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Welcome to Network Vital Agriculture and Nutrition, Netherlands

Network Vital Agriculture and Nutrition (NVLV) welcomes both professional members and friends.

NVLV is a Dutch association that promotes innovative ways to restore soil life, in the Netherlands to begin with. That is not a hobby, but a necessity. A rich and diverse soil life is the basis for sustainable forms of vital agriculture and wholesome food production. It represents the key to maintaining health, in both animal and man. It is even the key to an effective increase of soil water storage capacity, generated by a soil life that builds organic matter with organic compounds. In part these compounds are formed by the plant with CO2 and N2 gas drawn from the atmosfere and for another part with organic metabolites locally available in the soil.

Therefore restoring soil life solves a lot of problems and yet it is the simplest, cleanest and most efficient way of buffering against global warming, storms, droughts and soil erosion!
A truely effective start of tackling such a major problem would be to engage in transforming the way industrial agriculture is generally practised, i.e. to reconsider the unsustainable levels of external inputs and to start respecting the local ecology in stead of the pesticides suppliers.

Foto: courtesy of ILEIA's Farming Matters magazine. Land grabbing speelt een steeds grotere rol
Industrial agriculture is all about scale: mass production of dry matter for maximum cash returns. Although increasing the scale of agricultural enterprises would not seem illegitimate in itself, there is a big catch. Industrialised food production deteriorates health: of soils, plants, animals and man. In addition, it affects agricultural communities socially. To be more precise:
  1. It goes hand in hand with watering down the food quality because
  2. it goes hand in hand with soil degradation because
  3. it goes hand in hand with soil organic matter destruction because
  4. it comes with monocultures/heavy machinery/chemical fertilisers/pesticides.
  5. It destroys the small farmer's livelyhood (and consequently his expertise),
  6. in agricultural villages it undermines living and employment conditions and
  7. in cities it reduces awareness about importance and origin of wholesome food.

Food quality can be expressed in terms of nutritional value. The principal cause of its losses in mass-produced food is: there is little interest in the crucial role of soil organisms. This is true for industrial producers and governments alike. Although it looks like a long shot, it definitely is not. Soil organisms are essential in maintaining natural soil fertility and soil health. Soil organisms are also the link with animal and human health, because availability of soil organisms makes all the difference to plant health as well. Without healthy plants there is no healthy food; it's that simple. Reasons that soil organisms are still absent in the industrial picture are:
a) in industrial agriculture, fertility is linked to chemical fertilisers and not to soil organisms and
b) crop productivity is only considered important in terms of dry matter production, but not in terms of the nutritional values that go with it. As a consequence, nutritional values don't play a role in decision making. The same is true for the food industry: nutritional value and human health are ignored, as they add little weight to the scales. What counts are the economics of bulk treatment, swift transport and the longest possible shelf life. Money, money and money makes the world go round! The fundamental problem with the industrial approach therefore is, that food has become a commodity, even an object of speculation. All agro-industrial enterprises want to earn from our food first, before it lands on our plates; the same story goes for the food-processing industry. Producing nutritious food is not within their scope. And supermarkets are most happy to sell the stuff anyway, irrespective of its nutritional values.

Inflation of the food quality (nutritional value) blows up our health care system.
Evidently the impact of reduced food quality on human and animal health has become an end-of-pipe problem. It is gladly left to the farmaceutical and medical industries for further treatment. Unfortunately healthy food as a treatment is not in the book, so pills are promoted instead! Hippocrates'statement seems almost forgotten, at least in the medical curricula. In the medical sector the consequences are clear enough. New customers are always welcomed with open arms, but only if the patient carries some cash. In other words: medicines, hospital beds and medical care have become commodities as well! Even national health insurance has been privatised. In Dutch the whole complex of medical, mental and farmaceutical 'care' used to be called 'De Zorg' (The Care), but The Profit might actually be a better term now. It is not exactly clear anymore who benefits most from the treatment procedures: the 'patient', the Clean White Coat, the pharmacist, the care organisation or in the background the stock holder of the industries behind all this. You name it; the list is long and each participant has his own interests. Finally: don't forget the managers and the directors of the numerous care organisations. They are everywhere and mostly busy, but probably not with their hands on a bed. Rather it will be with 'pee contracts' and other matters of crucial administrative importance.

Bad money to the wrong research: not our health is leading, but corporate profits
Important causes for our health care system to start des-integrating are:
a) governments have ceased to properly supervise the food production chain as a whole
b) have ceased to fund fundamental research institutes where independent scientists can study the -hopefully- uninterrupted movement of nutrients through the food chain without having to worry about big corporate sponsors that might become unhappy about potentially unfavourable research results. Where most research institutes have now become extremely dependent of corporate funding, national governments are in effect handing over their powers to the lobby machines of a few multinational corporations. Those don't waste time rolling out their hollow phrases over Washington, Brussels and Strassbourg. And that is not all. To add insult to injury, officials of big institutions (like EPA in the US and EFSA, ECHA in the EU), supposed to protect the public interest, are all too often making friends with corporate buddies and hopping jobs all the time. To consumers the end result is always: What You See Is definitely not What You Get! And it applies to trace-elements-deficient processed food just as much as to transparency-deficient trade agreements. It all points in the same direction: our health is on the line if we don't act.

NVLV underlines the importance of family farmers worldwide, in maintaining a constant natural soil fertility, and preserving food sovereignty as well as agricultural production capacity on the long run. Their existence is threatened by BigAg enterprises and some governments that ignore the merits of a small-scale, diversified approach towards seeds diversity, wholesome food production and everything in between. In order to be sustainable, agricultural subsystems like soils, seeds and crops must be able to act in a coherent way: that is with a co-ordinated response, in their adaptation to the environment and -with the help of the local community- to maintain their balance under changing climatic conditions. That is the agro-ecological approach in brief. When applied globally, it will effectively curb the global warming now taking place and help local communities to a sustainable type of agriculture.

Their opponents would rather see the locally adapted, small-scale farms swallowed by industrial, large-scale systems, and try to convince farmers and governments that every problem can only be solved with high-tech consultancy in tandem with 'universal' seeds, chemicals and machinery. And all of that against a price that many small farmers cannot pay! As a consequence they are pushed out of their businesses, not only in developing countries, but also in the European Union, where big (acreage) industrial farmers receive the bulk of all agricultural subsidies and small farmers are strangled by rules and regulations that are overly specialistic or just too expensive for them to be implemented.

Industrial agriculture is steadily destroying our food production potential
Unfortunately, with all his technology, the industrial agriculturalist is not the one that will save us from hunger after all. He overlooks one very urgent problem growing under his heavy-duty tractor tyres: erosion of his soils. First on a micro and then on a macro level. He destroys his own land by ignoring the humus factor! The report 'Preserving agricultural soils in the EU' states that by now app. 45% of the European cultivated acreage contains too little soil organic matter.

So let's put our priorities right: our most urgent problem is not how to feed the rest of the world, but how to keep our own soils in a productive state!

We have to bring organic carbon back to the soil, in order to close the cycle and preserve the production capacity of our land
  • The first thing to do there is to boost soil life by eliminating toxic substances and to (re-)introduce aerobic bacteria and fungi like Mycorrhiza, which have disappeared for up to 90% in a cross section of all industrially cultivated soils;
  • the immediate second is to provide a constant supply of oxygen, organic materials (mulch) and stone meal (trace elements) to the soil surface in adequate quantities, suitable to feed the available soil organisms (more is not necessary and probably counterproductive). There is the reason that soil life should be promoted first. The mulch applied should not be contaminated with toxic wastes, pesticides, GMO's, antibiotics and antibiotics-resistent bacteria, because these eliminate the type of aerobic soil life that is required to produce humus.
    Which is why obsolete aerobic soil life should be restored, as that is the gearbox that transforms the incoming solar radiation into power for driving the organic carbon cycle.
  • The third: mechanical and chemical soil compaction should be avoided to the greatest possible extent, because aerobic conditions are crucial for boosting the humification process. Rotting processes on the other hand are linked to anaerobic conditions, leading to intoxication and loss of soil structure.
  • The fourth: bring back biodiversity and maintain land races + local seed banks, because diversity makes virulent plant communities that withstand pests and diseases.
  • The fifth: focus on multi-cropping and prohibit patenting of seeds/organisms

Industrial soil cultivation techniques and their contribution towards soil degradation
Several factors harmful to soil organisms and trace element availability can be distinguished:
  • the acidifying action of NPK-fertilisers in combination with
  • increased oxidation of organic matter as a result of deep(er) plowing, which overturns the soil profile, releases extra CO2 and disturbs depth-dependent soil life
  • intensive farming techniques involving heavy machinery, inducing soil compaction and a growing lack of oxygen, further aggravated in the case of
  • a lavish use of pesticides and injected slurry.
All these factors contribute to the suppression of soil life and thus to a stagnation in the formation of new humus, which is the active component of organic matter. It is essential as a buffer, in the organic carbon cycle and in the formation and maintenance of soil structure (soil aggregates).
Even in the newly reclaimed Dutch Flevopolder (after just one generation of industrial farming), soils are imploding under the degradation pressure caused by loss of organic matter. This quick loss of sparse humus could only happen because the calcium and clay contents of the newly reclaimed sea floor were excellent, allowing for bumper crops and fast depletion. However that advantage lasted only one generation of farming. Now the soil profile looks like concrete. In the process of soils losing their organic matter, soil structure suffered, entering the first fase of degradation. The process was further aggravated by top soil compaction caused by heavy equipment and sometimes ill-chosen cultivation timing.

If the process goes further, the steady loss of humus will continue to the point where organic matter is almost absent. By then the soil aggregates will have fallen apart completely, making the soil surface sensitive to wind and water erosion. That is the last fase of soil degradation, which ends in a complete loss of soil, being washed or blown away into the sea, depending on the local moisture conditions.

The same scenario of depletion is presently unfolding in the Hoeksche Waard, by origin an extremely rich sea clay polder in the West of Holland: it is now suffering under a trend breach in yields. It is the sad consequence of soil organic matter contents declining over several decennia due to the intensive farming methods outlined above. Those methods have been inconsiderate of the importance of keeping the organic carbon cycle up and running, as the basis for a truely sustainable agriculture. Whatsmore, such agriculture can only be supported by a rich and diverse soil life if it is not frustrated by the use of pesticides.

Summarising the process, it should be recognised that high production levels cannot be supported without the availability of active organic matter and soil life as essential ingredients. Precisely those stocks are being depleted by industrial farming methods. This in turn results in rock hard soils, in creeping inflation of the nutritional values and in a diminished resilience of crops. Under those conditions, a break point in yield development has to come almost unavoidably. The Dutch Flevo polder case illustrates very well that high doses of chemical fertilisers and a lot of mechanised Horse Powers do not exactly support sustainable agriculture; they only facilitate a rapid exhaustion of the organic matter content, especially in combination with severe top soil compaction caused by the use of heavy machinery and such compounds as potassium chloride in particular.

The link between industrialisation of agriculture and the use of mineral fertilisers
Predominantly in the industrialised countries wholesome food production has since World War I increasingly become the exception rather than the norm, during the development of 'modern' Western agriculture and in its tracks the food-processing industries. The strongly promoted use of chemical fertilisers had much to do with it, as well as the 'spontaneous' disappearance of almost all soil-based research in its wake. The latter was swapped for fertiliser-based research, with full support of governments that liked the idea of replicating the design of a centrally managed Industrial Revolution once more, but this time in agriculture. The concept of distributing mineral fertilisers from a central point co-incided beautifully with the implementation of plant scientific innovations orchestrated by research offices higher up in the bureaucratic network. The plant breeding programmes designed to develop fertiliser- and pesticide-adapted food crops were the result, presented as 'Green Revolution'*). Behind this approach was an explosives industry that after the Great War was looking for new ways to sell solid nitrogen in bulk. The irony here is that the Evolution has already provided plants with free nitrogen-fixing bacteria, to produce amino acids and sugars from water and gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen. These gases are abundantly available in the atmosfere and only need to be put to use by the proper bacteria, in combination with chlorophyl.

The industry also uses gaseous nitrogen but chooses to convert the gas first, to a commodity that can be packed in bags and sold to farmers. The conversion to solid fertilisers requires the expensive Haber-Bosch process, together with astronomical quantities of methane gas (by co-incidence a commodity of the Dutch government). Those solid fertilisers subsequently interfere with the way in which the plant normally covers its nitrogen requirements: from the air through bacterial fixation. Nitrogen from chemical fertilisers gives, when dissolved in the soil water solution osmotic and acidic effects that seriously hinder the plant in its selection of preferred organic nutrients. This approach of 'force-feeding' has a great impact on the plant's energy management and destroys plant vitality. The result is a weak plant directly inviting pests and diseases. They push the plant further into a downward spiral of more pesticide use and less vitality.

The interest of the explosives industry is an increased use of solid N-fertilisers
The explosives industry did not exactly favour the continuation of a soil research type that focussed on studying the organic nutrient uptake by plant roots, because this process costs nothing in terms of nitrogen availability, but all the same makes efficient use of readily available organic nutrients. Indeed no attractive prospect for the sale of commercial fertilisers!
This is the very reason why governments were 'programmed' to re-organise research institutions and financially restrict them, in a way that exclusively studied the uptake of minerals: it accommodated and helped justify the use of mineral fertilisers. As a consequence, the sales of mineral fertilisers and pesticides have soared since then, whereas the overemphasis on grain yields in breeding programmes has interfered with the production of straw, thus hampering the return of enough organic matter into the organic carbon cycle. This had serious consequences for the rates at which soils were recharged with organic matter in general (carbon sequestration!), and in particular for small farm households in the developing world, which had always made good use of their crop residues in the past.

*) Why plant breeding under the Green Revolution went for adaptation of existing local species (land races), is an altogether different story. Where breeding claimed to produce HYV's (High Yielding Varieties), the real target was to develop a tolerance against an intensified use of chemical fertilisers or pesticides. Land races are mostly very well adapted to their environment, beginning with fixing nitrogen from the air. Stripping land races of their location-specific qualities and their nitrogen-fixing abilities is totally counterproductive and makes a breeding programme eco-suspect. The practice illustrates clearly that the principal aim of the Green Revolution was not improving yield (or food quality), but only boosting turn-over of external inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides, irrigation and consultancy. That chemical fertilisers in general do increase dry matter production of crops, depends in reality on the availability of humus, but it does represent the side effect that conveniently sells the product to bulk producers. It says nothing though, about the nutritional value of the food that is turned out. The underlying cause of decreased nutritional values is that chemical fertilisers acidify the soil, accelerate the loss of organic matter and trace elements. This in turn stimulates the production of empty calories. It also explains why important parameters such as impact on health, health care and environment are left out of the equation as soon as positive results of cost/benefit analyses are required to promote industrial agriculture. No matter what relevance there is to health and environment, it is always put secundary to the interests of big industries involved.

Who does actually benefit from the agricultural industrialisation proces?
It's definitely not the small farmer
Securing enough (let alone wholesome) food for an ever increasing world population is not even a remote point of consideration for big agricultural enterprises. It's just the gospel that they keep singing for the general public. What they are most keen on is co-operating with lobby firms specialised in 'massaging' governmental bureaucracies in the whole Western world. Their target is total control over our food, in spite of their mantra 'We shall feed the world'. In fact the whole concept of 'feeding the world' through industrial agricilture is daft and extremely arrogant, considering the ongoing losses of productive land due to industrial cultivation methods alone. Moreover, the concept of producing and exporting denatured food from a few industrial hotspots (against huge external costs in terms of fossil fuels, environment and health) is totally stupid when we compare it with the moderate costs of producing wholesome food locally and sustainably, with local species conveniently adapted to their environments over many centuries. A family farmer does not deserve to be wiped out by bureaucracy just because he/she lacks purchasing power to accommodate the agro-industry. In fact family farmers represent through their sheer numbers the only category that will be capable of producing enough wholesome food at reasonable cost for everyone, region by region, village by village. Local food production on an agro-ecological basis requires only a fraction of the resources used by industrial farmers and helps family farmers to save resources, simultaneously respecting soil life and biodiversity. These are all factors crucial to sustain production at quality levels necessary for maintaining health through successive generations.

What does it all mean to the quality of our food?
Wholesome food production is synonymous to growing vital crops, which, for maintaining their vitality are totally dependent on an abundant soil life in order to create a buffer of living organic matter (=humus). Pretending that mineral fertiliser is just as good as any other source of plant nutrients is the ultimate fairy tale, if only because plants respond very little to mineral fertilisers as long as humus is abundant. A closer look into the history of soil research will co-roborrate this*). Organic matter in all its diverse stages of decomposition and (humus)formation is the buffer store that enables soil life to maintain a balanced supply of all sorts of organic nutrients with built-in trace elements, to the plants. It is therefore a key factor to plants building up their vitality, in co-operation with a little army of microbes living in exchange with the smallest roots in the soil, in the so-called rhizosphere.

Seen in this light, life being depleted from the soil has become a major threat, to the natural fertility of agricultural lands, to their fysical stability and equally serious, to the health of each and every individual that eats the food coming from such degraded land. The implications for national health and the environment in industrialised countries are huge, but nevertheless overlooked by the authorities concerned. The external costs of the losses in fertility (of land as well as man) remain mostly hidden and are silently charged to the taxpayer, who as yet has no clue about the origin of all those modern diseases that have come to bother him. Unaware of the relation between human health and soil health, he puts his faith blindly in medical doctors who concentrate on suppression of symptoms in stead of preventing the diseases from popping up in the first place.

As a vanguard movement we've been shaping and giving direction to solutions in three areas proposed by Michael Pollan (Feb. 2009): development of knowledge and raising awareness with regard to:
  1. a more natural and sustainable agriculture, based on recycling of organic carbon
  2. the use of carrots instead of sticks in maintaining rules and regulations
  3. involvement of consumers, 'voting' with their forks and spades to create the type of agriculture, biodiversity and landscape they want. It means that purchasing and investing in regional production is one option, and personally taking up vegetable gardening yet another.

Our dream is that farmers will use and manage our rural space in a sustainable way again, with renewed joy and confidence in their own wisdom; that they will be respecting nature in growing vital crops and rearing healthy animals, providing wholesome food both for them and for us.
To consumers we wish that they will be aware of what they eat and where it is grown, that they know the farmer who grows their food and finally, how their food would contribute to their health as Hippocrates already knew.

Our professional members are active as scientists, advisors, farmers, project officers, editors etc; they are working on:

Our friends are all those strengthening and promoting this movement, with a kind look on our work. They participate, provide ideas and/or financial means and have signed up as a member because of it. Everyone can become a member. Participate?

We pioneer out of passion and personal leadership; we work with intuition and not for quick profit; we use innovative science and knowledge gained from experience; we look for balance in the carbon economy and try new forms of regional co-operation; we solicit public support for wholesome food production and a connection with nature. In short, we develop solutions for the future.

How do we realise these dreams? We learn together and share knowledge at seminars and symposia, in working groups and regional (sub)networks; by co-operating in projects; by substantiating and monitoring new methods, by providing mutual feedback and coaching, by linking up with other innovative networks and through lobbying with government.
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