An unfortunate legacy of Justus von Liebig

Every good idea that takes off in human thinking seems to have its downside that eventually requires correction, as it is taken to extremes. I think this is what Hegel’s dialectic of thesis –> antithesis –> synthesis was about. The German chemist Justus von Liebig provides an example very relevant today, in a story told by Beata Bishop in the recent SciMed newsletter.

Von Liebig (1802-1873) is variously regarded as the founder of organic chemistry and the father of the fertilizer industry. He notably discovered that nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are key minerals that plants need to grow and thrive. Thus came about the modern fertilizer industry, which gradually supplanted traditional farming techniques based on manure, compost, crop rotation, leaving fields fallow, etc.

Of course, initially this approach appeared successful and crops thrived. With the development of modern pesticides the industrial approach to agriculture seemed sensible and was commercially successful. But what has only become apparent after many decades is that this approach is over-simple and other vital minerals and organic matter are being gradually lost from the now-depleted soils. The organic movement arose to try to counteract this, but still only has a foothold where people can afford it. And the agrochemical industry has become so powerful that it is difficult to change towards the organic antithesis, or indeed any new synthesis.

Of course the pendulum will swing back, they always do. Unfortunately, this is also a critical time of climate change, caused by the related explosion of fossil fuel exploitation over the same period.

Historically, civilisations come to an end when changes of climate and crop yields eventually make them unsupportable. We really now are in a critical period of human history, partly thanks to the worthy efforts of Justus von Liebig. But never say die, necessity is the mother of invention, and humanity is a very inventive and adaptable species.

 

US Trade Deal Risks

I’ve never understood the Brexiteers’ obsession with the UK doing our own trade deals. I’m sure someone could enlighten me on areas where we can gain some advantages where our needs are different from the European average. But Brexit surely wasn’t all about trade deals?

What really scares me is the possible prospect of a trade deal being done with the US without proper democratic scrutiny, which appears to be the intention of the extreme Brexiteers. It seems we must all get to understand the risks better. The Soil Association has produced a magnificent document Top 10 Food Safety Risks Posed By A Future Transatlantic Trade Deal, which needs more widespread understanding.

My brief summary:

  1. Chicken washed in chlorine to remove bacteria caused by poor animal welfare.
    (And did you know that eggs in US must be kept in fridge, as natural protection has been washed off for similar reasons.)
  2. Hormone treated beef.
  3. Ractopamine in pork, which can cause animal disability.
  4. Chicken litter used as animal feed. (Remember mad cow disease.)
  5. Common use of herbicide Atrazine, claimed to be endocrine disupter.
  6. GMOs in 88% of corn, 54% of sugar beets.
  7. Brominated vegetable oil used in citrus drinks, believed to cause health problems.
  8. Potassium bromate in baked goods, possible carcinogen.
  9. Azodicarbonamide in baking, possible carcinogen.
  10. Food colourants that are not allowed in UK.

And this list doesn’t include anything about animal welfare – see previous post.

From my own experience of periods staying in the US, I can say that much US food is excellent, but when you get to the cheap and heavily processed stuff it is quite disgusting junk. And they mostly don’t know how to bake bread.

Rather than worry, support the Soil Association to help them fight the battles, and tell your MP about your concerns.

Featured image shows a cattle feedlot in Weld County, Colorado.
Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

Disaster in Surrey

This letter from Surrey in today’s Guardian reinforces the messages about loss of insects found across Europe, eg see insectageddon. The effect is disastrous right up the food chain. Something catastrophic has changed in our farming methods (most probably), and needs to be reversed. Is it neonicontinoids?

When I moved here 15 years ago, greenfly, dragonflies, hoverflies, bumblebees, honeybees and butterflies among others were common in the garden. There were swallows and martins in the sky in the summer. We had a colony of swifts in the church tower. The swifts, swallows and martins seem to have disappeared. I saw one swallow over the Thames but very few mayflies. I felt that an additional observation might be of interest. In doing a bit of housework, I realised that I’d not had to sweep for cobwebs for a long time and I found none, even after a search. The magpies, crows and jackdaws seem to be thriving, as do the foxes, so there seems to have been a specific change to spiders and insects and the birds that depend on them for food. I’ve no idea if neonicotinoids are responsible (Letters, 16 November) but something seems to be happening.
David Marjot
Weybridge, Surrey

Murmuration

One of the UK’s spectacular natural sights is the autumn murmuration (gathering) of huge flocks of starlings preparing to roost as night begins to fall.

murmuration 1We received a treat at the end of October when we encountered one at WWT Martin Mere, while we were actually waiting to see the pink footed geese coming in at dusk. This was at a relatively early stage. More and more groups of starlings joined in, and the gathering went on for more than half an hour.Read More »

Tree Sparrow

Tree sparrows are much scarcer in the UK than the more common house sparrow. The RSPB differentiates them by the “chestnut brown head and nape (rather than grey), and white cheeks and collar with a contrasting black cheek spot”.

The RSPB reports that “the main populations are now found across the Midlands, southern and eastern England”, which explains why we never see these birds in Cheshire, and we did see this example at RSPB Fairburn Ings in Yorkshire.

Apparently, populations have very much declined in recent decades, no doubt significantly attributed to the reduction in the number of insects. Wake up, people, modern farming is slowly killing the natural world.

Skylark

A beautiful clear blue sky on a sunny spring morning. A cup of coffee in hand. A skylark serenades us with the most sublime of songs, visible on a nearby branch. Another sings nearby. Heaven smiles.

skylark on branch

I covered the plight of the skylark in an earlier post Blithe Spirit. The above recent experience at Lizard in Cornwall shows that skylarks can still thrive in England when farming practices allow for it. Much of the coastline at The Lizard is part of the National Trust’s Lizard National Nature Reserve.

Mega farming

I’m standing on a country road by the edge of a rather large field in Picardy. Nothing stirs, apart from a tractor in the distance, slowly wending its way across the field.

It seems like a desert. Except that, in my experience, most deserts actually support a fair population of vegetation and wildlife – probably much more than this godforsaken space.

How is the fertility/ biodiversity/ microorganisms/ health of the soil maintained in this space where fertiliser and weedkiller are probably the only inputs, apart from sun and rain? And should we really be surprised if heavy rainfall, increasingly common, causes run-off, flooding and loss of topsoil? And if long dry spells lead to dust storms?

picardy-field-edgeThere is no alleviation, even at the roadside. A thin strip of grass is all there is – no hedge, no trees, no ditch. No environment for small mammals, birds, insects – no space for the natural world. All confined to the nearby small village and woodland.

This shows quite clearly the alienation of the money economy from the nature on which it is dependent – and the alienation of European politics, such as in the Common Agricultural Policy that would appear to have encouraged this sort of thing.

Just imagine the difference if each field could only be so big, and had to be surrounded by hedges with trees, and space for grasses and wildflowers – well you don’t actually have to imagine it, as there are still plenty of examples in England and the rest of Europe. We spent millennia learning how to farm sustainably alongside nature. Yes, crop yields might be less in the short term, but I suggest they would be much greater in the long run.

Economy cannot win this battle with ecology. We will all be the losers.

Please note that I am not criticising Picardy itself –  a mostly charming part of France with many examples of small farms and rolling countryside. However, this mega farming is quite prevalent in that large area of northern France you drive through as quickly as possible to get to the nice bits! Having toured in the USA, I know where it came from.

Feathered with love

When shall I see the white-thorn leaves agen,
And yellowhammers gathering the dry bents
By the dyke side, on stilly moor or fen,
Feathered with love and nature’s good intents?

John Clare

During my childhood in 1950s I often used to cycle around the country lanes to the south and east of Lincoln. I loved to see the many yellowhammers I came across, that flash of yellow swooping around the hedgerows or singing on top of the hedge. We recently revisited this area of Lincolnshire; much of looks unchanged, maybe a bit more intensively farmed, but we didn’t see a single yellowhammer. Read More »

Blithe Spirit

skylarkI woke up thinking of the skylark, how common it had been in my youth, how rarely heard today – how missed that sublime sound when in the open fields that are obvious skylark land.

What is more sublime on a clear blue spring day than the trill of the skylark as it hovers and flutters up and down over its territory – the inspiration of poets, notably Percy Bysse Shelley’s Ode to a Skylark and George Meredith’s The Lark Ascending. I give the first few lines of each:

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert –
That from Heaven or near it
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art…

Shelley

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,

Meredith

Meredith’s poem was of course the inspiration for Vaughan Williams in producing one of England’s most popular classical music pieces The Lark Ascending, as described in Wikipedia.

The RSPB tells us that “skylark populations are declining in almost all countries of northern and western Europe. In the UK, the population halved during the 1990s, and is still declining. In the preferred habitat of farmland, skylarks declined by 75% between 1972 and 1996”.

The main cause of this decline is considered to be changing farming practices: “the widespread switch from spring to autumn-sown cereals”, “the absence of stubbles, which are favourite feeding places” and “increased use of insecticides and weedkillers… likely to remove an important part of the food source”.

In grassland habitats “increased stocking densities on grazing land have made the grass too short for skylarks, and increased the risk of nests being trampled” and “a switch from hay to silage has resulted in many nests being destroyed by the cutting machinery, since the period between cuts is often too short”.

Fortunately the RSPB has been on the job since the 1990s and has successfully piloted on its own farm ways of managing the crops in a skylark-friendly fashion, produces information on good farming practice, and government is helping with incentives for farmers to do the right thing. The story is told in Back from the Brink.

The skylark population has now stabilised in some areas, but continues to decline in some cereal-growing areas. There’s a long way to go before, if ever, it gets back to the level of my youth. Farming would have to recognise that the job of growing food cannot be prioritised over the complementary job of maintaining the natural environment that enables it to be sustainable and sustains the spirit of the rest of us.

Skylark picture from RSPB website