The Land: Which way are we headed? Industrial Fertilizer or Organic Farming and Rare Earth metals
If we put the land first and make it the priority, then choices should become more straightforward. There are all sorts of opinions and debates, but is the tide turning to a saner way of eating?
Fads of the Land
Food fads happen when we place more importance on one kind of food than on others, and choose to eat out of balance with what is available or healthy. As wheat and corn became unpopular in Western countries, the grain quinoa came into vogue in restaurants and bakeries.
(Audit of the Universe, chapter 4.2)
This transition created a boom where prices for quinoa seed multiplied 20 times in Bolivia, the source of nearly half the world’s supply of this grain. Although this improved the quality of life for some Bolivian farmers and broadened our options at restaurants and in grocery stores, the benefit did not come without an unconsidered cost.
Quinoa demands so much water that farmers had to suspend growing on half or more of their land. This extra demand has also threatened llama farmers in the region, as well as the wild plant and animal populations. The short-term gain has created an unstable situation that harms the Land and disrupts the human communities inhabiting it.
By happy contrast, some farmers in the developed world are once again embracing organic agriculture. Farms joining this movement end the cycle of destructive chemical farming and begin the process of rebuilding a natural population of worms and bacteria that fertilize the soil naturally. These farms have an impact on local farm life and produce food that is higher in nutrients and micronutrients than their industrially farmed counterparts. Although less than 5% of the food we produce is organic, this might indicate a positive tendency to rebuild the Land rather than destroy it.
Failing With Phosphorus
We once considered phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizers the cure for hunger worldwide. They provided the essential nutrients instantly before we had to wait for the land to regenerate them over months and years. Using these technological marvels makes the Land significantly more productive than a traditional schedule of crop rotation and natural compost.
But that fertilizer kills the bacteria and worms that make soil sustainable over time. As we deplete our mined reserves of NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) and those fertilizers become more expensive, farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to continue this “modern” farming. It takes years for chemically fertilized fields to restore their natural fertilization, meaning farmers could go broke in the interim. Diminished food supplies and displaced populations are other real risks of a breakdown in this practice of farming.As we deplete our mined reserves of NPK those fertilizers become more expensive Click To Tweet
It’s a question seemingly without an answer. Absent modern fertilizing methods, the Land can feed approximately 6 billion people according to recent estimates. Using nitrogen and phosphorus lets us feed the current and growing future populations, but puts us at risk of more significant problems.
“It’s a challenge,” I admit to my companion, “but we are already rising to it.”
The Other Side of Fertilization
Vittel, France, has been known for centuries as a place with pure and even curative mineral waters. Wishing to protect that asset, the local government decided to ban the use of industrial fertilizers and pesticides during the 1990s when scientists first started to learn about the pollution associated with them. Over the past two decades, their water sources have again become untainted by chemical contaminants and the region profits both by selling that water worldwide and with healthy agricultural practices. All around, land quality is much improved.Vittel, FR banned use of industrial fertilizers & pesticides. Land quality is much improved. Click To Tweet
A second, though accidental example happens in Wales, one of the poorest parts of Great Britain. When chemical fertilizers first became popular Welsh farmers couldn’t afford them. After decades of not using those pollutants, Wales has the purest coastal waters in the region and can now export both bottled water and sea salt popular among consumers and professional chefs alike.
“It doesn’t solve every problem from chemical fertilizer,” I say, “but as a start, it makes for a tasty steak.” An excellent example of protecting coastal zones (Inventory, chapter 3), both seaside and landside.
Yes, there are plenty of examples, encouraging and discouraging, regarding the state of our water and land resources. When we add it all up—and come to the bottom line—are we more on the positive or negative side of peace and prosperity? We’re making an Audit of the Universe.
Land: Supporting Human Endeavors
The Land has not provided merely for our survival. Mineral resources have permitted every accomplishment and creature comfort we have ever enjoyed. We build homes of concrete and brick using mineral resources, heat our homes with coal and oil and uranium. We make tools from silex and iron, and ornaments of gold, silver, diamond, and sapphire.
Everything you buy and use is manufactured from one kind of natural resource or another, even the most technically advanced toys. Modern consumer societies have built a system around this: a cycle of creating things out of natural resources for money to buy something somebody else created. All of it begins with using the gifts of the Land.
At our best, humankind’s use of natural resources has been wondrous. In recent years, we have developed amazing things:
- Hydrophobic plastics and fabrics that repel water to make surfaces cleaner, safer and more resistant to corrosion
- Glass that changes shape and texture in response to an electrical current
- A “skin gun” that regrows skin onto burn victims, turning healing time from months of painful treatments with a high risk of infection to just days of recovery
- Hand-held devices that can understand what we say and correct our grammar
“These are impressive accomplishments,” Galacti states, instantaneously aware of all we have accomplished for good or ill. “But I wonder: do the costs and benefits balance out? Or does one outweigh the other?”
Rare Earth Metals
Rare earth metals, so-called, not solely for their relative scarcity, but because they are challenging, dangerous, and expensive to extract from their natural home deep within the earth. Few natural resources demonstrate our ability to turn the raw materials of the Land into high-tech wonders like our usage of rare earth metals.
- We turn platinum into fuel cells and devices to reduce pollution in cars
- We use yttrium to create lasers, superconductors and the filters that make microwave ovens safe for use in homes
- Dysprosium and neodymium are in the magnets for MRI scans and used in building safe nuclear reactors
- We find Terbium in more reliable fuel cells, many portable electronics and in sonar systems that allow us to explore the sea and the human body
- Lanthanum is a critical component of every hybrid car on the road
- Promethium makes x-ray imaging, and all of the medical advances resulting from it, possible
As another example of human resourcefulness, these rare earth metals are part of the technologies we use to reduce our impact on the Land. They allow for cleaner cars, abundant energy, more efficient commerce, and reduced pollution – all using gifts of the Land to improve our stewardship of the source of those gifts.
But this support may be a short-term solution as world supplies of many rare earth metals run short. Countries short on these resources, researchers, and companies are scrambling to come up with viable solutions, from recycling to alternative minerals. The race is on to find more abundant sources, more efficient extraction methods, and efforts to thwart steeply rising prices for these rare earth resources.
This situation is not limited to rare earth metals. Three-quarters of the world’s phosphorus supply, which you now know is vital for modern farming techniques feeding the world’s seven billion inhabitants, is found in Morocco. This concentration creates a vulnerable “choke point” for the world’s food supply and forces both dangerous fluctuations in food prices as conditions change in this one small corner of the Land.
There are two sides to each of our stories.
This blog post is an excerpt from chapter 4.2 of the book Audit of the Universe.
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