This article explores the history of agriculture and how it turned into our recent way of farming that is so reliant on artificial fertilizers and pesticides. How can we use the stewardship of the land in a better way?
The history of artificial fertilizers and pesticides used in agriculture
We all can make a big impact, positively as well as negatively. When it comes to cultivating the land, nature always took care of itself, and the rhythmic cycles – preparing the soil, planting, harvesting, and composting in preparation for a new growing cycle – took care of itself for thousands of years. The soil was rich and full of life. There were millions of tiny creatures involved in this delicate process. Fungi, earthworms, insects, and microbes all lived harmoniously in the soil. Microbes cultivated the crops and even colonized the guts of the humans and animals that ate these plants. It all worked in a harmonious, ever-repeating cycle.
Historians think that the earliest form of agriculture arrived with the domestication of wild animals such as horses, pigs, and cows and can be traced back to around 10,000 B.C.
During the Bronze Age (around 3,300 B.C.) more sophisticated ways of agriculture sprang up and modifications to harvest cycles and best planting practices – like Biodynamic planting dates – were established. All these were organic tools with the intent to enhance harvest production.
The arrival of the first fertilizers
The first introduction of artificial fertilizers was undertaken during the early part of the 19th century. John Bennet Lawes began the first scientific investigations about adding inorganic fertilizers (mainly phosphates) onto fields to increase crops with moderate success. But other than these early steps the organic way of farming and gardening remained largely unchanged until World War 1 (1914-1918).
The Haber-Bosch process
The first patents for synthetic ammonium nitrates and other chemical fertilizers emerged from Germany. In 1910 Carl Bosch, working at the time for the chemical giant BASF, started to secure a number of patents for the use of synthic chemicals to increase crop production. He teamed up with Fritz Haber and both won a Nobel prize in 1918 for their Haber-Bosch process. This method is still the main formula to produce artificial fertilizers. Basically, this process converts nitrogen(N2) to ammonia (NH3) by a reaction with hydrogen (H2).
In the years after World War 2, more patents were sought and the use of synthetic fertilizers increased rapidly. Countries like China, Russia, and even Vietnam used these products in great amounts and Russia remains to this day one of the leading producers of artificial fertilizers.
The real problem started when pesticides were used in tandem with artificial fertilizers. Again during World War 1, chemical warfare started to be introduced for the first time as a new weapon to kill soldiers in the trenches. Factories had to be remodeled to manufacture and supply these substances, mainly consisting of mustard gas and tear gas. But the war was short and once it was over, all these factories stood idle.
Pesticides such as arsenic, mercury, and sulfur dusting have already been used by the Sumerians in 2000 B.C. but in very small quantities and overall the soil health remained intact. However, after World War 1 and especially after World War 2, its use increased enormously. It is estimated that the worldwide use of pesticides today measures around 2.5 megatonnes per year and this has, of course, a huge impact on the health of our soil and as a consequence our health.
The main detriment is killing the useful bacteria, microbes, and all the millions of other insects and species that help with the composting and the soil preparation. By killing them all, the soil turns to dirt – void of all life, and artificial fertilizers have to be used in ever-increasing quantities to assure a successful crop. The more we destroy, the more we have to artificially feed the plants. It is a cycle of destruction and sadly many farmers are now stuck with this process. To build up a new soil structure takes time, a lot of time. And many farmers would not commercially survive this conversion. This brings me to the next point of stewardship of the land.
The Stewardship of the land
The fundamental way of human existence is to be connected to the natural cycle and the feeling of being at one with nature. We are not above it, far from it!
We are an integral part of the all-natural processes and share this planet with plants and animals in equal measures. We need to respect them and in turn, will be enriched by their contribution to the natural cycle. It should be a cycle of mutual benefit, not destruction.
The introduction of artificial fertilizers was not all evil. Initially, it was seen as a means to serve a growing population with increased food security and lower food production costs. But now we know that this has not happened and starvation still exists. Instead, farmers are held to ransom with increasing fertilizer price rises and worthless soils.
We better had listened to Rudolf Steiner’s warning exactly 100 years ago when he predicted all this and gave lectures to regain soil health and the linked food production and gut health. At the time this approach was ridiculed by many established scientists and the connection was only proven a few years ago.
As I mentioned above, we all can have an impact, positively and negatively. You may not be able to grow your own food, but at least you can source food from responsible food growers who work with the land and its natural rhythms. It may cost a tiny bit extra as this way of farming is slightly more labour intensive and it takes more time to keep the soil in a good state. But by doing this, these farmers make sure that the land keeps its fertile soil and is in a good state of health when it is eventually passed to the next generation and the next after them. We all share responsibility in this and we all share in the stewardship of our precious Earth.