Fertilizer Use and Conventional Agriculture have gone hand in hand since the early 1900s – and with good reason. As the rapid increase in population during the 20th century created more mouths to feed, the agriculture industry has had to keep up with growing demand for food. This led farmers to adopt quick solutions for the sake of efficiency, which at the time had no known long-term effects. Fertilizer companies pushed their products as a solution to increasing crop yields, an appealing result for any farmer looking to make a living off their land.
Fast forward to recent decades, and we are now only beginning to see the detrimental effects of some of the agriculture industry’s most common practices. With chronic disease consistently on the rise, changing climate cycles, soil degradation and desertification becoming a rampant issue – there is overwhelming evidence that certain methods we have been using may be causing long-term harm despite their short-term benefits.
Taking Responsibility for Our Future
Fertilizer may not necessarily be the primary culprit, as we have also become more aware in recent years of the problematic use of Herbicides, Pesticides and GMO crops. But the bottom line is that unsustainable practices breed more unsustainable practices – like when you are prescribed a medication simply to help with the side effects of another medication you are currently taking. When considering our own health, the goal should be to get to root of the issue to resolve it, instead of layering in a variety of medications to create a patchwork, and ultimately temporary, solution. The same concept can be applied to crop health – a holistic approach to farming ensures that plants have all necessary nutritional and environmental factors they require for optimal growth.
When we continue to add inputs to the soil that throw its biological eco-system off balance, this will only increase the need to add MORE inputs to restore that balance – but here’s the thing: The soil is already a living organism to begin with. The life contained in the soil may be microscopic, but it is not lacking intelligence, nor does it need ANY help from us to thrive. The lushest and most thriving forests on Earth are those that remain untouched by humans, as their eco-systems overflow with vegetation and animal life that all works flawlessly together.
Applying this concept to our fields, however, will require some initial work. The practices we have had in place for over a century have resulted in decreased soil health and even a reduction in nutritional value of produce grown on conventional farms. To reverse the damage caused by these practices, we need to look toward implementing regenerative practices moving forward, to ensure our soil can continue to support life in a sustainable way and provide our world’s population with nutritious food for centuries to come. In short, we need to start focusing on treating the CAUSE of poor soil health, instead of just the symptoms.
Where Fertilizers Fall Short
A primary problem with Fertilizer is that it gives the illusion of health, while keeping issues buried under the surface of the soil. Using fertilizer requires knowledge and a delicate balancing act to ensure you are not applying too little (which will result in poor growth) or too much, which can damage plant root systems. Because fertilizer is formulated to increase the size of the fruit growing on a plant, the boost of nutrients available for uptake will only increase growth above the surface. Unfortunately, this growth happens too quickly for the plant to establish a strong root system and adequate foliage, compromising the health of the plant overall.
Your crop yield may be higher in the short-term, but the nutritional content of the harvest will be lower, and the health of both the plant and the soil will be compromised. It would be comparable to thinking you are keeping your children healthy by only feeding them vitamins, instead of a well-balanced diet that contains a variety of nutrients they need for optimal health.
At first, struggling plants may seem to turn around; but they are being pushed and stressed beyond their limitations, and are not being given a well-rounded supply of everything they need to grow. Less foliage on a plant means poor photosynthesis due to a lack of chlorophyll, reducing the sugars that are normally provided by that chlorophyll and ultimately resulting in less nutrients available in the soil.
Essentially, we are training the plant to do nothing but absorb nutrients and grow, instead of allowing it to naturally enter into symbiotic relationships with the soil the microbial life that surrounds it. If fertilizer use is suddenly halted and the source of nutrients is removed, the plant will not be capable of then finding those nutrients on its own and will stop growing. As researcher Rick Haney puts it: “It’s true that we are seeing that our yields have come up a lot in the last 50 years, but it is taking more and more external inputs to keep it going. And that’s not sustainable, it’s not going to work in the long run” (1).
Reduction of Soil Biology = Decreased Soil Health
Soil that has adequate structure to support crops requires a diverse biology of organisms to be present within it; this structure is compromised when we use inputs that mimic the nutrients naturally created by these organisms. In addition to the sand, silt and clay present in soil – it also needs a good portion of organic matter that the bacteria, fungi and other organisms can break down into plant-available nutrients. Before the “Green Revolution” soil was rich in humus with 7-12% organic matter. After many cumulated years of heavy fertilizing, a grower today is lucky if organic matter in their soil is anywhere near 2%. The presence of this organic matter is what creates that symbiotic relationship mentioned earlier, where the energy exchange between plants and soil is mutual and both rely on the other to thrive.
Fertilizer bypasses this mutual exchange, which has a direct impact on the biology contained in the soil and changes the nature and structure of the soil system as whole, leaving it imbalanced. Especially when used consistently, fertilizer tends to “alter soil aggregate stability, water retention capacity, infiltration rate, porosity, hydraulic conductivity and bulk density” (2). These changes have lasting effects on the farm ecosystem, and are detrimental for soil fertility, meaning less productive crops over time.
Fertilizer can also directly contribute to major changes in the PH of soil, resulting in an increase in acids such as sulfuric and hydrochloric acid. These harsh acids provide a less-hospitable environment for the beneficial bugs and microbes that are essential to the soil food web, resulting in the soil being more compact, which reduces drainage capabilities and air circulation. A decrease in the amount of beneficial organisms also creates a greater chance that the detrimental organisms will take over, ultimately removing any line of defense against the damage they can cause.
Short-Term Solutions Create Long-Term Damage
The issue of compacted soil stretches beyond the poor health of the plants growing within it. As fertilizer is water soluble for plants to easily absorb the nutrients it provides, these compounds are easily washed away when the soil does not have enough structure to retain them. The excess nitrogen that is leached into our waterways can have devastating effects on underwater vegetation and animal life. The increased salt content of the water results in algae blooms, which snowball into wells and aquifers not being properly replenished, reducing our global supply of clean water. The runoff nitrogen can also cause emissions of nitrous oxide, which “stays in the atmosphere for over 100 years, depletes the ozone layer, and is about 300 times more potent than CO2 in heating the atmosphere” (3).
While regenerative farming movements seek to highlight the importance of sequestering carbon in the ground as much as possible, conventional farming’s use of excess nitrogen derived from synthetic sources can be counterproductive to this goal. Not only because potential emissions from nitrogen are more harmful than carbon, but adding nitrogen creates an imbalance in the soil eco-system:
“The problem is that when microbes have a high nitrogen supply, they also have a high demand for carbon as an energy source” says Professor Richard Mulvaney, Dept. of Natural Resources and Environmental Studies. “With high nitrogen rates their demand may exceed the carbon supply in residues, which may cause them to attack stable organic matter. And therein lies the long-term problem.” (4)
Not only is this imbalance contributing to higher emissions, but the myriad of problems associated with fertilizer dependence leads to an increased need for other harmful inputs such as pesticides and herbicides. As we know, these chemical products can have a negative impact not only on the farmers that are spraying them, but on anyone who consumes the crops that are absorbing them.
How Humic Land™ Can Help
Considering all the above, it becomes clear that reducing fertilizer use is something we need to strongly consider. That being said, the challenges farmers face today with a changing climate, soil degradation and compounded years of questionable practices have left us with minimal options. Adding in sustainable and regenerative practices like cover-cropping, integrated pest management and no-till farming methods can definitely help – but how do we quickly and sustainably bring nutrients and beneficial organisms back to a dying soil, to ensure it is able to produce healthy crops for years to come?
Humic Land™ is an organic soil amendment, sustainably sourced from peat, that contains a combination of Humic and Fulvic Acids. These compounds are absolutely essential for restoring health to the soil in a way that does not harm the farmer, their land, or their crops. In fact, the way that Humic Land™ brings soil biology back into balance can actually improve crops over time, starting with an increasingly healthy root system that strengthens the plant. A stronger plant is more resistant to disease and pests, and able to withstand certain changes in climate more easily than a plant that has already been pushed beyond its limitations.
Moreover, the way that Humic Land™ promotes microbial activity helps to elevate the symbiotic relationships in the soil, building the soil structure and giving plants more access to nutrients. Not only do the nutrients become more plant-available because of the soil biology, but the chelation effect offered by Humic Land™ means they stay where they are needed and are not easily washed away. This retention of moisture in the soil relieves drought stress and reduces overall watering needs on your farm. Essentially, Humic Land™ feeds the soil microbiome while creating a favorable environment for them to thrive, contributing to a balanced soil food web.
Since Humic Land™ is an organic solution containing no synthetic chemicals or ingredients, it is safe to use both for the farmer and for anyone who consumes their crops. When used in conjunction with other sustainable practices, it greatly contributes to restoring health to the soil and reducing the need for other inputs. It truly is a key component toward a holistic approach in the overall health of your farm, and a solution to consider when making the shift toward a more sustainable approach for the future of farming.