An open letter to Professor Achim Dobermann, director of Rothamsted Research
Dear Professor Dobermann,
First I must congratulate you on the ground-breaking soil research led by your colleague Professor Andrew Neal and published in the journal Scientific Reports. As you know, his team of microbiologists and physicists took a close look at soil characteristics and how they're linked to changes in the microbial population. Your media release describes the work as 'a radical new way of thinking about soil'. You're even proposing a new, universal 'Theory of Soil', so you clearly believe the findings to be, dare I say, 'ground breaking'. As an author with a life-long interest in food and farming, I'd certainly have to agree that they are indeed important, though not for the same reasons. I would dispute whether they tell us anything new. Aren't they simply confirming something all farmers knew in the Victorian era?
You'll correct me if I've got this wrong, but as I understand it your research team are now saying chemical fertilisers – nitrate and phosphorous fertilisers in particular – create unhealthy soils which can't retain moisture or grow healthy crops. What soils need to stay fertile and yield good harvests are, you claim, carbon-rich materials such as manure and compost. Quite a change for an institution that for the past 80 years has promoted chemical fertilisers and an industrial system of agriculture, one that has done immeasurable damage to our wildlife, the global environment, rural communities and the quality of our food. Now, if I read your release correctly, you seem to be conceding that organic farmers and their supporters have been right all along. Naturally I'm delighted that you've at last seen reality, but to spin it as a triumph for your science is, I'd suggest, a touch disingenuous.
I don't need to remind you that your founder, the Victorian entrepreneur John Bennet Lawes, was one of Britain's first manufacturers of artificial fertilisers. From its very beginnings your institution has promoted soil chemistry while down-playing the importance of soil biology. In the years leading up to World War Two when leading experts like plant scientist Sir Albert Howard and nutritionist Sir Robert McCarrison were warning that chemical fertilisers were a threat to human health, Rothamsted scientists – including your former director Sir John Russell – were attacking their views as out-dated and unscientific. It was your institution that helped forge an unholy alliance between fertiliser manufacturers and the Ministry of Agriculture. Together they set out on a mission to industrialise Britain's farming, using public subsidies to achieve it. As a result thousands of sustainable mixed farms were put out of business, and tens of thousands of skilled farm jobs were lost.
John Bennet Lawes
By the time I started as a farming student in the 1960s, the legendary scientist Professor George Stapledon had himself become disillusioned. In a remarkable address to the British Grassland Society he warned that agricultural science had become so specialised that the consequences of its discoveries, when put into practice, were largely unpredictable. It made some sort of catastrophe not only possible but likely. Even so his successors went on to give the world a so-called 'green revolution', which, in reality, was anything but green. It subjected our fields to an even more intensive chemical assault. Even worse, it created a generation of farmers who believed the land would produce nothing without chemical fertilisers and pesticides. This was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The land became so damaged that it wouldn't.
The consequences for our nation and the planet have been dire. As a result of chemical fertilisers, around 40 percent of the world's farmland soils have been severely degraded. Crops grown on such soils can't take up the nutrients they need for healthy growth. So assuming there's a crop at all, it will be depleted in the nutrients we consumers need to stay healthy. Because the crop plants themselves are sick, they need a constant barrage of pesticides to keep them free of pests and disease, to which they're now prone. So as well as getting foods robbed of minerals and vitamins, people consume daily doses of toxic pesticide residues, taken in with everyday foods which have never before been contaminated.
Your chemical fertilisers and the mechanised crop growing they've led to, have devastated our wildlife and habitats. They've also exacerbated climate change. Huge amounts of stored carbon have been released, both from soils and from the hedges, wetlands, woodlands and species-rich grasslands cleared to make way for the prairie-like landscape demanded by chemical farming. This lost carbon has added massively to atmospheric greenhouse gases. The carbon-light soils left behind are dysfunctional. They can no longer grow the vegetation that would otherwise cool the planet through the natural hydrological cycles that have stabilised the earth's climate for millions of years.
Tragically the term 'scientific agriculture' is now synonymous with the process that turns land into wasteland and fertile soils into desert. Traditional farmers were ecologists, though they wouldn't have used the word. They knew that if they damaged their soils there'd be no harvest next year or in a few years time. They also knew that to keep their soils healthy and fertile they needed to return carbon-rich materials like compost and animal manure to the land. It was a knowledge based on centuries of experimentation in the real world. Modern agricultural science is based on the illusion that chemical fertilisers - especially nitrates derived from the Haber-Bosch process – would somehow free farmers from the laws of nature. Our devastated land shows they don't.
Fortunately we don't need science to show the way ahead. It's clear we have re-carbonise our soils and our landscapes in double-quick time. Hopefully your colleagues are now working on effective ways of doing this. I imagine your new findings on soil carbon are part of this catch-up process. All I can say is it's long overdue. You speak of a Theory of Soil. Looking at what's happened to our farms I'd call it the 'Tragedy of Soil'. In this you have been asleep on your watch. You failed to see the catastrophe unfolding. Fortunately the real world hasn't waited. While you've been looking after the interests of fertiliser companies and biotech corporations, clear-thinking farmers have taken the lead. They're using nature's proven methods to bring biodiversity back to farmland and to put carbon into soils. You'll know it as regenerative agriculture, or as I prefer to call it, 'carbon farming'. It's attempting to undo the damage that your science has done to our country for decades.
I wonder if you know a little book called The One-Straw Revolution? It's by an old Japanese farmer called Masanobu Fukuoka, who first trained as a scientist, a plant pathologist, but became disillusioned with science. He returned to the family farm where he took up what he called 'natural farming'. Rejecting pesticides and chemical fertilisers, he found he could still produce crops as good as any in Japan, but without the costly and damaging inputs. He concluded that human beings, for all our smart scientific methods, would never truly understand nature. This is pretty much the conclusion Professor Stapledon came to in the 1950s. In his book Fukuoka suggests that rather than subject nature to meaningless experiments that ultimately tell us nothing useful, we'd learn more by simply gazing in wonder at the world about us. Following the catastrophe that is modern, scientific agriculture, may I suggest that you and your colleagues try this approach yourselves?
Next time: An open letter to Environment Secretary George Eustice MP