The biggest news of the week was barely noticed: A study at the University of Illinois, using data going back more than 100 years, concludes that the use of artificial nitrogen fertilizer is killing our soil as well as polluting our air and water and wasting untold millions of dollars every year.
The results, published in the Journal of Environmental Quality, confirm what organic farmers either suspect or know intuitively--that fertilizing with manufactured nitrogen is bad for nature and unnecessary for healthy crops. Yet modern agriculture has become almost completely dependent on artificial nitrogen, usually in the form of anhydrous ammonia manufactured from natural gas.
The four University of Illinois scientists were curious why yields at one end of their test fields continuously planted with corn and artificially fertilized were lower than yields at the other end of the fields where corn was rotated with wheat and hay. Comparing data from soil samples predating the use of manufactured nitrogen showed that routine application of artificial fertilizer was depleting the carbon in the soil.
In other words, artificial fertilizer was killing the carbon-based life forms in the soil that under normal conditions are nature's way of providing fertility. Although the results seem counterintuitive, the effect of repeated applications of aftificial nitrogen was not more fertility, but less. In addition, the killing of soil life releases massive amounts of carbon dioxide--a primary greenhouse gas--into the atmosphere and destroys the soil's ability to retain moisture.
Since the 1970s, continuous planting of corn and fertilizing with nitrogen derived from natural gas has become standard practice for farmers in the U.S. breadbasket. You might even say this is the backbone of our current food system, since almost everything in the food chain--from livestock feed to the high fructose corn syrup in soft drinks to the derivatives in almost all processed foods--comes from artificially fertilized corn.
Artificial fertilizers--as opposed to composting, applying animal manure and planting cover crops to feed the soil--are also responsible for much of the pollution in the nation's waters. And the widespread agricultural use of natural gas--a rapidly depleting resource vital to heating the nation's homes--has come under increasing scrutiny.
The University of Illinois team, by comparing soil data from other states and around the world, found that farmers are throwing money down the drain by indiscriminately overusing industrial nitrogen that in fact is lowering their yields.
The team concludes that healthy soil--not artificial fertilizers--is primarily responsible for providing plants with the nitrogen they need. But until now, the negative impacts of artificial nitrogen have been hidden by the breeding of higher-yielding crop plants.
And evidence continues to mount that organically-grown foods are healthier than those farmed with artificial fertilizers and pesticides.
Preliminary results from a British study find that organically-grown fruits and vegetables contain up to 40 percent more of the antioxidants thought to help ward off cancer and heart disease. Organic milk contains 60 percent to 80 percent more antioxidants and also is higher in vitamin E.
Sam Fromartz in his Chews Wise blog quotes one of the primary researchers as saying, "the figures were so dramatic that they would be the equivalent of eating an extra portion of fruit and vegetables every day."
In yet another study, researchers find that excess body fat--typically the result of a meat-centric diet and sedentary lifestyle--significantly increases the risk of cancer.
After spending years reviewing thousands of studies, an international panel concludes that excess body fat increases the risk of cancer of the colon, kidney, pancreas, esophagus and uterus as well as postmenopausal breast cancer.
"This was a much larger impact than even the researchers expected," Karen Collins, a cancer institute nutrition adviser, was quoted as saying in USA Today. "People forget body fat is not an inert glob that we are carrying around on the waistline and thighs. It's a metabolically active tissue that produces substances in the body that promote the development of cancer."
One of the findings: Every 1.7 ounces of processed meat consumed a day increases the risk of colo-rectal cancer by 21%.
"This is a wake-up call for people who eat hot dogs or pepperoni pizza regularly," Collins says. "They need to be looking for other alternatives. But you can still occasionally have a hot dog."
In that case, please pass the mustard....
The Georgia state agriculture commissioner dropped a controversial proposal to dye raw milk gray after farmers and consumers packed a public hearing to oppose the move.
In Georgia, raw milk can be sold, but only for consumption by animals. The state had proposed adding a colorant to turn the milk charcoal gray as a means of discouraging consumption by humans.
Hardly anyone wants to admit in public they drink raw milk. Yet behind the scenes, many consumers believe unpasteurized milk confers health benefits and they often go to great lengths to find it. They are up against a federal and state health establishment that would like to see raw milk sales to the public disappear entirely.
Said one of the participants in this week's hearing in Georgia:"We've been drinking milk for 10,000 years and suddenly we have to turn it a different color to make it safe?"
Finally, if you get tired of all the bad news, try canning a few vegetables.
Canning may be overtaking knitting and crossword puzzles as the home relaxation method of choice. But as a reporter for the Toronto Star finds, there is more to all this food preservation activity than the urge to find a new hobby. More and more people are using canning as a way to opt out of the industrialized food system and get closer to the food growing in their own communities--maybe even in their own yard.
Can putting up gherkins constitute an act of political defiance? Call this the chow chow heard round the world.