GRANDMA KNEW BETTER, PART 2

THE CONTRARIAN
Part 1 talked about our beginning to realize that modern, chemically-driven agriculture might be going in the wrong direction. It might not be an advance on the agriculture our grandmother knew, based on 10 000 years of accumulated experience.
If you like to do arithmetic, try this. There is about 15 pounds of air above each square inch of the earth’s surface, and it is 80% nitrogen. Cipher that out, and it comes to something like 36 000 tons of nitrogen in the air above each acre (really, get out the pencil and paper). Nitrogen is the main driver for plant growth (that and carbon dioxide!), but plants cannot get it directly from the air. Some plants, notably clovers, host bacteria which can capture some of that nitrogen in the atmosphere and make it available to plants. Plants just snort the carbon dioxide directly from the air, large greenhouse operators put extra carbon dioxide in the air to boost plant growth, but that is another column.
Modern agriculture starts with the notion of boosting production by putting factory-produced granular nitrogen fertilizer on the land, generally in the order of say 100 pounds per acre. So there is 36 000 tons per acre already there, and we add 100 pounds, seems ridiculous, doesn’t it? A small effort into finding ways to harvest more of that natural nitrogen might create an enormous agricultural revolution!
So the whole house of cards of modern industrial agriculture is based on that ammonia-based nitrogen fertilizer. It works a lot like sugar in our diet, so we get big, fat, but soft and wimpy plants which cannot compete with weeds, so we need herbicides. They can’t fight off pests, so we need pesticides. They can’t fight off fungus, so we need fungicides, and so on. Modern Industrial agriculture is totally dependent on factory-produced chemicals – land in the ‘good’ farm areas is now so depleted it will not grow anything without chemicals.
It has been suggested that the impetus for this movement was not farmer prosperity or cheaper food, but finding a market for the surplus ammonia-manufacturing capacity we had after WW2 (note, ammonia is used in high explosives, as well as in producing fertilizer). If this is so, we have a lot to answer for.
Modern agriculture has destroyed the fabric of rural life all across North America and Europe. Assorted government programs and subsidies, some obvious, some not so easily discerned have forced farms to go big, or go broke, with the result that the family farm is for practical purposes gone in Canada or the US. 19 out of 20 farmers have been pushed to the city, and the remaining one is a multimillion dollar, multi-employee enterprise, forced by the system to operate in that big-chemical, soil-destroying, environment-polluting way, or perish.
Worse, manipulated markets and subsidies have consigned millions of small farmers in less developed countries to the scrap heap, creating dependence on our exports, creating food shortages, and caused millions to starve. All to save some ammonia factories??
Of course you will not find anything like this opinion in any government or mainstream agriculture publication. However, there is a growing natural food movement and lots of supporting information, perhaps the oldest and most influential being a book called The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berrey, published in the early 70s. The fastest-growing agricultural sector now is family scale, natural farms, and it would grow much faster if we could get the government out of the way. Grandma knew better.

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