Welcome to Network Vital Agriculture and Nutrition, NetherlandsNetwork Vital Agriculture and Nutrition (NVLV) welcomes both professional members and friends.
NVLV is a Dutch association that promotes innovative ways to restore soil life nationwide. That is not a hobby, but a necessity. A rich and diverse soil life is the basis for sustainable forms of vital agriculture and wholesome food production. It represents the key to maintaining health, in both animal and man. It is even the key to an effective storage of loads of atmosferic CO2 gas!
Foto: courtesy of ILEIA's Farming Matters magazine.
Industrial agriculture is all about scale: mass production of dry matter for maximum cash returns. Increasing scale is not illegitimate in itself, but there is a double catch: the scaling up destroys the local expertise of many small farmers and at the same time goes hand in hand with watering down the food quality. The reason: soil organisms have no place in the industrial picture, although they are the crucial factor in maintaining natural soil fertility. The cause: vitality of crops and their nutritional values are hardly an issue in industrial agriculture (only the speed of growth is). The same is true for the food industry: preciously little interest in the nutritional values. What counts are the economics of bulk treatment, swift transport and the longest possible shelf life. Therefore the fundamental problem with both industrial agriculture and the food processing industry is, that to them food has become a commodity. Producing nutritious food is not on their target list at all. It is all too obvious that the impact on human and animal health is a matter of little importance to the industries. Consequently it has shrunk to an end-of-pipe problem that is gladly left to the farmaceutical and medical industries to be dealt with. Those on their turn are kind enough to welcome some new customers, provided of course that they carry some cash.
NVLV underlines the importance of family farmers worldwide, in maintaining a constant natural soil fertility, and preserving food sovereignty as well as agricultural production capacity on the long run. Their existence is threatened by BigAg enterprises and some governments that ignore the merits of a small-scale, diversified approach towards wholesome food production. In order to be sustainable it requires a coherent type of agriculture: one that can adequately respond to its environment and -with the help of the local community- can maintain that balance under changing climatic conditions. That is in brief the agro-ecological approach. When applied globally, it will effectively curb the global warming now taking place.
Their opponents want the locally adapted, small-scale farms swallowed by industrial, large-scale systems, trying to convince farmers and governments that every problem can only be solved with high-tech consultancy in tandem with 'universal' seeds, chemicals and machinery. And all of that against a price that many small farmers cannot pay! As a consequence they are pushed out of their businesses, not only in developing countries, but also in the European Union, where big (acreage) industrial farmers receive the bulk of all agricultural subsidies and small farmers are strangled by rules and regulations that are overly specialistic or just too expensive for them to be implemented.
Unfortunately, with all his technology, the industrial agriculturalist is not the one that wil save us. He overlooks one very urgent problem growing under his heavy-duty tractor tyres: erosion of his soils. First on a micro and then on a macro level. He destroys his own land by ignoring the humus factor!
Let's put our priorities right: our most urgent problem is not how to feed the rest of the world, but how to keep our own soils in a productive state!
We have to bring organic carbon back to the soil, in order to close the cycle and preserve the production capacity of our landIndustrial soil cultivation techniques and their contribution towards soil degradation
It also explains why obsolete aerobic soil life should be restored, as that is the engine driving the organic carbon cycle.
Several factors harmful to soil organisms and trace element availability can be distinguished:
Even in the newly reclaimed Dutch Flevopolder (after just one generation of industrial farming), soils are imploding under the degradation pressure caused by loss of organic matter. This quick loss of sparse humus could only happen because the calcium and clay contents of the newly reclaimed sea floor were excellent. However that advantage lasted only one generation of farming. In the process of soils losing their organic matter, soil structure suffered and set the degradation into motion. The process was further aggravated by top soil compaction caused by heavy equipment and sometimes ill-chosen cultivation timing.
The same scenario of depletion is presently unfolding in the Hoeksche Waard, by origin an extremely rich sea clay polder in the West of Holland: it is now suffering under a trend breach in yields. It is the sad consequence of soil organic matter contents declining over several decennia due to the intensive farming methods outlined above. Those methods have been inconsiderate of the importance of keeping the organic carbon cycle up and running, as the basis for a truely sustainable agriculture. Whatsmore, such agriculture can only be supported by a rich and diverse soil life if it is not frustrated by the use of pesticides.
Summarising the process, it should be recognised that high production levels cannot be supported without the availability of active organic matter and soil life as essential ingredients. Precisely those stocks are being depleted by industrial farming methods. This in turn results in rock hard soils, in creeping inflation of the nutritional values and in a diminished resilience of crops. Under those conditions, a break point in yield development has to come almost unavoidably. The Flevo polder case illustrates very well that high doses of chemical fertilisers and a lot of mechanised Horse Powers do not exactly support sustainable agriculture; they only facilitate a rapid exhaustion of the organic matter content, especially in combination with severe top soil compaction caused by the use of heavy machinery and such compounds as potassium chloride in particular.
The link between industrialisation of agriculture and the use of mineral fertilisers
Predominantly in the industrialised countries wholesome food production has since World War I increasingly become the exception rather than the norm, during the development of 'modern' Western agriculture and in its tracks the food-processing industries. The strongly promoted use of chemical fertilisers had much to do with it, as well as the 'spontaneous' disappearance of almost all soil-based research in its wake. The latter was swapped for fertiliser-based research, with full support of governments that liked the idea of replicating the design of a centrally managed Industrial Revolution once more, but this time in agriculture. The concept of distributing mineral fertilisers from a central point co-incided beautifully with the implementation of plant scientific innovations orchestrated by research offices higher up in the bureaucratic network. The plant breeding programmes designed to develop fertiliser- and pesticide-adapted food crops were the result, presented as 'Green Revolution'*). Behind this approach was an explosives industry that after the Great War was looking for new ways to sell solid nitrogen in bulk. The irony here is that the Evolution has already provided plants with free nitrogen-fixing bacteria, to produce amino acids and sugars from water and gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen. These gases are abundantly available in the atmosfere and only need to be put to use by the proper bacteria, in combination with chlorophyl.
The industry also uses gaseous nitrogen but chooses to convert the gas first, to a commodity that can be packed in bags and sold to farmers. The conversion to solid fertilisers requires the expensive Haber-Bosch process, together with astronomical quantities of methane gas (by co-incidence a commodity of the Dutch government). Those solid fertilisers subsequently interfere with the way in which the plant normally covers its nitrogen requirements: from the air through bacterial fixation. Nitrogen from chemical fertilisers gives, when dissolved in the soil water solution osmotic and acidic effects that seriously hinder the plant in its selection of preferred organic nutrients. This approach of 'force-feeding' has a great impact on the plant's energy management and destroys plant vitality. The result is a weak plant directly inviting pests and diseases. They push the plant further into a downward spiral of more pesticide use and less vitality.
The interest of the explosives industry is an increased use of solid N-fertilisers
The explosives industry did not exactly favour the continuation of a soil research type that focussed on studying the organic nutrient uptake by plant roots, because this process costs nothing in terms of nitrogen availability, but all the same makes efficient use of readily available organic nutrients. Indeed no attractive prospect for the sale of commercial fertilisers!
This is the very reason why governments were 'programmed' to re-organise research institutions and financially restrict them, in a way that exclusively studied the uptake of minerals: it accommodated and helped justify the use of mineral fertilisers. As a consequence, the sales of mineral fertilisers and pesticides have soared since then, whereas the overemphasis on grain yields in breeding programmes has interfered with the production of straw, thus hampering the return of enough organic matter into the organic carbon cycle. This had serious consequences for the rates at which soils were recharged with organic matter in general (carbon sequestration!), and in particular for small farm households in the developing world, which had always made good use of their crop residues in the past.
*) Why plant breeding under the Green Revolution went for adaptation of existing local species (land races), is an altogether different story. Where breeding claimed to produce HYV's (High Yielding Varieties), the real target was to develop a tolerance against an intensified use of chemical fertilisers or pesticides. Land races are mostly very well adapted to their environment, beginning with fixing nitrogen from the air. Stripping land races of their location-specific qualities and their nitrogen-fixing abilities is totally counterproductive and makes a breeding programme eco-suspect. The practice illustrates clearly that the principal aim of the Green Revolution was not improving yield (or food quality), but only boosting turn-over of external inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides, irrigation and consultancy. That chemical fertilisers in general do increase dry matter production of crops, depends in reality on the availability of humus, but it does represent the side effect that conveniently sells the product to bulk producers. It says nothing though, about the nutritional value of the food that is turned out. The underlying cause of decreased nutritional values is that chemical fertilisers acidify the soil, accelerate the loss of organic matter and trace elements. This in turn stimulates the production of empty calories. It also explains why important parameters such as impact on health, health care and environment are left out of the equation as soon as positive results of cost/benefit analyses are required to promote industrial agriculture. No matter what relevance there is to health and environment, it is always put secundary to the interests of big industries involved.
Who does actually benefit from the agricultural industrialisation proces?
It's definitely not the small farmer
Securing enough (let alone wholesome) food for an ever increasing world population is not even a remote point of consideration for big agricultural enterprises. It's just the gospel that they keep singing for the general public. What they are most keen on is co-operating with lobby firms specialised in 'massaging' governmental bureaucracies in the whole Western world. Their target is total control over our food, in spite of their mantra 'We shall feed the world'. In fact the whole concept of 'feeding the world' through industrial agricilture is daft and extremely arrogant, considering the ongoing losses of productive land due to industrial cultivation methods alone. Moreover, the concept of producing and exporting denatured food from a few industrial hotspots (against huge external costs in terms of fossil fuels, environment and health) is totally stupid when we compare it with the moderate costs of producing wholesome food locally and sustainably, with local species conveniently adapted to their environments over many centuries. A family farmer does not deserve to be wiped out by bureaucracy just because he/she lacks purchasing power to accommodate the agro-industry. In fact family farmers represent through their sheer numbers the only category that will be capable of producing enough wholesome food at reasonable cost for everyone, region by region, village by village. Local food production on an agro-ecological basis requires only a fraction of the resources used by industrial farmers and helps family farmers to save resources, simultaneously respecting soil life and biodiversity. These are all factors crucial to sustain production at quality levels necessary for maintaining health through successive generations.
What does it all mean to the quality of our food?
Wholesome food production is synonymous to growing vital crops, which, for maintaining their vitality are totally dependent on an abundant soil life in order to create a buffer of living organic matter (=humus). Pretending that mineral fertiliser is just as good as any other source of plant nutrients is the ultimate fairy tale, if only because plants respond very little to mineral fertilisers as long as humus is abundant. A closer look into the history of soil research will co-roborrate this*). Organic matter in all its diverse stages of decomposition and (humus)formation is the buffer store that enables soil life to maintain a balanced supply of all sorts of organic nutrients with built-in trace elements, to the plants. It is therefore a key factor to plants building up their vitality, in co-operation with a little army of microbes living in exchange with the smallest roots in the soil, in the so-called rhizosphere.
Seen in this light, life being depleted from the soil has become a major threat, to the natural fertility of agricultural lands, to their fysical stability and equally serious, to the health of each and every individual that eats the food coming from such degraded land. The implications for national health and the environment in industrialised countries are huge, but nevertheless overlooked by the authorities concerned. The external costs of the losses in fertility (of land as well as man) remain mostly hidden and are silently charged to the taxpayer, who as yet has no clue about the origin of all those modern diseases that have come to bother him. Unaware of the relation between human health and soil health, he puts his faith blindly in medical doctors who concentrate on suppression of symptoms in stead of preventing the diseases from popping up in the first place.
As a vanguard movement we've been shaping and giving direction to solutions in three areas proposed by Michael Pollan (Feb. 2009): development of knowledge and raising awareness with regard to:
Our dream is that farmers will use and manage our rural space in a sustainable way again, with renewed joy and confidence in their own wisdom; that they will be respecting nature in growing vital crops and rearing healthy animals, providing wholesome food both for them and for us.
To consumers we wish that they will be aware of what they eat and where it is grown, that they know the farmer who grows their food and finally, how their food would contribute to their health as Hippocrates already knew.
Our professional members are active as scientists, advisors, farmers, project officers, editors etc; they are working on:
Our friends are all those strengthening and promoting this movement, with a kind look on our work. They participate, provide ideas and/or financial means and have signed up as a member because of it. Everyone can become a member. Participate?
We pioneer out of passion and personal leadership; we work with intuition and not for quick profit; we use innovative science and knowledge gained from experience; we look for balance in the carbon economy and try new forms of regional co-operation; we solicit public support for wholesome food production and a connection with nature. In short, we develop solutions for the future.
How do we realise these dreams? We learn together and share knowledge at seminars and symposia, in working groups and regional (sub)networks; by co-operating in projects; by substantiating and monitoring new methods, by providing mutual feedback and coaching, by linking up with other innovative networks and through lobbying with government.