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Thankful for Progress toward Healthy Agriculture

When I was a kid, we were thankful for "better living through chemistry." During the World Wars, chemical companies had become big business; afterward they found applications for their products in every aspect of everyday life, from building materials to medicine, cleaning products to agriculture.

In 1840 Justus von Liebig, the father of modern chemistry, after burning plants, declared that the three most common elements he found in the ashes were what nourished them: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash — the NPK of today's chemical agriculture. He aggressively denounced older beliefs that humus — decaying vegetable matter in the soil — was the source of plant vitality.

Later von Liebig realized that humus is essential to plant nutrition. But chemical fertilizers had become standard practice, and manufacturers had more influence than a scientist who disagreed. Nevertheless others took up the banner.

In 1924 Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner taught an approach to agriculture not only building humus but also incorporating a deep spiritual sensitivity to the earth. This system, Biodynamics, is practiced today at the Temple-Wilton Community Farm, in Wilton, NH.

Pesticides quickly followed fertilizers in the inventory of the chemical manufacturers, because insects prey on plants that are weak, and chemical fertilizers produce lush growth and high yields, but the plants are deficient. In March 2001, when UK Nutritionist David Thomas compared nutritive values of produce today with those 50 years before; he found high losses: for example broccoli has 75% less calcium; spinach 60% less iron.

Sir Albert Howard understood the problem in 1931. He studied how compost builds humus, and how pests act as Nature's scavengers, eliminating unhealthy plants. He regarded pests as indicators of soil fertility levels, enabling him to make corrections. His crops and livestock responded with remarkable disease resistance.

Inspired by Howard, in the 1940s J.I. Rodale started an experimental farm applying Howard's principles, and began publishing Organic Farming and Gardening Magazine (now Organic Gardening).

Soil microbiologist Dr. William A. Albrecht, Chairman of the Department of Soils at the University of Missouri, in research from 1938 to 1974 further substantiated the relationship between soil fertility and the health of animals — including people — who eat food grown on that soil. He watched cattle pass up what appeared to be good pasture and travel to distant fields, where it turned out the soil was rich in minerals.

Albrecht predicted that without correcting soil deficiencies, degenerative diseases (for example cancer, heart disease, and arthritis) would keep increasing. (Before World War I, degenerative disease was rare; since then it has skyrocketed.)

Many now work to restore our air, water, soil and food. The Northeast Organic Farm Association certifies organic growers, and conducts training in Organic Land Care. The next five-day OLC program will be on January 21-23 and 26-27, 2004, in Worcester. (For more info, call 617/576-0810.)

The Nashua River Watershed Association has had a dramatic effect. Matching photos on their website tell the tale: the one from the 1960s, with its turbid brown water, contrasts sharply with the later one, where clear water reflects blue sky.

On Tuesday, November 25, the NRWA presents a Toxic Use Reduction Panel. Representatives of the Wellesley Pesticide Awareness Campaign, and the Toxic Use Reduction Institute will speak on what pesticides are, their toxicity, why they aren't necessary, and what resources citizens and municipalities have to reduce their use. 7 - 9 pm, 592 Main Street in Groton (no charge).

This Thanksgiving, I give thanks for the hope of a healthy harvest again, as a result of the work of these dedicated people.

© Copyright 2003 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 21 November 2003

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Links updated 23 April 2006