September 20, 2004 | General

Where We Are Going

BioCycle September 2004, Vol. 45, No. 9, p. 70
William F. Brinton

Imagine you are reading this 50 years from now. It is autumn across America and farmers are preparing their fields for next spring. It has been a dry year and the heat and winds have relentlessly torn at the soil’s living fabric. The extreme cyclical pattern in the weather of recent decades, with overly moist years followed by dry, parched conditions, has caused radical shifts in farming practices. With pressure to conserve moisture and humus in hot years, and protection of soil and water movement in wet years, modern society has become fully soil and water aware.
Many farmers are out applying a product called Siftings, a fine, very stable fraction of compost resulting from a technological process of rotary air sieving followed by low-temperature micropelletization to protect biological activity. This product is certified for fall spreading, strictly classified by a new international standard called van Bruhn, reminiscent of the van Post system which two centuries earlier defined classes of peat moss – a product no longer available anywhere. The van Bruhn scale ranks composted products into two broad groups, based on scientific validation of the early German scheme of Nährhumus and Dauerhumus (“nutritive” and “stable” humus), the former more applicable for spring and the latter for fall applications. The basis of van Bruhn is to score stability as a ratio of biologically available carbon to available nutrients, effectively defining soil oxygen supply in the wet seasons and nutrient supply for growth. By now, both the soil effect and yield potential of these van Bruhn rated products has been very well researched and is no longer a subject of endless debate. The broad acceptance of this protocol derives from the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) theme, Durable sans fuite – literally, stable without escape – that has come to guide agricultural and horticultural enterprises, with enormous support of the United States.
The ascension of compost products to the mainstay of soil fertility was not without its enormous dilemmas, struggled through over a few decades. Recycling per se, once in vogue, is now a distant third to soil and water protection. UNEP’s Terre, Eau, Fécondité (soil/water/fertility) principle fits everything into mandatory closed cycle nutrient models and each enterprise must define its role within local and regional cycles. The struggle, as chemical fertilizers were phased out and as yet poorly understood composts replaced them, was brought into sharp focus as it became evident that the world population shifts – which were so politically destabilizing – correlated closely to supply of clean water and stable food production.
Clean water was universally recognized to be a result of stable land management. Now, all farming is considered to be riparian, and all composted soil amendments arriving into agriculture are scored by biologically-based indexes. Crop yields are valued not by how big they are, but by the extent to which they are properly attained. Soluble nutrients in soils have declined to near background, making crop rotations a fine art while significantly spurring development of perennialized crops, first conjectured a century earlier.
Against this background, there are also evident changes in the agrochemical industry. The acceptance among other protocols of biodegradability benchmarks matched to all chemicals protects the environment and assures the continuation of R&D.
The phase out of conventional plastic paralleled the decline of petroleum-based energy. Success of biodegradable polymers was achieved only after conflicts were resolved assuring that no cellulose or starches viable as human nutrition would be supplanted to unneeded packaging. Biofermentation emerged as the dominant waste processing technology. This technology yielded much needed energy and also the precursor compounds such as fatty acids for bioplastic polymerization. Composting assumed a primary role as a means to make defined end products after waste fermentation stages. Lengthy curing steps in accordance to van Bruhn scales are adhered to and sales into farming and horticulture are assured.
By now, all green wastes are blended and composted along with manures. This became necessary to reduce the mountains of manure that accumulated and also to augment nutrient viability and microbial diversity, essential to agricultural acceptance.
On the pathogen front, the emergence of rapid PCR laboratory techniques to classify both presence and supressivity of plant disease causative organisms means that no product gets to the land that has not been USDA APHIS classified with over 500 pathogen groups identified and several dozen supressivity indexes applied.
Contrary to dire predictions in the early 2000s that the needs of business and the economy would overwhelm and scuttle these carefully laid environmental plans, the new practices flourished. The emergence of a popular consumer movement, “Sol à vie,” focused on soil quality, virtually guaranteed acceptance. This was a coup of the International Soil Science Society. For the first time since the American dust bowl years over a century before, soil scientists and biologists are helping guide social and political decision-making.
What makes all this different from former times is not belief in eliminating technology, but a shift in views. Reward runs to the manufacturers and growers who skillfully apply the new protocols with undivided worldwide consciousness of soil and water quality. Compost fits in as a defined product, more than as a process.
There have been numerous other positive effects of these changes yet sadly many of the early harbingers of biofermentation and composting have not lived to experience them. But the overall improved health and increased world stability and peace that result are derivative and are the subject of other accounts.
Will Brinton is founder and director of the Woods End Research Laboratory in Mt. Vernon, Maine.

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