The Big Lie: How Liebig’s Discovery Was Distorted by Agro-business, Part 1

How did farmers fertilize and protect their crops 8,000 years ago without synthetic nutrients or chemical sprays? This is the question that the now famous regenerative farmer Gabe Brown, a midwestern rancher with over 3,000 acres, asked himself after he experienced four straight years of crop failure. Nearly broke, he learned how to first survive, and then thrive without paying a dime for fertilizers and pesticides. Today, he’s one of the most profitable farmers in his region. What Gabe really uncovered was the Big Lie that agro-chemical companies have been pushing for decades: that fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified crops are needed to achieve the big yields that will feed the world. 

In order to fully understand and appreciate why most growers today use liquid nutrients (whether synthetic or organic), and why this is misguided, it helps to understand the history of agriculture, and how the last 100 years or so of agricultural history have represented an extreme divergence from farming tradition, and a separation from nature that will not only doom the planet and humanity if it continues, but which is also counter-productive to the best interests of farmers. So bear with me while I take you briefly back in time. Our first stop: the ancient Middle East. 

It’s hard to fully comprehend how long a time 8,000 years is. You’ll hear some farmers talk about how they are a third, fourth or fifth generation farmer. That seems impressive, until you consider that 8,000 years is about 400 generations. Imagine how much knowledge was accumulated over that time!

If you paid attention in high school history class, then you might remember that the first human agriculture started about 8,000 years ago in three places: Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), Egypt and the Indus Valley (modern day border of Pakistan and India). Agriculture began in these three places for one key reason: at the center of each was a river that continuously deposited silt - rich, fertile soil made of mineral nutrients and organic matter - during a flood season each year, and this was what fertilized those crops. This demonstrates one of the first principles of living soil: like every system, it must be replenished. In a living soil system, this is done by returning organic material (not chemical nutrients) to the soil.

This is also about the time that humans started plowing their soil, in order to remove weeds and make it easier to plant seeds. What these early farming civilizations didn’t understand was how destructive plowing actually was to the soil. In fact, it would take almost all of agricultural history - until the Dust Bowl of the 1930s in America - for western farmers to begin to realize that plowing might be problematic. Because these early farming civilizations got a huge influx of new nutrients and organic material every year from the deposits left by the flooding river plains, the devastating effects of plowing were masked.

This began to change when farming moved out of these fertile river valleys and onto the less fertile fields around the Mediterranean Sea and then into Europe. Over centuries of plowing, without the same level of organic matter and nutrient replenishment, soils began to degrade. Believe it or not, this process of soil degradation is actually what led to the rise and fall of many civilizations in western history - as Dr. David Montgomery describes in his book Dirt: The Rise and Fall of Civilizations. This problem of soil degradation was not so bad for the world when it only occurred in isolated areas. After a civilization - like Rome, for example - collapsed and populations declined, the soil had hundreds, and sometimes thousands of years to regenerate naturally. 

As the 1800s began, European countries began to run into the same problem that many before them had faced: degrading soil and a growing population. But this time, an unlikely solution came to the rescue. This solution was bird poop.

Native Americans had understood the fertilizing qualities of bird “guano” for thousands of years, and had used it sparingly to amend their soils. The first European to notice this and bring the value of guano to the attention of the imperialist powers was none other than the explorer and astronomer Alexander Von Humboldt, who would later have the now famous cannabis growing region in Northern California named after him. Humboldt brought a sample of guano back to Europe to be examined by scientists there. Once Europeans realized it’s value as a fertilizer, guano became at least the temporary savior of European agricultural soils.

Guano soon became THE resource of the 1800s. Imperial powers scoured the world for stashes of guano. Entrepreneurs went in search of the resource and posted advertisements through Europe proclaiming it “the great soil enricher.” Some scientists worried that because the stuff was so effective at growing giant crops, it would surely exhaust the fertility of the soils faster. While these scientists were ultimately right, at the time they didn’t understand why. And unsurprisingly, businessmen and farmers of the day had no problem with making some short term profits at the expense of longer term fertility.

One convenient fact about guano was that birds tended to group together in the same places year after year, especially on small, otherwise deserted islands, and so the guano would build up in layers that could be as much as 25 feet deep. The West Coast of South American between Peru and Chile was especially rich with it, and the two countries even went to war in the mid 1800s over the territory between them that contained one of the richest deposits of guano in the world. All of this over some bird poop! But if you’ve ever used guano in your grow, you know how potent the stuff can be. It’s important to note that even though this is an “organic” fertilizer, it’s still very heavy in salts, and using too much of it will have the same detrimental effects as using a synthetic fertilizer. And just like with all fertilizers, European farmers found that they needed more and more of it every year. 

But eventually, like all resources that are so desired, the major sources of guano around the world began to get exhausted. European farmers began to worry that their borrowed time had come and gone faster than anyone expected, and that crop yields were about to begin a steady decline, if they could no longer give their crops the artificial fertility boost that they needed. They had become dependent on guano, like it was an addictive drug. And because European farmers continued to plow their fields every year, they continued to lose soil organic matter - the source of all soil fertility - to wind erosion and runoff.

It was around this time that Liebig made his big discovery, which changed western scientists’ understanding of crop fertility for the next 150 years. Thousands of years of observation had told farmers that soil fertility lay in the rich, dark humus - otherwise known as soil organic matter - in the soil. We know today that this is 100% correct. But at the time, scientists and farmers thought that the plant would literally consume humus through its roots - humus, which is largely composed of Carbon. We know today that carbon is not directly food for plants, but it holds nutrients like a battery, and harbors soil microbial life that makes this nutrient battery available to the plant when it needs it.

When Liebig showed that in fact, the plants are only taking in nutrients like Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium through their roots - elements which compose a very small amount of soil organic matter - everything changed. Now the farming community understood why guano was so effective, and they began seeking other, alternative resources high in N-P-K. As present day advances in soil science have shown us, this is a very simplistic view of how plants take in nutrients. But this oversimplification was very attractive to the western scientific mindset, because it meant plant nutrition could easily be put into a formula. This discovery would become a boon for the emerging fertilizer industry, and would eventually transform into the Big Nutrient Lie that these companies, governments and universities continue to perpetuate in order to stay in business, even though new advances in science are telling us that there’s much more to the picture.

It was with this backdrop that the next breakthrough in artificial fertilizer was achieved, one that would launch what is known as the “green revolution.” Ironically, this innovation for increasing plant life originally came out of a desire to cause death. Nitrogen, one of the most important elements in fertilizer, is also the main ingredient in making bombs.

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