November 19, 2017

How to feed people under a regime of climate change

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Eliminating artificial fertiliser : a solution multiplier

Every measure that serves to bring our agricultural methods closer to the natural ones used by traditional farmers is a solution multiplier. It might be worth considering the host of problems created by the use of artificial fertiliser. By replacing them with natural fertiliser as suggested above we would be solving a corresponding number of serious problems – quite apart from drastically reducing the contribution of agricultural activities to the destabilisation of world climate.

Let us look at some of these problems:

  1. Artificial fertiliser can reduce the capacity of the soil to absorb carbon dioxide by disrupting soil ecosystems and according to P A Steudler this also applies to the absorption of methane gases. [52]
  2. Artificial Fertilisers wash away into our rivers and estuaries where they stimulate the often massive growth of algae, which, when they die, consume the oxygen in the water, suffocating fish and other river or sea-life (i.e. eutrophication). [53]
  3. The algae often form huge algae masses which emit dimethyl-sulphide, a chemical, which oxidises in the air to form sulphur-dioxide, the principal source of acid rain. [54]
  4. Fertilisers are the largest source of pollution of our ground water and hence of our drinking water, the latter being a major problem throughout the world.
  5. Fertilisers applied to the soil increase nitrate levels in vegetables and plants, which when too high, can cause health problems. [55]
  6. Nitrates are transformed by bacteria into nitrites which bind to haemoglobin and reduce the ability of blood to transport oxygen, often giving rise to methaemoglobinaemia, a blood disorder of young children. [56]
  7. Nitrates when combining with amines in the gut can be further transformed into highly carcinogenic nitrosamines. [57]
  8. Available studies reveal that food produced with artificial fertiliser is inferior on a number of costs. In addition to reducing exposure to potentially harmful pesticide residues, nitrates, GMOs and artificial additives used in food processing, organic food and food produced without fertilisers has a Vitamin C, some studies show that it also has a higher mineral content. Organic crops also contain an increased range and volume of secondary plant metabolites or phytonutrients which increase the capacity of plants to withstand external challenges from pests and diseases. What is more, feeding trials have shown significant improvements in the growth, reproductive health and recovery from illness of animals fed organic feed. [58]
  9. Studies at the Obervil Institute in Switzerland have shown that wine grape yields can be increased by maximising nitrogen applications but only at the cost of reducing their sugar content, which prevents them from ripening properly.Studies at the Biodynamic Research Station in Sweden found that the same was true of potatoes whose yield could be increased by 15 percent if enough fertiliser was applied but which drastically increased post harvest losses during storage.In Sri Lanka a traditional farmer (Mudiyense Tennakoon) told me that Sri Lankan farmers used to have no difficulty in keeping traditional strains of rice for 3-4 years, however the hybrid varieties using artificial fertiliser get mouldy in 3 months. [59] [See See Traditional agriculture in Sri Lanka.]The reason seems to be that higher nitrate applications create a problem for the plant by increasing the osmotic pressure on the affected cells and to deal with this, the plant must take up more water. Thus, not surpassingly, the yield of a compost grown plant was found to be 24 percent lower, but it’s dry matter, was 23 percent higher. In other words the fertiliser did not increase the dry weight but simply added more water to the crop. As a result of course, the use of artificial fertiliser leaves the crops very much more vulnerable to fungal infestations correspondingly increasing post harvest losses. To avoid this, a higher use of poisonous pesticides is regularly made during storage.
  10. Such studies suggest that the much-vaunted benefits provided by the use of artificial fertilisers are largely illusory. This is not altogether surprising as artificial fertilisers were not developed in the first place for the purpose of providing people with cheap, plentiful and healthy food. They were originally designed as explosives (TNT), and the IRA in Northern Ireland has consistently used fertiliser bombs.
  11. The Green Revolution imposed by America on the Third World was above all part of a campaign to sell more fertiliser and keep the armaments industry afloat after World War II in spite of a falling demand for their lethal wares. The Green Revolution’s high yielding varieties (HYVs) should in fact be referred to as “high response varieties” (HRVs) i.e. varieties designed to be highly responsive to fertilisers. Significantly, many traditional varieties can provide equally high yields without the use of fertilisers.Similarly, the ‘gene revolution’ is above all a means of selling more herbicides. Some 60 percent of genetically modified varieties marketed so far have been designed for resistant to herbicides such as Monsanto’s best-selling Round-Up, rather than to the diseases themselves, drastically increasing the markets for these poisonous substances that can now be used on crops (soya, beet, etc.) which would not previously have tolerated them. It can be argued of course that the overriding goal of the Biotech companies is to control the world’s entire food production process. How better to do this than by controlling the seeds on whose nature that of the whole process must clearly depend.
  12. Fertilisers are not just used on their own but as part of a package deal that includes hybrid seeds, increasing genetically and modified patented seeds, pesticides, heavy machinery, and water derived from modern perennial irrigation systems all of which create serious problems of their own.
  13. In any case, as already noted diminishing returns on fertiliser are now being experienced just about everywhere and it means that they are ever less effective and less economic. With the coming world water and oil shortage already referred to, the use of fertilisers like that of all the off-farm inputs to modern agriculture can only become ever less attractive and their use must seriously decline.
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