthesis.”  An alternative view is that H-B N substituted for natural microbial nitrogen during vicious wars and, because it was financially beneficial to the producers, became a model that was funded and expanded.  If, since 1915, natural organic farming had had a fraction of the recourses and funding that the military-industrial-chemical-pharmaceutical advocates enjoy, then it could easily be on par today but without the severe environmental and health penalties and, importantly, for free.

The challenge is not to produce enough food, it is to produce food without catastrophic environmental damage.  Articles promoting agrichemicals over organic farming, if they really cared about World hunger and equality as they claim, would deride the western meat-based diet that has already used up 20-50% extra land for growing grain crops for stock feed, and polluted all the lands (and waterways) that are not under agriculture too.  E.g. pesticide resides in all animals, even remotest polar bears/penguins.

~~~ -oOo- ~~~

As a footnote, a large proportion of the World’s population is overfed, particularly on protein, and severely suffers from this along with increasing chronic disease rates due to chemical excess (e.g. Swanson et al., 2014), requiring costly pharmaceutical health care causing even greater drug pollution and antibiotic resistance (Ref., Ref.), especially in India and China.  Similar to agrichemicals, only a small part of the active drug ingredient, as low as 10%, actually treats the target disease.  An interesting health comparison is the cancer rates of USA vs. Cuba where, due to the Soviet collapse in 1991 and the continued US embargo, their agriculture came to rely on vermicompost and organic farming rather than synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  They managed to feed themselves completely adequately and the cancer rate in Cuba is 47th out of 50 countries at 218 per 100,000 (https://www.wcrf.org/int/cancer-facts-figures/data-cancer-frequency-country for 2012). The USA is easily the world leader at 455 per 100,000 (https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/understanding/statistics for 2012), almost exactly double Cuba’s cancer rate.  It is difficult not to be cynical here, it is the self-same companies that have historically developed the poison gasses (e.g. mustard gas and phosgene) that were remarketed as toxic agri-chemicals which now make oncological chaemotherapy and other pharmaceutical cures: e.g. BASF, Hoechst and Bayer (all of which supported Haber’s poison gas research and became part of the future WW2 war criminal IG Farben), DowDuPont Inc. (truly its new name), and Hoffman-Roche/Novartis/Syngenta (that are based in Basel, Switzerland where Fritz Haber is now buried and where he himself hid in 1919 to avoid capture as a WW1 war criminal).  Just as mustard gas, first used 100 years ago in 1917 by the Germans against British and Canadian troops at Ypres, was since re-marketed as chaemotherapy drugs (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sulfur_mustard, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitrogen_mustard), so was phosgene gas also first used in 1917 and similarly converted into pesticides and pharmaceuticals (http://www.toxipedia.org/display/toxipedia/Mustard+Gas, http://www.c-f-c.com/specgas_products/phosgene.htm).

Rockstrom et al. (2009) estimate there are 80,000 to 100,000 chemicals on the global market, and the total planetary burden was estimated by Blakemore (2016).  More than 3.5 million tonnes of pesticides are used per year, half by China (Ref.).  Approximately 600 synthetic pesticides are commonly used in USA alone but with diminishing returns (Ref.).  More than 350 man-made contaminants have been found in mothers’ breast milk (Ref., Ref).  Contamination by some chemicals is so pervasive, including in German Purity Law beer (Ref.), that, for instance, acceptable levels of glyphosate herbicide are now perforce 6-14,000 times higher in the US than EU (Ref., Ref., Ref.: tabs. 1-2).  In contrast a 1930’s report says the Guinness brewery “encouraged the earthworm” on their hops (Ref.) by using 10,000 tons of Southwark compost and according to Balfour (1947/8), and they found no excess crop losses.

As a further footnote (will it ever end?), the Forward by Lady Eve Balfour to Widdowson’s (1987) book comments that despite what reductionist zealots (similar to Smil) who promote conventional farming as “modern” overlook that organic farming too, as practiced currently is more modern, holistic and much more naturally conventional.  She gives an example of the proper approach when CSIRO’s revered Sir Ian Clunies Ross (who pioneered trace element research in Australia) saw the demonstration farm of Yeomans keyline/earthworm system, he said to his companions “Well boys, it looks as if we shall have to do our trace mineral work all over again”.  All great scientists immediately give up pet theories when these are disproved.  Since agrichemicals were introduced since the 1930s there have been revolutions in computers, communications and many other fields of science meaning that if – organic production were now to get the kind of research and implementation support afforded to chemical farming – the scope and possibilities of organic improvement are limitless.

This brings me to regret not fighting to include more about keyline and permaculture in my PhD studies (Blakemore, 1994 – https://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:366290/THE8652.pdf) in Tropical Agriculture & Pastoralism under the constraints of CSIRO who denigrated organic farming in favour of the chemical/cultivation conventions, even stating that organic is the same a no-till!

It is also worth noting, that appropriate organic farming or husbandry does not deny mineral supplements, but generally it eschews synthetics, toxic biocides, and GMOs all for sound scientific and economic reasons.  Permaculture aims to emulate nature since in natural systems there are no un-necessary wastes nor excesses with sustained energy flows, biodiversity networks, healthy soils and complete recycling of nutrients as exemplified in the purity of water out-flow.

Just as Smil’s said his book “Enriching the Earth” started as a tribute to Haber but ended up more as a plug for big Chemical agriculture, the current contribution also started trying to fathom Fritz Haber, but has ended more as a critique of Smil’s book: By shamelessly promoting non-organic farming, its more appropriate title may be “Enriching the Rich: Depleting the Soil”.

Cd and pH in Rothamsted trials and loss of Carbon as well as worms.  A key study by Liu et al. (2016) revealed that synthetic N production (171 Tg N yr-1) exceeds natural N production and that more than 53% of this extra total reactive N is from synthetic fertilizers; over 50% of the total extra N goes to production of animal products (that are themselves only 25% efficient for N use according to a Californian UCD study, with 75% going to manure).  Thus, Liu et al. found N use highly inefficient with as little as 13-17% of total anthropogenic N applied being consumed as calories by humans, the rest polluting the air, soil and water.  Also fossil fuel energy for fertilizer for food is highly disproportionate, with calorie input : output ratio in the region of 9 or 10:1.

This is fig. 1 from Liu et al. (2016).

Prof. Keith Goulding, a chemist/anti-organic naysayer (Ref.) at Rothamsted, claims it is a myth that synthetic fertilizers deplete soil ecosystem: “Some of the fields [in 172 year plot experiments] have been getting large amounts of synthetic fertilizer for a long time, and it’s certainly not killing the soil.” (Ref.).  This was contradicted by studies from as early as 1920s, the 1980s and from the current review, that shows earthworms depleted by more than 80% in the continuous chemical wheat trials from 1840s (Ref.).  Another Rothamsted researcher, Dr Malcolm Hawkesford, thinks that GMO wheat field trials are a good idea because in the greenhouse plants were bigger by 20-40% (or just 15-20%? Ref.) as compared with traditional methods that only yield a few extra percent (Ref.).  However, Sir Albert Howard (1943, 1945), who called earthworms “Nature’s professors of agriculture”, wrote that Wollny (1890) had already shown that mere addition of earthworms to soil led to a marked increase of grain by 35-50% and this has been confirmed subsequently from field trials (e.g. Blakemore 2016a).  Main differences – and key points – are that earthworms increase crop yields freely and safely.

The BBC’s Rothamsted article (Ref.) parroted the hackneyed claim that: “With a rapidly growing global population, food production will need to increase by 70% by 2050 to meet the demand, say researchers.”  The 2009 FAO source (Ref.) is simply ridiculous because a 2018 world population of 7.6 billion (Ref.) expected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050, is just +30%.  Even UN’s FAO (2012: box 3.1, fig. 1.4) admitted that their earlier data were originally miscalculated and have been widely misrepresented, with revised total grain yields (viz. from 2,068 Mt in 2005/6 to 3,009 Mt in 2050) giving a much lower projected increase of only 45.5%.  Moreover, in 2017/2018 cereal yields already reached about 2,500 Mt (Ref.), thus an increase to 3,000 Mt by 2050 is now just 20%, which is nothing like 70%!

*Note: Partly based upon this sensational “70% by 2050” claim, Rothamsted’s already controversial GMO wheat field trial application to DEFRA in Nov., 2016 was approved in Feb., 2017 (Ref., Ref., Ref.). In response to their other claim: to have increased wheat yield by 20-40% (or just 15-20%? Ref.) in the glasshouse by genetically implanting “enzymesedoheptulose-1,7-biphosphatase (SBPase)”, we may revisit Wollny (1890) who demonstrated doubled grain production by up to 94% and straw by 107% using “Annelida:Oligochaeta:Megadrilacea:Lumbricidae”, or, if you prefer, by him simply adding Darwin’s humble earthworm (Ref.)…

Use of synthetic agrichemicals, despite what chemist/anti-organic naysayer at Rothamsted (Ref., Ref., Ref.), Prof. Keith Goulding, claims: “it’s certainly not killing the soil” (Ref.), actually is conclusively driving species to extinction (Ref.).  Their methods have reduced earthworms & other biota by 80-100% as well as depleting topsoil humus & soil moisture, when compared to organic fertilizers that also had equivalent or higher yields, during 175 years of their (killing field) trials.  Truly, smarter people would have gone organic long ago…

Claiming chemistry as a “modern” science is redundant because Ecology is much more recent and the first Soil Ecologist was probably Charles Darwin with his work on earthworms spanning from 1837-1881.  What research chemists cannot understand is that in complex Life the same situation does not give the same result, outcomes in biological experiments always differ, unlike in simple, predictable chemical laboratory tests.  Just as Rothamsted is unqualified to comment on organic farming, so are chemists unqualified to talk about ecological soil science since purely chemical soils (= “dirt”) exist only on Moons and Mars, also pronounced as “M’arse”.

The main schism is that in chemistry/physics there is entropy defined as a tendency towards disorder or decay, in Biology the opposite occurs and life organizes matter to rebuild entropy with an inevitability of death and recycling for new life.

Martin Ewald Wollny (1846-1901) was one of the first agronomists: He demonstrated the inseparable connection between the dynamics of the physical properties of soil (from soil ecology) and its fertility.  In an attempt to disprove Darwin’s (1881) support for the importance of earthworms, he ran a series of experiments to try to disporve this theory that acutally supported the value of earthworms (Woolny 1890). This was the particular value of Wollny’s work because Liebig’s theory was more prevalent in the scientific agronomic circles of that time; Liebig (wrongly!) held that soil fertility was related exclusively to the chemical processes at work in a given soil (Ref.).

Ironically and embarrassingly this is also confirmed by Liebig/Lawes’ Rothamsted’s long-term Broadbalk continuous wheat trial where the plots using organic FYM consistently outyielded the chemical plots.  However, it should be noted that the truly organic yields may be higher as the compost practices at Rothamsted were deemed much inferior to proper composts by Lady Eve Balfour when she visited in 1948 (Ref.).  She said:

On the morning of the day I spent with him, Dr Ogg [the then director] most kindly took me on a personally-conducted tour of some of the laboratories at Rothamsted. Some of the work being done in them is of very great scientific interest, but I could not help thinking it was a pity that the fragmentary laboratory technique was carried into the field experiments, where something a little more realistic…would have been of more practical use. Later, I was taken to the farm at my own insistence. I naturally asked to see any compost they had been making or any composting experiments that were being done. The thing that startled me most was to discover the nature of the material which the Rothamsted workers call compost. There is a concrete pit… where straw is soaked with water mixed with sulphate of ammonia, and then forked out on to a kind of draining board. A second so-called type of compost consists of very large heaps of waste material from threshing, simply left to rot by itself. Some so-called compost is also made with farmyard manure as its basic ingredient, but even this has sulphate of ammonia added to it. None of these ‘composts’ take less than twelve months to make, and even after that period no true decomposition has taken place. The straw is shorter, but it is still obviously straw. The beautiful, fine, leaf-mould material – practically soil – which we understand as compost is unknown at Rothamsted.  This means, of course, that any statement of opinion which comes out of Rothamsted, as to what compost can or cannot do, and similarly any criticism as to our claims of what it can and cannot do, must be the result of second-hand information or else of guess-work. They are certainly not the result of any experimental work undertaken there.”

Just as chemists are unqualified to comment on ecology, so Rothamsted conclusions have no real bearing on the efficacy of organic agro-ecology.

Howard (1943) was also highly critical of Rothamsted’s Broadbalk layout stating: “This plot does not represent any system of agriculture, it only speaks for itself. Nothing has been done to prevent earthworms and other animals from bringing in a constant supply of manure [i.e. nutrients], in the shape of their wastes, from the surrounding land. It is much too small to yield a significant result.”  Howard suggested a better comparison of organic farming (including composting, crop rotation and saving seed) to non-organic farming, should begin with “two large areas of similar worn-out land side by side” and a period of at least 10 years study of responses of soils, earthworms, crops and livestock.  This indeed was exactly what was attempted in Balfour’s Haughley Experiment.

It should be noted that synthetic fertilizers often (always?) pollute and degrade soil by negatively affecting physical, chemical and biological properties: for example N fertilizer strongly modifies fungal communities in the rhizosphere (root-zone) of sugarcane (Ref.).  In particular bacteria and fungal communities are affected and those such as VAM (vesicular-arbuscula mycorrhizae), ironically, naturally increase the plants ability to extract and absorb mineral nutrients.  Besides better nutrient supply, mycorrhizal (symbiotic fungus-plant root) associations provide other benefits to plants, such as increased drought tolerance and disease resistance (Ref.).  Some negative effect of synthetic fertilizer on mycorrhizae were summarized by Treseder (2004 – https://escholarship.org/content/qt8783k14r/qt8783k14r.pdf) with mycorrhizal abundance decreasing 15% under N fertilization and 32% under P fertilization.

Sadly, much of the conviction for chemical farming appears to me to be bought science.  Yet again this message is about money not so much solving an issue.  Here are some key points:

  1. Organic farming can “feed the world” as its yields can be higher and to deny this is to misrepresent many published studies; what is lacking is incentive to promote this.
  2. There would be more published studies if organic research had a greater share of the funing (currently just 0.4% of total agronomic grants) even though organic farms are now about 1-2% of total farms in the developed countries.
  3. Organic food often has lower water content (i.e. greater dry matter) as the crops are not so “thirsty” – this implies that comparisons of organic v. convention should be dry matter based; it also supports the many reports that organically farmed soils have greater moisture content and also crops require less irrigation.
  4. It seems much benefit of Green Revolution is from irrigation not fertilizer; also the lack of vigour of the chemical crops makes them more susceptible to pests requiring much more poison use (which damages beneficial biota and farmer/consumer health).
  5. No chemist can answer the question of how we get food once topsoil is destroyed; nor can they offer an alternative to the many natural benefits of the earthworms these poisons deplete.  There is no magic technology to drill 9,000 kilometres of worm channels through each hectare of soil to the depth of the bedrock, to mix the soil layers with the surface litters, to operate as mini-pumps circulating air through these tunnels and to actually rebuild the topsoils with good nutrient and structural health.
  6. Most importantly, recycling organic “wastes” and allowing earthworms and microbes to do all the complex work is essentially a free service – a main reason why organic farming is criticized is that it may affect profits for chemical companies and reps.
  7. How do I know I am right?  Well I have taken the time and effort to dig the earth and collect the worms (at Haughley, Indore and Bhopal, amongst many other places) and have personally seen the benefits of organic farming and the hazards of chemicals.  Also I have seen very many (too many) arrogant advocates who forcibly bully others for their own gain and, while actually being uninformed, irrational and deliberately ignorant, claim scientific superiority.  I also know that they do not know everything and often make mistakes (but will never admit them).  I am still willing to learn or to be deconvinced.

Most clarity in order to plot a course through the conflicting and rapidly changing array of information is perhaps best achieved by accessing the original data and comparing it in context.  In this regard, a particularly helpful website is https://ourworldindata.org/, that seems to be informative, non-partisan and not particularly biased in just giving raw data.

The agrichemical model is only about 40-50 years in operation, thus it is not a tradition that requires protection.  A shift more to farmer’s profits for producing food whilst also preserving nature may be a much better investment of time and funds.  This may also help solve under-employment, urbanization, and public health issues.  Such options should be open to frank and fair discussion without hyperbole or propaganda.  Just the balanced facts based on data from reliable, i.e., unbiased and (financially) disinterested, sources.

Who did most to self-serve their own interests?  Undoubtedly Fritz Haber.

Who did most to preserve the Earth?  Ultimately it will be Wilhelm Michaelsen.

Just as a thin hull layer of a boat a few mm thick may protect sailors from drowning on the blue ocean, the thin brown layer of topsoil on land protects us all from starving.

An article in Scientific American in 2010 highlighted new threats from nitrogen and nitric acid rain stating: “Agriculture is increasingly functioning as an intensively managed industrial operation, and that is creating serious water, soil, and air problems”.  And while Europeans have reduced N emissions by a third since the Gothenburg Protocol in 1999, this has not occurred in USA where atmospheric ammonia from farms has increased 27%.

Soil acidity rate due to NO3 from synthetic fertilizer use and NOx from farms in acid rain is more rapid and twice the total ocean acidification supposedly due to CO2 from fossil fuels.  A 2015 summary paper (http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/10/2/024019) show soil pH globally has acidified by an average of 0.26 in 20 years (about 100% change), while NOAA has the pH of the surface ocean decreased by just 0.11 (which corresponds to approximately 30% increase in H ions – https://www.pmel.noaa.gov/co2/story/A+primer+on+pH) in the last 200 years.  In China soils the effects are even more stark, overall a 0.5 pH reduction in the last 20 years, this is equivalent to a +216% change in acidity, about twice the global soil average (http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100211/full/news.2010.67.html).  This latter study shows that acidification has already lessened crop production by 30-50% in some areas of China and, at this rate, could soon cripple Chinese agricultural production.  It is projected that the 100 Gt synthetic N fertilizer use will double in the next 40 years at current rates.

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers deplete soil nitrogen: a global dilemma for sustainable cereal production. – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19875786.

Fowler et al. (2004: fig 1) state that atmospheric fixed N is now mostly anthropogenic and from agriculture and livestock with just 34-35 Tg N out of 124 Tg N from natural sources.

Discrepancies are that this figure shows total of 124 Tg emissions (89 Tg anthropogeneic and about 52-62 of these, or about 50% of total, from agriculture and fires) with depositions in balance at 124 Tg yr-1; while EPA (EPA) have total atmospheric N exchange as 140 Tg emissions and 210 Tg deposition per year; contrast this to Rockstrom et al. (2009) who have ~80 Mt yr-1 H-B N, and ~40, 20 and 10 Mt N yr-1 from leguminous crops, fossil fuel and biomass burning (total 150 Mt N yr-1).

Figure from https://ourworldindata.org/fertilizer-and-pesticides/ .

 Rockstrom et al.’s solution is to reduce the synthetic nitrogen by 25% (or 35 Tg yr-1) by using “more efficient and less polluting ways of enhancing food production..[and] return of N in human effluent back onto productive landscapes”. I.e., organic farming.

A global analysis (Phoenix et al. 2006) showed that global emissions of fixed N are estimated to be nearly fourfold greater than before agrichemical expansion (compare 35 with 124 Tg N yr-1) which has greatly increased the average N deposition rate (often as nitric acid?) across the World to 3.5 kg N ha-1 yr-1.  They found rates to be 50% greater for the World’s biodiversity hotspots than the global terrestrial average and projected it more than doubled by 2050, with 33 of 34 of these areas receiving greater N deposition in 2050, most at rate exceeding critical loads set for many sensitive European ecosystems.

Thus those chemists who claim that the plant does not care where the N molecules come from display two intellectual blocks: the first is that a chemist can only comprehend simple re-actions, and is unable to appreciate the complexity of multiple, mutual ecological inter-actions (e.g., Darwin’s “entangled bank”).  Secondly, the statement is divisive and ridiculous because even if it does not matter to the plant (which I seriously doubt as in all likelihood the plant, which may have a genome twice that of a human and much more experience about life than any human, is no less ‘fussy’ than the scientist who would never take straight N-P-K, preferring it in some kind of bun and probably of a preferred brand and formulation).  Moreover, the plant does not take up the nutrient directly as there is conversion by microbial activity then cationic exchange in the roots or via the mycorrhizal and other symbionts due to co-evolution.  Furthermore, it is a ridiculous statement because the real issue is not the molecule, it is process of producing and delivering the chemical along with the costs of cleaning up the resulting catastrophic mess.  What needs to be considered is the ecological and economic costs of the utilization of freely available natural fertilizers compared to synthetic fertilizers that also require pesticides, irrigation, distribution, marketing, and so on.  As it is, an irresponsible, uncontrolled global experiment is in progress using the soil, air, water and organic life as a dump ground for industrial-military toxins purely for selfish, quick financial gain.  Finally, a recent study has fairly conclusively shown that it does matter to plants where there nutrients are sourced, as there are markedly different gene expression that have unknown implications for the plant and for the host consumers of that plant – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1559878/; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5109750/ .

Balfour (1948) responded to the hackneyed chestnut of Liebig-like chemists’ claims of plants’ indifference to N source thus: “The biologist thinks in terms of life being lived, i.e. function, the chemist in terms of analysis.  You cannot study life in terms of chemistry alone because to analyse life you have to destroy the very think that you are investigating.  When the chemist studies an egg he does so from without inwards, separating its constituents, from the shell to the germ, and analysing them. The most he can make of an egg from this approach… is an omelette, but when the biologist studies an egg, he does so from within outwards.  His problem is to cultivate a chicken.  The chemist tells us that all forms of nitrogen are converted to nitrates before they can be absorbed by plants, and that there is therefore no difference between a nitrate derived from dung and one derived from sulphate of ammonia.  The plant, itself, however, demonstrates that there is a considerable functional difference between the two.”

Her egg analogy reminds me of physicists/engineers who know that if you boil an egg it becomes hard, but have no idea that if you don’t boil the egg it becomes a chicken…

What synthetic nitrogen does do, however, is to acidify the soil and water and kill the very symbiotic soil microbes that enable the plant’s proper uptake of nutrients (plus destroying other parts of the environment and health of farmers and consumers concomitant to its use).  Plus, we may add, there is no rational need for synthetics apart from hype and profit.

Only a few measures of healthy soil fertility exist and the best are from the three true soil experts: plants, microbes and, especially, the earthworms.  Ideally, these should not be considered separately in isolation– and this is an important point for the reductionists – but rather in the complexity of their interactive combinations.  Regarding these three meters, it is interesting to observe the effects of the “long term” experiments (actually short compared to the extensive, convoluted, evolutionary journey to get our soils and biota to a starting stage) such as Rothamsted, Palace Leas, Haughley, Steinach, and the Morrow Plots that show cereals and grass grown continuously with manures with equal or often higher yields and (when examined) with much better soil microbial and earthworm attributes, compared with simplistic and noxious synthetic fertilizers.  Incidentally, initial use of ammonium fertilizers at Rothamsted were a failure with lower yields, they turned the soil acidic compared with sodium nitrate or FYM – all different sources for the plant of elemental Nitrogen, as any chemist should hopefully soon realize – thus plants responded quite differently: i.e., plants do “care” what is N source (Ref., see also VermEcology website graphical expose, 2018).

For details see – http://www.era.rothamsted.ac.uk/Broadbalk/bbk_open_access , http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0174632#pone.0174632.s002 and http://grist.org/article/2010-02-23-new-research-synthetic-nitrogen-destroys-soil-carbon-undermines/.

Image of Broadbalk experiment at Rothamsted with the two obviously greener Farm-yard manure (FYM) strips at north running E-W, next to null control and about 16 N-P-K strips) with Layout: http://www.era.rothamsted.ac.uk/metadata/broad/broadbalkplantoday.pdf.

Broadbalk wheat trial demonstrating that despite all chemists’ effort, FYM has higher yield.

Palace Leas permanent pasture from Ref (fig. 5); as well as lowest yields, this study showed that N fertilizer alone (plots 7 and 11) also reduced plant biodiversity by 50% or more.

Rothamsted Hoosfield barley trial since 1840s (FYM = Farm-yard manure).

Thus it is simply not true, as Smil and other proponents advocate, that we need synthetic N fertilizers to grow crops.  They can and do grow, often with higher sustained yields, without synthetics for centuries and decades as shown by history and long-term experiments e.g. those in US reviewed by Delate et al. 2015 and results of Rodale’s 30 year comparison that show equivalent or higher organic yields for corn, soy and wheat (Rodale, 2011).  What is true, though, is that widespread use of synthetic fertilizers degrade topsoils and pollute waterways due to nutrient leaching, groundwater contamination, eutrophication, and acidification with severe biodiversity declines.

A 2014 survey of Rothamsted earthworms by Sizmur et al. (2017) reported that annual application of 35 tha−1 of farmyard manure (FYM) after 170 years increased the earthworm numbers by 469% and biomass by 1,700% (they miscalculated this as “1290%”) when compared to N fertilized soil on the Broadbalk experiment.  Actually what they have shown is that the earthworms are severely depleted by lack of organic amendments, confirming findings by Edwards & Lofty (1982) as earlier determined by Blakemore (1981, 2000).

Broadbalk Earthworms, Spring 2014 at 170 yrs (Sizmur et al. 2017: fig. 2, tabs. A1-2).

 Abundance m-2 (% change)Biomass gm-2 (% change)
Mean FYM (plot 2.1; n = 2)400.00 (0%)108.90 (0%)
Mean N (plot 8; n = 2)70.35 (-82.4%)6.05 (-94.4%)

Plots sampled were 2.1 and 8 in sections 0 (straw) and 1 (no straw) (T. Sizmur pers. comm.).

Table of Broadbalk Earthworm Survey after 135 yrs in 1979 by Edwards & Lofty (1982: tab. 2 – note these data differ considerably from their figs. 1b, 2-3 values).

 Abundance m-2 (% change)Biomass gm-2 (% change)
FYM (plots 2.1, 2.2; n = 2)(94.2 + 89.4)/2= 91.8 (0%)(71 + 44)/2 = 57.1 (0%)
4N (plot 9, n = 4)42.9 (-53.3%)25.9 (-54.6%)
3N (plots 8, n = 4)30.6 (-66.7%)13.7 (-76.0%)
2N (plots 7, n = 4)20.9 (-77.2%)6.2 (-89.1%)
1N (plots 6, n = 4)10.0 (-89.1%)4.7(-91.8%)
Mean of all four N plots26.1 (-71.6%)12.6(-77.9%)
Nil fertilizers (plots 5,3; n = 2)*(7.5 + 5.6)/2 = 6.5 (-92.9%)(8.9+2.7)/2 = 5.8 (-89.8%)

Rothamsted’s Park Grass after 118 yrs in 1973 & 1974 survey recalculated from Edwards & Lofty (1982: tab. 4 – note they misdated the start of the 1856 experiment as 1836 or 1843).

 Abundance m-2 (% change)Biomass gm-2 (% change)
FYM (n = 2)64.2 (0%)65.0 (0%)
No fertilizer (n = 2)47.1 (-36.3%)44.4 (-46.6%)

Table of Rothamsted’s 1843 Barnfield “1959” survey from Edwards & Lofty (1982: tab. 3).

(Cf. Morris, 1927 who has Barn Field under mangolds since 1876!).

 Abundance m-2 (% change)Biomass gm-2 (% change)
FYM (n = 1)78.7 (0%)43.7 (0%)
FYM + 2N (NH4)76.8 (-2.4%)46.4 (6.2%)
FYM + 2N (NaNO3)35.8 (-54.5%)17.1 (-60.9%)
2N + superphosphate28.9 (-63.3%)19.2 (-56.1%)
Mean all 3 synthetic plots47.2 (-40.1%)27.6 (-36.9%)
No fertilizer (n = 1)10.6 (-86.5%)6.9 (-84.2%)

Earthworm surveys at Haughley after 40 years (from Blakemore, 1981; 2000).

 Abundance m-2 (% change)Biomass gm-2 (% change)
Organic178.6 (-0%)66.2 (-0%)
Mixed97.56 (-45.4%)35.4 (-46.5%)
Chemical100.0 (-44.0%)34.7 (-47.6%)

When data from Haughley and Broadbalk cereals are combined, a best-fit regression slope (from assumption that FYM treatment populations will have been stable since inception) has a significant rate of decline allowing prediction that the earthworms will be entirely eradicated after 200 years.  In the case of Broadbalk this means in less than 30yrs. 

Figure of decline rate of earthworms, regression analysis (graphpad.com) is significant: R2 = 0.9087, p = 0.0468); extrapolation shows complete earthworm eradicated after 200 yrs.

Such depletion is not news.  It has already occurred.  Thus it is quite easy to now find fields on chemical farms and orchards that are already earthworm-free.  That is is due to mismanagement (or rather, due to bad advice) is manifest by the active earthworms still present in adjacent organic farms in what was the same soil and is under the same climate.

Some characteristics of Broadbalk soil properties and microbes (from xxx and yyy)

Cd pH What about c and microbes/mycorrhizae?

From Jones & Johnston (1989: fig. 2).

A 2016 UC Davis study charts the input/output of N in California, highlighting the inefficiency and environmental/health implications of excessive fertilization (https://www.ucdavis.edu/news/first-state-level-nitrogen-assessment-shows-state-science-nitrogen-use-and-pollution/).

All such data here tempered by a note about fluctuations from month to month (and day to day or hour to hour?) at Haughley as measured by Lady Eve Balfour and Dr. R.F. Milton, for the claimed major plant nutrients N-P-K (ignoring C in CO2 and H2O that are actually the most important!)…

Natural N-P-K fluxes (from Blakemore (2017: fig. 6) “Slimeless Spring II” paper & blog (Ref.). This graph is possibly from “Mother Earth” journal but I cannot now find the source, however the same figures are reproduced online in a report (if the name “Milton” is searched for) here:- http://journeytoforever.org/farm_library/turner2/turner2.htm . Similar results were obtained in 2019 in a Landcare study in Australia page 25: (https://www.organicgrowersalliance.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/OG47_web.pdf) and http://www.wpcln.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Trialling-green-manure-crops-for-nutrient-cycling-in-intensive-organic-horticulture.pdf fig. 11. (Calenson@bigpond.com):

Balfour’s Haughley experiment, despite its lack of funding, seemingly met all three criteria required for valid comparisons in summary report, that was itself flawed by its rather blatant anti-organic bias (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378429015300897).  Such recommendations make almost any comparison with organic farming redundant, and not just because they ask the wrong questions.  Perhaps comparisons should also factor in the government subsides to chemical farming from public funds, the scarcity of data due to massively unequal research budgets, also the costs of public health and environmental degradation that are not borne by the chemical companies (such as the 76% reduction in insects in Germany in just 27 years – Ref.).  How much does the extinction of a species cost to the natural budget?  What that study does inadvertently demonstrate however, is just how forward-thinking and advanced was the Haughley idea.  An oft used criticism (e.g. Stinner, 2007: 50) that Haughley is unrepresentative because there is no replication is unrealistic due to the length of operation (about 45 years for Haughley up to 1984 or, because it is likely that some fields on the organic section had no synthetic nitrogen applied, then possibly as long as 1,000 years duration!).  It is also worth considering that if indeed Haughley is unreplicated (which is is not since statistically valid replications can and were taken from many fields in each of the three completely separately farmed sections), then so too are Lawes’ Rothamsted, Morrow, Rodale, Gatton, Kellogg, or any other number of agricultural research stations and their data.

Justification for Rothamsted has been given that the age of the plots (170 years!) means that replication is unrealistic in any human’s lifetime, and that experimental effects are so large and so stable that they clearly exceed any stochastic fluctuations.  They too provide unique and globally significant records of change over relatively long-term trials.

It is also worth bearing in mind that this planet is also unreplicated (as UN says, “There is no Planet B”).  The current uncontrolled and irresponsible global toxic chemical experiment is affecting the air, water, soil and the actual bodies of all life on Earth (for example the >350 of synthetic chemicals in human breast milk).  [Plans to colonize the Moon or Mars are ridiculous and dangerous distractions, diverting seriously needed funds from solving the issues here on the land on Earth].

The real problem then is not organic or non-organic farming nor even synthetic or natural Nitrogen, rather it is an inadvertent self-destructive human ignorance fuelled by the aggressive arrogance of a greedy few who should (and often do) know better.

Solutions are, yet again to follow Permaculture principals with an increase in natural organic food production.  It is highly encouraging to see the growth of the organic market, spurred by the general perception of health and environmental costs of synthetic chemical excesses.  The ancillary obligation is for government and other organizations to better fund organic research.  Further the true costs of heavy red meat diets, that are neither a basic necessity nor a human obligation, should be reflected in the prices for this privileged luxury.  As is shown in the following chart, the diets of Japan, Thailand and India are much healthier, less costly and reduce the environmental catastrophe of the full carnivore fare.

Proteins and bodies composed of how much C and N?  Average ratio is about 10:1.5 so Carbon is more important and abundant and Nitrogen may be more limiting but is available naturally as and when required by the plants – this being the basis of Evolution theory by Darwin (who was also the first Soil Ecologist with his book on Worms & Humus).

There is good reason for the informed public to be sceptical.  What white-coats and suits tout chemicals as “modern science” are actually tired old models originating 170 years ago with Liebig and Lawes’ Superphosphate synthetic fertilizers which, almost from the get-go, at their proud demonstration facility at Rothamsted were destroying the soil and eliminating the worm populations.  Ironically this research station most clearly demonstrates that these synthetics offer no benefits over organic fertilizers while causing huge problems downstream.  This was compounded 100 years ago by Haber’s poison gasses and industrial explosives deliberately designed to kill.  As well as soldiers, these also killed smaller organisms and so were remarketed as the solution to all insect problems.  Yet all they have done is destroy balance of the soil-life and done nothing to reduce insect damage to crops which now, as 100 years ago, is at about the same rate (except in properly run organic farms that have biodiversity and natural pest resistance in many cases).  Problems with many other chemicals are well known, despite being promoted as “cure-alls”, e.g. DDT for insects and glyphosate for weeds.  And while it is quite easy to poison and destroy the natural heritage, it requires much more skill, intellect and imagination to appreciate and preserve biodiversity.  Hopefully in these more enlightened times, with communications and computers to assist, we can revisit and rebuild the basics of Life on Earth, starting with the soil by allowing its denizens – the industrious and uncomplaining earthworms – to go about their toil unhindered by us.

With yields, it is also important to realize that crops often have substantial below ground production in unharvested roots that provide food and energy storage in the soil for subsequent crops; wheat reportedly has 50% total growth below ground (and Blakemore, 2000 found wheat roots increased by 10.8% under organic management at Haughley).

About 50% of agricultural production goes to animal feedstock.

Total global food crops on land = ~2 Gt Carbon I believe = 4 Gt dry and 8 Gt wet weight.

Global fisheries aquaculture production from Wikipedia (Ref.) based on FAO fishstats data – http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/ is about 160 Mt wet weight per year yet, despite being at its highest levels ever, is just a splash in the ocean amounting to <0.4% of human food.

Fig. from http://earlywarn.blogspot.jp/2013/04/global-crop-production.html .

Oxygen from oceans is minute, it being obviously depleted at the air-water boundary.

Five good reasons to convert to organic farming:

  1. Prevent topsoil loss (currently at lost at 2,000 tonnes per second).
  2. Prevent chemical pollution (environment and human health)
  3. Increase carbon sequestration (humus is mainly carbon) i.e. reverse climate change
  4. Reduced synthetic nitrogen (soil acidity, environment, human health)
  5. Conserve earthworms (to do all soil work for free), human heritage crops and stock
  6. Produce more (despite biased reports!) for less $ cost (input savings plus removal of 50% government/tax subsidies for chemicals and public funds for chemical research).

Propaganda is that organic farming is less productive so requires more land for the same yield is falsified by research, albeit limited, that shows organic can actually produce more whilst increasing biodiversity; moreover, pristine land is already being lost due to chemical pollution/climate!  Organic food tastes better, lasts longer, and is more nutritious plus its production is less harmful to farm workers, families and to wildlife.  Organic is not “anti-science”, it is modern, inclusive and ecological unlike the 180 year-old, ailing and failing Liebig reductionist chemical model. Our only proper aesthetic hope is to grow naturally.

Sir Albert Howard’s peaceful and productive compost facility at Indore, that is still largely preserved and operational.  It is small scale and local but with huge potential for uptake on farms anywhere or at any scale, from under a kitchen sink, to a backyard or to whole states.  In fact, as of December, 2015, the tiny, Himalayan state of Sikkim became wholly organic with its neighbour Mizoram also starting from 2004; Madhya Pradesh currently has the largest areas under organic certification followed by Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan.  Moreover, Gujarat, after declaring its organic farming policy in 2014, became the ninth state to do so, after Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim, Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Nagaland.  Andhra Pradesh is on track to become entirely organic and Kerala will be by 2020.  Thus, although as yet unrealized, uptake is entirely practicable.

In comparison, BASF (later, along with Bayer, under Nazi rule as notorious IG Farben who, rather than world domination for 10,000 years, now nicely claim to “combine economic success, social responsibility and environmental protection”) Haber-Bosch fertilizer and poison gas military-industrial factory in Oppau-Ludwigshafen established on passive Mennonites’ fields and named after the grandfather of the Mad King Ludwig.  Site of the first ever aerial bombing by the French in 1915 and again by RAF & USAF in WWII with accidental “own goal” explosions in 1921 ( photo) and 1948, it is now massively expanded as the largest chemical plant in the world producing N fertilizers and still more chemical poisons.  Ironically it sits beside the Rhine that passes each day laden with eroded topsoil heavily polluted with nitrate runoff (around 15 mg/l NO3) and other agrichemical poisons.  Since the Rhine outflow is about 2.2 million l/s, with this nitrate load, it transports about 1 million t NO3 per year; or about the same as N content of this plant’s annual output of 0.5 million t urea fertilizer!  Although the need for these subsidized synthetics, and their downstream problems, would be circumvented if Howard’s Indore passive compost methods had been equally promoted and properly adopted.

PSS – POST-SCRIPTS WITH FURTHER (RANDOM?) INFORMATION

Regarding the urgency of Climate Change, Rothamsted’s 2018 report clearly already charts a spiking 2 degree increase in temperature since 1990 (https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/sites/default/files/LongTermExperiments_PDF.pdf : fig. 14; cf. Blakemore 2018: fig. 11). Note their report makes zero reference to earthworms! At about the same time (2017) they poopoo the “4per1000” initiative for more, well, poo poo in soil, due to lack of N (Ref.).

As a corollary to the organic rice study by Blakemore (2016a, b), a report from India also shows equal yield and higher carbon sequestration in organic rice compared to conventional (Ref.). In addition to equable yields, the authors report: “The sustainability index of the soil was maximum with organics (1.63) compared to inorganics (1.33), after five years of study. The soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks were higher with organics by 44 and 35%, compared to conventional system during wet and dry seasons, respectively, after five years of study. The carbon sequestration rate was also positive with organics (0.97 and 0.57 t/ha/yr during wet and dry seasons, respectively), compared to conventional system that recorded negative SOC sequestration rate (-0.21 and -0.33 t/ha/yr during wet and dry seasons, respectively). Benefit cost ratio was less with organics in the initial years and improved later over inorganics by fifth year.”

More “Fishy” business..

Fisheries are not collapsing and, even if they were, it is a relatively unimportant sideshow: a distraction to the true issue of loss of topsoil and land biodiversity on which we need to focus.

Here are the data from published science and even these, often highly pro-ocean biased reports, cannot conceal the fact that it is not “reelly” an important issue.

Rather than collapse, fisheries from 1900 – 2000 continued to increase consistently up to 1990s and then levelled off slightly by 2000, currently they are the highest ever.  The following graph is from Science (2003) article.

Here is an infamous case of cod collapse in West Atlantic from 1850-2000 (ex Wikipedia), at its peak at most only 0.8 Mt/yr in almost 100 Mt/yr…

Here is cod (average around 0.2 Mt p.a.) in context of total global fisheries from 1950 to 2011 which, since 1990s, has had increasing aquaculture (with most stockfeed from soy and other land crops!) to give almost 200 Mt p.a. (modified from FAO data from Wikipedia figure).  This data includes all seaweeds and marine invertebrates too.

[IMAGES AFTER HERE STOPPED LOADING DUE TO CAPACITY – see Pdf at end for copies and check data from vermecology.wordpress.com/2019/07/02/the-ocean-lies-still/ and especially – https://vermecology.wordpress.com/2018/02/20/food-for-thought-part-iii-a-visual-essay/]…

And finally here is the global annual fisheries shown in context of global food (not counting eggs, meat or milk nor total pasture production)…  Fisheries thus represents about 3.5% food, about half from aquaculture.

Meat production, which is mostly from grass/hay but also some cereals adds another 300 Mt food – https://ourworldindata.org/meat-production with 155 Mt total fisheries production against 320 Mt meat (i.e. more than twice as much).

milk another – 800 Mt – https://ourworldindata.org/meat-production#milk-production-across-the-world .

eggs another 82 Mt – https://ourworldindata.org/meat-production#total-egg-production

Crops provide about another 3-4 Gt food and pastures add another 1? Gt/yr plus timber harvested is about 1 Gt p.a. (see – https://vermecology.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/solum-solace/), cotton, wool another  ? Gt/yr. These totals give up to about 11 Gt total crop yields.

Human appropriation of NPP (HANPP) amounts to about 15 Gt C/yr (Ref.).

World fisheries total global production amounted to ~171 Mt/yr in 2016 with about 50% from aquaculture (reliant to a large part on soy & other terrestrial crops for stockfeeds!) (Ref.). Assuming half its “live weight” is wet gives ~85 Mt/yr dry wt and assuming about half is carbon = 42.5 Mt C/yr. This is only 0.28% of total human appropriations. Only half is from ocean.

What is the point of this? Oceans supply just 0.14% of human needs. Thus marine scientists are unqualified to comment on NPP and are irrelevant.

Then there is food loss which is lowest for nuts at about 1% and highest for fish at about 50%.  Thus actual contribution of fish is again reduced to about 0.07% of total human food and this helps to put in proportional perspective its true value to our daily lives (not much!).

Availability of light, the source of energy for photosynthesis, and mineral nutrients for algae limit primary productivity of the ocean.  Also much ocean catch is inedible waste.

Wiki has total human appropriation at ~23.8% of NPP stating that: “marine ecosystems (~10% of global biodiversity) and goods and services (1-5% of global total) that the oceans provide“. This is much too generous as oceans in total may provide just 0.14% of human biotic needs for our survival!

According to Wikipedia (https://web.archive.org/web/20171202234621/https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primary_production  Nov., 2017 table “Primary Production and Plant Biomass for the Earth”), Net Primary Productivity (NPP) on land is estimated at 115 Gt/yr while the ocean is claimed to be 55 Gt/yr, or just 32% of total – however often the below ground soil life is omitted and would perhaps double and halve these numbers, respectively.  These yields are from a world standing biomass of 1,837 Gt on land and just 3.9 Gt in oceans (or just 0.2% of all life on Earth is in the oceans, and, if sub-surface soil biotic life and plant roots were included then life on land may be approximately doubled and the oceans halved to just 0.1% of all life in the Universe).  In contrast to 0.1% of life in Oceans, Dr Sylvia Earle (who says this planet should be called “Seas” not “Earth” and whose name ironically means from the trees), says that “Most of the oxygen in the atmosphere is generated by the sea. Over time, most of the planet’s organic carbon has been absorbed and stored there, mostly by microbes. The ocean drives climate and weather, stabilizes temperature, shapes Earth’s chemistry. Water from the sea forms clouds that return to the land and the seas as rain, sleet and snow, and provides home for about 97 percent of life in the world, maybe in the universe.”  I say it is <0.1% so one of us is wholly wrong/mad & it’s not me….

An update review by Costanza et al. (2017) estimates the value of free ecological services in financial terms with a median value of $135 trillion per year that is almost double the global economic GDP of around $75 trillion (Ref.).  Thus Ecology is more important than Economy.  Ecological losses from land use changes (mainly due to industrial-chemical agriculture) Costanza et al. (2017) estimated at around $4 trillion per year which is about double the global combined Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries contribution of $1.9 trillion (UN-FAO, 2015).  Ironically, the chemical company’s website puts agriculture value at $2.4 trillion, ignoring the $4 trillion loss (Ref., 2017) whilst objecting to UN’s severe criticism of chemicals for damaging health and the environment yet not providing any improved crop protection for the last 40 years (Ref. 2017 original; Ref. summary).  The UN report also noted that in China 20% of arable land is rendered unfarmable due to chemical pollution (so much for organic farming requiring 20% more land!), 33% of China’s surface water is polluted and >80% of its aquifer well water is unfit to drink or bathe in (Ref. 2014; Ref.; Ref: 2017: 16.).  In India the situation may be worse with 50% land degraded in some way, almost all water polluted and the annual direct cost of land loss put at $8.5 billion per year (Ref.).  Apart from frequent acute poisonings (even those less obvious than Bhopal, Seveso or the thousands of farmer suicides using pesticide poisons), the epidemiological links where there is insufficient documentation and decade long onset lags for cancer, as with tobacco use, makes it difficult to unequivocally prove (or disprove!) chronic health problems from pesticides.  Such pesticide links are thus far, however, proven for childhood leukaemia, for Parkinson’s (Ref.) and, more recently, >41% increase in Non-Hodgkins Lyphoma (Ref.).  

The most widely-used herbicide, glyphosate, was known from 1980s tests as a statistically significant cause of testes tumours (7% of treated rats vs. 0% in controls) and of eye cataracts (7% vs. 5%) in rats and “slightly toxic” to the single species of earthworm tested causing “thin, slack and lethargic worms with a dark skin” in less than a fortnight (Ref.).  [Formulations of the herbicide were also found “extremely irritating” to eyeballs of caged rabbits in cruel experiments that are now, hopefully, illegal].  These industry-funded studies were deemed insignificant, inconclusive and non-demonstrable in another industry-funded and secretly edited (Ref., Ref.) review published in 2015 (Ref.) that, however, deliberately and ironically ignored a non-industry-funded, independent report that it was obviously intended to counter/undermine, viz. Seralini et al. 2014 (Ref.) that found mammary tumours and mortality.  Yet other independent studies have also found glyphosate to be hazardous: e.g. a 2003 report showed toxicity to rat mothers (up to 50%) and deformities in their foetuses (Ref.).  Evidence points to glyphosate formulations also affecting mammalian gut biomes (Ref.). 

Disturbingly, the same day Seralini’s original paper was published (19 Sept. 2012; fig above) it was attacked by those with political, corporate & personal interests, including Prof. Moloney then Director of Rothamsted (Ref.).

A particularly worrisome issue is that what food safety trials have been conducted on rodents often use standard food supplies that are themselves perniciously contaminated with chemicals, GMOs and heavy metals from agriculture (Ref., Ref.) thus compromising effects on “control” groups that may lessen validity of such toxicological studies.  As one given example, the company-funded regulatory study on gyphosate tolerant oilseed rape (canola) (Ref.) used a food source for test rodents found to be GMO contaminated (note such GMO Brassica napus has become feral in Japan, as noted above: Ref., Ref.).  Much better as controls, and to my knowledge as yet untested, would be to use organically sourced food for the rats and mice test subject diets.  Comparisons of organic versus conventional diets for rats have had some preliminary tests (Ref. Ref.).  Outing of the outrageously biased and secretly funded front “Academics Review” is coming to light (Ref.) as a means of sowing confusion and doubt; the question, as usual, is “Cui bono?”.

Just released are two 2020 reports of glyphosate’s human endocrine-disrupting (ED) properties (Ref.) and oestrogen potentials (Ref.) further supporting earlier findings of ED (e.g. Ref.) but, then again, testes cancer would surely disrupt at least the testosterone part of the endocrine system…

Despite industry funded studies claiming no effect (e.g. “Monsanto has conducted several laboratory toxicity studies that demonstrate that glyphosate and the original Roundup herbicide are not harmful to earthwormsRef.) herbicides and their different formulations can also harm earthworms (Ref., Ref., Ref., Ref.; and as summarized here: Ref.), with a recent 2017 study showing glyphosate causing serious mortality and infertility in several earthworm species (Ref.). 

For earthworms, Gaupp-Berghausen et al. (2015) found: “Reproduction of the soil dwellers was reduced by 56% within three months after herbicide application. Herbicide application led to increased soil concentrations of nitrate by 1592% and phosphate by 127%, pointing to potential risks for nutrient leaching into streams, lakes, or groundwater aquifers. These sizeable herbicide-induced impacts on agroecosystems are particularly worrisome because these herbicides have been globally used for decades“.

Regardless of all these studies, well intentioned or otherwise, the need for herbicides is in a large part moot: promoted by the chemical companies just to encourage GMOs and no-till farming (claimed to enhance earthworms but not with any comparison to organic non-till) which is again ironic as organic farming, natural farming and Permaculture have many non-chemical methods of weed management and of rebuilding topsoil, dispensing with all risks from poisonous toxins that also harm earthworms.

From the viewpoint of earthworm services, which are irreplaceable and invaluable, it makes no sense ecologically, economically nor logically to continue on this destructive/suicidal course.  It seems overwhelmingly more sensible and realistic to avoid the known environmental and health costs and the biodiversity losses, plus saving on the price of chemicals and their government subsidies (both being burdens passed on consumers) to finally decide to “de-cide” and convert back to practical, productive and proven modern organic solutions that will surely save our soils and the worms therein.

Some Japanese connections are: that the laboratory rat is thought to be derived from 18th C Japanese pet rats; Bacillus thuringensis was first described from Japan (as B. soto); “do-nothing” or natural farming (no-till) was developed by Masanobu Fukuoka in Shikoku; the Green Revolution success was based partly on Japanese dwarf wheat cultivar: the first GMO scandal was from Japanese tryptophan manufacture; the medaka killifish was an early model for GMOS manipulation (Ref. 1992, Ref. 2001); the feral spread of banned GMO Brassica napus canola is documented from several ports in Japan (Blakemore, 2010).  Currently there are no commercial GMO crops in Japan and labelling is required for imported ingredients if they are more than 5% GMO.  Japan applies the CBD’s Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety for GMOs (what it calls “Living Modified Organisms or LMOs) with two categories: Type 1 use is defined as an open usage of GMOs, i.e., under conditions that may influence the local environment; Type 2 use involves a closed environment where impacts of GMOs are contained, e.g. in a glasshouse or laboratory.  Escape of feral GMO Brassica napus in Japan was first detected, neither by industry nor government, but by independent public research and this problem is now pervasive and spreading with some preliminary reports of cross-pollination (again by independents – Ref.).  Other concerns in this initial, unconfirmed, report is of GMO soy and corn growing wild in Shimizu, Japan (Ref., Ref.).  As yet there seems little follow-up to confirm or monitor this pollution (Ref.).

Interesting links are that Rockefeller’s Standard Oil in 1927 formed a joint company with I.G. Farben and I.G. Farben’s pre- and post-war successor, Bayer, formed a joint venture with Monsanto called MONBAY (rather than the more appropriate “MONSTA”) that produced dioxin contaminated Agent Orange herbicide. Bayer now wholly owns Monsanto. Less infamously well known, the American I.G. Chemical Company was also formed in 1929.  In 2016 the Rockerfeller funds divested shares in fossil fuels calling their own progeny Exxon’s conduct on climate issues “morally reprehensible” (Ref.), but they and other philanthropic funders still support GMOs and agribusiness interests (Ref.).

The major obstacle faced is that there are two opposing mentalities, those purely profit based and those more environmentally concerned (for practical reasons often of self-preservation) that are overlain by the inability of scientific reconciliation: most industrialists are chemists, most modern thinkers are ecologists.  This gulf is almost insurmountable for misunderstanding.  Even biology, that I consider subordinate to ecology, has major schism of botany and zoology who barely communicate effectively, and neither understands microbiologists at all.

What is particularly telling is that the rebuttals and objections of agrichemical organizations point not so much towards flaws in alternative arguments, but more to those that are seen as the greatest threat to their profits.  Thus Rothamsted officially criticized Badgley et al. (2009) when K.W.T. Goulding & Trewavas (2009) said, amongst other points “economic drivers that determine what farmers actually do; experimental station staff income is unaltered and they don’t lose their jobs if the experiments fail”, although this precisely the situation on that station.  Goulding concentrated mainly on wheat, and in this regard it is pertinent to look at Rothamsted’s 170 year long Broadbalk wheat trial that originally aimed to show synthetics could replace natural fertilizers.  However, their FYM (farm-yard-manure/compost) plots consistently outyielded the synthetic Nitrogen plots from their published data.  Therefore this experiment failed.  The subsequent introductions of pesticides/herbicides/fungicides does not soften the failure rather it compounds it as these are often subsidised to the farmer and this just serves to further prove that Rothamsted is not comparing certified organic practices with conventional.  Better composts (as Lady Eve Balfour pointed out) and more realistic farm scale trials (as Sir Albert Howard summarized) would allow comparison that should also account for the pollution externalities and health costs of biocides.  For example, recent studies from Germany show a >76% reduction in beneficial insect biomass in 27 yrs plausibly due to such poisons (Ref.).  My own interest subjects, the earthworms, have also been seriously depleted at Rothamsted under chemical plots.  Thus the truer conclusion is that chemical farming is both a risky and costly failure with chemists unable to contemplate a broader natural canvass.

People truly concerned about world hunger would be concerned about environmental and financial costs – poor farmers cannot afford patented seeds, synthetic chemicals nor health care from poisoning.  Organic fertilizers and manures are often free and produce healthy soils with healthy plants requiring less chemicals to harm humans.  Weeds harbour beneficial insects and help protect the soil and the earthworms therein who also work tirelessly and for free.  Thus yet again the conclusion is a need for Permaculture to teach teachers how and what to teach.  Organic farmers are mindful and helpful; businesses exploit when they can.

Some additional points: complexity of progress is exemplified by simple expedient of bread-makers to prepare the dough the day before to ensure it is freshly baked.  This seemingly gives the enzymes in yeast time to work.  Mechanized baking kneads and cooks without delay.  Increasing food allergies have been linked to this change in process (Ref.).

Cais Plinius Secundus (AD 23-79), better known as Pliny the Elder, enumerated the advantages and disadvantages of most animal manures and recommended the use of green manures (Ref.).  It seems that Jethro Tull (1674-1740) also had a the correct impression when he theorized: “All sorts of Dung and Compost contain some Matter, which, when mixt with the Soil, ferments therein; and by such Ferment dissolves, crumbles, and divides the Earth very much; This is the chief, and almost only Use of Dung… This proves, that its (manure) use is not to nourish, but to dissolve, i.e., Divide the Terrestrial Matter, which affords nourishment to the Mouths of vegetable roots.” (Browne, 1943).  This “humus theory” of plant nutrition was supported by Albrecht Daniel (1752-1828), then variously disputed or accepted by von Liebig.

Decline of the Romans is possibly linked to their introduction of running water sewers, meaning humanure is not returned to the fields plus loss of traditional methods.  The same is happening now as what gardeners and farmers learnt about soil over years is being replaced by simple chemical fixes.  When traditional knowledge is being lost we find abandoned cities and monuments to forgotten gods.  In conclusion I can only support Bill Mollison’ view: “There is one, and only one, solution, and we have almost no time to try it. We must turn all our resources to repairing the natural world, and train all our young people to help. They want to; we need to give them this last chance to create forests, soils, clean waters, clean energies, secure communities, stable regions, and to know how to do it from hands-on experience.

Bill Mollison told us that humans are a symbiosis – we depend upon our microbial complements, internally and superficially, to support survival for our relatively brief lifetimes.  If a human body was made sterile externally using a chemical antibiotic the person would surely succumb to any number of diseases that are dormant, ever-present but constrained by the overwhelming superiority of the long-evolved beneficials.  Simply, as Darwin told us, we have all co-evolved to the current status quo.  If the human gut flora were entirely removed (and each of us supports about 2 kg of beneficial microbes in our guts about which we know very little, except that they greatly outnumber our human body cells by >10 times and our DNA by >100 times) the we would probably die much sooner.  The point this argument is building towards is that it is similar to the idea that neither insecticides and herbicides, nor any biocide, can ultimately be helpful for a properly functioning ecosystem.  A study by Oxford university at an organic farm seeking to test how dangerous it would be for health found that many forms of highly virulent diseases of plants and animals were all present but that none were expressed due to suppression by beneficial microbes.  This is basic ecology and the complex resilience obtained from biodiversity and complexity of mutual relationship interactions between species.  As Bill Mollison also told us: Nature is proving to be not so much about competition, rather it is all about co-operation or at least mutual tolerance.  While an organic farm causes no harm to a chemical farm (except, maybe, a few blown weed seeds but this detriment cancelled by these weeds feeding beneficial insects), the reverse is not true.  All soil is now tainted, none can be considered purely organic – just as neither honey nor fish can…

Chemists deal in entropy, here defined as the tendency of chemicals to decay, and even contamination from radio nucleotides have half-lives albeit often in millennia.  But biology is different, its laws are to breed and spread – like an unending chain-reaction – thus any contamination will grow in time.  Consequently it is pointless to have a 1% or 5% tolerance for GMO contaminations as just one seed is sufficient to germinate and in time to potentially infest a whole continent.  As examples of this there is the bentgrass scandal in USA and the feral escape of GMO canola (Brassica napus) as well as GMO soy and GMO corn in Japan, probably from contaminated seed.  These illegal escapes were first detected by NGO (non-governmental organizations) and the canola was found to be cross pollinating with native brassicas and conferring multiple herbicide resistance.  Wider publicity and research is lacking, possibly for political reasons.

A final comment on glyphosate which is the main herbicide GMO plants are engineered to tolerate, is now re-patented as a broad spectrum antibiotic by Monsanto (US Pat. 7771736) this includes several symbiotic (beneficial or pathogenic) gut bacteria and: “Susceptible organisms include, but are not limited to all species of the Family Pseudomonadaceae”.  Other Family members are Azomonas spp. and Azotobacter spp. which are major free-living natural Nitrogen-fixers (Ref.).  Studies confirm (Ref., Ref.) this herbicide damages these important microbes so may reduce natural soil fertility thus requiring more synthetic N fertilizers.  This again is ironic as burrowing by earthworms, which are also seriously susceptible to glyphosate (Ref.), increases rate of microbial priming for plant nutrients from SOM by 4-20 times (Ref.).

Wormageddon!

A plausible cause of the >76% reduction in biomass of flying insects (“Insect Armageddon”) in Germany in just 27 years (1989-2016) was agricultural intensification with examples given as: “pesticide usage, year-round tillage, increased use of fertilizers and frequency of agronomic measures” (Ref.).  The authors say that this considerably exceeds the estimated decline of 58% in global abundance of wild vertebrates over a 42-year period to 2012 and was considerably more severe than the only comparable long term study on flying insect biomass from the UK.  This latter study of 30 years from 1973 to 2002 by Rothamsted researchers (Ref.) used different methodology (suction tubes at 12.2 m mainly designed to monitor aphids, rather than generalist malaise traps at ground level to 1 m).  They found decline in only one of four stations but concluded the other three stations possibly already crashed due to earlier “agricultural intensification” from the 1950s as they all had much lower insect biomass even that the final value for the declining site.  Moreover, aphids seem to be encouraged rather than depleted by intensive agriculture (as was found from Haughley organic farm data – Widdowson, 1987: 70; Phelan, 2004: 201), possibly because organic plants are more resistant, pesticides kill their predators and the aphids build resistance.  This problem was recognized but unsolved in Rothamsted’s controversial and failed GMO wheat trials.

Incidentally, to show how universities and research organizations lack credibility and fail us compared to “citizen science”; the German study was by a small group of retired experts or hobbyists of the Entomological Society Krefeld; and the feral GMO canola, soy and corn scandal in Japan was also first discovered by small NGOs (Consumers Union of Japan, Stop GM Seeds Network Japan: Ref., Ref., Ref.).  The study of glyphosate on an N-fixing diazotrophic bacterium was a US high school project! – viz. “The Effects of Glyphosate on the Growth and Viability of Azotobacter vinelandii” by Ethan Feild for AP STEM Research Period 5 4/18/17 at Thousand Oaks High School (Ref.).  For safety this project properly recognized that: “The bacteria were almost entirely harmless, being classified as a biosafety level one bacteria, which only requires sterilization of the work area after use and thorough hand washing. However, the pesticides were treated as potentially carcinogenic and toxic, and were handled with the utmost care to minimize exposure and release into the environment.”  The subject of Azotobacter vinelandii alone merits review as it is a free-living, N2 fixer https://www.jic.ac.uk/SCIENCE/molmicro/Azoto5.gifknown to produce many phytohormones and vitamins as well as fluorescence when it is happy in agricultural and natural soils (Ref.). Its genome of 5 million base pairs has just been sequenced (Ref.), unlike Klebsiella and Rhizobium, A. vinelandii can alternately replace Molybdenum (Mo) with Vanadium (V) or Fe in its nitrogenase enzyme.  Photo of A. vinelandii (from Ref.).

Extrapolation of the German data (Ref.: fig. 4) shows elimination of flying insect biomass in 30 years.  This is consistent with the earthworm decline data from Rothamsted with also predicts collapse within 30 years.  Related to this is the prediction by UN’s FAO that we only have another 50 harvests left at the current rates of soil degradation.  Thus the conclusion is that the public will must require intensive, chemical farming to change radically, and soon.

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https://www.graphpad.com/temp/quickcalcs/1510723130696_linearRegressionResults.png

Lady Eve Balfour (Living soil 1947) says the estimated numbers of earthworms per acre in the soils of the Rothamsted Experimental Station are roughly 0.5 million in unmanured land, 2.75 million in FYM (manured) land and 8.6 million in grassland, but she also notes that both earthworms and fungi appear to be highly sensitive to sulphate of ammonia fertilizer.

Loss of insect and other invertebrates, birds and other vertebrates, plants and microbes has little effect upon earthworms that would surely survive and resurge, just as they thrived after the Cretaceous K-Pg (formerly K-T) mass extinction event (Chin et al.(2013).  However, the fate of earthworms – the ultimate detritivorous recyclers and builders of topsoil – does have a bearing on all Life on Earth: The only way to prevent extinction of other organisms is, quite simply, to ensure that the earthworms are protected.  Once so, everything else is safe too.

An Interview with Hugh Grant (Chairman and CEO of Monsanto) Kai Ryssdal: Do you ever buy organic food yourself? Hugh Grant: Yeah, I do. Yeah. www.marketplace.org/2008/08/20/world/interview-transcript-hugh-grant

See also – https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/gm-food-banned-in-monsanto-canteen-737948.html .

There are two shifts of late.

One is the discovery (confirmation?) that memory is stored in RNA (Ref.) cf. the prior claim for the same (Ref.).  This reopens the door for implication that behaviour precedes evolution that I have long expected following a 1980 undergraduate ethological question of which comes first. Learned memories (experience) can be passed on to successive generations (despite the so-called Weismann barrier).  The corollary is that instincts are also stored in the genetic materials, although this is obviously realized but attributed to “hard-wiring” of synapses.  This field now opens up for experimental research as a move beyond Darwinism to the next level. This most recent paper (Ref.) supports “inherited” environmental traits (i.e. sacrilegious Lamarkian inheritance!).

Secondly, and perhaps equally important, is the realization that the prokaryote/eukaryote boundary is so stark that the application of the epithet “species” to microbes is perhaps moot.  Prokaryotes can exist without eukaryotes, the opposite is not so.  Thus when the French propose the 4per1000 initiative in essence to reverse climate change to preserve species, and the Brits poopoo it (Ref.) completely, is 180 degrees off target.  These Rothamsted dons say that adding carbon to the soil is pointless without adding nitrogen (I guess in essence to preserve the C:N ratio at its standard in most soils as 10:1).  What they misconstrue is that it is excess synthetic N added to soil has stimulated the microbes to become more hyper thereby increasing their metabolism and release of CO2 respiration from SOM.  The check on carbon metabolism is thus the more stable and difficult to access nitrogen as is found in resilient soil organic matter (SOM) also known as humus (that is a forbidden word in soil science that itself has for some reason been kidnapped by chemists who by definition know nothing of life nor of Soil Ecology).  Similarly, the term organic farming is anathema for chemical agronomists who have been indoctrinated that only N-P-K matters and have invested heavily, and pointlessly, in this.  In truth soil ecology and organic farming are more based upon HOME (humus, organisms, moisture and earthworms).  We should perhaps no longer class prokaryotes with the same implied status as higher eukaryotes species that are, in reality, complex communities of self and symbionts, so if we aim to save the species, it implies the ignored microbial organisms too.

In conclusion, there is beauty and hope in Nature so all is not lost. Regrettably, science has diverted from its core purpose being corrupted by corporate interests and personal avarice. What is published seems mostly promotional advertizing or trite, irrelevant distractions from key and important issues that need to be urgently addressed. There is no TRIAGE.

5 reasons why the Bayer-Monsanto merger needs to be stopped – CIDSE

Syngenta’s $1.5 billion settlement for GMO was once thought ” the largest agricultural litigation settlement in U.S. history“(www.farmprogress.com/corn/syngenta-lawsuit-settled), mainly because Dow had yet to settle its $8 billion claim from the 1984 Bhopal disaster (www.bhopal.org/the-dow-chemical-companys-bhopal-related-legal-liabilities/). But both are dwarfed by Bayer’s $11 billion settlement offer for causing cancer (www.reuters.com/article/us-bayer-lawsuit-idUSKBN25N2YK). It is important to realize that this latter settlement is for only one chemical (glyphosate) and of only one type of cancer (non-Hodgkins Lymphoma) with 41% increased risk (Ref.), this mainly in non-agricultural workers/families (because causal effects are difficult to define in farmers exposed to a cocktail of toxic chemicals plus cancers take years to manifest). The main reason is that US courts apply a “Daubert standard” requirement precluding scientific evidence that does not have a broad substantive basis. Nevertheless, in the three cancer cases that did go to trial, all were clearly proven with massive awards (>$2 billion!) granted, so Bayer decided not to contest the remaining 100,000+ outstanding cases rather to opt for class settlements. BASF, like Bayer, was part of notorious IG-Farben. ChemChina is included in US DoD’s list of “Communist Chinese military companies”. These immensely rich (but not very nice) companies now fund most research: Mainly agrichemical with no accountability for ecology.

In the fields of Soil Ecology and Agroecology that I personally know (BSc with honours, PhD, etc.) there is almost no support, nor any for organic ag research despite a growing public realization of its importance. The public has good reason to be skeptical when studies are published with overt (or covert) support of agrichemical companies. Thus the terms “Conservation Agriculture” or “Regeneration” or “Soil Health” or “Sustainability” and also the term “Agroecology” have often been kidnapped and corrupted to a certain extent by the chemical companies and/or the meat lobby, both very powerful and influential thus surely corrupted.

E.g. http://www.cropscience.bayer.com/who-we-are/about-us/benefiting-biodiversity-soil-health ; https://cropscience.bayer.co.uk/soil-health/ ; https://www.cropscience.bayer.com/people-planet/natural-resource-conservation/soil-health … Beneath the surface – all lies.

In my view the only solid and reliable research is that on simple Organic Farming and Husbandry of earthworms with humus. This is safe because it is time tested and proven over millennia, despite the chemical interests in the last century demeaning and attacking anything “organic” as unimportant or “unscientific” (a deeply offensive term especially when emanating from mere chemists!). It is impossible for such chemists/marketeers to now admit their errors, nor to change their leopard spots. So – for the public, farmers & their families, as for concerned and ethical scientists – when organic farming is reported on fairly this alone may provide the proper and true course. Then again, the real soil experts are simply the modest earthworms as they have no subterfuge nor deceit… they will ultimately arbitrate to reveal the honest Truth.

~~~ -oOo- ~~~

Pdf –

Postscript: Chemical companies & their paid shills intimidate or threaten any dissent, like all bullies do. UK’s Rothamsted Research, a renowned agricultural center with some of the longest running field trials advertizing agrichemicals, operates as “a company limited by guarantee” in collaboration with the likes of Bayer & Syngenta (e.g. www.fginsight.com/news/news/rothamsted-and-bayer-form-alliance-on-sustainable-crop-care–23666 ; www.cambridgenetwork.co.uk/news/rothamsted-syngenta-multi-million-partnership ). Their annual report 2015/2016 lists: “Dr Jacqueline Stroud
As a soil chemist on her first foray into biology Jacqueline explains why earthworms are so fascinating
” who, seemingly as their representative, has attacked my earthworm research while claiming to care for “soil health” as an instant “earthworm expert“. My advise: “Farmers: Beware!” to not let such chemists onto your land, especially those who, by their own admission, are unqualified to talk about earthworms nor Soil Ecology …

Farmers: Beware!

Final Postcript: A rather pathetically pedantic objection posed by some anonymous reviewer (obviously a petty chemist) is to the term “agrichemical” that they insist should be “agrochemical” (yeah, right I know – it’s trite, trivial & irrelevant). To them I can only suggest that from my childhood working on farms to my undergraduate BSc studies to my PhD in agroecology as an agronomist (not “agriecology” nor “agrinomist” note!) we have always used “agrichemicals” as a term. I have heard the other used but it lacks euphony and makes no sense as a contraction of “agricultural chemicals” unless you are going to say “agroculture”, “pestocide”, “herbocide”, “fertolizer”, or “poss off”. Let’s leave the definitive to OED that says (Ref.) “Agrichemical -> variant of Agrochemical” and “Agrochemical (also Agrichemical)“. Now stop being so aggro & wasting our time, “asshile”.

One thought on “Nitrogen Necrosis?

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