30th June 2020
The new 'breakthrough' was made by a team of microbiologists and physicists led by Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire. They studied the genetics of soil microbes and used X-ray imaging to investigate soil structure. They are so excited by their findings that they've proposed a totally new hypothesis which they're calling a universal 'Theory of Soil'.
They found that in healthy soils where there isn't much of the element nitrogen present, soil microbes use carbon to produce beneficial substances known collectively as EPS which glue soil particles together in aggregates or crumbs. These create the spaces in soils that hold water and allow air to circulate, the exact conditions needed for growing healthy crops. Adding organic material like manure to soil – as all farmers once did - enhances this process.
But when farmers put on chemical fertilisers based on ammonia and phosphorus, soil microbes aren't able to produce as much of the vital EPS. As a result there's a collapse in soil structure, oxygen and water can no longer flow, and crops get sick and can't grow. There's also an increase in emissions of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide to the atmosphere.
Lead researcher Professor Andrew Neal, an expert in microbial genetics, commented that the results had implications for farmers. He said: 'The addition of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers – and not carbon - may be leading to a degradation of the natural fertility and efficiency with which nutrients are processed in their soils. That will be detrimental to the long-term productivity of their farms.'
Professor Neal ought to know there are serious implications for all of us. The vast majority of the foods that fill our supermarket shelves are produced on farms that rely totally on chemical fertilisers. It's why there have been numerous reports showing a decline in nutrient levels in basic foods. It's also the reason our foods are frequently contaminated with pesticides. Farmers are using huge amounts of them to keep their crops alive.
Despite the chemicals, crop yields in Britain have been stagnant for nearly three decades. The reason's now clear. Chemical agriculture has degraded our soils. Around the world the UN estimates that nearly half the world's soils have been severely degraded. Many climate scientists now think soil destruction may be the major driver of climate change. If plants can't grow, the hydrological (water) cycles that should naturally cool the planet no longer function.
The great irony of the new research is that Rothamsted, one of Britain's oldest research centres, was a major player in persuading farmers to switch to the destructive chemical methods. Until World War Two, most farmers relied on carbon-rich organic material like manure to keep their soil fertile. After the war the researchers, along with the Ministry of Agriculture, came increasingly under the influence of powerful fertilizer companies like the now defunct ICI.
The rise of chemical farming has been a catastrophe for Britain's wildlife as I exposed – to widespread critical acclaim - in my 1997 book, The Killing of the Countryside. In my latest book – Grass-Fed Nation – I set out how we can get our wildlife back by switching to 'carbon farming', also known as regenerative agriculture. It would restore, not only the health of our soils and natural environment, but our own health as well.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged to 'build back greener' following the covid crisis. It's now clear he must start with agriculture and the way we grow our food. If he wants to know how to fix things, he should speak to his colleague Michael Gove. When he was Environment Secretary, Gove commended Grass-Fed Nation in an interview with Countryfile Magazine. He said it pointed the way ahead for UK agriculture.
As the new Agriculture Bill passes through Parliament, the Government needs to act on this urgently. The destruction of our soils, our wildlife and British farming in the interests of the biotech, oil and chemical corporations may turn out to be a greater disaster than even Covid-19 or the banking crisis.
Grass-Fed Nation is published by Icon Books
Scientists at a top UK research station have made an incredible breakthrough in farming and food production. They've identified a wonderful substance that grows bigger crops, puts more nutrients in our food, cuts pollution and reduces the risk of food shortages and flooding. This amazing material is… manure?
You heard it right, good, old-fashioned farmyard manure. Muck. Just like the organic farmers have been telling us for decades. And as it happens, so have I.