In my last post I showed you a photo of carrot seeds in the palm of my hand. After I’d poured them out of their little envelope I sat staring at them for a few minutes before I planted them. I was thinking about how amazing it was that such a tiny thing could grow into something as (relatively) large as a carrot, and suddenly it struck me: all the matter, all the mass of that carrot, save this tiny bit of seed, will come from that soil I mixed up and put in the garden box (plus some water and some air). It made me appreciate just how complex the composition of soil must be. And I understood on a whole new level what gardeners mean when they say the soil is key to what you grow.
Then I thought about the book I’m reading, The End of Food, where the author reports that conventionally-produced vegetables have markedly lower nutrient content than the same vegetables did 40 or 50 years ago (we’re talking 40-75% declines in certain vitamins and other nutrients). And I thought about how conventional mass-production monoculture farming depletes the soil of nutrients and then tries to replace them with synthetic fertilizers. Compare the usual potassium, nitrogen, and phosphorus of typical fertilizers with the exhaustive list of substances found in rotting organic matter plus the byproducts of organisms that break down that organic matter. It then comes as no surprise that the commercially-grown carrot is a much different creature than an organic carrot grown in healthy soil. And sadly, as Michael Pollan pointed out in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a carrot labelled “organic” but seeded and raised in a large, monoculture plot where soil is not enriched with organic matter and by crop rotation is not much better than a conventionally-grown carrot, though its impact on water pollution may be smaller.
As I sat staring at that tiny seed I realized that growing this carrot would require building blocks, both to provide the framework and infrastructure of the carrot, and also to provide raw materials from which the carrot will manufacture other, more highly specialized kinds of building block. If we carry this analogy further, then monoculture soil is like those cheap boxes of Lego-knockoffs that come with only one size of block and only three colours. Compare that to the super, mega fun pack of Lego with more pieces than you could ever know what to do with, and so many colours you don’t even know where to start. That is how soil should be – unimaginably complex.
With these thoughts going through my mind I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between that and my own personal experience with building a human. When my children were babies I watched them grow with a mixture of wonder and fascination, knowing that every inch of growth – from fingers and toes to hair and brain tissue – was being built with molecules that came from my milk, from my very own body, a rich source of building blocks itself.
The miraculous, and still not fully elucidated, variety of substances that go into breastmilk are specifically designed by millions of years of evolution to nourish and grow an optimally-healthy human mammal. In the last 50 years or so we have developed infant formulas that incorporate enough of the basic nutritional elements of breastmilk to prevent death by starvation and to grow an infant until such time as they can rely on solid food for nourishment. However, the scientific evidence is now overwhelming that infants raised on formula are not optimally healthy. They suffer from a wide variety of maladies at significantly higher rates than breastfed infants, most related to the immune and gastrointestinal systems. While industry is constantly seeking to incorporate the latest “miracle ingredient” from breastmilk into infant formulas, we simply do not fully understand what goes into breastmilk and the role of each ingredient in the development of a healthy human child.
My guess is that our understanding of soil and its myriad nutrient components is similarly incomplete. Just as a mother’s milk is custom made for her child’s age, health status, and unique environmental circumstances, soil content varies by region and micro-region. Ask any viticulturist how the same grape grown in two different countries can produce two distinct wines and she’ll likely tell you “climate and soil”. Yet of all the nutrients found in organically-rich soil, very few are utilized by commercial agriculture industry. According to Wikipedia the six nutrients deemed most essential to growth (macronutrients) are: potassium, nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, and sulphur. It would thus seem that you can successfully grow a carrot from seed, even in nutritionally-poor soil, simply by adding these six ingredients. But what is the chemical composition of that carrot when grown from such a limited selection of building blocks? And how does it compare to a carrot grown in nutrionally-rich soil from which a massive variety of building blocks can be obtained?
I’m reaching a point where I am not able to see a conventionally grown carrot and consider it the same beast that I will (hopefully) pull out of my garden in a few weeks. I’m beginning to realize that what goes into that carrot is far more important than how much it costs to buy it. In fact, you might consider that the cheaper, mass-produced carrot is of proportional value to the more expensive, locally-grown, small-organic producer variety…you pay less money for the former, and get less nutritional content.