by P.A. Yeomans, developer of Keyline design

[This is chapter 14 of P.A. Yeomans, The City Forest (Sydney: Keyline Publishing, 1971). It is copied from here.]

The concern for the non-renewing resources of Nature which lie below the earth has not been how they can be used more rationally and be made to last longer, but principally a matter of finding better and faster ways of getting them out and using them up. The highly efficient and scientific application of the same exploitive principles to the renewing and renewable resources of the soil has opened wide the road to global catastrophe.

There is a critical need that a firm line be drawn between the legitimate use of the surpluses of Nature and their straight-out destructure exploitation. But who is to draw the line and who could maintain the line? Authority? Not likely! Youth then? Perhaps they had better, because they and their children are the people who will be worst affected.

Mankind generally has never come to terms with the soil. All through history the fertility of the soil had been squandered and great areas have eroded away and were abandoned. But there were also some notable and oft-times accidental successes in reversing the process of soil destruction and recreating soil of the highest fertility. However on the slow road to advancing knowledge of soil, one scientific observation of considerable moment was misunderstood and applied wrongly. An avenue of great profit was disclosed in the misapplication of the scientific discovery. The pushing aside of the farmers’ practical knowledge and love of the soil, started the bastardisation of agriculture. In the years since, the process has been one of almost constant acceleration.

The scientific event was Leibig’s “Chemistry in It’s Application to Agriculture” in 1840. By analysing the ash of burnt plants he disclosed that they contained chemical ingredients. This was a great scientific advance in knowledge of the soil at a time when science had not started its intrusion and its compartmentalisation of agriculture. Knowledge of scientific law was somewhat confused in those days but the previous discovery of oxygen and something of its provinces in soil and in plant growth had at least established a foundation for the advancement of knowledge about the soil and its various processes.

At a time of such little knowledge Liebig’s teachings appeared wide and illuminating. Soil and humus were now regarded as dead things. There was little appreciation that soil was a community of living things or that bacteria and fungi peopled the humus of the soil and played a critical role in the production of plant life.

The function of chemicals in the soil dominated this intrusion of science into farming where formerly it had been the sole province of the experience and the instincts of the farmers themselves. Now farming could be taken by ‘scientists’ into the laboratory and in pots of sand, plants could be grown by adding to the sand a little of this and a pinch of that, dissolved in water, and then show how they should be grown on the farm. Even today, when it should be apparent to everybody that the great bulk of farming research and experiments should have been done on working farms under the watchful and critical eye or practical farmers, the researcher mostly avoids the wind and the rain for his pots and tubes in the laboratory.

The analysis of the ash of burnt plants to disclose their chemical constituents was a good story and there were those who did not wait on the farmers’ demands but went out and made much profit in telling the story. They sold artificial ‘fertilisers’, (in reality plant stimulants) nitrogen, N, phosphorous, P, and potassium, K (Kalium). The N.P.K. mentality came to dominate agriculture.

It all worked very well. The skills from the land had founded the industries. There was a new demand on the farmers to satisfy the machines, the workers and the rapidly rising population, and the regular farm worker had left the land to work in a factory. Artificials have little effect on the production from fertile soil, but because soils were depleted or were poor, the farmer, with a few bags of the plant stimulants, was able to increase production with less labour. But the use of artificials started a great change. The eco-systems in the soil, which depend on plant roots for their source of energy, became starved because the roots stay nearer the surface where the drugs are. The plants become hooked and eventually can not grow without them. Progressively more artificial fertilisers become necessary as the eco-systems collapse and fail in their task to feed the plant. Thus the cycle of fertility in the soil is destroyed by a process of artificial defertilisation.

The dominance of artificials did not prevent further discoveries of the natural truths of soil and its functions. Darwin’s “The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of (earth) Worms with Observations on Their Habits” (1882) established the interlocking nature of life. But it did not affect the “Chemicals on the March.” Nor did Pasteur’s discovery of the part played by the microbes, which was so profoundly to effect great new fields of science, have any greater influence against the abuse of the chemical fragment of knowledge of the soil.

So-called scientists with superb arrogance said they had only to put the ashes of burnt plants in a test tube, analyse them, and scatter the equivalent quantities of chemicals over the soil to produce successful crops.

After the First World War ended, every authority — education, science and government — advocated artificial fertilisers. The factories set up for “fixing” nitrogen from the atmosphere for the manufacture of explosives, turned to the production of sulphate of ammonia which flooded the market and the farmlands. It greatly stimulated plant growth, depleted the remaining humus in the soil and started the process of poisoning the water run-off and eventually all food with nitrates.

Departments of Agriculture were installed in the universities and agricultural experiment stations were established over the world. All deliberately or unconsciously laid emphasis on the N.P.K. mentality and forced the farmer to believe them. Another great mischief was being added — the fear of the parasite, the pest and the weed.

This was a time of high-speed in the bastardisation of agriculture.

It was not long before the Strangest Depression in history engulfed and sickened mankind. But most people today won’t know about that, they are too young and the historical record is none too clear. It was the era of POVERTY IN THE MIDST OF PLENTY. Traditional finance collapsed on the stockpile of abundance. It appeared that over-production threatened sales. The ensuing loss of profits endangered the loans, so the banks called-up their loan money. When the money came into the banks it balanced off the overdraft ledgers and ceased to exist. Financiers and investors tried to sell out; hence the panic and the stock market crashes. On a national level there was insufficient money left in circulation to run the economy.

Economists and financial “experts” advising governments, were so naive they forecast that Germany could not fight a war because she had no money and Japan could never challenge anybody because she had no money. They thought money was the thing when it was only the token for real things. It was the time when confidence was lost in the great confidence trick of traditional finance.

The United States was ever famous for its booms and busts type of economy. But for three years before 1932 Uncle Sam had his hands full with the greatest bust in history. In that year one name became heard above all the rest — Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The name of his game was “New Deal” and after a year of campaigning, Roosevelt swept to the Presidency of the United States in 1933. This was the birth of the Democrats.

“The New Deal was an undisclosed plan of change in the structure and political procedure in the United States of America” (Webster’s University Dictionary), but Roosevelt’s plan gradually became clear. It was to get the minds of people off the poverty and despair of the Great Depression by giving them something else to worry about — the Menace of Soil Erosion: and with this as the focus, issue the government credit to bring back confidence and beat the depression.

The publicity which then arose on the pollution of soil erosion was greater than the hullabaloo of the space programme and the noisy present day stink about pollution combined. And the pictures of land devastation were dramatic and horrifying.

Roosevelt’s plans were well laid. In one year, 1933, there emerged firstly the New Deal which was sock-it-to-everyone; billions of government dollars for the unemployed millions, for the impoverished farmers, and in loans to desperate businessmen; secondly Dr. Hugh Hammond Bennett and the Soil Erosion Campaign — half a million men were soon employed in the Civil Conservation Corp alone, and thirdly, David Lilienthal and T.V.A. (Tennessee Valley Authority). The cost was unbelievable although cheaper than the Second World War poised only a few years ahead. Then in May 1934 the weather joined up with Roosevelt’s Public Relations campaign: Out of the west, where South West Kansas, South East Colarado, the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma and North East New Mexico all meet on the great plans, the earth lifted and moved eastward across the Northern American Continent to be “sifted through the windows of New York Skyscrappers”. (H. H. Bennett -“Soil Conservation”). DUST BOWL! What a name for their Public Relations machine to play with.

Roosevelt succeeded in restoring confidence, getting the economy functioning and people back to work, and remained President to die in office near the end of the Second World War.

But what had happened to agriculture which had caused soil erosion — still the greatest soil remover of all time? What happened to the soil? It should have been the greatest programme for enlightenment on soil, its processes and its functions; instead it became just the opposite. H. H. Bennett, who was called the father of American Soil Conservation, invented a concept — THE IRREPLACEABLE NATURE OF SOIL. It was expressed in innumerable ways in every class of media throughout the great campaign and on into the years to the present day. It is still accepted widely, including here in Australia. Bennett wrote: “Once this valuable asset (soil) leaves a field, it is as irretrievably lost as if consumed by fire . . . . .” “Soil is produced from the parent material so slowly that we may as well accept as a fact, that, once the surface layer is washed off, land so affected is, from the practical standpoint, generally in a condition of permanent improverishment.” And . . . “it takes Nature under the most favourable conditions, including a good cover of grass, trees or other protective vegetation, anywhere from 300 to 1,000 years or more to build a single inch of topsoil. . . . The time involved may be much longer; the building of the second inch may require many more years than the building of the first inch at the surface, and so on downward.”

So the great cry of the soil erosion campaign was “Save the soil that is left.”

This false and utterly pessimistic teaching on soil may have suited Roosevelt’s campaign, the chemical fertiliser manufacturers and the financial institutions but it produced the least good for the colossal expenditure, and did nothing for today’s world except add to its troubles.

There was little that was realistic in the whole razzmataz. Even the choice of the term ‘soil conservation’ was absurd since CONSERVATION IS NEVER ENOUGH.

Soil conservation first taught that clearing the timber caused erosion; plowing up the grassland caused soil erosion, as if the answer was that man should live only on nuts, fruit and meat. Other statements nearer the truth, said soil erosion was firstly the loss of the fertility of the soil. Even this is not so since the soil on more than three quarters of the land surface of the earth never was fertile, but it did not erode until it was occupied by man. In the semi-arid regions the soil had balance. The loss of the natural balance of the soil, caused by man’s occupation of the land and his innocence of the soil, is the cause of soil erosion.

In 1933 the United States established the Soil Erosion Service. In 1935 Congress passed the basic Soil Conservation Act (Public Law 46, 74th Congress), which authorised the Secretary of Agriculture to establish the “Soil Conservation Service” who renamed the Soil Erosion Service, the United States Soil Conservation Service, within the Department of Agriculture.

The nation which was the greatest despoiler of soil in history — natural soils as fertile as any on the face of the earth had been so damaged in only ten to 15 years as to be washing away — set out to teach other nations — how to “conserve” their soil. Soil conservation was even elevated in America to a new “science” with its own graduates in 1948.

The essential fundamentals of American Soil Conservation are (1) to use the land in keeping with its capabilities and (2) to protect the land in keeping with its needs. The scheme of the Soil Conservation Service for “farm planning” is based entirely upon capability as to land use. This “capability” classification places all land in one of eight soil classes ranging from Class (1) “Very good land that can be cultivated safely with ordinary good farming methods. It is nearly level and easily worked” to Class (8) It suited only for wildlife or for recreation. This land usually is rough, stony, sandy, wet or highly erodible.” All classes are based on the soil as it exists at the time of planning.

Superficially this may seem fair enough but it is completely unrealistic. Firstly, no provision is made for the fact that soil can be quickly changed for the better and secondly, their planning of each farm is based on the classification of soil when soil is the least permanent of the principal factors of the farming landscape. (See Chapter 6, Design for Environment).

Soil conservation is so well oriented to the chemical mentality that the whole scheme could well have had its basis in big business. Certainly, the decreasing number of organically and biologically inclined farmers were being brain-washed to believe they were wrong.

And again Australia devotedly followed America.

The Great National Expenditure on Soil Conservation did some good. It even appeared to do a great deal of good in places but it was a crime against people and a crime against the landscape. Because of its wide miseducation on soil, it added greatly to the bastardisation of agriculture.

When the submarine menaced Great Britain in the Second World War the farmers were urged to grow more and more food. It was the co-ordinated Defence and Financial policy to force farmers to buy the chemical stimulants. The finance given to farmers was in fact a subsidy for the chemical industry. The government itself became the partner of the producers of artificials to ensure their greatly increased use.

No one seems to have been concerned with what the final result would be on the soil, the crops, the livestock and the people, and who even mentioned the environment itself? Or who said there was a better way? Plenty of people knew a better way, the natural and rational way, but they had only dollar voices, against the million dollar voices of big business. There are no huge profits for business in health but plenty in disease and in controlling its symptoms.

During the Second World War a new array of chemicals were being readied for their onslaught on the farmlands and to be extended to a devastating attack on the whole environment. Some of those which have come into use had been banned in warfare because of fear of the frightful consequences! While artificial plant stimulants continued their advance and the further farming departed from the natural and rational way, the greater has been the rise of the pests and the parasite. Now the new and efficiently business oriented chemical sciences are those of the pesticides, insecticides, weedicides and the defoliants. These are the big exploitive businesses of the billions of dollars. Their great crime against Nature, the farmer and the normal life of man has been their introduction into the world environment of chemical substances — particularly those of the chlorinated hydrocarbons and organic phosphates — which are not compatible with any form of life on earth.

It matters not how offensive the waste substances of life may become, which in its effect has been named primitive pollution, they are still foods for some other natural forms of life. Their disagreeable aspects arise from unnatural accumulations, or because they are out of their normal place in the landscape or because they have been prevented from returning to the soil where they belong. But with these foreign synthetic chemical substances, many of long life persistance, there is a complete departure from the natural and the normal. Until their recent introduction, their synthetic molecules did not exist during the whole course of the millions of years of the evolution of life. They are food for no life yet all life must eat them. All forms of life have protective mechanisms in their bodies, as we do, yet no natural defensive organs have genetic experience for detoxifying them and no process of elimination will get rid of them. That is why I have called them THE ULTIMATE FILTH. They are the filthiest things on Earth. They have now entered every form of life on earth to rape and debase it. They supplied the greatest acceleration of all to the bastardisation of agriculture. Today — now — we are well into the era of the Utter bastardisation of agriculture.

In spite of the debasing effect on agriculture which attended Liebig’s discoveries, they were and still are of great usefulness. Firstly, the application of chemical fertilisers (except nitrogen) is an excellent way to ascertain quickly if soil is fertile or infertile. If plant growth is markedly improved, then the soil is infertile. Secondly, they have their most important province in assisting the kick-off of a soil development and improvement programme. The best way to make soil fertile is to follow the way of Nature and hurry it up a little. The clovers and the grasses can be stimulated to grow where they are reluctant to grow, by using these plants stimulants–once. When a start has been made with a satisfactory crop of grass and roots, then aeration of the soil and improved use of rain with the correct management of livestock are the prime means for rapidly improving the soil. No more artificial stimulants should be used. If they are used again they become agents of defertility and pollution.

But the chemical manufacturers promoted the more theory — “if a little is good more is better” and instead of the plant stimulants assisting in the development of a healthy soil, the soil became a medium of holding the plant in place to receive the growth promoters. If there was still some natural fertility banked in the soil it was burnt up as ever more soluble salts are used to grow the artificial and unhealthy crop.

If plants nutrients were soluble in natural soil there would be none left for any growth — it would have been leached to deeper levels aeons ago. The concept is that these nutrients exist in the soil “insoluble yet available” to plants by the final action of the plant roots themselves working with mechanisms within the soil. The plants thus have the faculty of being able to select the nutrients they need in the proportions in which they need them; and this is the way it is for healthy plants growing on fertile soil.

But plants which grow from chemical additives are not able to exercise in full this natural selection of its nutrients because they are all mixed together as salts in water solutions and are taken in by the plant out of the normal proportions in which the various elements are needed. The plant is not a normal plant, it is therefore something less — a diseased plant. Nature’s way is for insects to attack the unhealthy plants and for weeds to grow in the damaged soil. “Scientific” agriculture replies with insecticides, pesticides and weedicides of ever increasing potency and danger to the environment.

The simple and obvious way to measure the success of farming is that there is no disease in the soil, the plants are free from attack by insects and from fungus and virus diseases and the animals and the people who feed on the plants are healthy and vigorous.

Soil erosion and the creating of alkali lands are the final manifestation of diseased soil and show that the soil had been beaten to near death. The concept of soil conservation is to ‘save the soil that is left’ and pin the soil to the earth so they can continue to hammer hell out of it with all the techniques of modern agriculture.

There are many signs of soil deterioration before good soil reaches the stage of destructive erosion or salting — and practically all are associated with the reduction of air in the soil. Year-after-year fine cultivation of the soil reduces the intake of water and more of it runs off and air is not drawn in by water moving down deeply to keep the springs and streams flowing. But good crop rotation, which includes deep rooting legumes and grasses, maintains and improves the humus, the crumb structure, the absorbtion capacity and the aeration, and keeps the springs flowing. If stock are run and managed properly, the improvement of soil — the banking of surplus fertility — will be continuous.

The living wonder of the fertile soil is its completeness and its durability, when it is properly managed. A mm. or two of surface soil moves on each year to lower levels while a mm. or two of the subsoil below, with its store of minerals, becomes a part of the fertile top-soil. Year after year and century after century, good food can be produced and the fertility of the soil can remain intact.

Only through a fertile soil can the plants, the animals, ourselves and our children, and the whole environment, recover from the effects of the bastardisation of our agriculture.