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Version: 2.0
(October 6, 2006)

Poisoned Soil

6/19/2006
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the mid-1800s abundant supplies of herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers have been available to farmers. Synthetic fertilizers offered a cheap alternative to labor-intensive organic compost and pesticides gave farmers a significant edge against pests. The 150 years that have passed have shown that the use of these synthetics has had enormous, often permanent ramifications on the environment- mostly negative.

Ingredients commonly found in fertilizers include nitrogen and phosphorous: phosphorous is a primary component of nucleic acid and cell membranes; nitrogen is also a major component of nucleic acids. Whereas plants can absorb phosphorous through both water and soil, a plant can only absorb nitrogen through its roots. First, however, nitrogen must be "fixed" into soil by bacteria that grow on the roots of legumes. Traditionally, soil has been reinvigorated with nitrogen and other nutrients by rotating crops with legumes like clover and alfalfa. Crop rotation is rarely used in industrial agriculture, replacing naturally-occurring nitrogen fixation with factory-made fertilizer.

The results have been devastating. Fertilizer that isn’t absorbed by plants is washed into waterways or leaches into the water table. Because two key ingredients of fertilizer, nitrogen and phosphorous, are so vital to plants, their overabundant presence in water bodies causes an equally abundant spike in plant growth. "The resulting long-term increase of aquatic plant life depletes oxygen over large areas, killing fish and dramatically altering ecosystems. One oxygen-depleted ‘dead zone’ near the outlet of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico covers 18,000 square kilometers (an area larger than Kuwait). The loss of oxygen has dramatically reduced populations and species diversity [and] increased mortality among bottom-dwelling communities . . .[1]" Pesticides attack ecosystems more directly: killing off organisms immediately or deforming them by altering their DNA and making them incompatible with their environment.

The production and application of fertilizers are other causes of significant environmental destruction. Synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides are oil-intensive - the cost of nitrogen fertilizer comprises 70 to 90 percent production costs[2], specifically for the natural gas that is used in the nitrification process. Most synthetic substances have similar fuel needs. After a substance is produced, it must be applied to the soil and/or the plants. A good portion of that substance seeps into underground aquifers, is washed away by irrigation, or is released into the air. The build-up of these substances in the atmosphere creates smog, and by extension, acid rain. Acid rain further damages the Earth by acidifying aqueous ecosystems and destroying plant growth, which in turn compromises the survival of wildlife.

It is only a matter of time before such pervasive and diverse means of pollution reaches our kitchen tables. Some compounds used in artificial pesticides and fertilizers are, in their natural contexts, helpful to organisms. However, a poison is defined by dose, and high concentrations of elements like phosphorous and nitrogen in water pollution can lead to either immediate and residual damage. Other compounds, like the pesticide 2,4-D are in no way beneficial, attaching to cells and disrupting their function or depriving blood of oxygen. Most compounds found in insecticides and herbicides are fat-soluble and thereby bioaccumaltive, meaning that they are stored in the body’s fat, slowing poisoning a person over many years. Bioaccumulated toxins are frequently passed onto offspring; with each generation the toxins become more and more concentrated. For example, DDT is still being found in the amniotic fluid of mothers in California and has been linked to a rise in premature births. Pesticides have been linked to many cancers, including stomach cancer and non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

1 McNeely, Jeffrey A. and Sara J. Scherr. Ecoagriculture: Strategies to Feed the World and Save Wild Biodiversity. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2003.

2 Rich, Deborah K. "The Case Against Synthetic Fertilizers; Industrial Process Opens to [sic] Many Environmental Risks" San Francisco Chronicle 14 Jan. 2006. 16 June 2006 .