The Big Lie: How Liebig’s Discovery Was Distorted by Agro-business, Part 2
As World War I began, the allies had a steady supply of Nitrogen coming in from South America, but Germany was facing a shortage. This is partially what drove the German scientist Fritz Haber to discover a way to artificially extract nitrogen from the air and create nitrates (as they say, necessity is the mother of invention). In what became known as the Haber-Bosch process, industrial manufacturing of nitrates — and later nitrogen fertilizer — was born. As World War I came to an end, Haber and Bosch needed a new use for their artificial nitrogen production process, and as soon as they demonstrated how adding artificial nitrogen to a field could rapidly increase plant yields, they found a ready customer in farmers.
However, something else unexpected happened when farmers started adding all that artificial nitrogen to their fields: the rate of pest and disease attacks on crops skyrocketed. Luckily for the fledgling agro-industrial complex, Haber had also been involved in developing chemical weapons for use in World War I, including the cyanide gas weapon Zyklon A. This deadly, poisonous gas was found to work quite well in lower concentrations as an insecticide, and became one of the first compounds developed for chemical warfare to be adopted for use in agriculture. Decades later, it’s predecessor, Zyklon B, would be used for mass extermination of Jews in the Holocast. Zyklon A is not the only toxic chemical used for warfare that was eventually transferred into agriculture. Dozens of chemical weapons, designed to kill animals and plants alike, have made their way into modern agriculture. It seems strange at best, if the goal of farming is to nurture and cultivate life, that we would use so many deadly chemicals to do so.
The advent of artificial fertilizers, combined with chemical pesticides, increased mechanization and the first genetically modified crops, set off an explosion in agricultural productivity across the world starting in the 1950s. It seemed to many like a triumph of modern science and technology over nature. But as the now famous soil scientist, Dr. Elaine Ingham has said, “The only reason the green revolution worked is because we’d already destroyed the soil biology that fed our plants. We turned our soil into dirt.” Indeed, hundreds of years of plowing, and decades of guano use had stripped the natural fertility from Western soils. But thanks to the new concoction of chemicals developed for warfare, the collapse of farming was successfully postponed for several more decades.
If you’ve grown cannabis in pots before, using synthetic nutrients, you may have noticed that the soil seems to lose its fertility after a few cycles of heavy synthetic fertilizer use. This often comes with a measured increase in that soil’s salinity. Eventually, the soil becomes too salty for anything to grow. Growing in pots, it’s possible (although not easy or cheap) to just dispose of this soil and get new soil. But that’s not the case for farmers tending a field. While the field is much larger and can absorb this chemical abuse for many more years, eventually the same thing will happen. As a result, the world is losing 2,000 hectares of arable (farmable) land per day
At the same time that chemical farming was really coming to dominate the North American landscape, a small group of rebels was trying to stem the tide. In the 1940, an English Botanist named Sir Albert Howard published a book called An Agricultural Testament. This book sparked the beginning of what is today called organic agriculture. Howard had spent 25 years in India studying local organic farming techniques, and this book was an attempt to summarize what he’d learned and bring it back to a western audience. In the book, Howard re-emphasizes the importance of soil humus as the source of all soil fertility and speculated that it was something about humus and the relationship of mycorrhizal fungi with plants that lead to plant growth. But at the time, the scientific consensus had already consolidated around the idea that chemical nutrients were the key to growth, and most theories about humus had been discarded. To many Howard was trying to revive an antiquated past. At the time, there were already signs that the use of fertilizers were leading to soil degradation. But Howard was not able to prove this scientifically, and so his theories were largely ignored.
Despite this setback, a small group of farmers led by J.I. Rodale took up Howard’s call, and started the organic farming movement. Originally, the principles of organic farming were very similar to that of regenerative farming today: a focus on feeding the soil and increasing soil humus so as to provide fertility to grow big, healthy plants. Organic farmers used techniques like cover cropping, crop diversity and crop rotation, composting and mulching. But without the accumulated knowledge of multiple millennia of organic farming tradition (that traditional farmers in other parts of the world benefit from), and without enough scientific understanding to explain why these techniques were effective, many farmers struggled with mediocre yields and pest problems. As we’ll discover in the next few chapters, these farmers were missing a few key pieces of the puzzle. Crucially, most of them used tillage to control weeds. As it turns out, tillage, or any kind of soil disturbance, is one of the most destructive practices when it comes to maintaining the soil microbial life that is crucial for plant nutrient uptake.
So for the better part of the 20th century, chemical farming methods dominated the thinking of American and European agronomists and farmers. Out of this way of thinking came precision agriculture methods, such as hydroponics and aeroponics. These methods promised to make growing more efficient, by spoon-feeding just the right amount of chemical nutrients to the plant. They also made it seem much simpler to grow indoors. This made hydroponics and aeroponics especially attractive to underground cannabis growers. The ease of disposing of hydroponic growing mediums also made them more attractive than soil growing, especially for grows that might have to shut down and move at the blink of an eye. And with cannabis still being largely illegal throughout most of the country, most cannabis consumers were happy just to score any weed, without being picking about how it was grown. With the right mixture of liquid, synthetic nutrients, it is possible to grow plants that yield high quantities of flower, with lots of trichomes, that give the buds an impressive look. And to the consumer who might be happy just to find someone that will sell them weed, they aren’t going to be too discerning of the quality of the high or medicinal properties. As a result, synthetic growing became the default method for growing cannabis. And as the cash poured into the coffers of the synthetic fertilizer makers, they made sure to maintain an iron grip on the market by spreading rumors that “indoor” cannabis was superior. To the undiscerning cannabis consumers, these rumors turned into gospel, and the few living-soil growers that remained were practically shut out of the market.
But towards the end of the century, new scientific breakthroughs in the science of soil microbial life began to transform our understanding of how plants grow, and how they form secondary metabolites like cannabinoids and terpenes. This new green revolution coincidentally is coinciding with the gradual legalization and normalization of cannabis across North American and the world. As it turns out, organic farmers got more right about farming than even they knew. There’s a secret metropolis of life under the soil that we didn’t even know existed until about 20 years ago, and even though our understanding of it has advanced rapidly in the last twenty years, there’s still much we don’t understand. But now we know enough to see why the idea that plants must be fed immediately available nutrients is a lie. It’s time to learn how to feed the soil, not the plant.