Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Theory and practice

Yesterday's post with its references to more or less accurate metaphors reminded me of something Maynard Murray says in the last chapter of his Sea Energy Agriculture. He tells the story of a missionary who made a canoe out of a certain tree in order to prove that the "ancient wisdom" of the elders in the tribe to which he was preaching was hokum. (The elders said that if anyone made a canoe out of that particular kind of tree--a tree in which a certain "sacred bird" had made a nest--the canoe would sink. The Bird God didn't take kindly to that kind of sacrilege and would send evil spirits to plague the foolish man who encroached upon the god's prerogatives within the tree. --Something like that.)

So the missionary made his canoe and, with great fanfare and public display, set out into the water to demonstrate that the evil spirits had no sway over him.

Sadly, "When he had paddled the craft just beyond a nearby reef, it sank and the missionary drowned."

Murray concludes the story:
[S]ome people can be right in practice but wrong in theory while others can be right in theory and wrong in practice. In our example, the natives practiced accurately while the theory behind the practice was scientifically inaccurate. The missionary-scientist, on the other hand, was right in not accepting the evil-spirits doctrine, but failure to thoroughly investigate the facts cost him his life.the truth of the matter was that the sacred birds had nested close to a food supply and the wood of the trees in which they nested was filled with wood-boring worms.
And so, he suggests, that is the way it is with proponents of organic vs. conventional (or inorganic, chemical-based) farming methodologies.
It is true that organic farming imparts some very desirable properties to the soil; that soil texture is often improved; that the nutrients in an organically fertilized soil are good; that plants grown with organic fertilizers have good nutritional value and perhaps superior taste when compared with those grown under some forms of chemical fertilizer; that the building of microscopic life in the soil is beneficial to the crops grown; that aeration and supply of oxygen to the plant roots is good in organic farming.

However, it is not true that plants need organic matter in order to grow into healthy living organisms. It is not true that chemical fertilizers "poison" crops or the soil per se.

What the organic farmers overlooked is the fact that almost without exception plants utilize elements for their nutrition only if those elements in the final analysis are in an inorganic state before absorption. Regardless of the form of the fertilizers when they're placed in the ground, they must first be converted to an inorganic state before the plant takes them in! This is the essence of the primary difference between plant and animal life on this planet. Plants take in elements in the inorganic form and convert them to an organic form. In an opposite manner, animals must have elements in the organic form in order to carry out their metabolism. . . .

When evaluated under botanical facts, the organic hypothesis which demands that all fertilizer be organic in order to be beneficial is rendered invalid. The criticism that chemical farming poisons the soil also breaks down under this precise analysis. While overly harsh, this criticism is not without foundation although chemical fertilizers do not "poison" the soil or crops per se. Instead, the unwise manner in which they are disproportionately applied to the soil can and does upset the physical and chemical functions of the plant and can produce blocking of nutrients or an imbalance of elements.

Let us now evaluate the points used by the inorganic proponents to substantiate their arguments. It is true that plants can grow through their entire lifecycle without organic matter; that organic matter has no magical properties; that yields are very high for chemically fertilized farms; that the average life expectancy in the United States is statistically higher than in most other countries; that under chemical fertilization our farm production is the highest it has ever been.

But, it is not true that plants grown under the present methods using chemical fertilizers are as vital and complete nutritionally as the claims would have us believe. Furthermore, it is absurd to say that the genetic makeup of the plant's seed is more important to nutritional composition than the plant's food in the soil. It is not true that based on average life expectancy, American health is good. [NOTE: This book was written in the mid-1970s--about 25 years into the chemically-based farming industry. For what it's worth, I believe the diabetes epidemic, the obesity epidemic, and the explosion of other inflammation-oriented diseases have made themselves known since then. --JAH] But most important, it is not true that supplying a plant with its five or six major elements in the form of a fertilizer is sufficient to produce good and healthy plants. Plants require a great deal more than five or six elements.

The debate between "organic" and "inorganic" farmers is then reduced to the point of our chapter. The "organic" farmers are right in practice but they adhere to a clouded theory. Conversely, the "inorganic" farmers subscribe to correct chemical theory, but they are woefully inadequate in their biological practices. An accurate overview would serve to combine the inorganic theory with organic practice to provide all the necessary elements of nutrition and proper quantities and optimum balance. . . .

I cast my vote for the practices of the organic farmer and accept the plant physiology theory of the inorganic farmers. Thus, when asked for a prescriptive plan of action, I suggest the practices of the organic farmer, while recognizing their hypothetical shortcomings. For the inorganic advocates, I suggest using a complete chemical fertilizer in which the trace elements are included in balanced, life-supporting proportions.

--Sea Energy Agriculture, pp. 96-98, 100; emphases mine--JAH

And I say: Amen!
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