A ‘New’ Discovery – Soluble Nitrogen Destroys Soil Carbon

How many times must we ‘discover’ something we’ve discovered before – particularly when our lives and our futures depend on reacting appropriately, and shaping society, to incorporate the lessons learned?

One of the most transformative experiences in my life was from studying soil science many years ago. Getting something of an understanding of the inner workings of that thin skin which covers our earth created thought-connections in my mind that had me looking at the world in a profoundly new way.

Amongst the many things I realised and gained appreciation for was the myriad mechanisms in natural systems that, in concert with each other, provided incredible stability and harmony. I recognised that if only many more people would come to study and learn genuine, holistic, biological soil science (rather than the reductionist chemistry- and product-focussed ‘science’ encouraged in universities today by industry) we are actually well able to mimic these systems to bring the same harmony into our own fields, and thus retain resilience whilst still providing for our needs. We could give back to the soil as much as we take. Indeed, we could even reverse our current soil inventory deficit by building soil.

I learned that the carbon cycle was a, or the, critical element. Contrary to popular belief, water soluble nitrogen applications actually depletes soil carbon, rather than builds it – because soil micro-organisms, if I am to use simplistic terminology, feed on nitrogen, and excess soluble supplies send them into a frenzy of activity. That activity is focussed on breaking down organic matter (carbon rich humus). Regular dousings of water-soluble nitrogen fertiliser (and yes, that also includes concentrated chicken litter and blood meal) turns our microscopic soil buddies into hyperactive, and short lived, soil baddies. The same thing occurs with over-aeration of soil from ploughing and other manipulations. The result is rapid plant growth, but at the expense of plant health – and, significantly, resulting in our effectively burning up the organic matter content in our soils, without which there can be no life on this earth.

I learned these things a decade and a half ago, and from reading books decades older, and yet today we still find articles titled ‘New research: synthetic nitrogen destroys soil carbon, undermines soil health‘.

The case for synthetic N as a climate stabilizer goes like this. Dousing farm fields with synthetic nitrogen makes plants grow bigger and faster. As plants grow, they pull carbon dioxide from the air. Some of the plant is harvested as crop, but the rest—the residue—stays in the field and ultimately becomes soil. In this way, some of the carbon gobbled up by those N-enhanced plants stays in the ground and out of the atmosphere.

Well, that logic has come under fierce challenge from a team of University of Illinois researchers led by professors Richard Mulvaney, Saeed Khan, and Tim Ellsworth. In two recent papers (see here and here) the trio argues that the net effect of synthetic nitrogen use is to reduce soil’s organic matter content. Why? Because, they posit, nitrogen fertilizer stimulates soil microbes, which feast on organic matter. Over time, the impact of this enhanced microbial appetite outweighs the benefits of more crop residues.

And their analysis gets more alarming…. – Grist (emphasis ours)

This is an excellent article that I’d recommend all to read and absorb. But, the worrying aspect is that we’re calling it ‘new research‘. The things I learned years ago have been known for decades, something the article above expresses also – quoting from renowned organic pioneer, Sir Albert Howard, from the 1940s – but in a competition- and product-oriented world it has not been a popular concept, because widespread uptake and implementation of this knowledge would make most agricultural products not only redundant, but they’d also be seen as an enemy to sustainable, and healthy, human existence.

The ‘self-interest’ basis of our western ‘invisible structures’ (economics, politics, etc.) is the foundational motivation that ensures extraction today with little thought for tomorrow. We create a perception of need, by creating problems that don’t, or shouldn’t, exist – so we can simultaneously create saleable ‘solutions’ for them. The self-interest, economy-must-grow mindset thus either consistently ignores or, as is the case here, actively obscures important ecological truths.

How many times will we ‘discover’ these facts? How many times must we re-invent the wheel? As long as profits are the basis of our society, and private interests the controlling powers, then this information will never reach momentum. Why? Because when schools operate for the public good, unbiased, non-commercialised research can be undertaken with taxpayer dollars. When private interests reign, and schools operate without government support, then schools either close, or get funded by BigAgri.

While it’s clear that funding cash is the carrot used by agribusiness to entice researchers into asking the questions industry is most interested in having answered, there is a stick involved: corporately held patents used to block them from asking others. – Monsanto U: Agribusiness’s Takeover of Public Schools

It should be no surprise that the privatisation of our schooling systems worldwide has helped BigAgri propagandise the next generation and has leveraged their control of the world’s food systems.

Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium
on the Menu. Courtesy: Marc Roberts

As our soils continue to degrade through the use of Big Agri’s ‘products’, I see an explosion of social and environmental disasters coming to pass. Amongst all the obvious issues, there will also be an ever-increasing public health disaster as the nutrient density of the ‘food’ grown on ever-more-inert, ever-more-lifeless, soils continues to diminish.

We often call this an agricultural treadmill. Our use of nitrogen depletes soils, creating the need for more nitrogen applications. The resulting unbalanced, nutrient-starved plants attract legions of insects, resulting in the need for increasing pesticide applications. The land’s natural effort to restore balance causes soil-restoring plants to spring up (some call them ‘weeds’), inspiring farmers to douse their land with herbicides. In both cases we’re effectively pouring poison on our own food. That’s not smart – but we’ve somehow come to regard it as normal.

Things progressively deteriorate in a downward spiral, but instead of solving the root issue we instead move to genetic engineering to try to patch things up.

Now, you probably assume the ‘root issue’ I’m talking about is our lack of understanding of soil science. And, you’d be right. But perhaps even deeper is the root issue of the kind of economics we base our society on – the kind of economics whose existence relies on obscuring the truth, to preserve and grow a customer base. This entire agricultural treadmill is caused by ‘self-interest’ perpetually expressing itself in creating desire and/or need for products that should not exist, and the genetic tinkering of plant genes is an effort to see if we can’t get nature to adapt to the economic framework we’ve built, rather than discover and build a social framework that can work harmoniously with her unchangeable laws.

Using the term treadmill is arguably increasingly inappropriate too, as it leads people to think it can continue ad infinitum. The reality is we’re now watching it collapse. Just as we’ve all but completely exhausted our soils with the fossil fuel based Green Revolution, we’re also at, or fast approaching, peak oil.

Let’s stop calling this ‘new research’. This knowledge needs to saturate and become ‘established fact’ in our school systems, and our school systems need to fulfil the needs of society, not private interests, to help transition us to a world where we recognise our place in the carbon cycle, amongst all the other interdependent elements within the biosphere.

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The Dark Side of Synthetic Nitrogen Fertilizers


P.S. If you can’t wait for a widespread transformation in our mainstream educational institutions (I’m turning blue as I hold my breath), and want to understand more about soil science now – then I’d really encourage you to take Paul Taylor’s excellent five-day course on the topic. Check our course listings for dates.