Farming, fertilizers, and government failures

During a press conference one May in the late 1940s, President Truman had to open the doors to the White House rose garden to get some air. Unfortunately, the gardeners had just finished fertilizing the flowers. Truman publicly apologized for the smell of “manure.” One of the reporters approached First Lady Bess Truman and admonished that the President should begin using a more refined word, like fertilizer. Mrs. Truman responded, “You don’t realize  how long it took me to get him to say ‘manure!’”

Of course, there’s always plenty of “manure” to go around in Washington by whatever name. But Truman had the right idea when it came to using natural fertilizers for growing healthy plants.

Lately, though, the government in Washington has been dictating agricultural practices through commodity subsidies, price supports, and paying producers for farming—and even for not farming. (Which has led to the rather lopsided USDA “food pyramid.”) And with widespread use of chemical pesticides and practices like mono-cropping, the way our food is grown has become anything but natural.

But some ground-breaking, and ground-shaking research was just done at the Iowa State University (where they know a little bit about farming). It revealed some simple, economical ways to improve not only the quality but also the safety of our food supply. Unfortunately, it has been largely ignored by the academic-government research complex and the mainstream media. So, here are the details…

Iowans compared three types of farming on 22 acres over the past decade:

(1)   traditional Midwest cycle of planting corn one year and soybeans (which as a legume returns nitrogen to the soil) the next, together with a regular mix of agrichemicals

(2)   a three-year crop rotation that added oats to corn and soybean

(3)   a four-year crop rotation adding alfalfa (livestock feed) to the other three

The three and four-year rotations also integrated raising livestock and using manure as fertilizer. The scientific results show that that the longer rotations using manure yielded better crops, and reduced the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides by nearly 90%. They also reduced toxins in groundwater by 200 times. And they didn’t reduce profits by one penny.

The more natural approach did involve more labor, but that cost was offset by buying fewer agrichemicals and using less energy.

These results suggest a much less radical way of improving our food supplies and our health than having to become strictly “organic.”

What’s really new here is that the older ways of growing foods—working with Nature, instead of against it—simply work better all the way around.

By mixing crops and not poisoning the fields with chemicals, weeds are suppressed naturally, since insects, rodents and other predators can still do their part. At the same time, single pests can not wipe out entire crops since the crop is not all the same plant. And by adding forage crops to the mix, livestock is also raised without using chemical and hormone feed additives. The livestock then returns manure to the soil, eliminating the need for further fertilizer chemicals.

It is a virtuous cycle with its own built-in eco-system.

This kind of farming requires more observation of nature, more walking the fields, more attention to the weather, and more physical activity. Producing more healthy exercise, as well as healthier foods, and a healthier environment.  All the things the government is supposedly concerned about trying to do.

You’d think this finding would have had perfect pitch in an election year: Growing better foods at the same profit, using less energy, and protecting the soil, water and environment. All while creating more jobs.  That’s a “five-point plan” if I’ve ever heard one. Yet neither candidate uttered a word about it. And the USDA has “no comment.”

How much of this silence is driven by those powerful lobbies I mentioned in my dispatch, “The dark side of the cancer lobby.” The ones fighting to keep chemical pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides in widespread use—despite the fact that they’ve been classified as carcinogens.

The fact is, about 5 billion pounds of pesticides are used each year in the U.S. That’s about 17 pounds of pesticide for every man, woman and child. Which exceeds the average pounds of many of the healthy foods eaten per capita.

I’m not saying that chemicals need to be eliminated completely. They can have a role in “fine tuning” the system precisely. But right now, they’re used in mass quantities to drive the whole production. And no good can come of it.

“Increasing Cropping System Diversity Balances Productivity, Profitability and Environmental Health,” PLoS One 2012; 7(10): e47149