In the last article, we looked at the problems with conventional farming - the economic and political inertia in the big farming machine.
Here we are going to look at why the biochemistry of why it is so problematic.
Let's start with the plant kingdom ; (those giants upon whose backs we biologically ride) provide us with everything we eat, drink, breath, wear, burn, and shelter in - even all the plastics and petroleums we use are ultimately a gift inherited from them.
When plants photosynthesise, they pull carbon-dioxide from the air, and miraculously use the power of the sun to combine it's carbon with the water their roots uptake, and they create carbohydrates. They not only produce the biological kingdom's treasured fuel source - sugars - but they then also breath out the remaining oxygen particle, which of course creates a favourable atmosphere.
Most of these sugars they don't use for their own immediate fuel purposes. They can restructure it into complex carbohydrates to structure their bodies (see the lignins in wood), lend their seeds a battery of energy for their initial growth purposes, or store them in their roots to fuel their own initial growth following winter die-back.
But plants have one further sugary trick up their sleeves, often ignored in phytology.
They give off many of the sweetness to the earth - to the soil bacteria, to be precise - in a form called Fructo-Oligo-Saccharides (FOS), perfect for encouraging the growth of lacto-bacteria.
Some even intersperse their secretion of sugars with bursts of ethanol-like compounds that knock back less beneficial bacteria - they are literally 'gardening' the soil.
As these 'friendly' lacto-bacteria proliferate on the FOS, they give off their metabolic wastes, one of which is humic acid, which leaches down into the subsoil and breaks up rocks, making their mineral content available to the roots of the plants.
Imagine that next time you're laying in a meadow, or walking through a forest. All those plants pumping sunlight into the soil (in the form of sugars), the right bacteria breeding on them, and releasing nutrients for the plants. Poetry in biology.
So, one thing feeds the bacteria, and the bacteria feed them in return. We've heard of this before.
Notably, it is the self same lacto-bacteria that are beneficial to have in your gut, as they also turn food into nutrients for you. Not a coincidence.
And the connection goes further : your gut actively gardens the bacteria in your gut - by secreting those same Fructo-Oligo-Saccharides, just as the plants garden the soil that feeds them.
We're all connected, man.
And in a meadow or a forest, there are many different types of plants all needing different nutrients from the soil, and giving it back to the soil through their leaf-litter, and ultimately their dying bodies.
But when we remove that biodiversity, and replace it with a single type of plant, suddenly all those plants are competing for the same nutrients.
Plus, the most nutrient dense part of the plants are being cropped and taken elsewhere, so nutritional deficiency begins.
For thousands of years we have used the mineral-rich manure of animals (also very rich in those same lacto-bacteria) to keep the system stocked and healthy. And then after WWII we started to replace this trick with the condensed mineral salts available from petrochemical fertilisers.
For a while this works wonders, as those compounds hang out in the soil and seemingly nourish the plants, but they have some drawbacks.
Because they are an artificial mineral salt with different composition, they tend to build up in the soil, and thus the plants. In order to dilute those compounds, the plants need more water, and as they draw it in, they bring in more mineral salts too, requiring more water, which ultimately, they must store in their leaves, fruits and roots.
You end up with a massively improved yield per acre, but increasingly salty soil, and sickening plants, which are more susceptible to moulds, pests and weeds.
To remedy this, the conventional answer is to bring in fungicides, pesticides, herbicides - notice the suffix 'icides' on these words - best understood as 'death to'. These compounds are inherently poisonous, thus achieving their aim, but they are equally fatal to all the other microbes, insects and plants.
Thus we have the much documented insults upon wildlife, consumers, and waterways spoken of in the previous article, but we haven't yet mentioned the impact upon the soil itself.
The innumerable bacterial life in the soil - paramount to the fundamental nutrition of the plants - starts to become poisoned by the 'icides' mentioned above. Without their nutritional assistance, the plants become further weakened, and additional fertilisers are incrementally required, until finally the soil structure collapses, leaving only dust and rock - the connection between farmland and desertification.
While 50% of the soil is rock particles, it is the accumulated biological matter and microbial life that holds them in suspension along with water and air, giving structure to the soil as a whole.
It is these biological processes, that make it ultimately life-giving, and different from just dust. Without this 'living' part of the soil, it literally collapses, loses its water retaining abilities, and it simply washes away, to silt up rivers, leaving less and less fertile ground that only the hardiest of wild plants can get a foothold in.
But they do.
This process often begins with the toughest of all the plants - the endlessly successful grasses. And once they bed-in, the process can start to reverse. They provide sugars for the depleted soil bacteria, and seed and protection for the next generation to shade in. Slowly the fertility returns, and bigger and bigger herbs can start to flourish. Water content starts to return to the soil, and eventually pioneer trees add their stabilising effects to the mix, and off we go, back to the originally diverse and life-giving forests that we started with. If the land is left to its own devices.
Depending on climatic circumstance, the process can take anywhere between 100 and 1000 years until full forests are seen again, and bring with them the associated animals and birds. So it is no overnight process.
If humans are working against this process, by grazing animals or ploughing, then regrowth never gets going, as they are snipping off the heads of all the young shrubs and trees.
But when humans get involved to encourage this mix, deliberately sowing wild seed, planting wind-breaks, and consciously-spaced shade-bringing trees, then the process can be accelerated beyond measure.
And we're back to permaculture again.
Thankfully, we're not alone in this understanding. There are endless projects of land reclamation.
Some are turning wasteland inside cities into working farms, growing veg and feeding the local community, either in exchange for work done or financial recompense.
Cuba is often cited as the best experiment ever done, once its connections to Russia were lost during its embargo from the US, it had to start providing food within its major cities - solving many problems at once.
Starting from deserted wasteland is the hardest, but it can still be done.
Projects all over Africa are holding desertification at bay, replanting forests, farms, and forage areas in ways that encourage wildlife and peoplelife.
This is backbreaking work, but the only way forward for these people and their future generations, in terms of food production, self-reliance, and cultural dignity.
Inventions are popping up all the time.
Land imprinters use tractors to simply make hollows in the ground - instead of ploughing it up. The wind blows native seeds, and plant matter into these hollows, & moisture accumulates, giving rise to new growth with almost no interference, save for the investment in the land imprinter itself, which ultimately leave wild meadows in their tracks.
Seed balls are simply clay mixed with local seeds, rolled into balls and left to dry, so that they are easily transportable.
They can easily be cast about whilst folk walk the desert edge, or from the backs of trucks moving down the road.
As it rains, the clay melts away leaving seeds caked in moist earth - a fantastic recipe for plant growth.
Thailand is replanting its native forests with mass seed bombing techniques, ejected from planes that pass over wasteland.
Though the record still goes to the US when it used military aircraft for such purposes.
Planting a whopping 900,000 trees a day !
And further off into human wizardry we go, slowly turning previously war-like technology into life-giving invention and wildlife-saving innovation.
So, as usual, it is not the technology that we lack, it is simply the mindset to use our brilliance in this way.
So keep your hopes up people.
Keep funding bright ideas like this in the only way you can - researching what goes into the things you buy - which is the only way to make informed choices about what you buy.
Buy what you want to see more of in this world.
And you are not alone in it. There is a powerful force moving through the world of folk who know that things can be better, and even more powerful organisations joining them up into a mass to be reckoned with.
Along with many others is the Pachamama Alliance which offer different courses to empower individuals to make connections as well as better choices.
Awakening the Dreamer is a two hour course that puts the pieces together.
Gamechanger Intensive is a seven week course to make you into a functional force.
The power of choice
If you're making an organic versus conventional choice based purely upon selfishness, then the cost of organic food clearly has its place in the equation, but now that you understand that the nutritional content of organic food is so much greater, so actually price per mineral organic food is much cheaper...
And if you're choice is based upon a more selfless motive, then there is not much worse you can do for your planet and grandchildren than buying conventionally farmed foods, let alone the wildlife, purity of the waterways and energy consumption.
Forget the ballot box. Use you money as your vote.
A first great step (as per the last article) is to ask yourself where you get your food ?
Where does you meat come from ? And your water ? and your electricity ?