1 gram of fertile soil contains many millions of microorganisms: worms, bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa ea. They are the link in the soil in the release and conversion of nutrients, and the structure-formers by organisms which loosen the soil and make it rich in oxygen. They ensure disease resistance and soil productivity. The nutrients, especially minerals, are thus released for the crops which produce energy.
This is the basis of our survival; humans are not able to convert inorganic material into organic material and thus create the energy needed for life. With a healthy soil life, there is more, more diverse and deeper rooting by the crops which later remains as organic matter. Thus, CO2 is sequestered in the form of carbon. An estimated 2.3 gigatons of carbon is stored in the top three meters of the earth’s crust in organic matter and fossil fuels. It has taken the earth millions of years to capture this energy. Humans have been consuming this energy at a rapid pace since the industrial revolution.
Soils with healthy soil life have a better water holding capacity and are also able to capture certain gases (methane, ammonia) before they volatilize, converting them into nutrients for crops without leaching. The use of low-emission slurry, among other things, releases hydrocyanic acid gas into the soil.
This deterioration of the soil life results in compaction of the soil. In this oxygen-poor environment, nitrogen has the property of being converted into the highly environmentally harmful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. When slurry is applied widely, nitrous oxide is rendered harmless by binding directly to atmospheric oxygen.
Crops need both carbon and nitrogen: Carbon as a source of energy and nitrogen as an important source of protein. When nitrogen is overfertilized, crops will use the carbon source from the organic matter in the soil: while this is precisely what is responsible for the connection in the soil. This can lead to soil erosion (think of the increasing sandstorms in dry periods around arable land). Good quality manure with a good ratio of organically bound nitrogen is therefore important: Mature manure which contains the right carbon/nitrogen ratio contributes to soil organic matter and healthy soil life.
Carbon and nitrogen are therefore indispensable in the processes surrounding crop production and in promoting soil fertility and soil organic matter. The VBBM advocates a natural cycle system which starts in the animal and in which healthy micro life is achieved by:
– Getting cows to produce good, non-rotting manure by providing a ration low in protein and rich in structure that optimizes rumen fermentation.
– Allowing manure and urine to mature in storage instead of rotting (adding oxygen).
– Feeding soil life with organic nutrients (manure) This provides healthier plant growth which results in healthier nutrition for the cow which in turn produces healthier manure.
– Apply manure in the right way: With light material, above ground, wide throw, bite-sized amounts and with (rain) water. Soil life is spared and hydrocyanic acid is neutralized by oxygen.
To produce healthy crops, therefore, the cycle on our agricultural farms must be healthy. Growing healthy crops literally starts with the basis: the soil. A healthy business cycle focuses on soil life and sufficient organic matter in the soil. It is essential that the manure used to nourish the soil is of good quality and contains the right ratio of nutrients, especially the carbon/nitrogen ratio. A ration rich in structure (high carbon) and low in protein (low nitrogen) for the cow promotes this ratio. The soil life is of great importance because they have to convert the nutrients and make them available to the crops.
There are several things that can have a negative effect on natural soil fertility, organic matter and soil life:
– Spreading fertilizer (or excessive donation of nitrogen)
– The compaction of the soil (for example, by heavy machinery or by a decrease in soil organic matter)
– The way of applying manure
– The time of application of manure
In the 1980s, a group of agricultural entrepreneurs identified a wrong trend regarding soil fertility and organic matter content. The construction of walking sheds caused urine and solid manure to mix, which changed the composition of the manure to be spread. An increasing amount of fertilizer was needed to achieve the same yield from the fields: Instead of building up the land, we are looting it. (Association for the Conservation of Farmers and the Environment, or VBBM)
“What we learned in Wageningen is that plants feed on nitrate or ammonium. But what we actually also know is that plants grow much better on amino acids. Amino acids don’t form in the manure pit, though, because there’s no oxygen there. So because there’s no oxygen there, you get that in the manure pit all the anaerobic (oxygen less) processes start. Then those bacteria that can handle it (anaerobic bacteria) will survive. These bacteria make methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, hydrocyanic acid, etc. If you then inject a lot of slurry into the soil at once, the oxygen – which is still present in the upper layers – is used up. This makes the soil hard: there is little oxygen in it, little soil life, and not enough organic matter. Then the decay processes that started in the manure pit just continue here in the soil.”
Responsible land use
2015 has been designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Soil. Calling attention to soil makes sense because we as people are highly dependent on it. Soil is the foundation of our
existence, namely the basis of our food supply. Virtually all of our food – fishery products are the big exception – comes directly or indirectly, through animal foods, from the soil. Agricultural land covers a few billion hectares and thus constitute by far the largest part of land use on earth. The soil is a complex ecosystem of micro-organisms and plant and animal life. These include fungi, bacteria, insects, worms and arthropods that ensure the breakdown of organic material and for an airy, water and air absorbing, soil. This ecosystem contains all the nutrients that people and animals need. Only plants with roots can absorb them from the soil. Therefore humans are forced to grow agricultural crops. The soil is only an extremely thin shell around the earth’s crust. We have to be very careful with it because the vitality of the soil life directly influences the availability and quality of our food. Platform ABC wants to work towards an ecologically responsible and therefore sustainable agricultural sector. Farmers must take good care of the soil so that it can contribute optimally to food security and safety, worldwide.
Threats to soil fertility
Against the backdrop of a projected population growth in the world from 7 billion in 2012 to 9 or 10 billion by 2050, agricultural land is scarce. There is very little unused land left that is suitable to be cultivated. In addition, there is a loss of agricultural land due to urbanization and land is being lost to depletion. According to National Geographic in December 2015, the acreage of farmland in the world has been reduced by more than 35% in the last 50 years. And further, the fertility of existing farmland is declining because the agricultural sector does not always use it responsibly. A major cause is specialization and intensification. Modern agriculture has gone too far in its pursuit of maximizing the yield per hectare and per animal. yield per hectare and per animal. This is due in large measure due to the current policy of open markets that forces the farmer to production costs. The sector is too much structured according to the principles of an industrial company that wants to control all production processes. From cooperating and moving with nature, agriculture has degenerated too much into control of or struggle against nature. Heavy machinery causes soil compaction and structural decay. This reduces the capacity of the soil to hold or transmit water. In addition, nutrients and organic material that are extracted from the soil with the harvest are not or insufficiently replenished. The addition of artificial fertilizer can restore the mineral balance in the soil to some extent, but sometimes also disturb it, as is the case with an overdose of animal manure that is rich in minerals. For a truly sustainable land use, closed cycles of minerals and organic matter are necessary. In practice, however, this ideal is hardly achievable. The intensification of livestock farming in the Netherlands is accompanied by large-scale imports of feed from other parts of the world. This leads to problematic manure surpluses here
and there for mineral deficits that have to be supplemented with artificial fertilizer. The cultivation of cattle feed and agrofuels also competes there for land with the cultivation of food for the local population. In order to close the cycles, the manure would have to be returned to the land where the cattle feed was produced, but that is not feasible. It is much better to close cycles on a regional scale by growing animal feed regionally. This is possible by not keeping more livestock than is available for feed in a given region. The other point concerns the lack of balanced crop rotation
from market considerations of the farmer. This can also cause loss of minerals and organic matter as well as soil degradation. Added to this are the negative consequences for
biodiversity in and on the soil, exacerbated by the result of plant protection products.
Free trade undermines farming
Within existing production systems, farmland is often not managed in a managed in a sustainable manner. An important explanation for this can be can be found in the poor economic conditions in which farming is. The farm-gate prices of many agricultural products are under pressure today more than ever. At the same time, farmers are face rising prices of farm inputs/production inputs. The result is highly volatile and trending declining farm incomes. Farmers are forced to go to extremes to lower their production costs. to lower their production costs. This results in a race to innovate, invest and expand in order to keep costs as low as possible. and expansion in order to realize the lowest possible cost price per unit of product. Critics of the industrial agricultural model use the image of a treadmill: By running faster and faster the the farmer thinks he can increase his production to such an extent that he can survive, but due to price decreases he sees survive, but due to price declines, he sees the cash return from that increasing output soon evaporates again.
Farmers are thus engaged in a veritable struggle for survival. This finds its explanation lies mainly in the market policy in agriculture during the past two decades. two decades. The world trade agreements under World Trade Organization (WTO) are intended to progressively remove barriers in international trade. Initially, agricultural markets were agricultural markets were exempted, but from the early 1990s onwards trade liberalization was extended to the agricultural sector. sector as well.
Brussels, under international pressure, especially from the United States, was forced to replace production subsidies and price guarantees with income subsidies, which meant a gradual reduction in agricultural prices. Thus, starting in 1992, guaranteed prices for cereals were drastically reduced in exchange for income subsidies. This was followed in 2003 by milk and in 2006 the sugar. Other agricultural prices also underwent a structural other agricultural prices also suffered a structural decline, while strong price fluctuations occurred. International free trade means that agricultural prices will tend to the lowest possible level in the world. And as soon as surpluses arise, the lowest prices on the world market will prevail. In fact, the world market for agricultural products is in many cases a residual market where products are traded below cost.
This takes place in a world where production conditions and therefore the production costs, differ greatly. Because of its high cost level Europe is not one of the most price-competitive countries in terms of agriculture. compete on price. This explains why the EU and other rich countries still support their farmers, albeit in a disguised way, namely through single farm payments.
Furthermore, also within the free trade arrangements of the WTO and under pressure from the US, the EU first abolished import duties on soy and cornmeal, and then also abolished production subsidies for the cultivation of vegetable protein and oil. These measures have made the cultivation of important fodder crops in Europe virtually impossible and contributed to the high dependence on imports of soy and other animal feed. At the same time, an enormous surplus of minerals was imported. imported. Since then, there has been no question of a closed mineral cycle in agriculture. Since then there has been no question of a closed mineral cycle in agriculture.
How to ensure sustainable use of soil?
Platform ABC welcomes the increasing interest in soil quality in society and among farmers. What is needed to ensure the sustainable use of soils? The agricultural sector needs to respect and if possible support the natural biological and organic processes in the air, water and especially in the soil more, taking a long-term view.
In the dominant conventional agriculture, however, the use of chemicals and artificial fertilizers that are alien to nature is still indispensable. However, there is plenty of experimentation with alternatives. With a responsible and intelligent use of crop protection and artificial fertilizer, the sector can treat the soil more sustainably than is often the case at present. Making and keeping the soil fertile requires a focus that is not only organic but also regional in nature. It is a matter of closing the carbon and mineral cycles more tightly and of attuning livestock farming to the regional possibilities. This does not involve intensive livestock farming with imported feed, but livestock in the service of the local soil, so that the stable manure can be used for soil fertility. If we are able to develop these cycles into positive spirals, even eroded and exhausted soils can become fertile again. A form of agriculture in which the starting point is not taking from but giving to the soil can produce sufficient healthy food.
The importance of organic matter for the proper functioning of the soil for crop cultivation is increasingly recognized. In a soil with a high organic matter content, more soil life and biodiversity develop, a better, looser structure is created and pathogens have less of a chance. Organic matter makes plants more resilient, the root system can develop better and absorb water and minerals from deeper down.
In soil with a lot of organic matter, minerals are better stored. This greatly reduces the chance of minerals being washed out or down. It also creates a sponge effect whereby excess water is better absorbed and there is better capillary rise of water in dry periods. Crops are therefore less affected by wet or dry conditions and irrigation needs to be less frequent. Increasing the organic matter content of the soil is also one of the most important measures to combat climate change. Enormous amounts of C (Carbon) can be sequestered in the soil. This reduces the CO2 content in the atmosphere. GRAIN and Via Campesina have calculated that by increasing organic matter by 60 tons per hectare in 50 years, even two thirds of all global greenhouse gases can be stored. This reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 20 to 35%.
However, building up organic matter in the soil requires a pathway of many years. It requires a completely different way of dealing with the soil, namely a broader crop rotation, better manure and extensive use of green manure crops. The farmer must make a permanent investment in his land. Here we encounter the contradiction between short-term survival and long-term investment. To improve soil fertility by building up organic matter in the soil, the farmer must apply a long-term crop rotation with grass or cereal crops.
Because of the low price of grain in particular, he often opts for a shorter crop rotation and more intensive cultivation, which yields higher prices but also puts more strain on the soil. The bottleneck for more sustainable land use therefore lies in the lack of a good agricultural policy with cost-effective output prices for the farmer.
Alternative agricultural policy
Platform ABC sees major threats to soil fertility in the Netherlands and abroad. Too low prices of essential agricultural products and lack of conditions to grow vegetable proteins and oils are the main obstacles to sustainable agriculture. Market organisation needs to be reformed if farmers are to be able to invest in sustainable land use. Sustainable agriculture requires a sustainable economy (Helen Toxopeus) that serves the interests of earth, nature and people.
To bring sustainable agriculture within the reach of farmers, it is necessary to drastically reform the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and related world trade agreements. This brings us to the necessity of market organization through international agreements in order to give farmers a stronger market position and to bring agricultural prices to a level that will cover their costs. Free world trade must therefore be curtailed.
The strength of farming lies not in the world market but in production for local and regional markets. There the playing field is somewhat level. The import and export of agricultural products must be restricted. Each country or block of countries (the EU) grows its own food as much as possible, certainly the basic food. This requires the introduction of the instrument of flexible production control, which will enable supply to be matched with demand, agricultural surpluses to be counteracted and price volatility to be prevented.
In addition, import levies are indispensable. This is to prevent the import of products below the European cost price and – again – to prevent price collapse. The introduction of import levies on soy will also lead to a welcome expansion of the cultivation of European protein crops such as field beans, field peas, lupines and European soy, which is beneficial for the soil because of the nitrogen fixation.
The introduction of these reforms will make it possible to significantly reduce current European agricultural subsidies and use them for special purposes. Farmers will now receive from regulated markets a “fair”, cost-recovery price for a desirable, environmentally friendly product. Consumers will get greater food safety and food security. The economically healthy farms thus created can be made subject to sustainability requirements. Regulation of agricultural markets also offers opportunities to improve soil quality. For example, by reducing the use of artificial fertilizer, or by taking measures to increase the organic matter content of the soil, which in turn will help to store greenhouse gases. Only farmers who actually provide green or blue services to society will still receive compensation. (ABC soil vision platform).
Some links with extra information:
- Research for AGRI Committee – Preserving agricultural soils in the EU. European Parliament, 2017.
This study explains how threats to soils and soil services are linked to agricultural soil management, how threats can be mitigated, and which barriers complicate this. It highlights trade-offs and synergies that exist between different interests affected by soil management, such as climate change mitigation, water and air quality, biodiversity, food security and farm income. Conservation of peatland and extensive agro-forestry systems, and protecting soils against sealing, erosion and compaction are ranked as highest priorities. Potential policy elements are suggested. Read online..
- Soil Atlas 2015. Download here..
- Dirt! The Movie
- Our best shot at cooling down the planet might be right under our feet. (The Guardian, 2016)
- What if the World’s Soils Runs Out? A broken ood system is destroying the soil and fuelling health crises as well as conflicts, warns Professor John Crawford of the University of Sydney. (read online)
- The European movement People4Soil
- The Centre for Soil Ecology
- The wonders of earthworms & its vermicompost in farm
production: Charles Darwin’s ‘friends of farmers’, with
potential to replace destructive chemical fertilizers
from agriculture, an article by prof. dr. Sinha of the Griffith University, Australia. Download here.