The following is a précis from Charlie Massy’s book: ‘Call of the Reed Warbler’ Ch. 9
In 1938 Charles Kellog, soils scientist stated: ‘Essentially all life depends on the soil, … There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together’. This statement was just as industrial agriculture was about to be rolled out and Kellog was absolutely spot on. The prescience of his words has been increasingly confirmed and increasingly ignored since.
It was Justus von Leibig and fellow scientists who some years earlier had captured the idea of a living soil and they turned it into a toolkit. The soil could be ploughed and knocked around like a toy Meccano set or be simply treated as a chemical set by adding industrial ingredients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium – and later herbicides, pesticides, wetting agents and the like. That is, the ancient substrate had become a plaything of the Mechanical Mind.
Charlie Massy studied traditional soil science at 2 universities some 37 years apart. What he found was that little had substantially changed although the courses were informative they were boring. They were focussed on soil chemistry and physics which, whilst Charlie acknowledges are important for the farmer as they partly explain what soil is made of and of some of the aspects as to its functions and to what can go wrong if badly managed, still misses the vital ingredients needed for farming. Soil biology! The diversity and dynamism of a healthy soil and its complex, living biota which is mainly microscopic and therefore largely lays hidden from view is mostly overlooked. Without knowledge of the biological aspect, Charlie contends that we cannot grasp the implications for not just preventing land degradation but also regenerating soils, landscapes, life and human health.
What makes a living soil hard to study – let alone comprehend – is that it comprises a constantly adapting, self organising system. This to a mechanically minded scientist is like trying to pin down a will-o’-the-wisp – so these scientists stick to what can be comprehended and taught. In so doing so, the true essence of a living soil disappears from view and mind.
This dichotomy goes to the heart of the agricultural world. On the one side is a dominating industrial agriculture based on the mechanistic mind. It is supported by all the embedded paradigms of the modern industrial world and its driving power base of government bodies and transnational corporations. On the other, the regenerative agriculture movement is largely eschewing industrial inputs and mechanical practices, and is thus issuing a serious world-view challenge to the dominant sector.
So whilst knowledge of the soil physics and chemistry is important, we also need to know that humus (that healthy mix of vibrant microbial life and dark, healthy soil organic matter) is a key ingredient. The chemical chains in good humus have large surface areas and which carry electrical charges which attract and hold mineral particles thus forming a molecular structure like a sponge. Healthy humus is composed of humates which are the real secret to regenerative agriculture as they contain humic and fulvic acids which promote nutrient absorption and enhance root growth. They promote healthy fungi and make available crucial elements such as phosphorus, Furthermore they are powerful organic electrolytes meaning they are soluble in water and can promote electrochemical balance in plant and animal cells. These abilities also mean they are very active in dissolving minerals, metals and other nutrients making them more plant available and absorbable and thus to plants and animals.
So rather than endlessly buying and adding fertilisers a soil can be brought to life and restored to its natural function, ultimately a far more rewarding way to farm.