NPK isn’t enough

January 21, 2011

Getting the dirt on organic food requires more than NPK

“The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.”

– Paul Cezanne (courtesy of Small Farmer’s Journal, its motto!)

NPK. No, that’s not the acronym for a new National Public Radio program or fraternity or secret society. But it is a powerful moniker for some of the ills of our industrial system of food production

NPK stands for nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous – the three numbers on the side of chemical fertilizer bags, such as 12-12-12.

But just as Tang is not orange juice, but a processed orange-flavored drink, NPK is not all there is to food. Or shouldn’t be.

To hear Big Ag tell it, all you need for food production is NPK. But, as ever more research is showing, that’s just a tiny portion of the story of soil and plants. It leaves out such essential ingredients as iron, boron, selenium, magnesium and calcium, to name a few, which are vital to healthy bones, teeth and flesh. (That goes for consumers, farm animals and farmers. You grow from the ground up!)

Saying NPK is all that’s necessary for food production is like saying “Here’s the 10 Commandments, but all you really need to remember are the first three.”

We often hear that synthesized fertilizers are “progress.” But the NPK philosophy is quite simply the result of the U.S. war industry looking for a way to turn the chemistry of weapons into something useful – and retain profits.

Until WW II, farmers (like my grandfather, great-grandfather and on back in time) used natural methods such as rotating crops, building up soil and farming where there was good soil to begin with in order to produce food crops.

Since WW II and the chemical concoctions for food production, including herbicides, pesticides, inorganic fertilizers and seeds engineered to grow in such toxic conditions, and/or poor soils, not only has farming become industrialized, with ever fewer farms and farmers, but the nutrition of the food has suffered.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not like to take sides in this food nutrition debate and studies can be produced that show that neither organic nor chemical factory farming has the greater claim. (The Big Ag companies have dumped tons of money on studies that – surprise! -repeatedly show how wonderful they are.) But it should be noted that there’s a lot more to food than NPK, as in millions of micro-organisms in organic soil, trace elements shared by soil to food, and even molecular-level plant phenylpropanoids – enzymes plants produce to fend off bugs when left to their own devices that add flavor and healthful benefits (see studies in microbiology: http://bit.ly/gfY3cF ).

Bottom line: Chemically laden plants can outperform organically grown plants when both are grown in deficient soils; but chemical foods in exhausted soils (which is more often the case in the sterile monocultures of factory farming) can’t come close to well-managed organic soil production. (For more on this, see the Rodale Farming Systems Trial.)

Regardless of “studies,” anybody who grows food and eats it knows this. More than 50 years ago, my father showed me how to pick up a handful of soil, roll it around in my hands and taste it to tell if it was any good or what it needed. Just like his father taught him and his father taught him, going back. That hasn’t changed. (If a farmer won’t taste his own soil, that should tell you something.)

But, perhaps, the greatest test is one of hidden quality. When you grow your own food, or buy it from someone who puts love, care, concern and respect for the plants and soil into his or her growing behavior, the fruits of that labor taste better, and you have peace of mind that there’s nothing harmful in it.

How can you measure that?

The difference is like that of putting a teaspoon of Tang in water versus biting into the tart slice of a fresh-picked orange.

I was most honored to be elected to the board of directors of the Mississippi Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association at its annual conference last week in Natchez and am grateful for the opportunity to serve the state’s farming community in this way.

Annette and I will be at the Gaining Ground-Sustainability Institute of Mississippi conference on “Sustainable Living” Feb. 19-20 in Hattiesburg (Felder Rushing is the featured speaker!). For additional information, visit http://www.ggsim.org.

Come see us!

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

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