In our last article we dealt with water conservation and some of the latest ideas and techniques being used by home gardeners and the agriculture industry. Water conservation has become and will continue to be absolutely essential for our survival in the 21st century but there is another issue that is having major impact on our fresh water supplies and our own human health. Pollution has compromised the quality of our drinking water. This is especially true with those of us who depend upon underground water supplies. Some Texans have been warned of the danger and are now either forced to use home purification systems or they are drinking at their own risk. Some cities are now purchasing large scale filtration to clean up the water supply. In either case, the cost is high. Astute gardeners and leaders in the agriculture industry have begun to take the necessary steps to turn this problem around.
The number one pollutant in our drinking water today is nitrate. Where does it come from? The leading cause of nitrate pollution comes from left over nitrogen combining with other elements to form nitrates and nitrites. These nitrates percolate through our water tables and can eventually accumulate to toxic levels in our underground aquifers. Higher levels of nitrate can also pollute streams, rivers, and reservoirs. Although in this situation they are less likely to reach levels toxic to humans since bacteria, aquatic plants, and other life forms can recycle these pollutants back into the natural system. As gardeners or farmers and ranchers we can easily stop this ominous threat simply by changing our habit of overloading our lawns and crop lands with high nitrogen fertilizers.
The average person may logically assume that nitrogen is nitrogen and carrying that thought in mind they will buy the fertilizers with the higher percentage thinking that they are getting more for their money. Actually the reverse is true as those same people sadly find out when they apply too much and kill their grass (or the wife’s favorite rose). Or (and this has been the case on much of our farmland) as time goes by they find that they must apply more and more to get the same results.
Ask any farmer and he may tell you that he is using four or five times more fertilizer today than twenty years ago but the crop yields are lower. This is simply because too much of any substance upsets the delicate balance of nature. High nitrogen fertilizers destroy beneficial fungi, bacteria, and other soil organisms (including earthworms). Organic matter then cannot be recycled effectively when these creatures are gone so the levels of soil humus drop and the final result is land that cannot grow much of anything without more chemical. This is a pretty good deal for the guys who make synthetic fertilizers but bad news for the rest of us. The truth is that plants can only use so much nitrogen as they grow. Any excessive amount applied is left behind to dissipate back into the air (pure nitrogen is a gas) or eventually form nitrates that wind up in our water supply.
The answer to this problem is to switch back to natural nitrogen sources. Organic fertilizers are by nature low in nitrogen and depend upon bacteria and other microbes to slowly make this nitrogen available to plants .Rainfall for example will test out to be only about 4% nitrogen. So what grows plants better than natural rainfall?………..you guessed it!! As these fertilizers decompose they form humus. Humus acts to hold water and minerals (including N,P, and K) for plant use. As the humus and soil organisms return the natural recycling system (composting) begins once again. After the soil becomes healthy the gardener or farmer actually can reduce the amount of fertilizer they apply. A startling concept to those who keep having to apply more but nonetheless true. For those that would like to see the proof you can go to the City of Austin website or type in growgreen.com. In 2002, Austin became interested in reducing nitrate levels in their aquifers and hired Texas A&M to test several brands and formulations of fertilizers to see which would be best to recommend to their citizens. As you might guess, the organic fertilizers left behind far less nitrate leachate than the synthetic fertilizers. The real surprise to Tony Provin, the A&M scientist who was in charge, was that the organic fertilizers also produced healthier, better looking grass…………no kidding!
The best organic fertilizer for all plants and all situations is compost itself. Since compost is derived from living material, all minerals and elements needed to sustain new life are returned to the soil as these materials decompose. There is no waste. The system is perfect regardless of soil type (sand, clay, ect.) or the crops grown on that soil. Of course there are those who are going to have a problem with physically spreading enough compost to cover a 5,000 sq. ft. lawn not to mention a 500 acre field. It is being done by some and the results speak for themselves. Mother Nature has been very successful for many millions of years and men have been able to feed themselves by following her example since before written history. Composting is still the only truly sustainable form of agriculture today. Compost is readily available in bulk and very cost effective but there is an easier way.
Several companies have begun mining what are known as mineral fertilizers. These include humates, lava sand, and green sand among others. This type of fertilizer contains little or no nitrogen but does contain high concentrations of all other minerals and elements to help rebuild soils and improve water holding capacities. Humates in particular contain humic acids, an essential ingredient to soil health. Combined with an organic nitrogen source these mineral fertilizers can restore life to a chemically dependant soil using conventional spreaders. Although these soil builders are mined products and as such are not sustainable they still are very effective. For those of you who want to make the switch but are thinking that it will take too long to rebuild your soil, this method will keep things up to par the first year and show positive results by the second year.
Another newly emerging technique is the use of the microbes themselves. Biotechnology has advanced to the point that we now have the ability to isolate beneficial bacteria, fungi, and other soil microbes. These microbes can be packaged and introduced into the soil to naturally produce useable nitrogen from air, enhance root growth, and even destroy disease pathogens in the soil. This is a new and exciting technology. As time goes by we are beginning to see conventional fertilizers and pesticides replaced by beneficial microbes, beneficial insects, insect pathogens and parasites. The use of conventional fertilizers and pesticides could actually become obsolete in the near future. As more of these natural organisms. and soil builders are used, the healthier our environment becomes, and we humans (being at the top of the food chain) will benefit the most.
So what about all those chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides we used in the past? Are they not just as toxic or even more so than the nitrates from fertilizer? Absolutely! Nitrates are the number one cause of water pollution, but definitely not the only cause. The simple rule of thumb has become this; “Don’t put anything on your property that you don’t want in your drinking water.” As rain falls and runoff occurs the only place this stuff can go is into your groundwater, streams, lakes, and eventually the ocean. Personally, I really enjoy eating seafood and would like to continue to do so. Wouldn’t you?
The answer to the pesticide issue is basically the same as fertilizers. As we move into the 21st century, we find that there simply is not an insect or disease that cannot be controlled with natural products. A good example of this is mosquito control. West Nile virus has become a real concern in our state. Local health departments have found a very effective treatment is to apply BTI products (bacillus thuringensis israelensis). This inert bacteria kills mosquito larvae in the water before they have a chance to become adults. While BTI is deadly to mosquito larvae, it has no effect at all on birds, fish, other insects, or humans. Spray programs are really not very effective (although it’s hard to find a health official honest enough to admit this) for three reasons. The poison spray (nerve agent) must actually come into contact with the mosquito to kill it. Secondly as the spray drifts it becomes less and less effective as the air dilutes it and third the same poison will kill beneficial predators that are out there consuming mosquitoes at the same time (dragonflies, birds, frogs, fish, ect.). So we have been killing off our friends who eat tons of mosquitoes every day and in doing so make it necessary to use even more spray. Again, this is great for the big chemical companies but not so good for the rest of us. This example is fairly typical of most of our attempts at insect control. Spraying poison offers quick control in the relatively small area it covers with overkill, pollution, and eventual health issues in the long term. Biological controls don’t pollute or kill unintended victims.
The stories of synthetic herbicides and fungicides are again the same as synthetic fertilizer and pesticide. Unfortunately every day in any given city, dozens (hundreds in the big cities) of trucks load up with thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals to spray our homes, lawns, and food crops. Each day they return empty to refill and do it again tomorrow. This results in millions of tons hazardous waste that we absorb through our skin, breathe in our air, and drink from our water. All for the sake of green, weed free, and/or bug free landscapes, which, for the record have never really been weed free or bug free for any appreciable length of time. Once again, all of this can be done using non-toxic methods and these same companies could keep making the same money doing it. Unfortunately as long as the lawn chemical and pest control companies continue making plenty of money using toxic applications, they see no need to change. It’s up to us as consumers to demand it. It’s ironic that our TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) encourages us to dispose of toxic wastes properly and sends out trucks to central locations (this is a free service by the way) to pick up our empty containers. If these empty or partially empty containers are so dangerous then that leaves any astute individual with this question; “What about the stuff that was INSIDE those containers?” That leads us to our next topic which will discuss the human condition and politics concerning these issues. Next month.
August 26, 2009
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