C R O P S A N D P E S T S
Are poisons the answer ?
A French biologist, Francis Chaboussou, proposes a theory to explain susceptibility to pest attack on crops, the theory of TROPHOBIOSIS. According to this theory, pests can only survive on plants that have an excessive level of soluble nutrients in their sap or tissues, such as amino acids, sugars, nucleotides, minerals. The excess can be due to inhibition of proteosynthesis, to predominance of proteolysis over proteosynthesis or to excessive production of amino acids. Inhibition can be caused by pesticides or by unbalanced nutrition. Excessive production of amino acids comes from oversupply of nitrogen from soluble fertilizers.
Jacinto Gomes, 39
Porto Alegre - RS
90 040-270 - Brazil
Tel (051) 331. 3105
Fax (051) 330. 3567
First publihed in THE ECOLOGIST Vol.14 N. 2 1984 revised and enlarged February
C r o p s a n d P e s t s
Are poisons the answer ?
The working hypothesis, or paradigm, for the practice of conventional agriculture
looks at the factors influencing production, such as soil, tillage and fertilizers,
pests and pest control, weed competition or plant breeding and so on, in a purely
analytical, or reductionist, way. Each factor is seen independently of all the
others, as if it was in a closed box, or drawer, all by itself, with practically
no connection between drawers. Within each drawer, reasoning is more or less
linear, with few, if any, lateral branchings. When difficulties arise, only
symptoms are treated.
In this view, in the first drawer, the soil is seen as not much more than
a mechanical substrate allowing the plant to anchor itself, so as not to be
swept away by the wind. The soil is also seen as a vehicle for mineral nutrients
that are either water-soluble or that can easily be made soluble.
When soil is analysed for the purpose of determining the type and amount of
fertilizer to apply to a given crop for maximum yield, the methods used in carrying
out the analysis are given by this postulate. For instance, phosphorous is determined
by leaching the soil sample with a mild acid and then analysing the leachate.
So, the analysis may tell us that a given soil is poor in phosphorous when in
fact it may be very rich, but the element is present in insoluble form that
won't show in this type of analysis. Of course, this kind of policy is very
good for those who want to sell the farmer expensive soluble phosphate fertilizers
- superphosphate, triple superphosphate or even complex phosphates, when cheap
raw ground phosphate rock would be quite adequate.
In the second drawer we find the pest, all those creatures that cause damage to our plants. They are seen as arbitrary enemies of our crops, they appear out of nowhere and they can destroy their host plants or cause serious damage whenever they find them.
In this view, it is enough for the right species of aphid to be present in a potato or tomato field and it should proliferate until all the plants are affected. If we do not stop them in time, they will continue their destructive work until our crop is lost. The same is true for the blight fungus, for nematodes, for spider mites or any other parasite. Pests are thus fundamentally wicked organisms. They should be erradicated if at all possible. While we do not succeed in exterminating them, we must keep them away from our crops. If you are caught by American customs with an apple, orange or any living piece of plant or animal or even plant or animal food such as marmalade or sausage in your baggage it will be confiscated and destroyed. You will be punished, for you might just be introducing some new pest into the country.
The easiest way to fight pests is by poisoning them. So, an arsenal of fulminating
and/or persistent biocides is developed for deployment against them - the pesticides:
insecticides, miticides, nematicides, fungicides, bactericides, even rodenticides
and moluskicides and what not. They are sprayed over our crops in a uniform
way, if possible by plane or helicopter. Now even the ultra light little planes
are used. To make things easier for the farmer, the poison manufacturers work
out "spraying calendars". All the farmer has to do is follow the calendar,
spray the right formulation at the right time and he will catch all evil beasts.
The poisons are really potent stuff. Even though you spray two hundred or four
hundred liters per hectare, the active ingredient in the mix is usually only
a few hundred grams, so that less than a few hundredth of a gram per square
meter will do the job.
Nowadays, with all the worry about ecology, the industry likes to promote
what they call "integrated pest control", pretending to favour the
use of only minimal amounts of poison and only at the right time, when pests
are really present. But then, it is usually not the farmer who determines the
presence of the pests, he is told by special warning services run by the agricultural
authority. These warnings remind us of the announcements of enemy invasions
in a war. In some crops, apples for instance, the farmer will spray up to thirty
times in one season.
When the apples leave the orchard and enter the storehouse they are dipped
in a bath of good strong fungicide, then, on a conveyor belt, they are dried
and sprayed with wax.The fine wax cover will keep the fungicide in place. No
fungus or bacteria will have a chance. The guy who designs the ad to induce
people to buy those apples works in a drawer of his own. He never heard of pesticide
toxicology, why should he? On the poster he shows a beautiful child eating a
delicious looking apple, peel and all...
The weed is seen in still another drawer. Weeds are plants that should not
exist. They compete with our crops, for water, for fertilizer, for space, and
they may harbor pests. As long as we cannot put them on the list of extinct
plants, we must fight them. Again, there are marvelous weapons ready to help
us kill them - the weed killers, or herbicides, potent plant poisons, efficient
and handy to use. Some will kill everything that is green, others, depending
on how they are applied, are more "selective", they will kill some
species while allowing others, our crop plants, to recover. Some are applied
on naked soil to prevent weed seed from germinating, others kill grown plants
on contact, either by killing off only those parts of the plant that they touch
or penetrating into it to kill it all. The "defoliants" used to destroy
millions of hectares of jungle in Vietnam and which were also used in Amazonia
are of the latter type.
In most of modern agriculture the aim is to always keep the soil under and
between our crop rows as naked as possible. There was a time, until about the
end of the fifties, when a wheat field in Europe was something very beautiful
to look at - an orgy of colors. I will never forget all the purple poppies and
all the multifarious companion plants in our fields. Then, even along the roads
and on the edges of the fields, everything that flowers was sprayed away. A
butterfly became a rare sight indeed. Environmentalists had to buy up pieces
of land to give natural herbs - among them all those medicinal plants - a chance
of survival. Fortunately, now, in the nineties, there is some recovery. In Germany
one can even see tall grass on city lawns and road banks again.
Since, as we have seen in drawer one, the soil's function is to anchor the
plants and convey soluble mineral nutrients to them, it doesn't really matter
whether or not it is inhabited by living beings - by earthworms, arthropods
and other animals, especially springtails and protozoa, or by fungi, algae,
bacteria. So we don't really have to worry about what our soluble fertilizers
and all those downpours of poisons do to soil life. Since all those creatures
are more of a bother than a discernible advantage, we might as well kill them
off altogether. In most schools of agronomy soil physics, soil chemistry, soil
microbiology are taught separately and these disciplines see no connection,
either, with plant health or among each other. Phytopathology is another separate
discipline. In most schools of agronomy, agricultural experiment stations and
agricultural extension services, even today, 1995, humus is seen only as a physical
In the sixtees, while I was still in the chemical industry, I once received
a technical paper from our research department recommending heptachlor, of all
things, to eliminate earthworms! So well had most farmers been indoctrinated
by then that I even received enquiries on how to kill off earthworms in orchards,
"ecologically", without poisons... I also remember reading papers
by important German agricultural authorities insisting that humus is totally
irrelevant for tropical agriculture, that it can all be done with chemical fertilizers.
In fact, the ideal of modern agriculture seems to be hydroponics, that is, growing
crops in an inert substrate bathed in a solution of soluble nutrients. In fact,
what we do with most of our crops today is not much different from hydroponics.
That is why, when we present a good compost or a mature biogas sludge to an
agricultural lab, they give us a simple NPK- analysis. They don't even attempt
to look into the extremely complex, and as yet mostly unknown, biochemistry
of these living fertilizers, fertilizers that feed the life of the soil. As
they find only a few percent or fraction of one percent each of nitrogen, phosphorus
and potash, they decide the stuff is hardly worth the cost of transportation.
Once, talking to one of the sugar and alcohol barons in the North-East of Brazil, I asked:
- What do you do with the slop from your alcohol distillation?
- I dump it in the river!
- But you're wasting a precious resource, apply it on your fields and stop polluting the river.
- How can I? Five hundred tons a hectare!? Not practical. And I would have enough for only a small fraction of my plantation.
- But that's absurd! Ten to twenty tons a hectare is all you need and you have enough for all of your fields.
- My agronomist tells me five hundred tons.
I wondered. But then it occured to me that the young agronomist must have
done what he learned in school. He figured that he wanted to apply more than
one hundred kilograms of nitrogen per hectare and the analysis of his slop told
him there was less than one tenth of one percent of nitrogen in it. So he needed
that enormous amount. Linear thinking! But ten to twenty tons per hectare is
sufficient to stimmulate soil life, it helps nitrogen fixing bacteria and other
bacteria that make insoluble nutrients, especially trace elements, accessible
to plants, it produces high yields and healthy crops. You save on commercial
fertilizer and agripoisons.
The way modern agronomy measures soil fertility, by making simple elemental
analysis for nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, sometimes calcium, magnesium
and the micronutrients, could be compared to a description - scientifically
correct - of a Boing 747 as so many tons of aluminium, titanium, steel, chromium,
other metals, rubber, plastics, glass, etc., etc. But, give me the correct amount
of these materials, it won't fly!
That's also why modern agronomy has not yet discovered or doesn't want to
discover the value of mature biogas sludge. If we compare an elemental analysis
of fresh, stinking sludge from intensive cattle or pig rearing with that of
the same material after complete anaerobic digestion, we get about the same
result. In both cases fractions of one percent of the main nutrients and less
of the others. But, let's apply fresh, stinking cattle or pig sludge on a pasture.
It will take a long time, up to more than a month, before a cow goes there to
graze and it burns the gras. Now, apply mature biogas sludge, make a drawing
on the grass, the cows will be grazing on the design. I've seen deer come out
of the forest at night, concentrate where the biogas sludge had been sprayed.
So we have two very different things there. But the conventional agronomical
analysis shows the same result. What we need is not an elemental analysis but
a biochemical one. What do we have there in terms of ammonia compounds, of nitrates,
of aminoacids, peptides, polipeptides, proteins, enzymes, alcaloids, hormones,
of humus complex and, in the case of the fresh stinking sludge, in terms of
all those poisonous and malodorous substances such as mercaptans, hydrogen sulfide,
indole, skatole, free ammonia, etc., and, what about the microflora that is
totally different from one to the other?
Let's look at the next drawer. It's the one that contains plant breeding.
New crop varieties are selected by geneticists for maximum efficiency, that
is, for maximum yield. What really counts is so many more pounds per acre. Of
course,it is also important to select for good looks. The apple or potato must
look attractive on the supermarket shelf, taste being secondary to looks. On
the experiment station, when geneticists do the seletive breeding for the new
varieties, from the very beginning they apply all the paraphernalia of chemical
fertilisers and poisons, so we often don't know to what extend they are really
more productive. The traditional peasant stock, from which they are derived
never was treated that way.
There is also the aspect of resistance to pests - apparently a cross-link
between this drawer and drawer two. But resistance to pests is seen only as
genetically inherent to the variety itself. No attempt is made to see it in
relation to the environment in which the plant will have to grow, except insofar
as it means the environment of modern agriculture - dead soil, plenty of inputs
from the chemical industry.
That is why many of the giant pesticide corporations are buying up seed companies and trying to monopolise gene banks. They want to control breeding in such a way as to promote only varieties that give maximum response to their chemical inputs, as well as cultivars that are resistant to the total herbicide of the respective company that owns the patent for the genetically engineered variety.
There are a few more drawers. But they are drawers modern agricultural workers
hardly ever think it worth-while looking into. Take the drawer ecology. Only
insofar as environmentalists make too much fuss about all the dead birds and
fish, will they think of choosing their poisons taking into account a certain
selectivity in lethal effect, so as to kill pests without, apparently, killing
other creatures. Under much pressure they will pretend to promote "integrated
pest control" as mentioned above. But it is easy to see that this is not
in the interest of turnover, so it remains lip service. In the early eighties,
in the State of São Paulo, the poison pushers convinced the Ministry
of Agriculture that it had to apply a certain insecticide on all cotton fields,
from the air, on the stubble, after harvest (!), to "erradicate" the
boll weevil. This was considered "integrated pest control". We had
to go to court to stop the action. But the Ministry had already bought the stuff,
so no loss in business was involved for the poison brewers.
We might mention one more drawer - social justice. But this one should not
really concern agronomy. After all, what are sociologists and political scientists
for? No trespassing of other specialist's fields! Modern agriculture is still
seen as the greatest boon to Mankind. In its accounting, it externalises its
ecological and social costs. The hundreds of millions of peasants who were and
continue to be uprooted worldwide are not considered in any balance sheet listing
the costs of modern agriculture. Neither agronomists nor economists find it
necessary to come up with this kind of accounting. Not to mention the indescribable
ecological harm that modern agriculture has caused and continues to cause worldwide.
This, in essence, though somewhat oversimplified for easier understanding,
is the way modern agriculture sees or does not see a relationship between pests
or disease and agricultural practices.
The interesting thing about this paradigm is that, insofar as we follow it,
we transform our farms in such a way as to make the paradigm come true. On most
of our fields, soils have become dead mechanical substrates and pests do act
as if they were arbitrary enemies.
A rapidly growing minority of farmers and workers in agriculture are beginning
to see things from an altogether different perspective. They think not in reductionistic
but in holistic terms. For them everything is connected to everything else.
They cannot see an arbitrary enemy in the pest, neither do they care to exterminate
The very thought of creatures deserving of extermination is abhorrent to any
true biologist. As any beginner in Ecology knows, a process as old as organic
evolution, almost four billion years, cannot possibly produce organisms that
are wrong, that should rather not exist.
If pests really were the way the chemical industry in its well printed colorful
folders and TV-ads implicitly postulates them to be, there wouldn't be any life
left on this planet. There probably is no species of plant that doesn't have
its pests and pests are millions, some are more than hundreds of millions of
years old. Every pest would have had ample time to meet and exterminate all
its hosts and would then have died out itself. Life would have collapsed on
Traditional peasants with their ancestral wisdom knew or acted as if they
knew that pests only strike plants that are not quite healthy. So they strove
to keep their crops healthy through proper soil management, including fallow,
composting crop residues and manures, planting green manures, crop rotation,
companion planting and other practices. Modern ecological farmers, with today's
scientific knowledge, can do much better. Only rarely do they have to fight
pests directly. Then they can resort to mild treatments, such as rock powders,
ashes, herbal extracts and preventive treatments that stimulate plant growth.
Until the early fifties, when I studied agronomy, agricultural science was still
almost entirely oriented in that direction. It was not the farmers who asked
for the modern methods, they were imposed on them as the chemical industry managed
to progressively control agricultural schools and colleges, as well as research
and agricultural extension services.
A conventional agricultural expert confronted with an orange or peachtree
covered with scales or aphids, or attacked by fungus disease, looks up and tries
to identify the pest species. Then he chooses what he considers to be the best
and cheapest poison to rid the tree of its attackers. The ecologically inclined
expert, on the other hand, will also look down. He will ask the farmer how he
tilled his soil, whether he applied herbicides, what fertilizers were applied,
what pesticides were sprayed. He will take up a slice of soil with a spade.
The structure, or lack of structure and compactness he sees in the soil as well
as the organisms, earthworms f.i., he finds or does not find, the weeds he observes,
all this will tell him very much about why pest attack occurred.
In the conventional view one of the factors most blamed for massive pest attack
is monoculture. The argument being that, when confronted with massive and extensive
stands of its host plant, the pest, whether it be animal, fungus, bacteria or
virus, can really go on a spree and spread out, which it could not if its host
plants were rare and interspersed with other species on which the pest cannot
thrive. But monocultures do occur in nature too, though only under extreme environmental
conditions. In a lake oversupplied with plant nutrients we get eutrophication
- one species of alga crowds out all others. Red tides are the same kind of
phenomenon. In the arctic or on beach or desert ecosystems there sometimes are
natural stands of one single plant species, reeds, f.i. In some salt marshes
there may be stands of one species of mangrove tree or fields of only one herb,
salicornia. I have never been able to register serious pest attack in such ecosystems.
Attack, when it occurs, is limited to a few marginal individuals. In my home
state, Rio Grande do sul, we have enormous eucalyptus plantations, some of them
tens of thousands of hectares in one contiguous piece. All the plantations I
ever saw were free of pests except for trouble with the leaf cutting ant on
the seedlings during the two or three weeks after transplanting. Once the seedlings
have recovered and begin to grow the ant ignores them. Mistletoe, a hemiparasitic
plant that can thrive on almost any species of higher plant - I have seen it
on palm trees and on orchids - hardly ever occurs in eucalyptus plantations,
it occurs only on trees of varieties that like deep, well drained soil when
they are planted on patches with a high underground watertable, also on senescent
trees. Neighboring trees on adequate ground are not attacked, even though birds
deposit, actually glue, mistletoe seeds on them. The seed sprouts but the young
plant doesn't prosper and eventually dies. Old, senescent trees, mistreated
by pruning or on poor soil, however, can have almost one hundred percent of
their foliage substituted by mistletoe.
We also have equally large monocultures of Australian and South African acacia
for firewood and the production of tannin from the bark for the leather industry.
Here we have a very serious pest, a beautiful large beetle we call "serrador".
The female, in the fashion of a beaver, fells small truncks and cuts branches
up to two inches thick. On the dead wood she deposits her eggs. Sometimes a
whole plantation is irreparably damaged. Here again, it is interesting to observe
that even though the beetle is present, it attacks some plantations or parts
of plantations without attacking others. I have been able to establish a correlation
between heavy attack and soil type. Attack is heaviest on water logged soils
and on extremely poor sandy soils. On well drained, fertile clay soils the beetle
doesn't seem to like acacia. The lines that mark the limits of soil type within
or between plantations also seem to be the lines that mark the limits of the
areas attacked. If it was a question only of the beetle finding its host it
would certainly not respect lines delimiting soil types.
So the story of pest attack must be more complicated. Though monoculture especially
big monoculture is ecologically and socially undesirable, we can have healthy
monocultures. There seems to be involved something we might call a palatability
factor. Sometimes a pest likes its host plant and sometimes it doesn't. The
postulate of arbitrary enemy does not apply.
In more than sixty years of intensive observation of Nature - once, one of
my superiors in the pesticide industry contemptuously called me a "nature
lover" - I made innumerable observations of this type. When I first wrote
this, from my window I could observe a colony of large black, spiny caterpillars
on a ficus tree in my backyard. They slept at the base of the trunk during daytime.
At dusk, they formed an impressive caravan going up to feed. But they only devoured
the leaves on the smaller branches that had ceased growing because the canopy
overhead cut out sunlight. These branches die off anyway. It has been that way
for many seasons. So there was a preference for one type of foliage on the same
tree. A few years later the caterpillars disappeared altogether. But now the
tree stands on a different kind of soil. When I moved into my deceased parents
house twenty five years ago we had a conventional, well manicured garden. I
then allowed it to go wild, no more sweeping of dead foliage, no eliminaton
of "weeds". Now, it is a little jungle, under the carpet of dry leaves
we have a good dark, open humus soil. But meantime the tree grew so large I
decided to do some tree surgery. A large branch was cut back. The new sprouts
on the stump are now attacked by thrips (a sap sucking small insect). The rest
of the tree is clear. Small wonder, the sprouts cannot grow fast enough to handle
all the sap they are offered. There was no corresponding pruning of the roots
below. The new growth is metabolically unbalanced.
There is another tenet of conventional plant pharmacology that cannot or cannot
always be true. When we fight a pest with poison, let's say scales on oranges
with parathion, we often get an immediate proliferation of another pest, mites.
Now we have to use a miticide on top of the insecticide. It is said that mites
now proliferate because parathion, being a "broad spectrum" insecticide,
kills the natural enemies of the mites, leaving them to proliferate freely.
It's the old "arbitrary enemy" postulate again. If the pest is not
kept in check, whether by poison or predators, it will strike. Even those who
propose biological control often base their work on the same postulate as that
of chemical warfare, they only want to substitute predators or non-poisonous
treatments for the conventional poisons.
But proliferation of mites can also be triggered by modern carbamate fungicides,
or by systemic insecticides or herbicides. This rules out elimination of predators.
Modern fungicides also often seem to promote exactly those fungi that they are
supposed to keep away. In our vinyards, when growers gave up the old fashioned,
cheap copper and sulfur fungicides in favor of modern, expensive carbamates,
they soon found themselves in a situation where they have to spray up to 30
times in one season. The more they spray, the more fungus attack they get. As
if the fungicides really made the vines palatable to fungi. Now they are going
for new, more potent and still more expensive stuff. They will certainly be
in more serious trouble soon.
In organic farming and gardening it is common knowledge that pest attack has
to do with the metabolic state of the plant. Susceptibility to pests, therefore,
depends primarily on nutrition. Other factors, weed competition, positive or
negative interactions with companion plants, allelopathy, climatic conditions,
etc., also play a role. Conditions for plant health must be optimized for pest
attack to be minimized. With proper soil management it is possible to have a
pest free crop even though it be surrounded by fields of the same crop infested
with pests. For demonstration purposes one can easily prepare two potted plants,
let's say tomato or potato, in such a way that one of them will be easily attacked
by aphids or blight, while the other one stays clean. When pest attack occurs
on the plant in the unbalanced soil, one can make foliage of the two plants
touch. The pest will not move from the infested to the uninfested one. But it
is then easy to make the healthy plant become susceptible. All one has to do
is give it an oversupply of water- soluble nitrogen fertilizer, especially ammonia
What we did not know is what kind of metabolic processes are involved. It
is often supposed that healthy plants produce their own defenses against pests,
that they either take up from the soil or produce substances antagonistic to
pests - their own pesticides, so to say - or that they have mechanical ways
to defend themselves, with stronger cuticles, perhaps, or hairs. All these factors
may be at work, but now we know there is a fundamental factor involved that
overshaddows all the others. We have an explanation that puts all the above
observations into one consistent frame:
Francis Chaboussou with more than twenty years of work at INRA (Institut National
de la Recherche Agronomique) put forward the Theory of TROPHOBIOSIS. In its
most succinct expression his theory says: pests starve on healthy plants!
Most pests lack the enzymes to break up proteins into their constituent amino
acids. This is a necessary step when one organism feeds on another. Foreign
protein cannot be used as such, as each organism has its specific proteins.
Out of the amino acids obtained in proteolysys, new proteins are synthesized
in proteosynthesis. It is like demolishing a house to make a different one from
Chaboussou showed that pests, whether they be insects, mites, nematodes, protozoans,
fungi, bacteria or even viruses, will only thrive on plants with a metabolic
imbalance that leads to an abnormally high level of soluble nutrients in the
cell, that is, of amino acids, nucleotides, sugars and minerals. In a healthy
plant the level is low. A healthy plant is either in repose, hibernation or
estivation, or it grows as fast as it can. When in repose, there are no free
nutrients left in the cell, metabolism ceases. But when growing, the turnover
of nutrients in the cell is fast, as soon as they appear they are used up in
the building of new structures - proteins, DNA and RNA, cell walls, starches
and fats and a lot more. Therefore the concentration of amino acids, sugars
and mineral nutrients is very low, too low for pests that rely on them to prosper.
The plant is not nutritious for them, hence not palatable. The pest avoids the
But when will a plant have an excessive level of amino acids? Either when
proteosynthesis is somehow held back or production of amino acids is too high,
or, as happens in old leaves from where nutrients are recycled to newer parts
of the plant. There, proteolysis predominates over proteosynthesis, soluble
nutrients build up before migrating to the growing tip of the plant. This is
why on cucumbers, melons and squash one can often observe heavy fungus attack
on the old leaves while the rest of the plant is clean.
For amino acid congestion to occur, proteosynthesis inhibition need not be
strong. The plant may still be growing vigorously. Let's use a metaphor. On
a multiple-lane highway cars are cruising at 70mph. They reach a bottleneck
with only half a lane obstructed and slow down. From there on cars resume 70
mph, traffic looks normal but back from there a congestion builds up. So a plant,
let's say a tomato plant, may look quite healthy, show apparently normal growth,
but be heavily attacked by aphids or mites and suffer from fungus disease, because
there is congestion of soluble nutrients.
Chaboussou shows that many of the modern pesticides inhibit proteosynthesis.
When not deliberately so, they are all, to some extent, systemic, they penetrate
the plant's system and circulate in its sap. So they must have some effect,
positive or negative, on the plants' metabolism. Since most of them are biocides,
negative effects should predominate. That is the reason why, with increasing
use of pesticides, we get increasing pest attack. Not the elimination of natural
predators of pests, or monoculture, but increasing susceptibility of our crop
plants to pests has to be blamed. Also, many of the cases where we think the
pest has become resistant to a pesticide, especially in the case of fungi, may
fall in this category. That is why Chaboussou called the first edition of his
book "plants made sick by pesticides".
The rate of proteosynthesis depends, fundamentally, on well balanced nutrition.
But the way we feed our crops in modern agriculture, applying the methods derived
from our reductionist view, as explained above in terms of closed drawers, it
must be almost impossible for a plant to reach nutritional balance. We apply
fertilizers according to empirical formulas based on an often meaningless soil
analysis, in the form of concentrated soluble salts, all at once, before or
while sowing, all in the same narrow groove. Rarely will we split it up into
two applications, the second one being a "top dressing" or foliar
spray, again of soluble salts. The plant cannot avoid bloating itself at one
point and starving at another, when the soluble salts have been washed away,
or getting too much of one element and too little of another. We don't even
have to mention the problems of antagonism between the different mineral nutrients
that easily come to play when they are massively available in water-soluble
form as is the case with most commercial chemical fertilizers.
And then there is the problem of the trace elements. Proteosynthesis seems
to be very sensitive to deficiencies in micronutrients. So, when we degrade
soil structure with excessive mechanical aggression, erosion and loss of humus,
destroy soil life with heavy applications of water soluble salts and eliminate
food for soil life by giving up crop rotation, composting, green manure, what
can we expect? In a dead soil plants always have difficulties taking up one
or another or many of the trace elements.
In the summer of 1982, after more than ten years of absence, I revisited the
vinyards of the Palatinate. I saw extensive areas where all the leaves were
as yellow as sulfur. This is called chlorosis, a kind of plant anemia due to
difficulties in the uptake of iron. But there is no lack of iron in the soil.
The difficulty comes from modern agricultural practices. The vinyards were now
highly mechanized, the soils were compacted from the weight of heavy machines,
intensive use of commercial fertilizers and the almost continuous downpours
of poison had killed soil life. The chemical industry that caused most of the
trouble in the first place had a ready solution - foliar application of an iron
chelate. Instead of recanting they got still more business!
As for the increase in the production of amino acids, we only have to look
at our heavy applications of soluble nitrogen fertilizers, especially those
derived from ammonia - ammonium sulfate, ammonium nitrate, ammonium phosphate,
urea. The effect is the same, whether the ammonia be synthetic or of natural
origin. Applying fresh, uncomposted chicken manure on growing plants also causes
almost immediate pest attack. The high nitrogen content in chicken manure is
in the form of uric acid and becomes easily available. Comming back to our highway
methaphor, the road is free, no obstruction, but the game at the stadium is
over, the highway cannot handle all the cars at once.
In his book Chaboussou gives us hundreds of concrete examples that underpin
his theory, he reports on his own research and observations during several decades
and interprets the research of others. He gives us copious bibliography. The
theory can be easily tested in the field and checked in the laboratory. Why
is he simply being ignored? If he is wrong, it would be no problem to refute
him. But if he is right, even if only partially - after more than ten years
of intensive observation in the field and in the wild I know he is right - then
it means we are confronted with a monumental revolution in agronomy! It will
be a very hard blow for agri-chemical business, but it will be a liberation
for the farmer and an important contribution to cleaning up the environment
and, most of all, for human health.
In 1906, when chromatography was first developed and proposed by Tsvett, it
was considered too primitive and even ridiculed by some. Today it is one of
the most precise and powerful tools in analytical chemistry, especially biochemistry.
Chaboussou's contribution is not just an efficient tool, it can be compared
to plate tectonics, which gave Geology a new paradigm, a global explanation
for continental shift, volcanism and mountain building, which, in one stroke,
gave meaning to what previously required many, often unrelated and unsatisfactory
explanations. In Agronomy, TROPHOBIOSIS gives us a new frame of reference for
efficient, clean farming practices. In agricultural research it is a new orientation
that can open many old doors that had been locked tight, as well as open unsuspected
new ones. What a pitty Chaboussou didn't get the Nobel prize for it.
We have succeeded in reopening many of the old doors. In my home state we
are getting astounding results with methods that would never have occurred to
conventional agronomic research and extension. Looking not for weapons to kill
"enemies" but to ways to strengthen our crops we resorted to treatments
we learned from old peasants. They are now easily being accepted by our small
farmers and by many of the big guys too.
Let's see a few cases: in strawberries, where fungicides and insecticides
are applied almost daly, even while harvesting (!), we decided to apply whey
- yes, just plain whey from cheese making - first pure, then diluted one to
ten. Now we are down to 2%. We get plants as healthy as can be, more delicious
and better keeping berries, and costs are down 90%. Of course, soil management
has to be organic. The same is true for tomatoes, for all vegetables.
A large commercial orchard, 65 hectares of guava (28,000 trees now almost
thirty years old) used to follow recommendations of the official extension service:
plowing once yearly, harrowing twice a month (!?), repeated applications of
herbicides to keep the soil as naked as possible. On the trees, fungicides and
insecticides, sometimes acaricides, were applied every two weeks, sometimes
weekly. The cost for all the expensive inputs and treatments were reaching a
point where there was almost nothing left for profit and the owner was about
to give up. That was ten years ago. I told him to forget about plowing, harrowing
and herbicides, as well as chemical fertilizers, especially heavy applications
of nitrogen, to keep, instead, a good green cover of native herbs, including
legumes and to apply only raw phosphate - moderate amounts every three or four
years. The trees were then sprayed every fifteen days with whey. The fruit fly
was baited with melasses. Even though the orchard had to recover from bad pruning,
it is today one of the most beautiful, healthy and productive orchards I ever
saw. The leaves are dark green, leathery, clean of all kind of pests, the fruit
are impecable and delicious, free of blemishes and maggots. Lately, baiting
for the fruit fly became almost unnecessary. Costs for inputs are down to almost
zero. One tankload of whey costs less than one one-gallon canister of fungicide
used to cost. In the place of the heavy expense with herbicides there is an
additional income from about one hundred cattle that graze under the trees to
keep the green cover short.
It is often said that organic farming is more expensive, that it is elitist,
that we cannot expect to feed the human masses if all agriculture were to go
organic; also, that the produce would be of inferior quality. The exact opposite
is true! Of course, it has one big disadvantage - it does not promote transnational
corporations, banks, big government, it promotes people, the peasant, small
or big farmer, the consumer, it promotes health, wellbeing, beauty, biodiversity,
it respects and helps Creation instead of causing damage, the way most modern
Let's look at another case. In the south of Brazil, on the high plateau of
Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina we have an important apple industry. The
climate is not exactly the best for apples - sometimes it doesn't get cold enough
in winter - but good productivity and good quality is obtained. The cost is
very high, though. Almost all plantations are still conventional, with a maximum
of chemical and mechanical inputs. Some planters are now giving up, pulling
out their trees, to make pasture or to plant forest monocultures. The costs
for all the inputs are getting out of hand, leaving little profit. Mr. Magro,
an agricultural expert, who worked for official extension, left and became an
apple grower himself. Reasoning along Chaboussou's discovery, he came up with
a treatment that rapidly became known as "Super-Magro". In the summer,
when temperatures are above 20ºC, in an open drum or tank, he mixes 50%
cattle manure and 50% water, adds, one or two kg of sugar or melasses, some
milk, allows it to ferment for about twenty days until all the biogas has escaped,
then adds all the important trace elements, all the way to vanadium and molibdenum.
The brew is applied on the apple trees diluted to between one and two percent.
No more problems with his apples! He also gave up baiting for the fruit fly
lately. His apples are impecable, his costs are down, profit up. Sometimes he
grazes sheep among his apple trees. "Super-Magro" is now working wonders
in vineyards, in citrus plantations, peaches, on almost all crops.
Personally, in one of my two firms, where we do recycling of industrial wastes,
out of activated sludge from an effluent treatment plant, we prepare a humus
concentrate with trace elements for foliar application. We have discovered that
humus also has almost the same effect that we get from whey or from mature biogas-sludge.
It is fantastic how this product works on orchids and flowers, also at very
low concentrations, 2 to 1 per cent, or less.
In São Paulo, a Japanese agronomist, who also left the chemical industry
for reasons of conscience, the way I did twenty five years ago, from the offings
of the fish canning industry produces an amino acid brew with trace elements
that is applied at very low concentrations on all kinds of crops, with incredible
results. Thousands of farmers are using his product, giving up poisons.
What we are learning is that all these treatments, provided soil management
is at least partially organic, keep our crops free of pests, be they insects,
mites, nematodes, bacteria or fungi. When, for some reason, usually neglect,
attack does occur, one aplication is often enough for it to disappear. In the
case of aphids on citrus trees I observed with fascination how, after one application
(on the leaf surface - the bugs are on the underside) of my humus and trace
element preparation or of pure whey or a mixture of whey and humus the population
begins to decline. The ants that care for the bugs and milk them for their honey
seemed to be running about in despair. First, the brood, the small, still growing
bugs, fell off, later the reproducing adult females also vanished. In four days
it was all over. In the meantime I observed intensive attack of predators on
the aphids, - wasps, ladybirds and syrphis flies. This was not apparent on the
intact bug colonies before spraying. Could it be that the predators of the bug
also prefer bugs that are already in trouble?
The Brazilian farmers magazine, MANCHETE RURAL, November 1995 reports how
cocoa planters are now solving a problem that seemed unsolvable. Cocoa plantations
in the state of Bahia were about to dissapear and with them some four hundred
thousand jobs half of them already gone. A fungus disease with the popular name
witches broom ("vassoura de bruxa", Crinipellis perniciosa) was resisting
all conventional fungicides. One planter, reading about how commercial planters
of pineapples in the state of Espirito Santo saved their crops from succumbing
to Fusariosis sp., another fungus disease, by applying diluted cows urine, decided
to try it on cocoa. In Espirito Santo the urine treatment is now officially
promoted by the state extension service. On cocoa the results are spectacular,
it will now be tried on coffee and other crops.
Another very good farmer's magazine, GLOBO RURAL, January 1996, reports enormous
success with "biofertilizer", the name Brazilian agronomists give
mature biogas-slurry, on all kinds of crops, applied direct on the soil or,
in diluted form as a foliar spray. For over twenty years I have been promoting
biogas-slurry from digestors or prepared in open drums for small quantities.
It is an ideal organic fertilizer on the soil and ideal plant protective treatment
on the leaf. Isn't it shocking to see how in Europe millions of tons of slurry
from cattle, pigs and even chicken are wasted or used in ways that do not take
advantage of its true potential, that are even harmful, causing nitrate contamination
of ground water. In Germany alone, if the existing slurry (the figure I learned
some ten years ago is over two hundred million tons/year) were used to make
biogas and electricity, several nukes could be decommissioned and the mature
slurry could contribute to healthy agriculture. Mature biogas-slurry is so precious
as a plant protective, that it would be worth even to transport it over relatively
long distances, say from Northern Germany to the wine growing regions in the
Mosela or Rhine and Neckar valleys. Of course, sooner or later we will have
to give up the methods of modern intensive animal rearing - it destroys more
food than it produces, but while it lasts the slurry should not be wasted, but
biogas can be produced from all kinds of agricultural and domestic wastes.
Why do foliar treatments such as whey, humus, biogas-slurry, amino acids,
urine and many others give protection against pest attack and even stop it where
it occurs? The explanation can only be throphobiosis. The low concentrations
applied, therefore the very small amount of the respective substances that the
plant can take up, rule out a fertilizer effect. So it must be a stimmulating
effect. Could it be that proteosynthesis is stimmulated. Here we have a fruitful
field for serious research. If it is not done by agronomical institutions, perhaps
it should be done by biologists. In the meantime, the more farmers experiment
directly on the field, the better. Research will have to follow.
For over thirty years now, I have been observing the movement of organic agriculture
in all its schools - in Germany, Austria, the UK and France and some in the
US. I also read all the literature I can get from them. I must say, I am very
disappointed. I don't see it grow fast enough to affect agriculture in general.
At the going rate it would take centuries to make all agriculture go ecological.
Sometimes one even gets the impression that some of the groups don't want to
see that happen, they are happy with their particular niche. But agriculture
must change. So, ever since I left the chemical industry and became engaged
in promoting regenerative agriculture I was more interested in the guy who is
still conventional than in the converted. I said to myself, if we succeed in
having several hundred thousand farmers give up 5 or 10 per cent of poisons,
that is a lot more progress, ecologically and socially, than having two or three
dozen go one hundred per cent organic. We have noticed that those who go the
first small step don't stop on the way. They realise, without any ideology or
dogma, that it is to their advantage to continue. We have had great success
in this direction all over Brazil, it is becoming an avalanche. Chaboussou's
work gives us a very efficient tool and the right perspective. We must make
him known to all those who work in agriculture.
José A. Lutzenberger
(Published on the Internet by Matthias Reichl 06.06.2002)
siehe auch 1, , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 , 7, 8, 9, 10, 11,