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Shit (Earth Primer #8)

(Dung: Photo from

(Earth Primer #7)

From its earliest days, one of the agriculture’s main problems has been giving back to the earth the organic matter that it steals from it. Harvesting seeds, tubers, and fruit (e.g., wheat grain, potatoes, and apples), we take organic matter away from the fields. And in one way or another, this substance must be restored to it, if one wants to maintain the agrosystem—and this is the technical term, given the extensive parallels with the ecosystem—in a sound and stable condition, and not deplete it further each year. The more vegetable matter removed, the more abundant the harvests, the more it must be replenished. Modern methods produce significant yields, so the risks are more significant as well.

In the most primitive forms of cultivation, the chosen method was to mug and then flee. In the system called “slash and burn,” parts of the forest would be cleared and planted for a few years, or, in rare cases, only for one. In other words, the organic matter of forest soil, which is generally rich, would be put to use. Once the local spoils had been spent, the forest was allowed to grow back, slowly replenishing the organic matter and fertility of its soils. Only after several decades could an analogous agricultural mugging return for the same botanical jewels. In other words, it was theft.

So long as the woods covered more land than we did, this grab-and-go tactic brought excellent results. Demographic increases, however, gave rise to an intensification of these assaults, which caused degradation and eventually led to the disappearance of forests more or less everywhere. Obviously if there are more thieves than banks to burgle things are not going well. Already five centuries before Christ a large part of the Mediterranean woodlands were gone. (The upheaval caused by humans began well before the Anthropocene—no matter its start date, the subject of much discussion in recent years). And gone with it, the strategy of slash and burn. Civilizations thus found it impossible to reestablish the fertility of cultivated farmlands.

Of the agricultural practices that emerged in the aftermath, it took several centuries of experiments and confirmations before animals put themselves to work giving back to the earth the organic matter stolen from it in harvests. Work up to a point, that is: the farmers let their animals relieve themselves in the fields. An ingenious idea, since they left behind high-quality organic matter. At night, sheep and goats that had grazed nearby would be kept in fields they were planning to sow. Or more often in fields they had let rest, waiting another year before they planted. Those they called their fallow lands. Of course, with this strategy they weren’t able to recuperate all of the feces of all their animals (a lot got lost in transit), but there was always enough to give the soil back most of the stolen goods.

Beginning in the eleventh century, there was a great leap forward in the technical field of shit production. In order to not lose even a gram of excrement, the animals were crammed into stables and sheds—fenced-in, made-to-order buildings—and fed with hay. In addition, their excrement was mixed with straw or leaf debris before it was used, in other words, it was made into manure. This mixture, left to mature for several months, was perfect not only for replenishing the organic matter, but also for reestablishing the chemical richness and fluffiness of the soil. This change might seem slight, but it required vehicles to transport the hay and manure (at a time when wagons were reserved for warriors and the wealthy), fields and tools to cut grass efficiently, buildings, careful planning… In other words, capital. Capitalism begat a bawling agrarian baby.

For nearly a thousand years using animal shit in the form of manure made it possible to cultivate soil without ruining it. And many areas produced relatively well. Particularly during the second half of the eighteenth century, when the use of manure was combined with continuous agrarian rotations, the multiyear alternation of crops without periods of rest, without leaving land fallow. In other words, from the beginning of what would be called the agrarian revolution. First achieved in England, it then spread throughout Europe, including the northern Italy, just as its sister-in-arms had done, the industrial revolution,.

Only in recent times, and especially after the Second World War, did we leave manure behind—that increasingly scarce commodity. The industrialized breeding of livestock churned out great quantities of sewage, watery and overly rich in minerals; it poses problems for disposal, rather than making manure. And so chemical fertilizers, produced out of massive amounts of oil, took the place of manure. These do replace the mineral elements missing from the earth, but they don’t replenish the missing organic matter. And they leave considerable contamination in the acquifers and surface water, because only a small part of the fertilizer is absorbed by the roots of the plants.

In many environments, chemical fertilizers permit high levels of production, much greater than previously. No one can deny this. And in general, they keep production high, at least for the medium term. Soils, however, are increasingly depleted of organic matter; they become increasingly lighter in color and thinner, increasingly sterile. And acquifers and rivers are enriched by unwanted elements. These widespread defects of our industrial agriculture in recent decades, in every continent, have very serious consequences.

Deprived of its organic matter, earth doesn’t die quickly; it suffers, working in slow motion. In many cases, especially when erosion is also a factor, it marches quickly towards its demise. One can pretend not to see it, as has been done for decades, covering it over with quantitative increases in fertilizers and other chemical treatments—which, like a cat biting its tail, does nothing except make the damage worse. Today, however, it is difficult to put one’s head under the sand (which seems an apt metaphor). Even the most brainless form of agriculture—which is often the most technologically sophisticated, one doesn’t exclude the other—can no longer ignore the fact it’s sawing through the fragile branch it’s sitting on, so it is looking for escape routes. Or at least it pretends to.

Solutions exist: they’re based on bringing back organic matter through manure or compost, or even through growing crops with the same goal, to be plowed under once they’ve grown (green manure). The exact same treatments that the great Roman agronomist Lucio Giunio Moderato Columella already recognized two thousand years ago, if we want to split hairs. To which should be added the insertion of legumes into the crop rotation, since they enrich the soil. Each of these remedies is efficient and inexpensive, even if it certainly does slow slightly the frenzied pace of industrial agriculture. They are the means that biological cultivation has used from the moment it began. At the moment, however, they are almost never employed, and most of our soils, as they suffer, continue to be depleted.

GIACOMO SARTORI is a novelist, poet, dramatist, and agronomist. His most recent novel in English, Bug (Restless Books, 2020), was translated by Frederika Randall. His novel I Am God (Restless Books, 2019), also translated by Randall, won the 2020 Italian Prose in Translation Award from the American Literary Translators Association.

Translated by JIM HICKS

(Earth Primer #9)

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