True Plant Health Depends on the Relationship With the Soil
Fruits and vegetables raised on synthetic fertilizer look good on the outside, but lack nutrients on the inside.
Down a large soda or eat a candy bar, and you will feel an initial rush of energy. You may conclude that the sweet treat made you feel good and maybe was good for you, but then the inevitable crash.
The candy gives you an initial boost, but is missing key elements your body needs to be healthy.
Similarly, livestock raised on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) can be fattened up on GMO grains, but they suffer increased diseases, and their meat is less nutritious, compared to livestock fed their natural diet, grass.
Also similarly, plants given NPK will grow, but they’re missing out on Key elements they need to thrive.
Note: NPK fertilizer is primarily composed of 3 Key elements: Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K), each of these being essential in plant growth. Nitrogen helps plants grow fast, also increasing the production of seed and fruit. Nitrogen is also a component of chlorophyll, the substance that gives plants their Green color, and also aids in photosynthesis. Phosphorus is a Key player in the photosynthesis process. Phosphorus supports the formation of oils, sugars, and starches. The transformation of solar energy into chemical energy is also aided by phosphorus. Potassium assists in photosynthesis, fruit quality, the building of protein, and the reduction of disease.
All that said, the real things that fuel plant growth on today’s farms, chiefly NPK fertilizers, are not the same things that plants need to stave off disease, heal from injuries, and fend off pests and pathogens.
In other words, science has for a long time wrongly gauged plant growth with plant health.
And herein lies the problem for modern agriculture. The recipe for plant health is complex. It goes way beyond the simple mix of N, P, and K that plants need to grow.
To understand why raising plants on a “Junk-Food Diet” of NPK is so detrimental to their ultimate health we 1st need to understand the importance of the rhizosphere.
This term, coined in Y 1904 by German agronomist and plant physiologist Lorenz Hiltner, describes the plant root-soil interface.
The rhizosphere is the area immediately around a plant’s root. It contains microorganisms that thrive on chemicals released from the plant’s roots. These chemicals, known as exudates, include carbohydrates, phytochemicals and other compounds.
In exchange for the exudates, the root microbiome supplies the plant with important metabolites for health, which, along with exposure to pests and pathogens, helps plants produce phytochemicals. A well-fed root microbiome will supply plants with ample nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK).
Producing exudates is energy-intensive for plants, but well worth it to feed and establish a healthy root microbiome. This important symbiotic relationship is lost, however, when plants are raised on NPK.
When crops gorge on free NPK fertilizers it alters the symbiotic way of life for plant and root microbiome alike. Nothing is going to expend a 33% of its energy on something that can be had for free. And so their Green bodies crank down exudate production.
The Big Q: What is the consequence?
The big A: A root microbiome that produces fewer metabolites beneficial to plants. A fertilizer-fed plant may not need N, P, and K deliveries from its root microbiome, but in forgoing these things it loses out on the other things that the root microbiome delivers that foster plant health.
So, Big Ag ends up with big fat high-yielding crops that look good on the outside but are poor in minerals and phytochemicals on the inside, and the consumer is cheated.
The mineral content of fruits and vegetables has declined by 5% to 40% over the last 70 years. Even wheat has declined in nutrients like iron and zinc over the last 100 years.
Today’s vegetables may be larger but they typically do not contain more nutrients. Jumbo-sized produce often contains more dry matter than anything else, which dilutes mineral concentrations.
An additional problem is the “Genetic Dilution Effect,” in which selective breeding to increase crop yield has led to declines in protein, amino acids, and minerals. Plant breeders select for high yield, effectively selecting mostly for high carbohydrate content rather than nutrition.
According to a study published in the journal HortScience, “ … side-by-side plantings of low- and high-yield cultivars of broccoli and grains found consistently negative correlations between yield and concentrations of minerals and protein.”
Beyond minerals and protein, phytochemical levels in plants are also changing. Ancient wild plants provided an astounding level of phytonutrients that are largely absent from our modern cultivated fruits and vegetables.
For instance, wild dandelions contain 7X more phytonutrients than spinach, and purple potatoes native to Peru contain 28X more anthocyanins than our commonly consumed russet potatoes.
The richly colored “Indian Corn” now mostly used for holiday decorating was once widely consumed, and contained far more disease-fighting antioxidants and less sugar than today’s popular pale yellow sweet corn.
The fact is that NPK fertilizers translate into lower phytochemical levels. When plants grow explosively they tend to cut back on making phytochemicals.
Many phytochemicals produced by plants act as a natural defense system to protect plants from predators. When a bug such as a caterpillar chews on a plant’s leaf, the plant “hears” the vibrations of the chewing and produces a phytochemical to defend itself from further harm.
When crops are sprayed with pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides the plant has less of a need to produce these in-house phytochemical weapons.
These events translate into less food for the root microbiome … A plant’s roots go from being a vital, 2-way trade zone to 1-way straws sucking up fertilizers.
That is exactly what a plant’s Green body sets out to do. They shunt a good deal of the energy they make through photosynthesis to building biomass, shortchanging themselves on the energy they need to make phytochemicals.
Ramping down phytochemical production depletes a plant’s homemade arsenal and pharmacy, making them as vulnerable as a sick animal in the sights of a predator.
An then Big Ag comes along dousing low action crops and soils with poisons to do what plant phytochemicals and root microbiomes have done for millions of years.
Carbon (C) is the Key component of Organic matter in soil, which is why Organic matter is often referred to as a “Carbon sink” as opposed to a Carbon source.
It’s estimated that 33% of the surplus CO2 (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere stems from poor land-management processes that contribute to the loss of Carbon, as carbon dioxide, from farmlands.
Altering our agricultural practices in such a way as to return and confine Organic matter and Carbon in the soil, on the other hand, will help, below is what must be done, as follows:
- Regenerate the soil
- Limit agricultural water usage with no till and crop covers
- Increase crop yields
- Reduce the need for agricultural chemicals and additives, if not eliminate such need entirely over time
- Reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels
- Reduce air and water pollution by lessening the need for herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers
In order to achieve these benefits, the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers would need to be drastically reduced, as they are perhaps the greatest threats to Organic matter in the soil.
The non-profit organization GRAIN reported: “Despite industry propaganda to the contrary, recent studies demonstrate that chemical fertilizers are responsible for much of the massive loss of organic matter that has occurred in the world’s soils since the pre-industrial era.
“In numerous publications spanning more than 100 years and a wide variety of cropping and tillage practices, we found consistent evidence of an organic carbon decline for fertilized soils throughout the world,” says University of Illinois soils scientist Charlie Boast.
Soils around the world have lost, on average, at least 1–2% of Organic matter in the top 30 cm since chemical fertilizers began to be used. This amounts to some 150,000–205,000-M tons of Organic matter, which has resulted in 220,000–330,000-M tons of CO2 emitted into the air or 30% of the current excess CO2 in the atmosphere”
The environmental toll of synthetic fertilizer is huge, even beyond its role in crop health, soil health and nutrient levels in produce.
As fertilizer runs off of farms in agricultural states like Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri and others, it enters the Mississippi River, leading to an overabundance of nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorus, in the water.
This, in turn, leads to the development of algal blooms, which alter the food chain and deplete oxygen, leading to dead zones.
One of the largest dead zones worldwide can be found in the Gulf of Mexico, beginning at the Mississippi River delta. Fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico have been destroyed as a result.
Further, researchers from the University of Waterloo in Canada analyzed more than 2,000 soil samples from the Mississippi River Basin. Evidence of significant buildup of nitrogen was found far below the soil surface at depths of 10 ins to 3.2 ft.
The finding brings up grave concerns for the environment, even if nitrogen fertilizers stop being used, because it shows nitrogen is being stored in the soil. Excess nitrogen accumulated deep in the soil could continue to leach into groundwater for 35 years after the fertilizer use is ceased.
Fertilizer companies claim their products are necessary to feed the world, but research suggests working with nature instead of against it — via agroecology or “ecological farming” — can produce as much food without the need for chemical fertilizers.
According to GRAIN: “The elimination of chemical fertilizers is one of the easiest and most effective places to start. Cutting out chemical fertilizers could reduce annual global greenhouse emissions by as much as 10%.
Additionally, the shift from chemical fertilizers to agroecological practices including the use of BioCharcoal aka Bio-Char would allow farmers to rebuild Organic matter in the world’s soils, and thus capture a possible 67% of the current excess CO2 in the atmosphere within 50 years according to the data.
On an individual level we can all help by buying Organic food as well as food from farmers who are using age old natural methods and soil regenerative techniques, including no till, cover crops, composting, livestock integration, and Bio-Char Bio-Char addition in lieu of synthetic fertilizer.
This practice will naturally help us all to eat better too, since typically only Real Foods are grown this way, while most processed foods are the product of destructive industrial nitrogen-fertilizer-laden agriculture.
Eat healthy, Be healthy, Live lively