Historic and actual awareness of soil fertility in agriculture: Russia – Western Europe – USA: draft of a survey

Historic and actual awareness of soil fertility in agriculture:  Russia – Western Europe – USA: draft of a survey

Paper presented at The international scientific-practical conference “Problems of ecology and agriculture in the 21st century”, September 21-22th, 2017 at the Russian Academy of Science, an dorganised by prof. Sulukhan Temirbekova, Director of the Institute of Phytopathology, Moscow.


In this paper I present an overview of how scientists in agriculture perceived the soils that produce the crops, and then I try to find out how these perceptions are – more or less consciously – included in agronomy and various related disciplines. In microbiology the notion of complex soil ecosystems came up in the nineteenth century. Conversion of crop remnants and manure on the one hand and feeding the crops on the other hand were studied as a balance in time (seasons), of manuring, crop rotation and (minimal) tillage in mixed systems. Therein crop- and livestock production were managed to be in balance.

But that notion and its experience of ‘living soils’ were overruled by an upcoming use of the external inputs of agrochemicals – fertilisers and subsequently pesticides – after World War II. However, minimalized in the side-line, soil-friendly agriculture survived in organic and biodynamic movements, in this century enhanced by various similar approaches like agro-ecology. And then the FAO declared the year 2015 as the year of the soil, as the chemical agriculture they had supported for decades, had appeared to be shockingly soil-destructive: causing soil-erosion and subsequently flooding followed by drought.

Furthermore I present the soil-ecosystem awareness of today in various disciplines such as plant breeding, biosphere & climate, human health, rural development, manuring, phytopathology (including pesticide effects in soil ecosystems).



Last year I had the honour and the pleasure to present the keynote paper ‘Perceptions of plant nutrition in agriculture – Some consequences for soil fertility, human health and global nutrition; an essay in contextualisation’ in the first Russian Conference on “Fundamental and applied research in bio-organic agriculture in Russia and the EU” organised by the Russian Federal Research Institution for Phytopathology and Moscow’s innovations centre Skolkovo (Van Mansvelt 2016). Therein the key issue was the question how we perceive plant nutrition and what are the consequences of that perception for our crop- and soil-management. I showed how feeding the soil ecosystem is crucial to sustainable soil fertility, and how the main nutrient for the soil ecosystem is Carbon (as carbohydrates), that delivers the much needed energy to the soil meso- and micro-organisms. Straw rich manure and well composted crop remnants could be shown to increase quality and quantity of the yields, provided that well elaborated crop-rotations and minimal ploughing were warranted.

For examples I could refer to a long list of publications wherein organic and biodynamic farms have been screened on their long-time production and on their effects on the environment (up to climate effects).

Key notion on plant nutrition was: plants feed themselves from fertile soils, and in turn feed the soil-ecosystems with their exudates and remnants. The idea that plants can only take up mineralised chemicals from watery solutions – the idea underlying chemical fertilisation – could be recognised as a research artefact in the early Von Liebig School. That Von Liebig senior himself revised his early perceptions, now appreciating soil life and in particular the biological N fixation, is not widely recognised (Justus von Liebig 1861 ‘Es ist ja die Spitze meines Lebens, Naturgesetze im Landbau‘). Interestingly, this book is missing on the English, French and German Wikipedia sites dedicated to Von Liebig.

Today I will focus on soil fertility concepts in time and in global regions, and then I try to find out how these are more or less consciously included in various disciplines of agronomy referred to in this conference.


A word on Vavilov and soil fertility:

Vavilov noted the role of leguminous crops (particularly chickpea) in supplying both people and livestock with protein, and also as a means of increasing soil fertility (especially lupin) (Loskutov 1999). Dragavtsef & Kurtener (2016) refer to Vavilov who wrote in 1935: “in the past the care for the soil – fertilizer, tillage, etc, came to the fore. But our main goal is in the other – in agricultural plant building”. Thus he shifted his attention to genetically improving plant species to existing biotopes and left the improvement of biotopes to fit plant species to others like the microbiologists.


Trend setting early microbiologists

The famous Russian microbiologist and agronomist Winogradsky (1856 – 1953) started determining microbial species in a medical and later in an agricultural context. Growing them on well-chosen nutrients, he gradually realised that he could easily get lost in artificial conditions, estranged from nature (see King-Thom Chung and Christine L. Case 2001).

Regarding N-fixation they summarize: ‘In 1922 Winogradsky was invited to set up the new agricultural bacteriology division of the Pasteur Institute in Brie-Comte-Robert (France), and started studying bacterial complexes in soil, especially those involved in the nitrogen cycle. He was aware that the complexity of soil bacteria required studying them in their natural habitats as well as in cultures. He conceived that in soils there is competition on nutrients and that a majority of organisms are in a dormant state. He is cited referring to the example of the Azotobacter, which was active in isolation, but could remain “obstinately at rest in the midst of the soil.” But the use of laboratory methods exclusively, e.g. isolation, pure culture, and bacteriological media, could not establish real soil science. He believed that soil microbiology is an independent science that should be carried out under conditions as near nature as possible, that is “in the soil itself”.

While at Brie, he demonstrated that bacteria in plants root nodules, were the active agents for nitrogen fixation. This work aided the development of commercial cultures of nitrogen-fixing bacteria by Ira Baldwin at the University of Wisconsin.’

Regarding cellulose decomposition: ‘Selman Waksman speculated that while walking through his forests and fields in the Ukraine between 1905 and 1917, Winogradsky must have wondered about the disappearance of cellulose—which led to his research on cellulose decomposition. Between 1926 and 1929, he embarked on a detailed study of aerobic organisms involved in cellulose decomposition. He recognized the existence of several bacterial genera capable of attacking cellulose and that these bacteria synthesize polyuronides found in soil. He was the first person to describe the fusiform, cellulose-degrading cells in the genus Cytophaga.’

Thus, like quite some other natural science researchers, Winogradsky started believing in the concept of reductionism and single action-reaction relationships that could be studied under artificial conditions. Later he realised that natural soils are complex ecosystems, with a wide range of interacting organisms, so that a holistic, multidisciplinary approach is the only one relevant for sustainable land-use. Before him it was for example Von Liebig, who as a young scientist thought plant nutrition was about the uptake of single chemicals from watery solutions, as he had his experiments ‘artificially’ organised in laboratory conditions. Later, looking around in farming practices, he realised that plants were interactive organisms with a variety of feeding and nourishing capacities (see Von Liebig, J. (1861) ‘Es ist ja dies die Spitze meines lebens’).

Secondly I mention Nikolai Aloksantrovich Krasi’lnikov (1896-1973) who, beside many scientific papers, also published the remarkable book ‘Soil Microorganisms and Higher Plants’. As the director of the Institute of Microbiology of the Academy of Science of the USSR, all his scientific lifetime he was very much interested in the soil’s microbial life and its interactions with the crops grown in those soils, the fertilisers applied and the crop rotations in situ. See also the biography of Krasil’nikov written by Vera N. Gutina (1982).

Anton Nigten summarised Krasi’lnikovs book mentioned above. For this symposium I quote some main points from that summary:

  1. Organic fertilisers cannot be (completely) replaced by chemical salts (such as the well know NPK fertilisers of today).
  2. Using composts as fertilisers in his experiments, he found yield increases of 10 – 50%, as compared to using chemical fertilisers. However, there were considerable differences between crop species.
  3. Remnants of crops and animals must be converted into humus before crops can feed on them.
  4. Fertile soils contain more amino-acids then infertile ones.
  5. Crops can feed on organic substances only (Palladin V.N, 1924), with a positive effect on their quality as crops as well as of their seeds (Samokhvalov 1952; Kursanov 1953/1954).
  6. Most plants can interact symbiotically with mycorrhiza fungi, as well as with bacteria. They feed the soil ecosystem and derive specific nutrients in return. This happens most strongly in the early phases of plant development.
  7. Mycorrhiza fungi, algae and bacteria exude biotic substances into the soil, such as vitamins, amino acids, auxins, antibiotics, nitrogen compounds, organic acids and phosphor compounds. The B vitamins are very important to plants, like vitamin B1 for O2 rich combustion, of B6, B2 B12 PP and H for formation of amino acids and their transamination.
  8. Several organic compounds can be taken up directly as such by plant roots (see for example Laurent and Laurent 1903), so complete mineralisation of the organic compounds is not a requirement as often presumed. Moreover, when bacteria and mycorrhiza fungi are present, phosphorus is taken up more easily.
  9. Each and every plant species creates its own rhizosphere in the soil, with its own microorganisms. Thereby the soil, climate and management conditions are crucial. For example do microorganisms produce organic metal components (note that plants cannot take up inorganic iron). So, depending on the situation, nourishing or toxic conditions can occur in the rhizospheres.
  10. During crop growth there are mainly non-sporulating bacteria, fungi, and algae. When crops ripen the sporulating species, feeding on plant remnants, become most present. The latter can be detrimental to crops as they exude toxic substances: a monoculture effect that cannot be countered through fertiliser use.
  11. In fertile soils less harmful microorganisms are found as compared to infertile soils. By adding CaCO3, MgO and NaOH Krasil’nikov accomplished important improvements of soil quality. On the contrary, by adding KNO3 and KPO3 azotobacter, a healthy soil indicator, was killed. These experiments were done in podzol soils that presumably lacked Ca, Na and Mg, and presumably where still rich in K.
  12. All micro-organisms have their own antagonists in the soil ecosystems. To increase their positive effect on plant growth, Krasil’nikov mixed them with compost, thus keeping them in a good balance.
  13. Plants growing in soils treated with manure or compost where found to contain more ‘active plant juices’, with antibiotics from the soil. Their resistance against plant diseases was increased as compared to non-treated plants.
  14. Epiphytes on over ground crop parts scan have positive or negative effects on the plant growth, similar to those of microorganisms in the soil.
  15. In his last book “Microbes and toxic chemicals in the struggle against plant pests”, Krasil’nikov argues strongly in favour of microbial balances in the soil ecosystem to prevent diseases, and thus against killing those living soils by using pesticides.

In short, long ago Winogradsky and Krasil’nikov were already very much aware of the complex living soil ecosystem and its many species, in their various interactions among one another as well as with crops grown on those soils. Where the first researcher moved over the years from single species to complex ecosystems, for economic reasons the second one became more and more focused on single microorganisms producing natural antibiotics. Thus the latter left the soil ecosystem for others. By specialising so much, the view on the soil system as a whole got lost from his sight.


Coevals of the mentioned Russian soil microbiologists.

Similar recommendations for sustainable soil management to the Russian scientists mentioned can be found their coevals and successors, such as the German, British, French and American researchers Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947), William Albrecht (1888–1974, Hans Peter Rusch (1906-1977) and Masanobu Fukuoka (1913–2008), who share his perception of soils as living organisms but do apply this perception in agriculture. See Chaboussou (2004) and the recent book of Yvan Besson 2017: ‘Les Fondateurs de l’agriculture biologique’, wherein he summarises the work of the middle-European soil-ecosystem-friendly agronomists.


Soil-ecosystem awareness of today

If we look for the USA of today, we find John Marler (2009) who lists the benefits of biotic fertilizers as follows:

  1. Full genetic potential: Crops grown with the steady nutrition provided by the complex ionic nutrients contained in soil acids are usually superior in appearance, size and nutrient density to crops grown with conventional fertility formulations.
  2. Equal or greater yields: Biotic fertilizers have equalled or excelled in crop yields when compared with conventional fertility programs in both organic and NPK + biotics formulations.
  3. Cost: Biotic fertilizer costs are equal to, or less than, costs associated with conventional fertilizers. When oil prices and natural gas prices increase, the cost of conventional fertilizers increases, but the cost of biotic fertilizers stays relatively stable.
  4. An end to arable soil erosion and loss of topsoil: Conventional fertilizers are easily over applied. The result is an imbalance in the carbon: nitrogen ratio in a soil, which accelerates the loss of topsoil. Biotic fertilizers work in a natural manner to rebuild soil acids and soil acid gels that act to hold topsoil in place.
  5. Soil remediation: Biotic fertilizers have the ability to grow a crop to its full genetic potential while remediating and building soil organic matter, in the form of complex nutrition soil acids.
  6. Less toxicity: Biotic fertilizers come in both organic and non-organic forms. While organic forms are naturally less toxic, even the non-organic forms have been shown to require less use of pesticides and fungicides. As a result, conventional fertility programs fortified with biotic fertilizers are not only less toxic, but also have lower costs normally associated with pesticide and fungicide applications.
  7. Less crop attack by pests: Organic growers have noted that organic crops experience fewer attacks by pests when compared to crops fertilized with conventional fertilizers. Biotically fertilized crops, particularly those grown with USDA National Organic Program fertilizers, typically exhibit little attraction for insects. Nature has a means for protecting healthy plants from insects, and biotic fertilizers enable these protective mechanisms.
  8. Less fungal attacks and disease: biotically fertilized crops have repeatedly shown an ability to resist fungal attack and plant disease. Growers with many different crops in diverse regions have reported that the incidence of powdery mildew, fungus, and other specialized fungal attacks, such as club root in cole crops, are diminished by the use of biotic fertilizers. The mechanism behind this ability is suspected to be the chelated forms of natural elemental fungicides, such as coper, magnesium and zinc that are contained in the biotic formulations.

As can be seen, the numbering is different but, by and large, both sets of arguments do nicely cover one another: Marler agreeing with and elaborating on the soil fertility awareness that Winogradsky and Krasil’nikov shared more than a 70 years before.

Also in Russia itself the idea of soil-ecology based agriculture is nowadays notably present, for example in the work of Zhuchenko (1995) and Evgeny Lysenko et al. (2010). As all before mentioned authors they criticise trends in agriculture wherein industrial chemisation (fertilisers & pesticides) is applied in large monocultures with soil turning (deep) ploughing. They refer to the soil-ecosystem eroding effect of the combination of fertilisers disturbing and pesticides killing soil life, with ploughs and their heavy tractors compacting the soils (making them impermeable for air and water). Note that with the decline in soil micro-organisms caused by fertiliser application, the crops lose their resilience and thus stimulate the use of pesticides that kill the soil ecosystem even more. Soil compaction inspires the use of heavier tractors and deeper ploughing, which causes decreasing crop development, which inspires the use of more fertilisers. Altogether clearly a negative spiral for the soil, the ecosystem and thus the roots of the agro-ecological production system.

The mentioned researchers also refer to the decline of product quality, of the health of crops and livestock, together with environmental pollution and the biotope and climate disturbance, which are not paid for by the polluters but by the taxpaying consumers.

Moreover, both Zhuchenko and Lysenko et al include the socio-economic, institutional and governmental policies behind the centralising and uniforming, short-time money making of few (shareholders of industry) at the cost of the future of many (the global population and their socio-economic and agro-eco-systems). A multidisciplinary approach which is highly demanded for a sustainable land-use future (Van Mansvelt and Van der Lubbe 1999).

All this fits with the need for transition of the FAO’s policy from the post-war (2nd WW) centralised chemo-technical monocultural high external input approach (which was war- driven) to a non-violent, soil ecosystem. A system that furthers, agro-ecosystem agriculture, using compost and straw-rich manure to feed the soil, which subsequently provides the food that the plants can take up as they need it according to their development stage, their biotope and climate conditions. See how I referred last year to FAO’s Deputy Director-General Maria Helena Semedo, who in 2015 warns that agriculture is discovered as a big threat in the fight against climate change[i]. She calls upon governments to integrate this sector into their urgent climate policies. If they fail to do so, for example because they see it as a threat for standing positions, she predicts ever more hungry people in the world. Agriculture and the good, carbon enriching use of soils, thus have made a strong contribution to the series of measures against greenhouse gases, the sources of global warming. From the 186 countries that have already laid out voluntary plans to reduce their emissions, around 100 of them include measurements related to the use of soils and agriculture (van Mansvelt 2016). But Semedo warns that those measure must be effectively implemented, not remain just paper on some shelves somewhere.

So now also the question is to Russian agro-scientists and agro-policy makers: how far are you implementing FAO’s request?

In The Netherlands we have the unique Soil Biology Prof Lijbert Brussaard, from Wageningen University. In his valedictory oration, October 2016, he summarizes his work of almost three decades as follows:

“Over the years, my interest has broadened from straight soil biology to ecosystem services mediated by the soil biota, the (synergies and trade-offs between) ecosystem services and how scientific knowledge may inform land use planning and decision-making by actors in agricultural landscapes.
In particular, my research focusses on:
– Biodiversity in agricultural landscapes. Agricultural landscapes are important for the survival of a great deal of wildland biodiversity. The challenge is to make wildland biodiversity more meaningful for the functioning of agricultural landscapes and the provision of ecosystem services. The challenge I am working on is to understand and integrate soil biodiversity in this picture.
– Soil biota – soil structure interrelationships. As a result of agricultural management the contributions of the larger soil biota, such as earthworms and termites, to the formation of soil structure and porosity has diminished, with likely negative effects on the build-up and maintenance of soil organic matter. My research is aimed at understanding and restoring the activity of the soil biota and associated ecosystem services.
– Element cycles as influenced by the soil biota. With mounting pressure on increasing biomass production, while reducing nutrient and greenhouse gas losses from soil to the environment, my research is aimed at understanding and managing of soil biotic interactions for increased nutrient use efficiency in agriculture.
– Biological soil quality. The concept of biological soil quality recognizes that soil characteristics, soil properties, ecosystem functioning and soil ecosystem services are mediated by the soil biota. My research is aimed at scientific underpinning of the concept and making it operational for farmers and other land users.”

Interestingly, in the North Carolina State University, the departments of crop science and that of soil science decided to merge in 2016, in order to focus more clearly on the interactions between the two (https://cals.ncsu.edu/crop-and-soil-sciences/about/). They want to generate and applicate knowledge required for economically and environmentally sustainable crop production systems and products, as well as in developing land management strategies that protect the quality of North Carolina’s soil, water and air resources. In their historic report over more than a century, they mention, though slightly between the lines, the crucial shift to chemisation after WOII until recent, and the need to go back to soil fertility production as the key for sustainable agriculture.

It may be clear from the above, which is only a minute sample of more than a century of solid soil-biology research, that feeding the soil ecosystem is the most reliable and sustainable way to make sure that crops can grow healthy and prosperous. Massive interests from outside agriculture, which is from industry and politics, could bring about the detrimental shift to a focus on industrialised chemical agriculture that FAO 2015 so clearly critiqued after supporting precisely that detrimental agriculture for 70 years.

For the German speaking readers the Forschungs Institut Biologisch Landbau (FIBL) edited a comprehensive brochure on all ins and outs of sustainable, soil fertility improving land management with many practical recommendations (Anonymous 2012).


Soil ecology awareness in various specific disciplines of today

Plant breeding and soil ecology

US plant breeder Kell (2011) advocates the importance of breeding crops with wide and deeper root systems, in order to improve carbon sequestration and soil-ecosystems in general – this also in favour of good crop yields. He states:

“The soil represents a reservoir that contains at least twice as much carbon as does the atmosphere, yet (apart from ‘root crops’) mainly just the above-ground plant biomass is harvested in agriculture, and plant photosynthesis represents the effective origin of the overwhelming bulk of soil carbon. However, present estimates of the carbon sequestration potential of soils are based more on what is happening now than what might be changed by active agricultural intervention, and tend to concentrate only on the first metre of soil depth.

Breeding crop plants with deeper and bushy root ecosystems could simultaneously improve both the soil structure and its steady-state carbon, water and nutrient retention, as well as sustainable plant yields. The carbon that can be sequestered in the steady state by increasing the rooting depths of crop plants and grasses from, say, 1 m to 2 m depends significantly on its lifetime(s) in different molecular forms in the soil, but calculations (http://dbkgroup.org/carbonsequestration/rootsystem.html) suggest that this breeding strategy could have a hugely beneficial effect in stabilizing atmospheric CO2. This sets an important research agenda, and the breeding of plants with improved and deep rooting habits and architectures is a goal well worth pursuing.”

  1. Charles Brummer et. al. (2011) from the Forage Improvement Division, The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, Ardmore, UK, state that:

“Plant breeding programs primarily focus on improving a crop’s environmental adaptability and biotic stress tolerance in order to increase yield. Crop improvements made since the 1950s – coupled with inexpensive agronomic inputs, such as fertilizers, pesticides, and water – have allowed agricultural production to keep pace with human population growth. Plant breeders, particularly those at public institutions, have an interest in reducing agriculture’s negative impacts (sic. JDvM) and improving the natural environment to provide or maintain ecosystem services (e.g. clean soil, water, and air; carbon sequestration), and in creating new agricultural paradigms (e.g. perennial polycultures). Here, we discuss recent developments in, as well as the goals of, plant breeding, and explain how these may be connected to the specific interests of ecologists and naturalists. Plant breeding can be a powerful tool to bring “harmony” between agriculture and the environment, but partnerships between plant breeders, ecologists, urban planners, and policy makers are needed to make this a reality.”


Biosphere and climate

The European environment | State and outlook 2010; Thematic assessment | Biodiversity

Agricultural intensification means decreased crop diversity, simplified cropping methods, fertiliser and pesticide use, and homogenised landscapes. Introducing biofuel crops may intensify fertiliser and pesticide use, exacerbating biodiversity loss. Industrial chemicals, metals and pharmaceutical products likewise end up in the soil or in water. Although nitrate and phosphorus pollution of rivers and lakes has declined, excess atmospheric nitrogen deposition is still an issue across the EU. See: /www.eea.europa.eu/themes/soil/climate/soil-and-climate-change

The Union of Concerned Scientists publishes several critical papers on various aspects of chemico-industrial agriculture’s hidden costs. Costs that are unknowingly and unwantedly carried by the public / the consumers. They state that:
“Industrial agriculture is currently the dominant food production system in the United States. It’s characterized by large-scale monoculture, heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and meat production in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). The industrial approach to farming is also defined by its heavy emphasis on a few crops that overwhelmingly end up as animal feed, biofuels, and processed junk food ingredients.

From its mid-20th century beginnings, industrial agriculture has been sold to the public as a technological miracle. Its efficiency, we were told, would allow food production to keep pace with a rapidly growing global population, while its economies of scale would ensure that farming remained a profitable business.

But too often, something crucial was left out of this story: the price tag.

In fact, our industrialized food and agriculture system comes with steep costs, many of which are picked up by taxpayers, rural communities, farmers themselves, other business sectors, and future generations. When we include these “externalities” in our reckoning, we can see that this system is not a cost-effective, healthful, or sustainable way to produce the food we need.

And the good news is that it’s not the only way. Scientists and farmers are developing smart, modern agricultural systems that could reduce or eliminate many of the costs of industrial agriculture—and still allow farmers to run a profitable business. It’s time for farm policy to move into the 21st century and prioritize these innovative methods. As I could show last year in Skolkovo, a range of rresearches has shown that average organic farms have a better yield and a higher income than comparable conventional farms (Van Mansvelt 2016).


Human health and environmental safety

Industrial farming has negative, often neglected effects on the health of workers, eaters, and downstream neighbours. Here are some of its costly health impacts:

Pesticide toxicity. Herbicides and insecticides commonly used in agriculture have been associated with both acute poisoning and long-term chronic illness (like Alzheimer’s disease, obesities, diabetes etc.).

Water pollution from fertilizer runoff contaminates downstream drinking water supplies, requiring costly clean-up measures with an annual price tag of nearly $2 billion.

Ecosystem pollution from the Antarctic snow (Zhang Q et al 2015) to the sea water in the deepest oceans pesticides in tiny quantities (0,1-1 Nano grams per litre water) have been found, which are enough to pose potential threats to wildlife by accumulation in the food chain.

Junk food. Industrial agriculture, especially in the central United States, mostly produces commodity crops like corn, sugar beets and soybeans. These crops are used to make the processed foods that dominate the US diet, with serious—and enormously costly—health impacts. All those foods contain small quantities of dozens of different agro-chemicals that are used on those crops (like glyphosate and imidacloprid). Some chemicals are added during food processing (like MSG and dozens of other), and other pesticides (like glyphosate and imidacloprid) are developed in order to be absorbed by the plant roots, which thus increases the risks of passing the whole food chain to the end users.

Antibiotic resistance. The overuse of antibiotics in CAFOs has accelerated the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which has taken a toll both in lives and health care dollars.


Farmland and the rural environment

The soils of the American Corn Belt were once celebrated for their fertility. But industrial farming treats that fertility as a resource to be tapped, not maintained. This leads to several kinds of costs, including:

Depletion. Monoculture exhausts soil fertility, requiring costly applications of chemical fertilizers.

Irrigation. Soils used to grow annual row crops and then left bare for much of the year have poor drought resistance, increasing irrigation costs.

Erosion. Monoculture degrades soil structure and leaves it more vulnerable to erosion, resulting in costs for soil replacement, clean-up, and lost farmland value.

Lost biodiversity. Industrial farms don’t support the rich range of life that more diverse farms do. As a result, the land suffers from a shortage of the ecosystem services, such as pollination, and insect pest antagonists that a more diverse landscape offers.


Social and economic impacts

The pressure to “get big or get out” is fundamental to industrial agriculture—and takes a toll on communities.

Loss of mid-sized farms. Once the backbone of US agriculture, medium-sized farms are a dwindling breed, which means that fewer and fewer Americans make their living as farmers—a trend that has been bad for the economies of rural communities and farm states.

Neighbouring and downstream economies. Industrial agriculture can pack an economic wallop hundreds of miles from its origin—just ask local governments and utility managers who must install expensive equipment to remove fertilizer by-products from public drinking water supplies. Or ask people who make their living from fisheries or tourism on the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere, where “dead zones” and toxic algae blooms caused by farm runoff do damage with an annual price tag in the billions. CAFOs, too, create pollution problems that reduce liveability and depress property values in surrounding communities.

See also the series of critical stands regarding agriculture and its hidden effects and cost published by the Earth Justice institution in the USA:  http://earthjustice.org/healthy-communities/toxic-chemicals/sustainable-agriculture

And the Huffington Post gives a detailed survey of those hidden costs, in USD per issue, in: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-lehner/the-hidden-costs-of-food_b_11492520.html

And even Spot-Chemi is very critical about the hidden costs of agriculture, see https://blog.spotchemi.com/what-are-the-hidden-costs-of-industrial-agriculture/ of http://www.spotchemi.eu/

They all give abundant evidence that the last century’s scientific concept of agriculture has more or less consciously neglected all external effects of their model. Thus considerably over claiming its benefits for global nutrition and denying its true costs for society and the global ecosystem.


Fertilisers – manure – compost: Organic matter amendments

Fulya Baysal- Gurel (2013) and her team from Ohio State University organised a symposium on the use of organic matter amendments and conclude:

  • The addition of organic matter such as cover crop-green manure (single and mixed species), seed meals, dried plant material, good quality compost, organic waste and peats can aid in reducing diseases caused by soil-borne pathogens.
  • Organic matter amendments can be very effective in controlling diseases caused by pathogens such as Fusarium spp., Pythium spp, Rhizoctonia solani and Sclerotinia spp.
  • Organic matter improves soil structure and its ability to hold water and nutrients; it also supports microorganisms that contribute to biological control.
  • Our study has shown that mixed-hay cropping during the transition periods can enhance soil suppressiveness to damping-off caused by Pythium and Phytophthora.
  • In addition, although compost amendments applied during transition can improve crop vigour by significantly enhancing soil fertility, their effects on soil-borne diseases are not predictable when transitioning to certified organic production
  • Organic matter amendments have great potential. However, they sometimes can cause;

Inconsistent control, increased disease severity and Phytotoxicity.

  • Correct management of crop residues and wastes is necessary to avoid phytotoxic effects.
  • This can be achieved by optimizing application rates and the timing between organic matter applications and planting the vegetable crop.
  • In the early stages of decomposition, and especially when the available oxygen is low as in saturated soil, crop planting should be avoided, or at least delayed to avoid phyto-toxicity and/or diseases caused by Pythium and related pathogens.
  • Although cover crops contribute many benefits to agricultural system, they may play a significant role to increase soil-borne diseases. Grower management of brassica cover crop residues could greatly affect bio-fumigation effectiveness.
  • For maximum effect, residues need to be completely shredded and immediately incorporated into sufficiently moisty soil. Here I allow myself to add that the application of dry organic materials (like crop remnants) can be applied to dry soils after harvest as a soil cover, to reduce soil erosion on slopes and increase percolation when rain comes or catch dew in the early morning.

Hopkins et. Al (2016) report that seven years of applying high amounts of compost and slurry improved yields as well as soil activity. At the same time it became clear that the applied high volumes (and contents) were not effective, as with increasing soil life over the years, the amount of applied nutrients could be decreased considerably without, decreasing the yields. This is quite in line with my last year’s paper (Van Mansvelt 2016), wherein I argued  that, once the soil ecosystem is re-established after years of depletion, it can be kept fertile with minimal inputs, provided good soil management (wide crop rotation, minimum tillage, carbon rich manure).

Rajiv K. Sinha et al (2009) published a special issue on Vermiculture & Sustainable Agriculture in the American-Eurasian Journal of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences.

They conclude that Earthworms are justifying the beliefs and fulfilling the dreams of the great visionary scientist Sir Charles Darwin as ‘unheralded soldiers’ of mankind and ‘friend of farmer’s. Darwin wrote a book in which he emphasized that ‘there may not be any other creature in world that has played so important a role in the history of life on earth’.

One of the leading authorities on earthworms and vermiculture studies Dr. Anatoly Igonin of Russia has said: ‘Nobody and nothing can be compared with earthworms and their positive influence on the whole living Nature. They create soil and everything that lives in it. They are the most numerous animals on Earth and the main creatures converting all organic matter into soil humus, providing soil’s fertility and biosphere’s functions: disinfecting, neutralizing, protective and productive.


Phytopathology and soil ecosystems

Harsh P. Bais et. al. (2006) from cooperating Colorado State university departments, Pennsylvania State University and Delaware Biotechnology Institute, found that the rhizosphere encompasses the millimetres of soil surrounding a plant root where complex biological and ecological processes occur. This review describes recent advances in elucidating the role of root exudates in interactions between plant roots and other plants, microbes, and nematodes present in the rhizosphere. Evidence indicating that root exudates may take part in the signalling events that initiate the execution of these interactions is also presented. Various positive and negative plant-plant and plant-microbe interactions are highlighted and described from the molecular to the ecosystem scale.

Davide Bulgarelli, D. et. al. (2013) from the cooperating German Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding and the Belgian Centre of Microbial and Plant Genetics found that the plant microbiota emerge as a fundamental trait that includes mutualism is enabled through diverse biochemical mechanisms, as revealed by studies on plant growth–promoting and plant health–promoting bacteria.

Linkun Wu et. al. (2016) from cooperating Fujian University departments in China found that the application of novel bio-organic fertilizer could effectively suppress Fusarium wilt by enriching the antagonistic bacteria and enhancing the bacterial diversity.

These are examples showing that by cooperating, soil ecologists, plant breeders, microbiologist, phytopathologists and other specialists can come away from simplified model of linear pest-plant interactions (fighting nature) into circular development models that allow cooperating with nature. In short: when the soils are healthy the plants are healthy as well. Plant diseases signal soil diseases.


Pesticides and soil ecosystems

Earlier in this paper I referred to the switch of FAO from merely industry driven in its start after WOII, to global ecology (and human survival driven) in 2015.

Phytopathologist Henk Tennekes (2010, 2013) refers to last century’s fifties, wherein the Germans Hermann Druckrey (1904-1994) and his friend, Chemistry Nobel laureate (1939) Adolf Butenand (1903–1995), advocated in the international community for a risk-prevention policy of dose-effect research for all pesticides. They wanted to prevent irreversible effects of pesticides. On the other hand there was the French René Truhaut, who advocated for the acceptable daily intake as the risk-management strategy for pesticide allowance for practical use. The controversy was ‘won’ by Truhaut, thanks to massive support from industry. And now indeed we see a wide range of irreversible pollution with pesticides and their remnants, so as for example the neonics that kill all insects (including all the highly valuable bees etc.) and thus also all birds feeding on that wide range of insect species.

The Polish researcher Sylwia Lew (2009) and her colleagues found that ‘extensive applications of pesticides in agriculture and industry result in contamination of the natural environment, thus exerting a negative impact on organisms inhabiting various trophic levels, including humans. The article shows that microorganisms are the first to respond to those synthetic compounds deposited in the environment with changes in their both quantitative and qualitative composition. Withdrawn from use, yet remaining in the environment, the pesticides pose a severe and still unresolved eco toxicological problem. They stress that most of the available references address the effect of single pesticides exerted on microorganisms under laboratory conditions, while only a few focus on the effects of dozens of simultaneously working toxic substances on communities of microorganisms in natural ecosystems.

Therefore, it is of utmost significance to also carry out studies on the long-term effect of these substances on microbial communities in order to estimate the eco-toxicological threat of the long-term application of pesticides in the environment’.

The fact that present regulations view a pesticide as innocent until proven guilty is – as we see more and more clearly now – extremely detrimental to the environment and the public health.

Hotly debated example from Europe (August 2017)

The Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority discovered in July 2017 the presence of fipronil insecticide in eggs and in chicken meat. It is unavoidable that anything that is used in feed and in the stable will become present in eggs and in chicken meat. All the contaminated eggs and chicken had from 2016-July 2017 been consumed by the population and the contaminated manure applied to the soil. The Dutch State Authority was blamed for its slow reaction. As a matter of fact, many similar chemicals are used around the globe in large scale chicken sheds and either the residues are not measured, or the results of the measurements are kept secret. In Russia fipronil and similar chemicals are widely advertised on the internet for use in chicken sheds, like chlorophos (nerve poison, development disrupting agent), carbophos/malathion (probably carcinogenic), trichloormetaphos (probably embryotoxic), neotsidol /diazinon (nerve poison), hexachloran (cancerogenic). They are sold to farmers under different names and farmers may not be conscious of the real chemicals inside. The mentioned chemicals are unconsciously consumed by the Russian population, like in the case of fipronil in the Netherlands. The only way out of this dangerous situation is to forbid the use of all those substances in the food chain and to control it by transparent action. Only clean chicken will produce clean manure. In all other cases manure will be a source of contamination of soils.

So in the light from the above survey, it may be clear that we, as agronomist academicians have the responsibility and the same time the considerable challenge, to revise our research policy in order to contribute more than ever to a sustainable food production for a sustainable future. Disciplinary research alone is not enough anymore. It is even detrimental for the agricultural soils, for all environmental compartments and for (ours’ and others’) human health – as we have shown. At the same time, a vast reserve of knowledge is available on all aspects of soil ecosystems degradation as well as soil ecosystems regeneration. Healthy soils grow healthy crops, that support healthy cattle breeding and healthy food for humans. Crop and animal diseases are signals that the system we grow them in is not healthy for them, and consequently not for us either. Metaphorically speaking these diseases are like whistle-blowers: not appreciated by ‘the system’ and ‘put aside’ (eradicated). Ages of a deep distrust of nature in natural sciences do play a role here, be it by and large not too consciously taken in consideration by most academicians, which often lack practical experience as farmers themselves. However, in the long range of cited authors, it is clear that working the land in practice, living with the soils, crops and cattle, can teach us how to cooperate with nature instead of fighting each and every part of it.

Let us contribute to a non-violent agriculture. Let us sit together to design an international multidisciplinary, practice based, non-violent, sustainable agro-ecosystem management proposal.



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[i] http://www.fao.org/members-gateway/news/detail/en/c/357972/

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