Organic farming, shale gas and natural eco-systems

Yes, this technology really does apply to safe shale.

  • Ever wondered why natural eco-systems do not pollute the rivers?
  • The answer was partly developed from playing golf in the USA.
  • Organic systems are safe and do not leak nutrients in top the groundwater and rivers.
  • This is a sustainable way to farm just as productively as with mineral fertilisers.
  • Soil fungi need feeding.

By Bill Butterworth

17 February 15


15.02.10.Soil mechanism 2

“Fig 2.2 In natural ecosystems, plant nutrients do not enter into solution in the ground water in order to enter the plant. Humus is a complex mixture of heavy molecules which are not soluble in water. Neal Kinsey, in his book “Hands-on Agronomy”, points out that this humus has several times the colloidal capacity of clay and will hold onto anions as well as cations. That, however, still did not explain how the nutrients got into the plant without leakage. It was the American PGA (Professional Golfers Association) who pursued this investigation to show that the soil fungi, known as mycorrhiza, fed at one end of their hyphae on the humus and the other end went not up to somewhere near the plant root hair but actually cross the root hair wall into the plant. This finding was added to by researchers at Aberystwyth in South Wales who showed that there was another type of mycorrhiza which went up to the root hair and wrapped around it much as the placenta in a mammal. This is a molecular level relationship and a closed conduit. That is why the natural ecosystems do not leak.”

Ever thought why the tropical jungle or the Fens of East Anglia, all of which are clearly very fertile, do not leak nutrients into the rivers and dykes and produce green slime and dead fish?

Well, these natural eco-systems are organic and work in quite a different way from mineral fertiliser farming systems. They work on what is sometimes called “The Closed Loop” but this organic one is different and it is important, vital even, in understanding safe recycling of “wastes” to land.   The “Figure 2.2” above and what follows are a short extract from my book; “How to make on-farm composting work”, published by MX Publishing, 2010 and my later book, “Reversing global warming for profit”.

“Understanding the mechanisms in what is commonly called “the closed loop” and managing those mechanisms makes recycling to land dramatically safer in environmental terms. The diagram shows the principles of the closed loop. Organic materials, and inorganic ones which have food value for the soil microorganisms, do NOT break down directly to form “humus”. Such materials added as “waste” are part consumed (especially the soluble components) by micro-organisms and turned into their own bodies. It is the breakdown of these bodies which forms the stable black tarry material which gives soils their dark colour, generally termed “humus”. So, knowing how to feed these organisms is the first step in the management of composting and the soil. It is also important to see that the compost heap and the soil are not separate operations. Mostly, everything that goes on in a compost heap would also happen in the soil, even pathogen destruction. The big advantage to farming of composting before spreading to land is to use the temperature to kill weed seed. The micro-organisms feed, multiply and die, then break down into “humus”. In the case of recycling the cuttings and spent fluids from shale gas exploration, the soil micro-organisms, if managed right, certainly have the ability to digest toxins and lock up soluble nutrients and thereby protect the environment. Humus is an extremely complex mixture of heavy molecules of hydrocarbons (the same process which makes crude oil), carbohydrates and proteins (which lock up the Nitrogen). These molecules are large and insoluble and there is no limit to the quantities that can be put onto the soil safely. The evidence for this can be found in any natural ecosystem such as the fens. When the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden drained them nearly 300 years ago, some were 10 to 15m deep. From then till now, farmers could grow crops there every year, the very best crops in the country, exporting the harvested products with the nutrients they contained, including the Nitrogen, and never need to add any fertiliser. Clearly, there had been an enormous reservoir of crop nutrients but the Norfolk Broads are not polluted with green slime and dead fish.

Those large molecules will remain forever until long strands of soil fungi, called mycorrhiza, linked at one end to plants requiring food, start consuming them. These mycorrhiza either go up to and envelop the plant root hair, rather like the placenta in a baby mammal in the womb, or actually cross the root hair wall into the plant. As common sense might indicate, the plant and the fungi evolved together over millions of years and they operate at the same soil temperatures, so the system is demand-led. This system is how all natural ecosystems not only eliminate nitrate pollution, they eliminate all such out of balance pollution including phosphates, potash etc. There is a further advantage, as the system locks up Carbon in the soil. The 100 million tonnes of “waste” produced in the UK and which could be recycled to land would, if incinerated, produce around 75 million tonnes of Carbon dioxide per annum which is 10% of the Kyoto Protocol estimate of total UK emissions. Composting to land can lock that up.

 The old and current “organic freaks and cranks” were right; organic-based systems are sustainable and they can be more productive than mineral fertiliser-based systems of farming. If you want to put some figures on this, scroll down on this blog to 20 December 2014.

Understanding this mechanism of The Closed Loop opens another door. Clearly, provided what comes out of the hole in shale gas exploration and is analysed, it may be that the cuttings and spent fluids could be safely recycled to proximity land. That would benefit the land and get trucks off the road.