Lake Cleanup’s Skewed Spending Priorities

To the Editor:

This is in response to John McClaughry’s stark and concise commentary on the cost, and ineffectiveness, of remedial efforts to address the state’s phosphorus pollution (“Lake Cleanup’s Skewed Spending Priorities”)

As John pointed out, phosphorus is applied to crops as a way to stimulate their nutritional value, but I was startled to learn that the Comprehensive Study of the Future of Vermont recommended, almost 100 years ago, that farmers should apply 200+ pounds of phosphorus annually per acre of cultivated land. To a smaller, but still significant, extent, homeowners liberally sprinkle their lawns and gardens with phosphorus as part of what is sometime referred to as the NPK mentality. Perhaps the most troubling fact was learning the state has spent $100,000 to effectively capture just 18 pounds annually of phosphorus. It leads me to wonder how much soil scientists and wastewater experts actually expected to harvest. McClaughry ends his commentary by asking, then answering, the question “Is there a better way to reduce the phosphorus loading of Lake Champlain by 34% in 20 years, as [the] EPA and the state have agreed to do? Probably.”

Unfortunately, that answer leaves us where we always leave off when it comes to the challenge of phosphorus mitigation: uncertainty, and lack of direction.

Limitation of space prevents me from reciting the effect of phosphorus on crops, but adequate phosphorus results in higher grain production, improved crop quality, greater stalk strength, increased root growth and earlier crop maturity. There’s no question of it’s importance in the production of crops for animal and human consumption. The observation I make is that untouched field and forest, whose natural cycles are uninterrupted by human intervention and influence, live from year to year, century to century, with adequate stores of available phosphorus. The forest manures itself by making its own humus and supplies itself with minerals. The mineral matter needed by the trees and undergrowth is obtained from the subsoil. As soil scientist for the British Commonwealth (and father of organic agriculture) Sir Albert Howard observed: “Even in soil markedly deficient in phosphorus, trees have no difficulty in obtaining ample supplies of this element. Nature’s farming, as seen in the forest, is characterized by two things: 1) A constant circulation of the mineral matter absorbed by the trees; and 2) a constant addition of new mineral matter from the vast reserves held in the subsoil.”

The principle at play is the “law of return,” and it is missing in our current agricultural practices. Harvesting as interception, cultivation, sowing… all are deliberate, albeit necessary, intrusions into the natural restorative cycle. Measures must be taken to restore the cycle, which represents the true art of agriculture. Sir Howard observed that we hold this all-too prevalent idea that sees Nature as a “very sparing provider of scanty, dispersed and irregular harvests, a force which has to be stimulated by chemicals into adequate response, and controlled by the ingenuity and inventions of modern times.” Yes, the application of artificials into our agricultural practices can produce higher yields, but these results depend upon the plunder of the capital of the soil, its fertility, it stores of minerals and its health-promoting properties (to plants, animals and humans feeding off of that soil).

Nature’s way of restoring soil fertility, including phosphorus, is forest cover. Trees and their undergrowth accumulate the essential stores of humus. The roots break up the subsoil and comb through it for phosphates, potash and various trace elements, which are converted to the organic phase in the formation of leaves, and which are afterward transformed into humus, whose purpose is to feed the soil population. The roots also serve the purpose of breaking apart the subsoil, and leaving channels for air and water. They also create a supply of organic matter. Permeability in the subsoil is restored and – of critical importance – the natural circulation of minerals between the soil and the subsoil is renewed.

Over years of cultivation, the circulation of minerals between subsoil and soil has deteriorated. Again, Sir Albert Howard: “The heavy tread of cows and cultivating machinery, the failure to use afforestation to renew fertility, the failure to replace the deep root system of the trees through the use of deep-rooting plants while land rests under grass, and the excessive use of chemicals have caused the subsoil to form a definite pan which restricts the passage of roots, interferes with the aeration of the lower layers, and leads to poor circulation of minerals between the surface soil and the great reservoir of the subsoil. Crops have in this way been forced to live more and more on the thin upper layer of cultivated soil and so have exhausted such elements as phosphorus, potassium and the trace elements. The soil, therefore, suffers very much as an animal does when the circulation of the blood is impaired. The first matter to attend to, therefore, is to restore the natural circulation of phosphate and other minerals between the subsoil and the soil.”

If you feel this recommendation to restore fertility, and greatly reduce reliance upon dressings of phosphorus, is too involved and drawn out, and you seek, instead, an altogether different answer: there is none. As Buckminster Fuller observed: the opposite of Nature is impossible. And as we do this – as we rid ourselves of the NPK mentality – we will find that a plurality of environmental ills will respond favorably to the same corrective measures: elimination of aquatic dead zones and the nitrification of wells, reestablishing healthy colonies of bees, discouraging the contamination of underground aquifers, and the restoration of Lake Champlain. We don’t have to choose our battles: we simply need to shift our point of view.

Jeffrey Reel

St. Johnsbury, Vermont

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