The “Living Soil” Fallacy and Reconciliation
By Gary Kline
I still don’t get it. As you likely know, I read a lot of books and magazines on the subject of soil fertility in gardening and farming. I keep running into this talk about “Living Soil” (a.k.a. the Soil Food Web) which seems to say that for providing and maintaining soil fertility all we need to do is supply plenty of organic matter (of one kind or another) and let the soil life (a.k.a. biota) take it from there. Thus, the argument goes, that other than manure, there is no need to bring in and apply fertilizers. If that always worked I’d have to concede, but I suspect it seldom does, despite reliance upon manure as the primary natural fertilizer throughout much of agriculture’s 10,000 year history.
Often people in this agricultural camp, which I will call the humus-plus-microbes camp, have little or nothing to say about the importance of nutrient minerals in the feeding of food crops and forage. They seem to imply that there is either plenty of minerals in the organic matter itself or it is invariably already present in the soil such that this is not a problem. Accordingly, as long as there is plenty of organic matter and a high population of diverse micro-organisms and other soil life there is no need to add minerals (a.k.a. inorganic matter) to raise the nutrient levels for abundant, healthy plant growth.
In the opposing camp are those who contend that minerals are often necessary to balance and raise soil fertility to achieve nutrient-dense crops that are needed in order to maximize the health of animals and humans. Usually such nutrient mineral additions cannot be supplied from on-site sources and must be purchased or imported. In this regard I am talking primarily about natural, as opposed to artificial or synthetic fertilizers, to include acid-processed minerals and petroleum-derived fertilizers (a.k.a. “chemicals”). Yes, there is a “chemical” camp too, but this article is not about them. Typically they are indifferent about whether or not soil could be alive or contain life.
Generally, the mineral camp acknowledges the need for some level of organic matter in the soil without drawing too much attention to the obvious difference between the two soil fertility world-views. The other camp, the humus camp, for short, generally is reluctant to bring up the role of minerals and almost loathe to mention the word, for reasons I’ll go into later. Almost by definition, one approach or view rules out the other. While many others are hardly aware the divide exists, I find the dodging of this inherent controversy to be rather infuriating and in need of resolution; ergo, this article.
Once again, I pose the fundamental question: Fertility: is it humus or is it minerals? It seems the twain shall never meet.
In my estimation the two greatest giants of alternative agriculture were Sir Albert Howard, who stated that fertility is a soil rich in humus, and Dr. William Albrecht, who said, in essence, that fertility is some dozen elements (minerals) broken out of rock and being hustled off to sea. Neither was absolutist about not acknowledging the contribution of the other fertility component. Nevertheless, the divide exists in thinking and in agricultural practice down to the present time and that divide, whether consciously recognized or not, runs deep. In truth, it is a veritable feud, and it hampers progress.
The practical effect of the answer in how farming and gardening are properly conducted is quite profound, not only in how well those operations are carried out, but in terms of the consequences for the health or sickness of people, but even the survival of civilization – about which numerous agronomists have sounded the alarm. Only if people understand the extent of the threats are corrective measures likely to be developed, understood and carried out in time. Additionally, resolution of this matter is pivotal to whether we ever reach widespread agricultural sustainability. Muddling along will not do the job.
I have questioned whether the twain shall meet; i.e., whether the two opposing camps will ever unite. Is it necessary that they do so? Or does this matter of organic versus inorganic matter really matter? Before answering those questions I propose that we examine both sides in some depth.
I have said that the concept of a “living soil” is a fallacy. Don’t get me wrong, I favor life. I’m a biologist and nature lover, after all. But I’m also a soils researcher. I know what a soil food web is and the important role it plays in the creation of soil, in creating good soil structure and aiding soil fertility. But while the soil biota produce exudates and metabolites (vitamins, enzymes, etc.) that stimulate plant growth, they are not, themselves, primary plant nutrients or fertility per se, and that is the critical distinction and clarification to be made, and made known.
To give you an example of what I mean by adherents of the humus-plus-microbes, or living soil, camp maintaining that the soil life constitutes fertility, I will quote a couple of short statements by Dr. Vandana Shiva from the forward in The Biochar Solution (2010, pp. xii and xiii), authored by Albert Bates:
“The millions of organisms found in soil are the source of its fertility. The greatest biomass in soil consists of micro-organisms, fungi in particular. – – – Building soil means building the soil food web in all its diversity and complexity. We need to build living soils because they are the very source of life.”
I disagree with those statements. From my perspective they reflect uncritical thinking and uncareful writing. However, Dr. Shiva nearly redeems herself with another statement made on page xiv: “We need to remember that calcium and magnesium, iron and copper [i.e., minerals], the mychorrizae and the earthworm [automatically all present?] are also part of the soil’s life, not just carbon.”
Vital as the soil biota are in facilitating plant or crop growth, I have real trouble accepting the notion of a “living soil” because of what that misconveys about the proper treatment of soil and achieving full fertility for producing healthy and nutritious crops that are the key requirement for maintaining human health and longevity. There is hardly a greater concern and priority for our society and our species. We have to get this right and agriculture as a whole has to be fundamentally changed – ASAP.
An allied notion that I have trouble with is the belief that humus carries a “life force” or inextinguishable “life principle” that transfers from former life to new organisms. Once upon a time that was the prevalent explanation for how the continuity of life was sustained. After all, back then they had no concept of genes and DNA. Nevertheless, that view, though much less prevalent or adamantly insisted upon, is still around. To some this dispute is akin to debating whether the world and life are ultimately spiritual or material. People can be rather close-minded and emotional on this, just as they can be about diet.
Although I endeavor to be open-minded and objective in this feud, it is only fair and honest that I reveal my bias. As I see it there are two plausible explanations, each unfathomable and preposterous, of the nature of reality; how life began and evolved or is perpetuated. Either it was all done at the hands of a Creator or it was due to a chance encounter (accident) of lifeless bits of matter that somehow led to the generation of primitive living and reproducing organisms that were elaborated over eons of time and by natural selection to the magnificent diversity of forms we have today. I lean toward the latter theory. Furthermore, if we say God did it, that tends to shut down inquiry and discovery.
I haven’t completely made up my mind on the ultimate nature of the universe or the nature of soil fertility. On the latter, I’m most inclined to believe the foundation of fertility is inorganic/mineral nutrients as opposed to being organic or humus-derived. Of course both can be involved (and are), but one or the other is surely primary and prerequisite. Soils textbooks all say that soil starts from rocks, i.e., minerals.
Admittedly, the soil life or biota, even though making up less than one percent of the volume of typical virgin soils, plays a large role in either case. However, contending that the soil, in its entirety, is alive is incorrect and misleading, as I intend to show in the course of examining and presenting both sides.
Having said that, I have to confess at this point that since beginning to research and write this article, the story took some unexpected turns and thus the ending is much different than I initially anticipated. But jumping to the end won’t give you appreciation for the true significance of how and where it comes out. You likely will be surprised, much as I am, so bear with me.
This whole philosophical feud essentially goes back to the 1820s publication by German agronomist, Dr. Albrecht Thaer, of a book titled Humus Theory which said plants fed by eating bits of humus in the soil. Prior to that, I assume, but I’m not certain, before Thaer argued that humus was alive or contained a life force, Jethro Tull, inventor of the grain drill and cultivator, around 1700, stated that plants fed by taking in small particles of earth [minerals?], especially clay. Before that a French potter named Bernard Palissy in the 16th Century had said that plants took up “salts” [minerals?] from manure and crop residues. Likely these pronouncements were not met with controversy.
Sometime after Tull, another Englishman, John Woodward, experimented with growing plants in rainwater, river water and muddy water. Because muddy water did best he concluded plants took up “earthy materials” [minerals?] and this must be the “principle” involved in their growth. (See Soil: The 1957 Yearbook of Agriculture of the USDA, pages 2 & 3.)
In the same Yearbook, same page, author Charles Kellogg explains that scientists of those times were trying to find out what made plants grow and they all assumed there was some one “principle” which could explain it. In 1635 a Flemish chemist named van Helmont, after a five-year experiment growing a willow in a tub of measured soil concluded that the plant’s weight gain was due to the water he gave it. He could never have guessed that the bulk of the tree, besides water, came from the air (CO2 converted by photosynthesis), plus a small quantity of mineral nutrients in the soil (dirt). It wasn’t until 1676 that the first microbe was seen in van Leeuwenhoek’s microscope.
According to Kellogg, “Others [including Thaer?] found the answer in humus. They explained plant growth in terms of a passing of the ‘principle’ from a dead plant or animal to the new plant. Some schools of ‘organic farming’ hold to all or part of this idea today.” That’s a quote.
What I have uncovered from reading in numerous places is that the biodynamic school, led off by German scientist and theosophist, Rudolf Steiner, in 1924 – as I’ll explain later – is largely responsible for perpetuating this fervent belief in the transference and immutability of a life principle, vital force, soul or spiritual dimension in humus (and elsewhere).
In other words, I contend that biodynamics is the major genesis and a lingering sustainer of the “Living Soil” fallacy, although few who are today adherents are generally aware of where this belief comes from and what has been behind it. For many of these people I think this attachment comes mainly out of an abhorrence of chemical/synthetic fertilizers and pesticides as destroyers of soil and soil life. If we can talk about soil being “dead”, then the precedent and opposite would seemingly be live soil and thus living soil. But would that be accurate?
About 15 years after Thaer pronounced his humus theory a dramatic development occurred that radically changed agriculture all around the world and has dominated it down to the present time. This was the publication in 1840 of Chemistry in Its Application to Agriculture and Physiology, by the renowned German organic chemist, Justus von Liebig. Liebig is regarded as the father of chemical agriculture. This, then, was an early version of the “mineral theory”. His research and book led to the development of chemical NPK fertilizers and the subsequent NPK mentality which, in my view, led to colossal damage to the world’s agricultural soils and our environment and to innumerable other adverse consequences. Agriculture (as currently practiced) is the world’s greatest polluter and contributor to global warming.
Liebig set out to demolish the humus theory, although he later recanted on his deathbed and said that humus was essential to good crop growth. But it was too late. The beautiful simplicity of NPK being all that crops needed and reports of initial successes with “artificial manures” caused most farmers to drop the spreading of animal manures in favor of the much easier pouring of fertility out of a bag. Mainstream agriculture, backed by government agencies, has been enthralled by the NPK mentality ever since. Nonetheless, one thing that I am in agreement with Liebig on is his statement that any new increment of fertility derives from minerals (which derive originally from rocks). The rest just goes around in cycles without adding to existing fertility.
It took awhile for synthetic fertilizers to get going. By the turn of the century they were getting better known and widely available outside Europe and were given impetus after World War I (1918) when large stocks of munitions chemicals were diverted and marketed as wondrous crop fertilizers.
A century after publication of Liebig’s book another quite different development occurred that was to have a dramatic impact (albeit smaller) on world agriculture and reached down to gardener level. This was the 1940 publication of An Agricultural Testament by Sir Albert Howard of England, but stemming largely from experimentation he did in India that was taken up in several places around the British Empire following his departure in 1931 from India. He wrote The Soil and Health in 1947 and died that same year.
Albert Howard’s agricultural method centered around the making of compost as a western revival of ancient Chinese practice. Howard called this practice “humus farming”, which later became known as organic farming, thanks to his American disciple and popularizer, J. I. Rodale. Thus the humus theory experienced a revival, but without the spiritual or life force component. Howard and Rodale vehemently railed against artificial (synthetic/chemical) fertilizers as destructive to soils and to human health.
Rodale started Organic Farming and Gardening Magazine in 1942, which, in addition to battling the use of artificial fertilizers and toxic synthetic pesticides, championed the copious application of organic matter (manures, leaves, crop residues, etc.) to soils to build their tilth and raise their fertility. And this definitely worked in situations where organic matter was very low or had been exhausted from over-farming, poor soil management and prolonged use of “chemical” fertilizers and pesticides.
Early chemical fertilizers, such as super phosphate, were derived from mineral deposits treated with acids, and later principally from petroleum and natural gas manufacture. Herein began the opposition to awful minerals. Whereas Howard said little about the need for mineral nutrients and never advocated their application (because he believed they were ample in subsoils and accessible by deep-rooted plants and mychorrhizae), Rodale started incorporating certain natural rock minerals (ground to powders or dusts) in random fashion to the organic method. This can be clearly seen from pictures in Rodale’s huge 1960 book, The Complete Book of Compostingg (p. 53). However, this addition never caught on as a methodical treatment and most organic gardeners saw the simple addition of organic matter and ordinary compost as the magical, indispensible and sufficient ingredient for making their garden bountiful with delicious, safe and wholesome vegetables and fruits. Without applying necessary plant nutrient minerals this likely was not the actual case for very long. Indeed, these qualities largely derive from minerals. Incidentally, in Testament Howard hinted that possibly he was overlooking an ingredient equally important to humus, namely minerals.
I should have interjected one other early giant of agriculture in the mineral camp. This was another German, Julius Hensel, who wrote Bread From Stones in 1893. Hensel was little known outside Germany and Howard evidently did not know of his work. Like Liebig, Hensel was a brilliant chemist, but he repudiated Liebig and artificial fertilizers. He also detested the customary practice of repeatedly using livestock manure as the sole means of fertility renewal in Germany. Instead, Hensel employed ground-up rock minerals and induced hundreds of German farmers to do likewise. People in the humus camp don’t dwell on Hansel’s vehement tirade against continuous use of manure.
Hensel’s book is full of testimonials by those farmers of the superior yield and quality of a variety of crops using the rock mineral method, in stark contrast to their stuck-in-muck neighboring farmers. He contended (p. 52) that mineralization was needed to restore the strength and stamina of the German people. Hensel did valiant battle with the commercial synthetic fertilizer manufacturers and purveyors, but being an old man, was eventually worn down and gave up. I’ll note here that Albert Howard likewise disparaged direct use of manures.
At this point I will take up the influence of biodynamics, its founder, Austrian, Rudolph Steiner and his disciples on agricultural thinking and practice. Steiner was a disciple of the famous German philosopher, Goethe. Steiner, too, wrote a book (or gave lectures that became a book) titled simply Agriculture. This was in 1924, shortly before he was killed in a fire. Many reviewers have complained that Agriculture is almost indecipherable. Yet Steiner’s lectures took hold among German farmers (who were witnessing a decline in their farms) and it spread throughout Germanic countries. Without giving a citation of the source at this point, here is what Steiner’s biographer said about his book:
“Of all the important thinkers of the Twentieth Century, Rudolph Steiner is perhaps the most difficult to come to grips with. For the unprepared reader, his work presents a series of daunting obstacles. To begin with, there is the style, which is formidably abstract, and as unappetizing as dry toast. The real problem lies in the content, which is so outlandish and bizarre that the reader suspects either a hoax or a barefaced confidence trick – – -. The resulting sense of frustration is likely to cause even the most open-minded reader to give up in disgust.”
Biodynamics is popular in Australia, where great claims are made for its effectiveness. It was brought to America mainly by Austrian, Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, who studied under Steiner and fled Hitler’s Nazis. Pfeiffer was actually a brilliant soil scientist, researcher and writer. However, here is what Albert Howard said about biodynamics in his Testament (p. ix): “- – – I remain unconvinced that the disciples of Rudolph Steiner can offer any real explanation of natural laws or have yet provided any practical examples which demonstrate the value of their theories.” Indeed, finding that Americans were put off by Steiner’s spiritualistic claims, Pfeiffer backed off talking about those aspects.
Another biodynamics practitioner was Alan Chadwick, who brought to Berkely, California the “Life-Giving Biodynamic/French Intensive Method of Organic Horticulture” that was taken up by John Jeavons, author of the highly popular How to Grow More Vegetables (1974 and subsequent years). Jeavons later changed the name of this system to the Biointensive Method and I don’t know how much of biodynamic beliefs Jeavons retains. However, in the chapter on Composts of his 1995 edition (pp. 38-9) he states that he does not use the hallmark biodynamic preparations and does not use manure or rock powders in making compost. However, Jeavons makes liberal use of “organic” fertilizers like bonemeal, fishmeal and rock phosphate.
I have said that the biodynamic influence on the “living soil” and humus spirituality belief is pervasive but little recognized. I will also state that it is, in some cases, a pernicious belief being perpetrated by some proponents in a devious fashion aimed, in part, at subsuming organiculture. If you have a couple of hours, come see me sometime and I will lay it all out for you. In fact, it warrants a whole other article that I might someday write. But I’ve made enough people mad for now.
I could start my expose´ of biodynamics any number of places, but the richest example of the strategy is Secrets of The Soil (1989) by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird. This is, in many ways, a fascinating book with some very revelatory chapters and also kooky fringe chapters. On first reading you don’t notice this, but I’ve read the book several times since 1994 and about year 2000 I caught on that it is a faith-based propaganda effort to make us all believers in the arcane theosophy of Rudolph Steiner. They just don’t come out and flatly say so. This, by the way (see p. 364), is the source of the earlier unflattering statement by Steiner’s biographer.
About that time I wrote in the book words to the effect that the authors were deceptive, conniving and devious in trying to steer the reader to embracing biodynamics cloaked as the “real” organics. You can see this in the final short summarizing at the end of most of the book’s 23 chapters, where everything strangely is brought back to Steiner’s supposedly clairvoyant interpretation of the world and universe as spiritual. Indeed, at the end of the book are 75 pages of “appendices” mostly about Steiner and a whole history of spiritualism.
Here’s an example. Chapter 5, titled Microcosmos, deals with microbes and earthworms, but it ends up, “- – – the microorganisms, manufacturers of humus, [are] the basis of a fertile soil. Steiner’s premise was basic: that his biodynamic preps create the ambience for the infusion of the essential cosmic and telluric forces that generate this metabolic miracle.” Are they saying that if you are not tuned in, or are ignorant of cosmic forces (originating from and beyond the planets) and don’t use the Steiner preps, you aren’t going to have sufficient microbes and earthworms and the metabolic miracle to achieve a fertile soil?
The back of the book states, “Secrets of the Soil tells the fascinating story of the innovative, nontraditional, often surprising things that certain scientists, farmers, and mystics are doing to save our planet from self-destruction – such as using the techniques of Rudolph Steiner’s biodynamic agriculture and its reliance on ethereal forces from the planets, – – – rock dusts as fertilizers to revitalize depleted soils; or gardening with the help of devas and nature spirits, and applying psychic skills to reverse serious agricultural problems.” Really? Are they saying that if we aren’t employing ethereal forces, using our psychic skills and talking to the devas and nature spirits all is lost? I guess they must be right because we don’t seem to be making much progress fixing agriculture and saving the planet the way we’re going.
Here, according to Tompkins and Bird (p. 368) is how biodynamics works or is supposed to proceed: “In agriculture, Steiner’s fundamental premise is that you cannot vitalize the earth by merely adding chemicals or minerals. Organic matter must first be spiritualized by cosmic forces before it can, in turn, organize and vitalize the solid, torpid earth. Life comes from the astral through the etheric into the physical [telluric?]. Hence the development of biodynamic preparations 500 to 508. Potentized with cosmic forces, they bring this life back to the soil. Steiner’s whole purpose for agriculture was to give plants the substances [which ones?] they need in a living rather than a mineralized form.”
Although their book has several references and insights regarding the role of minerals in soil fertility, as thorough-going believers in Steiner’s spiritual and cosmic forces, Tompkins and Bird have a strong aversion to acknowledging that “dead” minerals have an existence in reality. Their devotion is to the spiritual and life forces and to living humus (which is not to say there are not live organisms dwelling in humus). Thus they do all sorts of twists and contortions to rub out minerals and replace them with humus. The way they mainly do this is by the absurd reasoning that microbes convert minerals into humus and then maintaining that the vital force that is in humus resided in the minerals all along. Another way is using a substitute word such as substance or nutrient in contexts otherwise logically involving the word mineral so as not to detract from emphasis on humus.
One of the contradictions in Secrets of the Soil that the authors may not even have realized concerns Chapter 8, where they praise the outstanding health, vigor and longevity of the remote Hunza tribe, whose wholesome diet came largely from vegetables and fruit grown using mineralized waters from the glacier-fed river running through their valley. In view of Steiner’s premise, how could this happen when the Hunzas never heard of Steiner or his eight biodynamic preps?
These notions are not unique to Tompkins and Bird. I recently found them in a 1995 book titled Secrets of Fertile Soil: Humus as the Guardian of the Fundamentals of Natural Life by Erhard Hennig, another German agronomist. Hennig harked back to Thaer and Steiner. While he acknowledged the role of minerals in plant nutrition, he was anti-fertilizer and condemned “mineral” fertilizers, which I take meant artificial or synthetic fertilizers.
In the forward it states, “Hennig profits from the knowledge of Albrecht Thaer, the father of agricultural science. He [Hennig] and his contemporaries, Dr. Rudolph Steiner, Dr. Hans Muller, and Dr. Hans Peter Rusch discovered that high-quality humus is the only foundation for healthy plant growth. They developed the professional requirements for a widespread move to ecological farming.” You start to see the lineage and connections here. Did Hennig mean that humus was the main or the whole foundation?
Here is where I found (p. 3) the “explanation” of how the life force gets transferred from an old or former (dead?) form to a new organism by means of its protoplasm where the life spirit resides and apparently never really dies. Amazingly, this protoplasm even pervades mineral rock dusts and moves into humus and on into plants (and microbes?), thereby giving them life. Interestingly, John Hamaker, who called for worldwide remineralization in his 1982 book, The Survival of Civilization to stop global cooling from advancing glaciers (wrong!) held a similar view of life being passed on via protoplasm sucked out of microbes by plant roots (rather than its component parts being taken in to be used in the reassembly of cells and protoplasm). (See Chapter 15 in Secrets of the Soil.) While the spiritualists are anti-mineralists, they all seem to regard rock dusts, source of trace minerals (which they refer to as trace elements), as indispensible to their method of soil treatment. It seems to me that what we know about the various means of reproduction throughout the biotic pyramid is a more sensible and less tortuous explanation for how life gets passed from organism to successor organism. Still, we don’t know what drives it all, if it’s not a life force or ´elan vital.
It was in reading Hennig’s book that I hit upon the realization of how the big misunderstanding and this long feud between the humus and mineral camps came about, and it had to do with the different understandings of the word “mineral”. In other words, it’s semantics. Keep in mind that, by definition, all trace elements are minerals, which is to say they come from the ground.
In a number of places Hennig acknowledges the importance of trace minerals in soil for the construction of enzymes and quality (complete?) proteins. Here he is probably not referring to synthetic mineral fertilizers, but natural minerals. On pages 68 and 69, in a discussion of the effects of compost and worms on soil drainage versus a soil compacted from heavy tillage and applications of chemical fertilizers, he tells of the farmer in the latter case viewing his ruined beet crop, then viewing the other field, and coming to the conclusion “that it was time to change his earlier cultivation habits, which had involved the use of mineral fertilizers, and to adopt the practice of humus cultivation and thereby become a ‘humus farmer’.”
We can see here that the word “mineral” stands for bad chemical fertilizers. But strangely, Hennig uses the word both ways, as bad and as good. On pages 69 and 70 Hennig describes a quotation and an interview with one Karl Stellwag, a “highly esteemed idol of compost supporters”, as follows:
“The inner life of soil has its own laws! The use of chemicals always comes into conflict with these laws. Fields that have been heavily treated with chemicals lose their humus content. – – – I have never concerned myself with the mineral composition of the soil – that would simply confuse [me] – the worm tunnels seemed to me to be the answer – – -. Whether or not the mineral balance is correct, the inner life of the soil is the deciding factor in its fertility.” So, we see here that the humus camp actually is hung up on “chemicals”; whereas, by definition, all elements are chemicals. So we need to define our terms if we are ever to achieve mutual understanding in our discourse.
Hennig surely sympathsizes with the part about inner life, but how can you detect or change that inner life? He evidently does not agree that it is the deciding factor in fertility or that the mineral status can be ignored. In a discussion (p. 111) about the famous French soils scientist and dairy farmer, Andre Voisin, he says, “- – – thanks to him we have realized how vital the rich variety of enzymes and trace minerals in the soil are for the cells in both human and animal organisms to function successfully.” He then references Voisin’s books, Grass Productivity and Soil, Grass and Cancer. I have read the latter book, which is all about the documented role of minerals in determining health or disease in foods and people, although Voisin also talks about the soil being alive and Hennig credits him with reviving the “Living Soil” concept in the 1950s.
My major point here is that Hennig is a mass of contradictions when it comes to the meaning and use of the word “mineral” and seems not to recognize this. In a sense, Tompkins and Bird are contradictory or conflicted about whether minerals are truly important as plant nutrients, and others in the humus camp verge on being mineral deniers, at least when it comes to the major and secondary plant nutrient elements. This comes out of an aversion to synthetic (chemical) fertilizers and pesticides, which is understandable, but also from an unfortunate misunderstanding of chemistry that lumps natural minerals in with artificial fertilizers. Indeed, in Secrets of the Soil (p. xv), the authors condemn the important natural, “sea-derived calcium phosphate” fertilizer material as being the basis for an “artificial manure” industry. Eh?
In regard to the “Living Soil” doctrine, I want to explore the nature of life itself, or call it the “life principle”. The precise nature of humus (which no one fully comprehends) plays a central role in this whole feud. The subtitle of Hennig’s book, as mentioned, is Humus as the Guardian of the Fundamentals of Natural Life, which book can be taken as representative of the “live humus” school in the humus camp. There is a statement on page 16 that I found both relevant and revealing, as follows:
“- – – we have to see the whole if we want to view soil as a living organism [a.k.a. living soil]. What belongs to the whole? Apart from the soil [dirt], both living things and the mineral substances [non-living, dead?] found in it belong to the cycle [of living substances], as well as the ‘vegetal garment’, the plants themselves. If we can give credence to the remarks of the American scientists, Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird in their book The Secret Life of Plants, then we must believe plants have souls too.”
I read The Secret Life of Plants, as well as Secrets of the Soil. I can tell you that Tompkins and Bird are not scientists, unless you want to expand that to include devotees to Steiner’s “Spiritual Science”. Rather, they are propagandists for his theosophy and biodynamics as an all-encompassing agricultural system. In other words, it’s a faith-based agriculture – not science-based.
So what is life anyway? What does conventional science say characterizes life? Surely it relates only to intact organisms that grow, are capable of reproduction, react to stimuli and often are able to move about. Does anyone honestly think a shovelful of garden soil exhibits any of these characteristics? If not, it can’t really be said to be alive or living.
If plants have souls, then all animals (present and past) must have souls. This presumably would include tapeworms, ants, mosquitoes and fly maggots. Why stop there? Surely amoebas, bacteria, fungi and viruses by the mega-trillions have souls. Indeed, there are those who insist rocks have souls, or are “enlivened”. Souls being eternal, it must be that if rocks are ground to dust, then each dust particle has a soul, or part of a soul or, at least, conveys protoplasm which carries a life force. How do they know that?
It follows that almost nothing is soul-less and everything is in some degree alive and, thus, there isn’t anything special about a soil being “alive” and it’s hard to say how anything could ever become fully dead; which leads to the question, since plants have souls, does eating a carrot constitute murder? Indeed, is anything that’s murdered ever actually killed? Where does all this “living soil” talk get us? It gets us misdirected.
I want to turn now to the mineral camp argument. My own belief and current understanding of what correct and full fertilization of crop plants entails is expertly and succinctly stated by Hugh McLaughlin, PhD, PE in The Biochar Revolution (2010, p. 85), by Paul Taylor, PhD, Editor:
“A healthy soil-plant nutrient exchange involves a pivotal intermediary: innumerable soil microbes which synergistically participate in cycling [phosphorus, zinc,etc.]. – – – This exchange effectively improves the plant’s ability to absorb minerals – – -. This soil-microbe-plant troika has developed over billions of years and is essentially a life-or-death proposition for plants. Of the 17 [22?] necessary elements for plant growth, 13 [18?] are derived from mineral matter in the soil. Only the remaining four – carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen – are obtained from the atmosphere [Albrecht labeled them organic elements]. And nitrogen acquisition, in the absence of commercially produced [artificial] fertilizers requires the assistance of [nitrogen-fixing] microbes.”
It seems to me this states current scientific understanding of plant nutrition for healthy growth. There is no reference in McLaughlin’s statement to the soil itself, overall, being alive, although clearly there are innumerable living creatures (biota) within a healthy and mineral-rich soil, along with some measure of organic matter. Despite those high numbers, all the soil biota together constitute less than 1% (by volume) of most soils, and the total amount of organic matter (or humus) typically is less than 10% in nature. Air and water make up about 50%.
That means 40% (or more) of a representative agricultural soil is inorganic matter, derived originally from rocks, and surely dead, if anything is. If rocks are not dead, then we need a new definition for dead and a new definition for live. Calling a healthy soil supporting myriad living, respiring, reproducing organisms “alive” confuses rather than clarifies our understanding of soil and soil fertility. How can something 99% lifeless be called alive? Certainly, it is true that microbes require organic matter as an energy source. But they also require minerals for building tissue, chromosomes, enzymes, vitamins, etc.
What bothers me, and what I reject, is the notion that crops may be adequately fertilized, in the short and long-term, simply by applying organic matter in all or most cases and without adding any nutrient minerals. That may work in some few cases where the soils are already mineral-rich and where all plant material removed is religiously cycled back. But, otherwise, it is my contention that won’t work or, at least, would not produce crops or livestock having high human nutritional value – and therefore is not truly healthy. In experiments conducted around 1940, Dr. Firman Bear showed that two carrots grown on different soils could look exactly the same, yet one be nearly void of nutrients and the other mineral and vitamin-rich.
There are those who contend that all needed plant (as well as human) mineral nutrients are abundant and invariably present in all farmable soils – if not in the topsoil, then in the subsoil (where microbes are scarce). Furthermore, it is contended that simplistically, organic-grown food will be highly nutritious and remain that way as long as plenty of organic matter is continually applied. Those making such claims almost always lack any figures to prove their crops are, in fact, mineral (and other) nutrient-packed. It follows that anyone employing a professional soil test fertilizer prescription could not experience greater and better production, since all liberally fed soils receiving only abundant organic matter would presumably be as fertile as they possibly could get. I assure you that is not the case. Many times we have seen tremendous response from applying natural mineral and organic meal products to gardens. Furthermore, diseases vanish and pest insect damage is minimized. This is very different from NPK and “chemical” fertilization.
Northwest vegetable gardening guru, Steve Solomon, in his fifth (or earlier?) edition of Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, was the first to jar my conventional organics faith with the heresy that you can apply too much organic matter to a garden soil. As he pointed out, no one was asking how much organic matter was enough and at what point does it become too much, i.e., detrimental to the soil and detrimental to the plants and the consumer’s health. Would anyone advocate growing in 100% organic matter? What works best is a combination of organic and inorganic nutrient materials, which I termed Mineral-Augmented Organics back about 1990. All the “complete organic” blends made and sold at Black Lake Organic, my former business, are made on that principle.
Actually, J. I. Rodale tried to warn readers of his early books both that organic matter additions could be overdone, even harmful, and that rock mineral powders of various types need to be added to the soil or through compost. His excessive organic matter warning can be found on pages 33 and 64 in the 1955 book titled Organic Gardening.
Here’s another thing not widely recognized by the “never enough compost” crowd or those who call for maximizing organic matter (carbon) in the soil. Dr. Hans Jenny, a colleague of William Albrecht, back in 1941, did a survey of mineral type soils throughout the U.S. and found that very few contained over 10% organic matter, and generally much less. Due to climate differences, southern soils are naturally very low in organic matter; whereas soils in most northern states had the highest percentage. (See pp. 156-7 in The Nature and Properties of Soils (1974) by Nyle C. Brady.)
But here’s another kicker; no matter how much organic matter you pile on or plow in, the organic matter level will always come back to no higher than the previous maximum level set by your climate conditions. Trying to exceed the natural limit, say 7%, is futile and wasteful. Maybe Mother Nature is telling us something about the optimum organic matter level for producing the healthiest plants. Anyone urging more and more carbon be put in the soil needs to say where to stop.
Correspondingly, in the late 1920s a survey of pasturelands throughout the British Empire by Sir John B. Orr found that the dramatic drop in their capability to produce decent levels of livestock was due to depletion of minerals (especially calcium and phosphorus), owing to export of the meat, hides and milk of the grazing animals. This contrasts with later thinking that pasture forage quality can be restored and maintained by controlled grazing alone. That is a subject for another day, but here again, where is the soil nutrient test data? How nutritious can pasture forage be if those minerals are depleted?
Comes now the great demoralizer for the Humus-Plus-Microbes camp, the Soil Food Web crowd, the Organic-Does-All and “Living Soil” cults. This is illumination on what it actually takes to grow a high quality crop plant. We all know that we are absolutely and totally dependent on the thin layer that is topsoil for our sustenance and our survival, right? Synthetic and soluble fertilizers aside, we know that release of nutrients from organic matter and soil minerals must be mediated by microbes, right? We know that we must have a certain minimum level of organic matter (including life-infused humus?) plus lots of microbes and other soil biota to get nutrients to and into plant roots in order for plants to grow at all, right? Also, we know that exudates exchanges between soil biota and plants is indispensible, right?
Evidently not so. We forget about the ocean and we don’t think about all the minerals in seawater. It is very possible (and has been demonstrated) that high quality crops (including tomatoes, cucumbers and basil) can actually be grown without soil and without significant amounts of organic matter using intermittent drenches of seawater. This system is a version of hydroponics called Seaponics and was developed by Dr. Maynard Murray in 1958 in Florida and taken over by Don Jensen. See Murray’s Sea Energy Agriculture (1976) and Fertility From the Ocean Deep (2005) by Charles Walters. For similarly surprising real world experiences based on seawater extracts see Seawater Concentrate for Abundant Agriculture by Arthur Zeigler (2012).
Ocean water is about 3.5% minerals in solution. By far the greatest amount is chlorine and sodium (both trace nutrients) at over 90%. The next most abundant is magnesium, then sulfur, calcium and potassium. Except for sulfur, these are the main cations in the Albrecht ratio which largely governs soil fertility. In seawater, carbon, a non-mineral, is at 28 ppm, compared to calcium at 400 ppm. Much further down the list comes nitrogen (a non-mineral) at 0.5 ppm, and still further down, a much lower amount of phosphorus (0.07 ppm). Most phosphorus settles to the ocean floor. Thus, other than the potassium (at 380 ppm), it can be seen that the so-called primary nutrients, N-P-K, are rather scarce in ocean water.
Yet the fact of the matter is that eelgrass and seaweeds grow just fine with such low levels of NPK in the saltwater column, which actually contains all the minerals on the planet. In addition to minerals, seawater contains lots of marine bacteria and loose organic molecules (chiefly fulvic acid) and, of course, planktonic organisms. Sea-Crop is concentrated seawater minus 95% of the sodium chloride, but otherwise contains 90 of the known 92 elements that make up the entire physical universe. Art Zeigler, who developed Sea-Crop, says, however, that the mineral nutrients are ineffective in the absence of viable microbes. But that’s when applied to soil. Standard “chemical” hydroponic solutions have no microbes, but cause growth.
In 1958 Dr. Murray left his successful medical practice to apply what he had learned about ocean mineral nutrition in supporting the superbly healthy animals of the marine world. He bought property in Florida near the ocean and constructed 179 hydroponic beds (concrete troughs), each 4 feet wide and 100 feet long. In these beds he put a layer of washed river rock and no soil or organic material. Into those beds he transplanted tomato seedlings with string support to overhead frames.
The tomato roots in those beds were then flushed (and drained) twice daily with straight seawater and they yielded large amounts of excellent, large tomatoes which Murray (then Jensen) sold successfully for several years, until driven out by cheap Mexican produce. Notice the sodium chloride had not been removed. How could this be, you ask; no dirt, no humus, very little nitrogen, scant phosphorus, likely little or no surviving marine microbes, surely little or no exudates exchange – but also no weed or pest problems. How do we explain this phenomenon? It’s the trace minerals! Unlike in soil where trace minerals face barriers and hurdles getting to plant roots, in Seaponics they go directly and abundantly onto (and into) the plant roots and this is the real basis of the plant’s nutrition. Foliar fertilization directly into leaves is an analogous mechanism, mainly limited to trace mineral uptake, but I could be wrong on that point.
There is no need for soil and little need for the major (NPK) nutrients in a non-soil, briefly aqueous environment, and evidently no need for microbial intermediaries. Just ask kelp about that. It would be a real stretch to argue these tomatoes could not have been grown in the absence of some “life principle” that gets transferred from humus to the plant. Is that explanation really necessary for plants to be able to grow? I say no. So much for the necessity of a life force, soil food web or “living soil”.
Incidentally, I have examined the extensive laboratory listings of elements (60+) in three rock dust products (Azomite, Vashon glacial rock dust, and Suma crushed rock dust) for their nitrogen and carbon content. No detectable amount of nitrogen was found for all three and only the Suma product had detectable carbon (at 0.04%). Oxygen is a major component, but tied-up with other elements. This bears out Albrecht’s point that C, H, O and N are atmospheric in origin and non-minerals.
At this point I may be changing my mind, based on some things I’ve recently read (actually, reread) mid-way through writing this article. I’m referring to discoveries and remarks by some highly regarded agronomists in the alternative agriculture field that lend a legitimacy – or at least a provocative connection – to the “living soil” and vital force or life force/principle case, as put forth originally by Thaer and subsequently by Steiner and followers.
The agronomists I am referring to are all featured in interviews in a fascinating and highly illuminating book titled Nutrition Rules! (2003), edited by Australian, Graeme Sait, right around year 2000. Without giving specific quotes, I will lay out those arguments relevant to the “living soil”/live humus camp, and the counter-arguments by other agronomists, and my own assessment of the fact or fallacy aspects of the claims, and then give my own revised thinking. Stick with me, I think you will find this all very intriguing and perhaps confirming or challenging to your own views on “what makes plants grow” and on nutrition.
First, let me relate an observation and realization I’ve long held. I am struck by the fact that every animal from amoeba to whale that is alive strives mightily to stay alive. And when threatened with death or serious damage, it will do everything it can to escape or overcome such a threat, as if it has a will to stay alive, a sense of mortality or innate fear of death – and no matter how simple and seemingly insignificant its life, it seems to think that life is totally worth living. Furthermore, they often will defend to the death, their offspring.
What does an amoeba get out of living? You would have to ask the amoeba, but I’m sure it would say its life is worthwhile, or maybe even meaningful. In any case, it wants to continue swimming around, exploring, eating algae (or whatever) and at some point at least reproducing progeny (however it does that) to go on doing the same thing indefinitely. There does seem to be a pervasive drive and overall direction to life.
Life has two commandments: eat and reproduce – but also avoid being eaten. Yet, in a way, and in the big picture, it is not the life of the individual that matters, but the survival of the species. And there is every indication that each species plays an important role in the overall fabric of its ecosystem. Nevertheless, without that drive to stay alive and enjoy life in each individual, the species could not make it for the eons it otherwise seems destined to be around for.
Also, as I got into reading more carefully into the role or effect of microbes in relation to soil fertility and feeding plants I realized a shortcoming in my previous thinking. I had focused on what microbes added to fertility per se as opposed to what they do (in the right circumstances) for soil conditioning and improving the soil environment, thereby enabling proliferation of more microbes and thus releasing more bound-up nutrients and making them available in forms suitable for plant uptake. Microbes also make and supply stimulating metabolites that foster growth and health, though most of those are built around minerals. Indeed, key minerals enable astonishing catalytic energy for biologic reactivity.
In other words, while growing an abundance and variety of microbes is not the end goal of farming or gardening, it generally results in greater production of healthier and more nutritious crops than does neglecting or abusing the soil’s biota. In large measure, it does this through the manufacture of humus. In that sense, particularly when using natural fertilizer materials, the life in the soil is extremely important for plant growth, but this still is not saying that the soil is “alive”, even though it can contain trillions of microbes in every shovelful.
I want to point out, too, that a number of agronomists (including Albert Howard) use the term “living soil” figuratively rather than literally when they likely mean a soil full of life, and this needs to be seen as permissible exaggeration and overlooked as an artful term. Generally, it simply signifies that they are life-affirming and they don’t dwell on the spiritual or philosophical significance, but on the agricultural relevance.
What really jolted me into rethinking my views relative to the “living soil” and live humus concepts was comments (p. 104) by Bruce Tainio (now deceased) in his interview with Graeme Sait. Years ago, when I read this I probably viewed it as a curiosity or dismissed it. According to Tainio, researchers had discovered that there are “tiny lights” existing in every living cell. These energy bundles also are especially concentrated in coal, lignite and humates such as leonardite as an indestructible life force which has been waiting for millions of years to come out and be organized into another living cell, says Tainio. This sounds eerily like the life force principle of Thayer, Hennig and others, but with scientific documentation. Subsequently, I learned that Tainio had been under the biodynamic sway, which gives me pause.
In a different context on the same page, Tainio talks about consulting for major chemical companies in California experiencing severe damage by detrimental nematodes to several crops. He told them he could achieve 100% control without chemicals, which he proceeded to do by changing the carbon to nitrogen ratio in the soil and inoculating it with a broad-spectrum microbial product. This astonished the chemical people. It sounds eerily like the soil food web competitive exclusion or predation approach of Elaine Ingham, who maintains mineral fertilization is unnecessary.
Next comes the interview of Dr. Phil Callahan (pp. 142-4) pertaining to the weak force of paramagnetism that was rediscovered by him. Callahan also had discovered that using their antennae, insects are able to track infrared frequency-amplified scents emanating from unhealthy plants to home in on them as food sources and having no interest in scents from healthy plants. This discovery was picked-up by the military to develop heat-seeking missiles.
According to Callahan, plants grow better in the vicinity of certain highly paramagnetic rocks or ground-up rock dusts applied to soil and those paramagnetic materials are a source of subterranean light to increase root growth and the plants actually need this underground light. Furthermore, the rock acts as a transceiver that collects magnetism from the cosmos. Steiner said the life force originated from the cosmos, but there were weird aspects to his other-world view. According to Callahan (p. 143), laboratory tests indicate rocks emit photons and certain rock dusts mixed with quality compost are magnified in paramagnetic force as much as 100 times, producing a weak light needed by plant roots. Light from the sun is received as photons, as I recall.
Wow! This appears to both confirm and explain Tainio’s tiny lights. Assuming the paramagnetic force is a life force or the vital force (´elan vital), it seems to confirm claims of Thayer, Steiner, Hennig and others, but not necessarily being of a spiritual nature or from a spiritual source and having a soul. Thinking I should check this out further, I began reading The Enlivened Rock Powders (1994) by long-time biodynamics follower and farmer, Harvey Lisle, until I got to Chapter 2 where Lisle relates Steiner’s explanation of the creation of our solar system by unseen spiritual entities (which can only be seen by a clairvoyant such as Steiner). These unseen entities created the planets, moons and even the sun as dissatisfied groups split off and made their own habitable body. We know this because Steiner said so. I stopped reading at this point – in disgust.
Next comes the interview with Arden Andersen and his remarks on pages 166-7. Andersen, a medical doctor, nutritionist and agronomist trained under eccentric soils scientist, Dr. Carey Reams. Reams gave us the correlation of BRIX readings to nutritional content in fruits and vegetables. The Reams system employs the La Motte soil testing method to arrive at fertilizing prescriptions, which uses sometimes synthetic fertilizers. Andersen believes the Reams method is better than the Albrecht method that basically seeks to balance major cation nutrient ratios (Ca:Mg:K:Na) in the soil, since the biological activity may be inadequate to get the needed nutrients into crops, whereas the Reams method would measure and reveal this shortfall.
However, Andersen agreed with Sait that a good biological activity system cannot be achieved without mineral balance. In order to survive, microorganisms have to have mineral balance, and therefore a combination of the Albrecht and Reams methods is needed to get the full picture, Andersen stated. In other words, simply adding a microbial inoculant or random applications of organic matter usually is not going to do the job for growing fully healthy, high quality plants. I doubt any of the other agronomists would dispute this. Nevertheless, I have to ask myself whether a highly bioactive soil is prima facia evidence of a highly mineralized soil, even if it was not fertilized. Someone should research this.
As a sidelight here, Andersen and Sait agree that organic produce is often inferior and this second-rate produce is obviously nutritionally deficient. According to Sait, this makes it clear that being a good grower takes more than applying animal manure and being idealistic. Simply avoiding prohibited materials does not automatically yield a better crop, nor does simply putting on lots of organic matter. This is my major point.
Finally, there are the excerpted statements (p. 188) of the interview of Gary Zimmer, farmer, agronomist, and consultant. Zimmer has different perspectives than the previous consultants. Asked how he measured biological activity, Zimmer replied he had spent a lot of money trying to gauge this, including Ingham’s Soil Foodweb test and decided it only gave a snapshot that is not too helpful. He points out that university evaluation of various tests found that a more reliable indicator of biological activity is the smell (odor) of the soil. Albrecht Thaer no doubt would have been pleased to hear that.
Zimmer’s fertilization program is based on soil test-guided prescriptions and annual applications of lime, phosphate, and trace minerals worked down into the tilled topsoil. Asked what he thought of the no-till method (back in late 1999), Zimmer said he did not see “no-till” as a type of farming because it is necessary to get air into the soil. I point out, too, that it has long been thought that fertilizers need to be placed down in the root zone (usually 6 inches down). Is that no longer so? Is there no advantage?
Nevertheless, the apparent reality of weak underground lights stemming from paramagnetic rocks and rock dusts (preferably mixed into compost and worked into the soil) that stimulate plant growth – along with the claim of a cosmic origin of this energy source – lends credence to the life force and “living soil” concept that has to be taken seriously. Although it doesn’t mean I embrace the Steinerian aspect of cosmic forces and spiritual nature of these subtle forces or the notion of protoplasm transfer, I have to concede there is nevertheless something to the “living soil” ascription.
I can accede to referring to soil of high biological activity (and mineral content) as “living”, but with the caveat that it should not signal that one only needs do nothing or simply add organic matter, or toss on a microbial inoculant to get you there and to achieve high fertility in order to maximize healthy and nutritious food crops and livestock forage. This is why I call for a superior agronomic system; i.e., Nutri-Culture, as discussed in a recent article that I titled “Better Than Organic”.
So, here’s my reconciliation proposal. If we can just get the humus camp to acknowledge that natural nutrient minerals (and not just the trace minerals in rock dusts) are necessary and beneficial to plant health, and often need to be added along with humus (or organic matter), there could be a uniting of the two camps and a truce – so long as the mineral camp is not required to recognize an “inner life” or “vital force” in humus or concede that the soil itself is alive, despite containing lots of living organisms which certainly play a vital role, both in the creation (manufacture) of topsoil and the feeding of mineral and non-mineral nutrients to plant roots.
At the same time, we members of the mineral camp must keep open the possibility that humus and soils might actually be alive or contain an “´elan vital” principle. If that could be agreed to, then the disparate camps could be reconciled and march as allies into a brighter future of agricultural regeneration and real sustainability. You’ll forgive me if I label this the BLOSSOM Era. (See www.blossomera.com). So often the answer is not either/or but some of both and maybe more (SOBAMM). Carry on.
© 2017 Gary L. Kline
For relevant clippings from books or news papers, and for posts that are pertinent but which don't fit in the fora above