Sustainability in Agriculture

Many of us have a personal bias towards organic farming methods because they reduce the quantities of toxic chemicals that mankind manufactures and releases into the environment—including ourselves.  However this bias must be tempered by the possibility (probability?) that strictly organic methods of organic farming are no longer capable of sustaining the existing human population.  If so, a policy promoting exclusively organic methods becomes manifestly unsustainable.  Herein lies the reason for this article.


1) Organic farming & genetic engineering. We have been hunter-gatherers for a few hundred thousand years since before we qualified as Homo sapiens.  Some of us have practiced settled agriculture for ten thousand years—more work but more food for more people, and we have had farm machinery for a few hundred years, vast quantities of pesticides for a century or so, hybrid corn for nearly a century and now many hybrid vegetables. Finally (probably not really finally), we have had genetically engineered crops for a few decades.  Organic farming is a different kind of advance promoted by Sir Albert Howard, a British agriculturalist influenced by experience in India early in the twentieth century —basically a reaction against synthetic chemicals, whether chemical fertilizer or pesticides promoted by emerging agribusiness.   (See also under Agribusiness and Original Sin, category: Economics and Politics).


I have long wondered at what point in history organic agriculture could have exclusively supported the entire human population.  Looking back the answer might even be in the early 20th century except for the opulent human carnivores, who require several times as much acreage as vegetarians because of all the extra food consumed by the animals themselves while living and waiting to be slaughtered.  Actually attempting to make such a calculation would be quite messy, or even somewhat arbitrary, if only because of ruminants consuming much roughage that we could not digest.  (See also Stone Age Diet on, category: Miscellaneous).


Let me pause to point out that our neighbors consider us organic gardeners because of all the compost and absence of sacks of fertilizer.  However, we do not qualify doctrinally.  We even used insecticides to control plum curculio—otherwise the infested plums all dropped off the trees before they were even fully developed, let alone ripened.  Meanwhile the plum trees all died.  The same worms infest cherries, but the cherries mature and taste OK (if you don’t know about the worms).


Could the world survive on entirely organically grown food? The best answer that I have found to the question turned up in a book--Tomorrow’s Table, Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, by Pamela C. Ronald & Raoul W. Adamchack, Oxford University Press, 2008.  The authors are a plant geneticist and the manager of an experimental organic farm at the University of California at Davis.  They are married to each other and, probably not incidentally, their book is a plan for ”marriage” of organic farming and modern science. 


Their points of view are constructively and interestingly expressed, seemingly almost incidentally, as conversations with their students and other colleagues.  The emphasis is on the benefits on the one hand of organic farming methods in avoiding toxic chemicals and soil erosion, and, on the other hand, the benefits of plant breeding in developing new crop varieties to improve efficiency in land and water use.  Repeatedly emphasized is the idea that genetic engineering (GE) has not resulted in any of the disasters predicted by opponents of it.  This is obviously true of selective breeding of traits already present in some of the parent plants that has been occurring throughout the history of settled agriculture.  Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is the chemical stuff of inheritance.  Modern DNA analysis permits more rapid selection for desired traits by selection for “marker genes” associated  with the new trait.  These markers can be identified promptly in embryo plants before the desired traits are expressed in the mature plants, greatly speeding up the improvements, but the final product is exactly the same as with traditional plant breeding. There are no possible impending disasters from this particular form of GE.


Transgenes are genes from unrelated sources imposed on a (plant’s) genome by GE.  Examples include “Roundup-ready” soybeans and Bt corn (corn engineered to produce a toxin for insects from Bacilus thuringesis).  The authors correctly state that so far transgenes have not resulted in unintended consequences.  A stand of Roundup-ready soybeans can be made weed free without

harm.  Glyphosate, the generic name for Roundup, kills all “normal” plants by interfering with the formation of proteins such as chloroplasts, essential organ for plants but not for animals. A protein that intervenes and permits normal production of chloroplasts in the presence of glyphosate is produced by some bacteria.  The gene for producing this protein has been isolated and introduced into the soybean genome.  Glyphosate is nontoxic to animals and does not persist in soil or water.  When used on GE soybeans, it replaces vast quantities of metolachlor, a very toxic, persistent and widely used herbicide.  Bt corn is a somewhat similar but more complicated story: see below.  The bottom line: GE crops are already improving our environment by reducing toxic chemical use and indirectly by improving yields by nearly 50% and reducing the land area required for agriculture, a boon to wild life.


Bt corn contains a transgene from a bacterium, Bacillus thuringensis.  In both the bacillus and the Bt corn the gene produces a protein toxin that kills many insect predators of corn, again increasing yields without toxicity to humans or chemical residuals in fields or aquifers because the toxic protein (just like all other proteins) is readily destroyed by soil bacteria.  In contrast to glyphosate, forbidden by organic farming standards, GE crops were initially permitted by the standards.  However, the organic farmers and their customers share a prejudice against all GE crops and “chemicals” and overwhelmingly voted GE crops down (actually all substances are chemicals, so we need to evaluate “chemicals” and GE crops one at a time). 


No super-weeds so far. In one of her chapters Pamela Ronald explains why super-weeds have not resulted and are unlikely to result from GE crops. Transgenes have not turned up in weeds, even those closely related to nearby crops. Such weeds may have been pollinated with GE pollen and seeds occasionally germinated, but they have not survived.   The reason: domesticated  plants have been pampered by man for centuries in countless ways such as prepared seed beds and cultivating to reduce competition.  Remember one half of the hybrid’s plant’s genome is from the pollen of the domesticated plant. Thus, the presence of one, or even a few, novel enhancements cannot overcome the disadvantage of prolonged gradual attrition of ancient genes needed in the competitive wild environment.  A subtle example: domestic plants are bred for a high germination rate of seeds; but, if all seeds germinate promptly, it could be a disaster in the wild because no one will be there to replant after a drought.  From the New York Times for May 3, 2010, I find that resistance to Roundup has turned up from evolution that occurs naturally independent of acquiring any trangenes from genetically engineered crops.  The culprit is a strain of pigweed, and it is not a close relative of soy beans—compare with DDT resistant mosquitoes that arose from old fashioned Darwinian evolution before artificial gene transfer had been accomplished.  So, this episode is a disaster for the ruined soybean crop and a disappointment for the manufacturer of Roundup, but no transgenes were introduced into weeds.


I am sure that the authors are aware of the danger of permitting the growing of GE crops that produce chemicals of use to the pharmaceutical industry---such crops should be produced only in greenhouses with controlled ventilation and all other provisions necessary to prevent any pollen escaping to similar crops being produced for food.  Such hybrids could not be expected to die from competition, permitting contamination of our food with the thoroughly unnatural chemicals. Unfortunately, “agriceuticals” were not pertinent to any of the discussions in the book. The book, Tomorrow’s Table, discusses at length problems with intellectual property interfering with dissemination of GE crops in the underdeveloped world (similar to drugs for treatment of AIDS).  Apparently UC, Davis, is pioneering a concept of using some of the funds arising from patents of academic research being used to disseminate benefits to the sources of genetic diversity in the underdeveloped world where the useful genes originated.  Scholarships to local scientists will be especially useful in agriculture in order to further adapt the discoveries to local growing conditions.  The bureaucratic, financial, and ideological obstacles to regulating GE crops and organic agriculture are also discussed.


This book’s “marriage” is with and without quotation marks because of the authors’ relationship. The marriage of genetic engineering with organic farming is heartwarming (as a non-card-carrying organic gardener, the book renews my license to be eclectic).  Society needs amalgamation of diverse technologies and ideologies for the benefit of all human kind.  Tomorrow’s Table, Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food is an important book and should be widely read.  For a review of the best book in decades about the entire history of breeding plants for food see: Hybrid, The History and Science of Plant Breeding by Noel Kingsbury, U of Chicago Press 2009, 493 pages, under the category Other Science and Technology.


2) All farmers, organic and conventional, share an impending shortage of  fertilizer, a topic common to me and the authors of Tomorrow’s Table.  Phosphorus in chemical fertilizer comes from mined phosphate rock.  Existing known reserves of this will be mined out in a few centuries.  Fertilizer was not needed for crops until we had civilization and settled agriculture.  Previously animals (including humans) distributed their excrement diffusely where plants could reuse the nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, etc.  Some nitrogen and potassium are lost in natural recycling of nutrients—the nitrogen to the atmosphere by bacterial action and the potassium by leaching.  The nitrogen is replaced by legumes. Bacteria on the roots do it---even formation of nitric oxide by lightning discharges does it; and the potassium is replaced by breakdown of clay as new soil is formed—all clay contains rather firmly bound potassium in its minerals of origin.  Until recently, modern fertilization practice has added all three bulk chemical elements in the proportions needed by plants.  However phosphorus is well retained in soil and fortunately, excess is not toxic to plants.  Regulations are in place to avoid excess phosphorus because severe excess phosphorus does appear in lakes and rivers contributing to algal blooms, the hallmark of polluted lakes.  In any event, phosphorus can be thoroughly recycled.  It is poignant that we have only enough phosphate deposits for a few generations at the rate of current usage unless we recycle it.  We have only needed to mine it because we dumped it at sea or in landfills (as sewage sludge).  This discussion suggests benefits of keeping fertilizer resources and consumers of food close to each other.

A Community Garden can serve several important purposes: 1) increase health, 2) reduce energy use by less long distance transport, 3) replace much chemical fertilizer by recycling human waste (mostly in Asia so far), 4) demonstrate the improved quality of really fresh vegetables.  The latter will  promote other small gardens. Farmers’ markets provide locally grown fresh vegetables near to rural areas.  Green peas and sweet corn of the very best quality must be especially fresh---picked within an hour or so before cooking.  The reason: photosynthesis results in the formation of sugar (glucose in this instance) in the leaves.  The glucose travels via the sap to the peas or corn kernels where enzymes convert it to starch.   When the peas or corn are picked, the glucose there is converted to starch, but no more arrives from the leaves.  So, after a few hours, no glucose and no sweetness remain.  Heat, even just blanching, inactivates the enzyme and preserves sweetness.  Cold, even freezing, merely slows the enzyme action.  This is why peas and sweet corn to be frozen must be blanched promptly after picking.  Sweet fruits have no starch-forming enzyme and do not require blanching.

Chinese Organic Fertilizer.  Here is a solution, indirectly from China, for enhancing fertilizer  supplies including phosphorus without depleting dwindling natural deposits.  Not very long after the Maoist takeover in China, the government, in order to control parasitic diseases, tried to prohibit the use of night soil (human waste) for fertilizer.  The rural population resisted because they had always used night soil and they knew that crops flourished with it.  After a little constructive applied research, the authorities recommended consistently composting night soil (letting it ferment) for at least six weeks before distributing it on the fields. The parasites were destroyed and large areas of China became free of parasites such as schistosomiasis.  For centuries they had been composting night soil, but undoubtedly less consistently.

We can learn from the Chinese experience.  We already ferment sewage in sewage disposal plants, but not until after it has been mixed with industrial waste that includes really bad stuff such as cadmium from electroplating.  To emulate the Chinese success all we have to do is separate the industrial and domestic waste (including illegally introduced heavy metals) before it gets to the sewage disposal plant and the resulting sludge would become quality fertilizer.  When I was a child, hardware stores in Indianapolis had green sacks of Milorganite, dried Milwaukee sewage sludge, for garden fertilizer.  State regulations now require that crops fertilized with sewage sludge be fed only to animals, (but Milorganite and similar products are still on the market for home use).  Soap, detergents, washing soda, small amounts of  Chlorox, sodium phosphate (combats hard water) would not interfere.  We already have collection points for paint and other hazardous waste that shouldn’t go down the drain.  Kitchen sink garbage disposal would not be a problem.


Feedlots and (other) “Cities.”  I have done some “back of the envelope” calculations about the quantity of fertilizer  that might accrue  per year  from the excretion  of one adult person---a little more than two  fifty pound sacks of 10-10-10 fertilizer (10% each of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium).This is about  one person’s share of fertilizer for a subsistence garden.  Admittedly, some organization and incentives would have to be worked out; but, in principle, it is a viable plan  to use the same phosphorus atoms over and over.  In spite of Milwaukee’s long experience  with Milorganite, there  have been some recalls because of contamination with heavy metals, so careful monitoring of early new programs will be in order.  Contamination by parasites or disease germs must also be avoided. Another problem is that in the process of fermentation in soil, compost, or wastewater treatment plants some nitrogen is lost to the atmosphere as gas.  This must be replaced in order to have a complete fertilizing program.  The choices are either by industrial chemical  fixation of   nitrogen  or  by  perennial  crops  cultivated  with  legumes  such  as  perennial  wheat  with  the  legume,  Illinois  bundleflower.     (See  The  Land  Institute     

< >). A rather new problem is increasing land prices even in small cities causing closing of community gardens.  Beneficial side effects and efficiencies will occur from recycling of phosphorus, but let us start carefully with pilot projects in some of the most favorable situations that have a sympathetic public and limited local industrial contamination (more easily avoiding heavy metals).  Of course, the manure from farm animals would all be in addition to the fertility salvaged from sewage.  If massive concentrations of animals in dairies and feedlots is inevitable, we could transport their manure to farm fields as liquid in pipelines as we now transport petroleum.  So our program would not only enhance health directly by better diet from fresh locally produced food but also indirectly by reducing unnecessary energy use---all conservation of energy reduces global warming. 


The way forward.  For the short run we may increase the public’s health more by promoting private gardens than by demonstration of quality, locally produced vegetables in community gardens.  Do not accept this assessment too quickly---all of life must be endowed with overweening optimism to strive for maximum survivalLet us get a grant to study whether harmful microbes survive the process of being made into sludge (an additional composting step may be required)This experiment might result in greatly reducing the cost of phosphorus recycling by permitting sludge to be used with no more restrictions than animal manure for fertilizing human food crops.  Even certified organic farms are permitted to use sewage sludge that does not contain the large amounts of heavy metals (illegally introduced) in most big city sludge. Dentists don’t put mercury down the drain. This demonstrates that education helps.  Is educating the public enough, or do we need two parallel sewer systems, one for human and food waste and the other for everything else?


An afterthought.  Modern construction technology permits gardens on flat roofs even on very tall buildings. Such gardens on flat roofs of tall buildings in large cities might result with minimal pilfering because only the tenants of each building would have access. So Wisconsin’s Green County  (our city has such a garden) may lead the way for community gardens right in downtown New York City.  That city already has the lowest per capita carbon footprint among American cities because of excellent public transportation and a public willing to walk moderate distances. We need more research about how to subsidize small farmsteads without bankrupting third world farmers.


3) Suicide committed by small-scale farmers is increasing all over the world because more of them are going bankrupt.   Even in areas where millions of men, women, and children are dying of starvation, obesity and its health problems are multiplying dramatically in other segments of the population.  This is due to increased consumption of more concentrated manufactured food and decreased physical activity because of mechanization.  In 1996 the UN (United Nations) declared that they would strive to cut the number of hungry people in half by 2015,  But, instead of falling, the number of hungry people has increased by 3% in 10 years.  Fewer and fewer multinational corporations are supplying more and more of our food and transporting it longer and longer distances.  Crop subsidies, originally intended to help family farms in the developed world, are now mostly paid  to big producers.  Consumption of locally grown foods, even fruits and vegetables, is steadily falling.  Fresh foods contain nutrients such as bioflavinoids that, while not essential, do enhance  health--second and third string vitamins, if you will, that didn’t make the varsity--you don’t  die  without  them.  (See also under Staying healthy, 5) Bioflavinoids).


Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands in the South Pacific, is an example.  In 2006 we spent 3 weeks there as volunteers mostly tutoring junior high and high school students.  While exploring the rural areas, the crops noted were taro, a starchy root crop and a Polynesian favorite, papaya, many pigs, chickens, and nono trees (the fruit is a purported herbal remedy for cancer the juice of which fetches about a dollar an ounce but which is considered inactive by stateside hospice).  There were some small household gardens with various vegetables, and a few larger plots of tomatoes plus one very large orange grove that was neglected.  I happened to sit next to a local economist at a graduation ceremony and asked him about local commercial agriculture.  His explanations follow.  Almost all Rarotongan food is now imported because of falling prices on the world market.  The oranges were formerly exported as juice—most if not all orange varieties are not very orange naturally and must be treated with ethylene gas to make them look ripe (ethylene gas is actually a natural plant ripening hormone and is harmless).  So only a small fraction of the crop is now harvested for local use—again mostly as juice because of the cost of (unnecessary) ethylene treatment.  The grove will not be replanted.


Small landholders all over the world are protesting current practices.  Restoring traditional local production will not only help the farmers, but will improve nutrition of the entire population as mentioned above.  In many areas of the Unites States some truck farmers are selling annual shares of their production for $200 to $300 to be delivered regularly throughout the growing season.  Some of the best restaurants are buying these shares.  The benefits of more fresh food from local sources are more than nutritional.  For example, smaller, more diversified agriculture results in less need for pesticides.  I have observed this on isolated abandoned apple trees on former homesteads in state parks in terms of many fewer wormy apples.  Even worms seem to go for the economies of scale.


The needed reforms include revising farm subsidies to accomplish their original intent, which was to keep small farms in business.  These subsidies in rich countries are even more harmful to farmers in the developing world who cannot compete with the artificial low price.  Alternatively, import duties for imports that are subsidized  in their country of origin should be recommended  by WTO (the World Trade Organization). Incidentally, the most vociferous voices demanding retention of subsidies are not in our country, but in Europe, especially France. A beneficial side effect of smaller scale farming will be less deforestation and less point source pollution as from large animal feeding installations.  Keeping the animals closer to the land that needs fertilizer makes perfect sense and requires less fuel to accomplish.  Besides many of us eat more meat than is nutritionally ideal in terms of a balanced diet--especially true for those of us with a sedentary life style. It would also be good to limit promotion of  “junk food” especially to children—the obesity epidemic is affecting all ages.


Global warming is going to cause heavier rains but fewer of them.  New methods of tilling to promote long retention of soil moisture will have to be perfected and taught to farmers in the affected areas—most notably sub-Saharan Africa.  It is well known that deep plowing wastes soil moisture, but superficial tilling minimizes runoff of a heavy rain.  Much focused research in agronomy is needed: new drought resistant varieties, more perennial crops, details of most efficient plowing and tilling.  Research in agronomy techniques needs public funding because it is scarcely patentable.  “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and….states on page 111, “Approximately 40% of the world’s food is produced from irrigated land, and 10% is grown with water from aquifers.” Thus, water conservation must be part of  “….the Future of Food.”


The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology is the world body for agriculture that compares with the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change).  It is sponsored by the UN, The Global Environmental Facility, The World Bank, The World Health Organization, and hundreds of stakeholders, researchers and farmers from around the world.  After five years of work in January, 2008, Crop Life Incorporated, the trade organization for GM crops (I prefer “engineered” because domesticated plants are already “modified”) walked out because of their expertise being ignored.  This is a repeat of what happened to atomic energy—too much early enthusiasm followed by unjustifiable prolonged neglect. 

We have never known what we were doing

because we have never known what we were undoing.   Wendell Berry 1987


4) Cropland in the Mississippi River basin (including the Missouri River, of course) has lost 2/3 of its topsoil in 200 years of intensive farming. Cropping annual plants results in much more erosion than growing perennial plants because of bare ground most of the time with annuals. These statements and the following are from a symposium on February 17, 2006, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in St. Louis entitled, Ecology, Trade, and Sustainable Agriculture in the American Midwest, organized by R. Eugene Turner, Louisiana State University; Jerry Glover, Land Institute, Salina Kansas; Don Wyse, University of Minnesota.


Frequently we have been told that we cannot afford the measures needed to mitigate global climate change.  In this symposium we were told that the measures needed to achieve sustainability in agriculture will incidentally reduce greenhouse gases by several mechanisms, see below. These measures will cause some temporary inconvenience while reorganizing the whole system to emphasize perennial plants.  Fortunately the monetary costs will not be show- stoppers.  How did things get so bad before our experts caught on?


Primitive man had much more success in improving domesticated annual plants compared to improving perennials because substantial and rapid improvement occurred almost automatically by selecting and sowing improved seed so frequently—every year.  To this day breeders of seed crops prefer working with annual plants because these are totally dependent on seed production for survival and therefore devote all available resources to producing seed.  Perennial plants depend on seed only for distant dispersal. Fully active photosynthesis for perennials occurs during the entire growing season, so they produce much more biomass than annuals.   Biomass is all of the solid material produced by plant growth—mostly cellulose.   However, perennials can be bred for high seed production by modern methods.


Crops of annual plants in addition to increasing erosion, when fertilized artificially, utilize much less of the added nitrogen than perennials do because they are absorbing it efficiently for only a fraction of the growing season.  Peak summer nitrogen levels, mostly ammonia and nitrate, in the lower Mississippi River rose from 0.7 mg/liter in 1906 to 1.95 mg/liter in 2002.  Most of this wasted nitrogen is from corn and soybean cropland.  The resulting contamination has many consequences beside monetary cost such as diminishing fisheries in a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi delta to the Texas coast.  The dead zone began to occur in the spring in about 1900.  It is caused by excess growth of microorganisms many of which die, sink to the bottom and decay, exhausting dissolved oxygen there.  The area affected varies seasonally from a few hundred to nearly 10,000 square miles and it either kills the fish or drives them to deeper water where they suffer more predation.  Inland the excess fertility in the watershed adds to all other pollution.  As a result, 40% of the water in the region is unfit for swimming   So increasing plant cover with perennials in the Mississippi River basin will mitigate soil erosion and degraded water quality both inland and in the Gulf of Mexico.  How will all this reduce greenhouse gases?


The Haber-Bosch process for synthesizing ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen at high temperature and pressure is very energy intensive and creates much carbon dioxide.  Most of this ammonia is used for fertilizer.  Growing a given amount of food from perennial wheat or rice  (perennial grains under development) compared to annuals like corn and ordinary wheat would cut the need for Haber-Bosch industrial process nitrogen by at least 50%, thus further reducing green house gases in addition to the fuel savings from less plowing and cultivating required for perennial crops.  For perennial plants producing biomass, there will be no need for nitrogen fertilizer at all by using legumes together with the high cellulose producers.  Legumes harbor bacteria on root nodules which fix atmospheric nitrogen.


The Green Lands, Blue Waters Initiative ( includes fifteen NGOs (non-government organizations) and five state universities.  Here are their strategies to increase the use of perennial crops:


Development of new perennial crops is estimated to take 25 to 30 years to restore sustainability gradually with many pilot and demonstration programs along the way.  The agronomy departments of the participating universities are researching management of perennial crops, especially new ones like perennial wheat and Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), which is still an almost wild legume. It might be a good source of “free” nitrogen for a fast growing producer of cellulose such as switchgrass, the sentinel plant of primeval North American tall prairies, or even for woody plants, trees and shrubs, which may turn out to be the most efficient producers of biomass.  Of course management includes disease and  pest control hence the several decades for research.  More than food crops are involved.  An example: 14% of our corn crop is meeting only 10% of our ethanol need—mostly for octane enhancement.  Already in Monroe, Wisconsin, you can buy 85% ethanol 15% gasoline at the pump to save money and pretend to reduce global climate change (if your vehicle is one of the few that can tolerate it).  Ethanol, methanol, other liquid fuels, and even hydrogen can be produced from biomass.  The best systems from farm to factory and consumer can be perfected well within a 30 year time frame—no exotic new technology required.  Biomass is most efficiently produced from perennials.  Less cropland in corn means less soil erosion.  Finally, more beef cattle fed on pasture, perennial grass or alfalfa, perennials in either case, means less need for corn to be produced, again with further reductions in soil erosion and less vagrant fertility. 


If the entire Mississippi River basin begins to achieve these sustainability goals, it will be an enormously visible example to the entire world.  Civilizations have declined repeatedly since the beginning of settled agriculture in prehistory because of soil degradation that could not be reversed.  It was heartwarming to be among so many competent, hardboiled idealists, eight speakers and a large enthusiastic audience.  Such people may well succeed in transforming agriculture—much more difficult in the realm of ideas than in the realm of economics.  Thank you for “listening” to the new agricultural gospel.    Preach the Gospel at all times.  If necessary use words (attributed to St. Francis of Assisi).


Next, a  lesson   from  South  America   from  a  February 18,  2006, symposium at the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science)  in St. Louis organized by Kent Mathewson, Louisiana State University and William Woods, University of Kansas.  See also “1491”, an article from The Atlantic Monthly of March, 2002, by Charles C. Mann.


5) An amazing story from the Amazon. Small plots of fertile soil blackened by carbon have been known along the banks of the Amazon and its tributaries for over a century.  The first of these soils found contained many pottery fragments because these were sites of villages that had been abandoned.  The truly astounding information from recent decades is from surveys sampling the entire Amazon basin showing that the indigenous population had been intentionally creating these fertile areas of up to hundreds of acres each by “slash and char”—smoldering fires damped by soil.  The total area so modified equals the area of France, a veritably Herculean endeavor!  The “primeval forest” of these areas with enhanced soil isn’t quite primeval after all—many of these plots of land were apparently planted with native trees that have edible fruits and nuts.  All of the radiocarbon dates of these soils are from 2500 to 500 years B.P. (before present).  The inference is that these strenuous, extensive modifications were occurring for 2000 years and ceased soon after the arrival of Europeans because of something close to 95% population depletion from small pox, measles, and such—no direct contact with Europeans required, just other tribes most likely from Peru, an early Spanish contact.  It is known from elsewhere that slash-and-burn agriculturalists prefer to be hunter-gatherers because the latter is less work. This explains the survivors’ behavior in abandoning agriculture after the hemisphere-wide population crash.


South American aborigines were “gardening” much of the Amazon rainforest.  Similar logic applies to North America with different details.  Our North American aborigines intentionally burned the prairie to enhance grazing for game.  A similar depopulation of aborigines occurred from imported disease several generations before direct contact with Europeans.  This means that the legendary enormous buffalo herds of our North American west arose after the human depopulation but before exploration--there just weren’t enough Indians remaining to hunt and eat the game anymore. All of this new information is important in many ways.  Research in the chemistry and bacteriology of “terra preta de Indio”, Portuguese for black soil of the Indians, is coming on strong especially in Brazil and Cornell University where they have already demonstrated tripling yields from depleted soil with their “homemade” terra preta and with corresponding increases in retention of phosphorus and nitrogen in the soil. The carbon dioxide released during the manufacture of their synthetic terra preta is balanced by increased soil retention of new carbon in the soil within 1 to 2 years. This will almost surely result in new and faster ways to restore depleted soils all over the world and with incidental reduction of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. Inoculation of microorganisms, bacteria and fungi, from mature terra preta should speed the process. Neolithic man’s efficiency in creating large areas of terra preta rapidly may have been aided in this manner.  I visualize mobile crop waste “toasters” making activated charcoal from local material to save hauling.   Of course many thoroughly depleted soils will require charcoal obtained elsewhere. 


A brief summary of prior knowledge of tropical soils follows---correct but still woefully incomplete.  For example, bauxite, the ore from which aluminum is smelted, comes only from the tropics because clay, from which bauxite originates is much more rapidly broken down by heat and humidity in the tropics,  Clay itself is the result of erosion of granitic rocks, which are quartz plus crystals of complex silicates like mica, feldspar, and orthoclase.  These silicates contain aluminum, magnesium, potassium, and calcium with precise ratios in the various crystals (and minor amounts of phosphorus).  The complex silicates are slightly (geologically) soluble and washed away by warm tropical rain in only a few tens of thousands of years.  Only the aluminum oxide, Al2O3—bauxite, is totally insoluble and remains. Decomposition of tropical soils in this way is called laterization.  The apparent lushness of tropical rain forests depends on very rapid recycling of nutrients from 1 to 2 feet of litter on the forest floor.  Bacteria, fungi, even termites break down the litter.  The tropical trees’ roots are very superficial—just below the bottom of the litter and absorb the “new” nutrients before they even  enter the laterized soil.  Remember any nutrients entering that poor soil are soon leached away. Temperate zone clays release the potassium needed by plants only gradually.  This accounts for restoration of fertility in our fields left fallow for only a few years.  Nitrogen is available from the atmosphere mostly from bacteria in root  nodules of legumes such as clover, peas, alfalfa, birdsfoot trefoil, vetch (some legumes are “weeds”—weeds are plants the use for which has not yet been determined).  Measurable amounts of nitrates are also produced by the electric arc of lightning.  Some comments about appropriate sources of funding for agricultural research follow with some comments about medicine because that has been my career and antibiotic abuse is common to both agriculture and medicine.


6) Research funding for agriculture and medicine?  This is a question that scientists, pharmaceutical companies, politicians and the public have long debated.  My insights on the above question are as follows: In 1992, our daughter and son-in-law, who breed Milking Short Horns and Dutch Belted cattle, gave us letters of introduction to some of their semen customers in New Zealand.  Because of this connection, we were able to see the awesome efficiency of dairying in New Zealand while on several trips to that country.  The New Zealand climate permits grazing all year around.  This allows for milk production most of the year (except for a few months in the winter).   Herds whose production is intended for export are dried off for those few months.  This means only the herds producing milk for local fluid milk markets need supplemental grain--a very small portion of the total cattle.   Most of the herds are treated with hormones so they freshen within a few days of each other especially in the South Island where it is more important to avoid milk production until a good supply of spring grass is assured.  Production is measured in liters of milk per hectare (2.47 acres/hectare) so the smaller breeds, especially Jerseys, compete nearly equally with Friesians (their name for Holsteins).  The need to milk a few more cows of the smaller breed scarcely slows them down.  Typically the carousel milking parlor is located near the electrically fenced paddocks that are grazed in sequence.   At milking time, the fence is opened and the cows proceed in their own pecking order to the milking parlor.  At the milking parlor, the cows step into a moving stall to have the milking machine applied as they pass the pit where the share milker works.  (This worker is paid a percentage of the milk checks).  When a cow has been milked out, the milking machines are designed to fall off automatically, allowing a heavier milking animal to ride the carousel a little longer.  The criteria they use for selective breeding emphasize behavior, so ornery cows are culled regardless of their ability to produce milk.  Bulls are selected for the temperament of the heifers they sire in addition to being chosen for productivity.


Jersey-Holstein hybrids. Beginning 30 years ago New Zealand dairymen began experimenting with Jersey-Friesian hybrids to get the milk solids of the Jersey breed and the milk volume of Friesians.  To induce farmers to participate in this research the sponsoring dairy co-ops provide AI (artificial insemination) free of charge using at least six bulls for each farmer to distribute the risks and benefits.  This breeding program has become so successful that now 90% of dairy herds in the North Island are the Jersey-Friesian hybrids.  A final small example of the success of their cooperative research programs is the discovery of the fact that washing the udder before milking actually increases the bacterial count in the milk.  This is almost certainly because residual moisture from rinsing is sucked up by the milking machine and enters the milk.  I made a calculation connecting their liters per hectare to our dollars per hundred weight measure.  The New Zealand farmers were realizing a good profit at $6 when we were breaking even at $10.  So, their whole system is finely tuned to their climate and other conditions of production.


Drying hay by machine. When we moved to Wisconsin in the 1950s, I listened to local farm programs on the state radio station to get acquainted with local farm problems.  One program I particularly remember was advocating barn drying of hay.  This process seemed to solve the problem of reduced quality hay that had been rained on after mowing and before baling.   But, when I looked around the countryside I saw little evidence that barn drying of hay was being practiced near me.  Farmer patients explained that the costs of equipment and energy were too high.  So, here was a focused research project (presumably funded by equipment manufacturers) which addressed a real problem, but not in a constructive way the farmers could easily and economically put into practice.  This illustrates that sources of funding (i.e. equipment manufacturers) may bias decisions about which research projects are to be funded, resulting in fragments of information of questionable value in solving the problem in question instead of an integrated whole as illustrated by the example of the New Zealand dairying where improvements were integrated to improve the entire process allowing for increased production and profits.


Whole system research is needed in agriculture for the following reason.  The organic farming movement objects to existing comparisons of their methods to those of standard farming because they say organic farming is a whole system.   However, I believe there must be parts of organic  farming  that  would  be beneficial  to standard  farming  if they were more  widely  adopted  as is currently being done in Europe.  It is time to solve the question: Could we feed the existing world population with exclusively organic methods?   Research to answer such questions is certainly critical to the future of our planet, yet such research is unlikely to be funded by equipment or chemical interests, nor should it be since their interests may be biased and not open to looking at all aspects of the problem or at all possible solutions.

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Commercial sponsors of medical research in recent years have suppressed or attempted to suppress publication of study results.  There have been several well-publicized instances.  One example is where a major manufacturer of synthetic thyroid hormone sponsored a study comparing the products of generic manufacturers with that of their name brand.  That the products were remarkably equivalent  in purity  and dosage should not have been surprising since American pharmaceutical houses are known world wide for following good manufacturing practices and adhering closely to government regulations.  Yet, when the manufacturer who was funding the study was made aware of there being little difference between his and the generic product, an attempt was made (which very nearly succeeded) to suppress the information.  Had the manufacturer succeeded, important knowledge would have been denied the public and the researcher would have been denied the publication of the results of her efforts, a personal and professional loss for the researcher since publication is the currency of career advancement for scientists. Logic says there are other instances where funding by a manufacturer behind the scenes has affected the results of studies and the publication of those results.


Study of antibiotics crosses the boundary between agriculture and medicine.  Here it is especially important to shore up consideration of the public interest.  CIPRO was the first member of a new class of antibiotic called quinolones, recently mentioned in connection with anthrax.  Somehow, approval was granted to allow poultry producers to add CIPRO to chickens’ drinking water to prevent (not to treat) salmonella, an infectious microbe common to poultry and humans and which causes diarrhea.  In other words, CIPRO was used as a substitute for careful hygiene in poultry production.  The result was the prompt appearance of salmonella strains resistant to CIPRO in animals and humans.  Any use of antibiotics inevitably selects strains of normal flora resistant to the drugs used.   Bacteria exchange these resistant factors (plasmids) across bacterial species barriers by a quasi-sexual process called conjugation.  Even though conjugation across species barriers is a rare event, ultimately newly introduced pathogens can become resistant to a previously used drug.   The new pathogens can obtain these resistance plasmids from normal flora of humans and animals before the new pathogen itself has been exposed to the drug. For the FDA (Federal Drug Administration) to reverse an approval takes a year or so of hearings and appeals.  Many European countries restrict the use of antibiotics in animals to treatment of identified infections.  Since our scientific community heartily agrees with the Europeans, common sense suggests that the mechanism pressuring the FDA to allow the addition of CIPRO to poultry’s drinking water had to be special interest support of political campaigns. 


Finally, we have talked about sources of financing that can bias decisions about which research projects receive support in agriculture and medicine.  We mentioned inappropriate approval of non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animal husbandry and the consequences of such approval.  We have discussed how special interest funding of agricultural and medical research can seem to be saving taxpayers money; but that it can actually distance researchers from their true agenda in a way that is ultimately more expensive to society than the money saved.   This is the same kind of “logic” that has kept nearly every state in the union, except, most notably and successfully Maine, from backing public financing of political campaigning.   As we look at these issues, it becomes obvious that society needs to examine all aspects of public versus special interest funding when it comes to making decisions about financial backing for medical and agricultural research.  The world can use some more research in using household waste for fertilizer. especially phosphorus as discussed above.

7) Colony Collapse Disorder in bees (CCD).  Another advantage of local food production for local consumption is less rapid dissemination of new agricultural problems.  Colony collapse disorder of bees (CCD) started in Florida in the fall of 2006 and has rapidly spread throughout the country.  In CCD the bees all fly away never to return.  Beekeepers are losing 30-90% of their hives annually and suffering many bankruptcies.  Big agribusiness requires rented bees, frequently trucked from state to state (with much stress for the bees).   Small local producers need only wild, local pollinators—one third of our crops require insect pollination to be productive.

New synthetic pesticides related to nicotine are suspected to increase bee mortality from the entire list of viruses, fungi, and even mites which impair bees.  Many European countries have banned these “neonicotinoids” on the precautionary principle—solidly based suspicion is grounds for attacking a serious problem—in the USA we require proof of harm and have not even appropriated funds in a timely fashion for the proof.  The preliminary evidence is quite suggestive: only bees poisoned with neonicotinoids become disoriented and cannot find their way back to their hives.  Pennsylvania State University has the most active research program for diseases of bees..  I am indebted to them for much of this information (Beatle-Moss M “Colonies in Collapse” Research Penn State20 (1) Fall 2008 33-38)  They even report receiving $5000 in research funds from a Brooklyn teenager.  She collected the money from adult friends after deciding that Penn State entomologists were the most likely recipients to use the money wisely.

 Recommendations.  Manipulate subsidies and incentives to: 1) Combine the best of organic and GE (genetically engineered) methods to minimize use of toxic “unnatural” chemicals likely to contaminate soils and aquifers for long periods of time. 2) Recycle nutrients from human and animal wastes by keeping industrial waste out of  municipal sewage so the sludge can be used for organic fertilizer, and keep domestic animals dispersed enough that it is economical to distribute their manure on farm fields. 3) Encourage as much local production of food as is compatible with local soils and climate. Include community gardens even if they have to be on flat roofs.  4) Biofuels must not replace food crops to the detriment of human health and must not require fossil fuel expenditure nearly equal to their available energy for their production (the Achilles heel of ethanol from corn). Resuming corn production on sloping land (more than 3% grade) is aggravating soil erosion. Perennial crops minimize this erosion. 5) Study methods of rapidly rehabilitating eroded and otherwise depleted soils and do it soon. The most promising method currently available for study is the terra preta de Indio of Amazonian aborigines for exhausted temperate and desert soils also. This involves  mixing  charcoal  with  the  upper  layers  of  soil  with  other  organic  amendments. 6) Coordinate this with credible methods of human population control---post-modern agriculture will have limits.  See Major Nuances in Population Control on  7) Establish a federal insurance program for beekeepers’ losses—compare with federal crop failure insurance.  This would assure a supply of  “kamakazee bees” to pollinate our crops while we are figuring out control measures for CCD—we are controlling AIDS without a cure (and with the bees we would not waste any of our time preaching bee morality).   “To a bee a flower is a fountain of life; to a flower a bee is a messenger of love.”   Kahil Gibran 

Summary of agriculture for food production.  Overfeeding most of humanity and starving some of the rest is too great a price to pay for the profitability of agribusiness.  Corporations are chartered by government for the benefit of the population as a whole not primarily for the benefit of stockholders.  These charters do not have to be renewed. 


John A. Frantz, MD, NASW

May 6, 2010, revised June 10, 2010