SICK SOIL - A Basic Cause of Poor Health
Plain Truth Magazine
June-July 1970
Volume: Vol XXXV, No.6-7
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SICK SOIL - A Basic Cause of Poor Health
Eugene M Walter & Dale L Schurter  

What difference does it make to you what kind of soil your food is grown on? Far more than you may realize! Here is WHY.

   TODAY, Earth's farmlands are tired, overworked, depleted sick. Quality of food is suffering and so is your health.
   Few realize why, or what can be done about it.
   Almost everyone takes for granted that it is natural to be sick from time to time. Not so. It is natural to be in health. Sickness is an unnatural state the result of something gone wrong!

What's Wrong with Being Healthy?

   Robust human health depends on wholesome food. And wholesome food can come only from fertile and productive land.
   Today such rich and healthy land is scarce. And so is good physical and mental health for an increasing percentage of the earth's teeming billions.
   As population soars, productive lands shrink. Hunger and starvation are ever-present threats for many. Even in developed nations, many doctors and social workers are finding that millions suffer from "hidden hunger" malnutrition. An alarming array of new degenerative, debilitating diseases are on the rise. In "fat" America, for example, many are overfed in food volume, yet under nourished, and in poor health. Hospitals can't be built fast enough to care for and treat the physical, emotional and mental effects of malnutrition.
   Why malnutrition?
   It all begins with the soil.

You Are What You Eat

   The soil is the foundation of health. It is the soil that is the basis for either good health or poor health. No matter who you are or where you live, your food comes directly or indirectly from the ground. The soil makes available to plants the essential elements needed for their growth. In turn, man and the animals man eats depend on these plants for their nutrients.
   In other words, you are, in a sense, physically, emotionally and mentally what you eat. If you eat foods which lack nutritional value, your body and emotions pay the penalty. Plants and animals raised on weak, unbalanced soil are inferior food products. Such foods result in weak, degenerate and disease-prone human beings.
   Deficient soils produce deficient men. It's just that simple and that sure. Add to this soil deficiency the daily stress of modern life, highly processed and refined foods, smoking, pill popping, drug taking, etc., consequently the shameful state of our collective health isn't surprising.
   But just what is this miracle we call soil? How does it work? What is its function in the cycle of life? This is basic knowledge we all ought to possess.

What Soil IS

   Fertile topsoil is by far man's most valuable and indispensable natural resource. It lies at an average depth of seven or eight inches over the face of the land. In some few areas, this life sustaining layer of earth may be several feet deep; in many other areas it is considerably less than even seven or eight inches.
   "If that layer of topsoil could be represented on a 24-inch globe it would be as a film three-millionths of one inch thick. That thin film is all that stands between man and extinction" (Mickey, Man and the Soil, pages 17-18).
   This thin layer of earth sustains ALL PLANT, ANIMAL AND HUMAN LIFE!
   The soil is not, as many suppose, a dead, inert substance which merely supplies mineral elements to plants and gives them a place to anchor their roots. A healthy soil is vibrantly "alive" and dynamic. It teems with bacteria, fungi, molds, yeasts, protozoa, algae, worms, insects and other minute organisms which live mostly in its top few inches.
   This hive of living creatures in the soil, the eaters and the eaten, adds up to incredible numbers. The bacteria alone may range from a comparative few up to three or four billion in a single gram of soil. In good soil the bacterial matter, living and dead, may weigh as much as 5,600 pounds per acre.
   The fungi in a gram of soil may weigh over 1,000 pounds to the acre. It is estimated that about 95 percent of the roughly one million insect species spend part of their lives in the soil.
   And then there is the humble earthworm. He is nature's plow, chemist, cultivator, maker and distributor of plant food. Rich soil easily supports a worm population of 26,000 per acre. The earthworm is so important to the soil that we have an entire article about "The Worm and You." A free copy is available upon request.
   All this teeming soil life plays a vital role in keeping the soil healthy and building it up.
   The soil is not solid. It is actually composed of billions of grains or soil particles. These range in size from smaller than 1/2000 of an inch up to 1/12 of an inch in diameter. Each of these tiny soil particles is covered with a tight-fitting film of oxides, water and bits of organic matter, which provides a habitation for the teeming soil life.
   The surface area of these particles is staggering. One ounce of soil can easily have surfaces adding up to 250,000 square feet about six acres!
   Of what, then, is soil composed? It is composed of 1) minerals, dirt or disintegrated rock particles; 2) organic matter dead remains of plants and animal wastes; and 3) a vast community of living organisms.
   When organic matter is decaying by the action of soil life upon it, it is a most important substance, known as humus.

Why Humus Vital to Soil

   Organic matter is obtained from living and dead plants and animals, plant roots, green manure crops, animal manures, crop residues, fungi, bacteria, worms, insects, etc. This organic matter is the raw material that is spoken of as humus while it is being broken down and decaying through the action of the complex mass of soil microorganisms and earthworms upon it. This digestive action produces humic acids which make minerals soluble. The end result of this blended mixture is true plant food.
   The importance of humus cannot be stressed too strongly. The more humus a soil contains, the healthier it is. Here are a few reasons why:
   When it rains, soils with humus soak up the water. Humus is so porous it can hold at least its own volume in water. A four-inch rain on humus-rich soil causes little or no runoff; one-half inch on humus-poor land will cause erosion and some flooding in lower areas.
   Humus improves the physical condition of the soil, supports the soil's organisms, increases permeability, improves aeration and stabilizes the soil's temperature.
   Yet to do all this, humus need not be more than five percent of the topsoil in most instances.

Why Soil "Wears Out"

   When minerals, organic matter and soil microorganisms are present in balance for a particular type of soil, that soil is fertile and healthy. But all too often this balance is upset. How? By the serious depletion of humus, due to improper cultivation practices, unchecked erosion, continued monoculture and failure to restore to the soil what the preceding harvests have taken from it.
   Modern agriculture practices the substitution of synthetic fertilizers for humus that is not being replenished in the soil. The "replacing" of humus by artificial means does stimulate plant growth, but it also continues to upset the vitally needed balance and blended mixture of minerals, organic matter and soil life found only in humus.
   Chemical fertilizers add only a part of the mineral portion of the critically important soil mixture essential to good health.
   But an unbalanced soil is not normally caused by a lack of minerals, as many believe. Even in relatively poor soils there is normally a large reserve of minerals.
   Noted soil scientist Eric Eweson states that the supply of major minerals such as calcium, phosphorus and potassium is normally a hundred to a thousand times more than the seasonal requirements of most crops. The supply of the vital trace minerals boron, iron, copper, nickel, fluorine, manganese, iodine, etc. is also generally more than adequate.
   What is most often missing is sufficient organic matter and the soil life which is necessary to break down the dirt materials into food forms the plants can assimilate and use. Even mineral-rich soil usually lacks enough nutrients in available form for vigorous plant growth. Humus, then, is a key to soil balance and fertility.

Types of Fertilizers

   True fertilization is the addition to the soil of that which is conducive to increasing soil life. Fertilizers are generally recognized in two groups organic and inorganic. The organic are made up of organic matter and microbes.
   Inorganic fertilizers are basically comprised of minerals and are available in two major types. One type is made up simply of ground-up minerals such as rock phosphate, rock potash, limestone and rock salt as they are found in their natural state. This type of fertilizer is not generally dissolved by water, but is gradually changed into plant food by the action of microbes, earthworms and organic acids that are formed by the decomposition of organic matter.
   The other type of inorganic fertilizers consists of chemical fertilizers. These are easily soluble in water and cause corrosive action. Chemical fertilizers are manufactured products and are commonly advertised and sold on the market for quick results. Most farmers and gardeners use them, and feel they could not get along without them.

When Nature Is Unspoiled

   In nature there is no need for special fertilizers. Plants and animals live together and their litter accumulates on the surface to compost and decay, thus making a health-sustaining, humus-rich soil. The whole life cycle in the soil becomes a self-regulating system as long as it is undisturbed by outside forces.
   When man enters the picture, however, it becomes a different story. He plows up virgin land to grow crops. The increased oxygen made available by plowing stimulates the bacteria into breaking down the organic matter more rapidly. Then man removes his crops from the soil, thus further taking from its reserves. When he has thus "mined" the soil until it can no longer produce profitably, he moves on or at least he did until this century. But now there are no new lands to exploit.
   Since 1880, it is estimated that about half of the humus in the Midwest has been lost the loss greatly intensifying in recent years. The situation is probably equally bad or worse in many other heavily farmed regions of the world.
   It doesn't have to be this way. With a little more effort and a lot less greed, man could return organic matter to the soil and build humus. But he seems to be hopelessly greedy and shortsighted. He would rather borrow from the soil's capital and ignore repaying this debt until necessity demands it. Necessity is now banging on the door!
   Desperately, man is looking to chemical fertilizers to bail him out and to repay his debt to the soil. But is this possible? Can chemical fertilizers truly restore soil fertility?
   No! Such was never intended.

How Chemical Fertilizers Became Popular

   In the 1840's, von Liebig in Germany noticed the regular presence of certain mineral elements especially nitrogen, phosphorus and potash in the ashes of burnt plants. Since these had to be drawn from the soil, he concluded that soil fertility depended primarily on the presence of these elements in the soil. He further suggested that fertility could be maintained or improved by adding these elements in suitable forms to the soil. About the same time an Englishman, Lawes, was experimenting along similar lines.
   It was found that when nitrogen, phosphorus and potash were added to depleted soil, in the form of water-soluble chemicals, production was increased like magic! Soon farmers the world over were adopting this method as a shortcut to soil fertility or at least so they thought.
   It should be noted that the early advocates of chemical fertilizers only intended that these fertilizers supplement the use of organic matter. For a time this continued to be the case.
   For example, Lord Hankey, in a speech in the House of Lords when soil fertility was debated said: "There is more common ground to begin with in this matter than is generally realized... There is common ground as to the great importance of humus in the soil. There is common ground also that, whether you have artificials or not, you must have an adequate supply of organic fertilizers. Again, compost is admitted by the supporters of chemicals to be a very valuable form of organic fertilizer...."
   In Lord Hankey's thinking and the thinking of many others-chemicals were not intended to replace the function of organic matter, but to complement it to help it feed crops.
   But were these chemicals really necessary? Were they really needed to complement the organic matter?
   There is no question whatsoever about the fact that humus-rich soil can provide everything needed to maintain and build soil fertility including nitrogen, phosphorus and potash (abbreviated NPK). But because of changing social and economic conditions, men found it much more expedient to provide plant nutrients by organic matter and chemical fertilizers instead of just by organic matter alone.
   Intensive specialized farming became more and more popular. This method of farming, for the most part, does not allow for crop rotation and periodical planting of soil-building legumes. By this time, also, the internal combustion engine was gradually replacing the horse. There were labor problems with mass migration to the cities. Farm size was increasing along with economic pressures on the farmer.
   And then there was industry. Astutely sensing big business, industry did not wait to be asked to provide artificial fertilizers to the farmer. Through intensive advertising it urged and "educated" the farmer into believing that artificial fertilizers was his panacea.
   Under these conditions, the use of chemical fertilizers skyrocketed ! Soon many farmers forgot all about organic matter!
   As a result, our husbandry has been invaded by pests, parasites and diseases; but industry, unashamed, has provided an arsenal of more than 50,000 chemical formulations to fight them.

What Chemical Fertilizers Do

   Chemical fertilizers are like shots in the arm to the soil. They stimulate a much greater plant growth. This growth means a speeded-up consumption of organic matter.
   But, and never forget this, chemical fertilizers can neither add to the humus content nor replace it.
   They do much more than just speed up the consumption of humus, however. They also destroy the physical properties of the soil and its life.
   When they are put into the soil, they dissolve and seek natural combinations with other minerals already in the soil. Some of these new combinations glut the plants, causing them to become unbalanced. Others remain in the soil, many in the form of poisons.
   For example, when sulphate of ammonia is used as a fertilizer, the ammonia is taken into the plant, while the sulphate, left free, joins itself to hydrogen in the soil and becomes sulphuric acid, a combination that is deadly to the natural organisms in the soil. Other chemicals used as fertilizers follow the same pattern in adding various pollutants to the soil.
   Further, manufactured fertilizers alone cannot supply what the soil needs to produce abundant, healthy crops. Plants need much more than NPK! They need many other secondary and trace elements all in the proper balance. And they need the teeming microbial life that helps them absorb the minerals.
   The margin between too much and too little is often very slight. Mineral excesses in plants now common are often more dangerous than deficiencies.
   Too much nitrogen weakens the plant. It grows lush and watery tissue, becomes more susceptible to disease, and the protein quality suffers.
   There is no artificial fertilizer on earth that can supply a completely balanced diet for plants in the way that humus-rich soil can. Chemical fertilizer companies blend and formulate mixtures, but they simply cannot mechanically formulate humus.
   Plants were not designed to get their nutrients by being force-fed. Quoting soil scientist Eric Eweson:
   "Even if we possessed sufficient knowledge and it were practical to provide chemical fertilizers containing some 20 or 30 elements in the infinitely varying proportions required by plants instead of just NPK this would not solve our soil problem. Forcing upon the plants immediately available food in the form of water-soluble chemicals, which they cannot reject but must absorb, constitutes a by-passing of the soil's extremely important functions in relation to plant life and all other life, in the same manner as intravenous injections of sugar or protein by-pass the digestive system of the human body. Neither can contribute to normal, vigorous life."
   Nitrogen-fixing bacteria in humus-rich soil supply nitrogen to the plants as needed; they don't force-feed the plant like chemicals do. To force a plant to grow more bulk will cause the plant to change its inner biochemistry. As Professor Albrecht of the Missouri Experimental Station has shown, more carbohydrates and less proteins will develop in such plants. Insects are out for unbalanced plants and find these a well-prepared table and a suitable diet.
   As explained in the article on pesticides in the last issue of The PLAIN TRUTH, the purpose of insects is to remove weak and sickly plants so that quality can be maintained. The alarming increase in pests shows that something is wrong with an increasing number of our crops.
   Laboratory tests have shown that seeds from plants grown on water-soluble nutrients are often incapable of germination. Even now many farmers cannot continuously use their own crops for seed because of poor germination. After a few years their seed stock "runs out" as farmers express it and they are forced to obtain fresh seed produced on better soil. Seed that cannot reproduce is certainly lacking something vital!

Decline in Food Value

   As crops are grown in humus-deficient soil with the aid of increasing quantities of chemical fertilizers, the crops become increasingly deficient in proteins, vitamins and minerals. This has been proved repeatedly by comparative analysis of grains, vegetables, eggs, milk and other products produced on humus-rich soil and on chemically fertilized soil.
   According to Kansas surveys by the USDA between 1940 and 1951, while total annual state wheat yields increased during this period, protein content dropped from a high of nearly 19 percent in 1940 to a high of 14 percent by 1951 (Albrecht, Soil Science Looks to the Cow). By 1969 the protein content of wheat had dropped to an average of 10.5% in the U.S. Midwest.
   Protein content in corn and other feed crops have often dropped even more remarkably than wheat. This is one reason farmers today have to feed larger quantities of feed to livestock than they did in times past.
   While this protein drop may not appear too serious, we don't fully understand what it entails. Protein quantity is easily measured, but protein quality. is more difficult to measure. Proteins are as complex as life itself.
   They often carry the trace minerals and the vitamins. But many of these building blocks of all living substances are still a deep secret in respect to their detailed molecular structure. This is why there is great danger in carelessly raising our food of which proteins are a most important component on depleted soil and with the aid of chemical fertilizers.

Nitrate Pollution

   In recent years another major problem has been developing as a direct result of chemical fertilizer use. That problem is pollution of water, air and food by excesses of a form of nitrogen called nitrate.
   Nitrogen, together with carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, are the four chemical elements that make up the bulk of living matter. But the nitrogen cycle, which vitally affects protein quality, is very vulnerable to human intervention. Today the nitrogen cycle in the U. S. is being thrown out of balance by two main factors: nitrogen fertilizers and nitrogen oxides from cars and other combustion processes.
   Dr. Barry Commoner is an eminent scientist who early brought us forcefully to an awareness of this danger. Actually, we should have been aware of it long before now.
   More than 75 years ago research stations such as the Missouri Agricultural Experiment Station undertook long-term experiments to study the effects of different agricultural practices on crop yield and on the nature of the soil. When the 50-year Sanborn Field Study from Missouri was published in 1942, it showed that nitrogen was an effective means of maintaining good crop yields. But the report also showed that the soil suffered important changes.
   The organic matter content and the physical conditions of the soil on the chemically treated plots declined rapidly. These altered conditions prevented sufficient water from percolating into the soil, where it could be stored for drought periods. A condition had also apparently developed in which the nutrients applied were not delivered to the plant when needed for optimum growth. Most of the nitrogen not used by the immediate crop was removed from the soil by leaching or de-nitrification.
   This Sanborn Field Study, and others elsewhere, were a warning that in humus-depleted soil, fertilizer nitrate tends to break out of the natural self-containment of the soil system. But this warning was ignored. Today it can be ignored no longer.
   Some seven million tons of nitrogen fertilizer are used annually in the U. S. alone a 14-fold increase in about 25 years. Roughly half of this fertilizer leaves the soil in some way. Much is leached out and drains into water supplies.
   In heavily farmed areas, the nitrate level of surface waters and wells often exceeds the public health standards for acceptable potable water, resulting in a risk to human health from nitrate poisoning. Also, when large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous drain into surface water, they create an algal buildup that can and does destroy entire bodies of water. The oxygen in the water is depleted; fish and other animal life forms begin to die.
   Excessive nitrates in plants cause similar problems. Some vegetable products in the U. S. often exceed the recommended nitrate levels for infant feeding. Research indicates this is usually the result of intensive use of nitrogen fertilizer.
   Some of the nitrate pollutants found in the nation's atmosphere also come from agriculture sources.
   The nitrate problem is so serious that it cannot continue if we are to survive.
   This leads to the question of what can be done to solve the problems caused by chemical fertilizers. And more important than that, what can be done to solve the entire problem of decreasing soil fertility and its resultant effect on human health?

What Can Be Done

   First of all, we must stop employing practices that have caused the problems and begin replacing them with conscientious methods of cure and prevention. We must have open minds minds willing to be re-educated, willing to admit error, willing to change.
   Man needs to change his attitude towards the soil. Instead of only taking from it, we need to GIVE BACK to the soil by replacing and building up the supply of humus. Basically this can be done through heavy green manure cropping and the returning of other organic material such as crop residues, animal manures, etc. to the soil. Details on building the humus supply are commonly available.
   Animal waste in the U. S. alone is equal to the sewage of two billion people. It amounts to a billion tons per year! "Waste" is not really the right word, for these by-products of the life process are not to be wasted but carefully used to maintain soil fertility. Manure used to be carefully collected, composted and used on the land. Today its disposal is one of the livestock industry's biggest headaches. Instead of being a pollutant, as it is now assumed to be, it should be looked upon and handled as an asset and returned to the soil.
   We need to make efficient use of all organic refuse. Why pollute our rivers and lakes with organic wastes when such material could be used to enrich the land? It doesn't make sense!
   Careful attention also needs to be given to soil ecology. For example, the earth renews itself from top to bottom. The biological activity of the soil takes place somewhat in layers. If this layer type activity is inverted the renewal process is interrupted. Therefore, any practice which inverts the soil should not be continued. Thus manures and other matter should be added to the soil's surface.

The Challenge of Survival

   The basic principles which need to be followed are plain. We simply need to start applying them ! As explained in our article on pesticides, this will not be easy, but with an all-out effort it CAN BE DONE. Indeed, it must be done if we are to survive.
   We CAN stop being slaves to money. We must become more concerned with properly filling our stomachs and those of our children than we are with filling our pocketbooks.
   Agricultural policies and practices CAN change and return to sound principles. Our agricultural colleges CAN free themselves of vested interests which influence their goals. These institutions CAN lead in the educational crash program necessary for survival.
   We must de-urbanize and encourage the return of the small farmer. We CAN quit mining the land and forcing it to give more than it receives.
   We CAN CHANGE. The big question is will we?

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Plain Truth MagazineJune-July 1970Vol XXXV, No.6-7