Science & Philosophy: Should Organic Growers Be Forced To Choose?

By Philip A. Wheeler, Ph.D.

The first issue to get out of the way is that the author is not anti-organic agriculture in its broadest definition.  I raised my children on a certified organic farm, have sold semi after semi of organic fertilizer commodities and blends and continue to work with organic growers on several continents.  The purpose of this article is to help all growers understand how plants function on a biophysical and biochemical basis so they can optimize the time, money and effort they put into their farming endeavors.  In doing so, I will have to question some of the decisions made by various groups concerning what is to be certified as organically acceptable inputs.

Over the years, I developed a prejudice against reductionist science because of its use to justify the use of standard N-P-K fertilization methods and the subsequent use of toxic rescue chemistry.  The typical extension research plots and experiments I read or observed were so poorly done that I began to reject them out of hand.  Then I would obtain a great textbook on soils, plant physiology, etc. and my faith in the scientific process would be restored.  Reductionist science is a necessity.  It has allowed us to learn how living things function down to the individual atoms, molecules and ions (charged particles).

DEMONIZING CHLORINE: Over the years, my lectures have always included cautions against the use of KCl, muriate of potash/ 0-0-60.  The cautions are to be taken very seriously as the typical application rates of 200-400 lbs./acre apply approximately 100-200 lbs. of the chlorine ion Cl -, which to great an amount for the soil biological systems to tolerate.  However, in this tirade against chlorine, we may have lost site of the fact that chlorine is a very essential nutrient to life.  At one time, a manufacturer produced a baby formula without any chlorine content.  When this was provide as the only source of fluid and nutrition, several infants died.  There are other elements or compounds such as sodium and salt (sodium chloride) that have also been demonized because the use of, or presence of, gross amounts of them on soils causes serious problems.

BASIC PLANT COMMUNICTIONS: Just as manmade systems of copper wire are used to conduct electricity (electrons) and information, plants also use electrons and protons to communicate and transfer energy within their cells and throughout the entire structure or body.  The primary simple ions of flow are: Na+, K+, Cl, Ca++, Mg++, and Zn++.  One can easily see that two out of the three single valence (plus and minus charges) flow ions are the components of salt, sodium chloride/NaCl.  Iron, copper, and manganese are associated with allowing flow across membranes rather than the flow itself.  More complicated ions containing phosphorous, such as ATP, and whole molecules such as amino acids and sterols are also used to transfer energy/information.  All flow is, of course, associated with water and its ionic components of H+ and OH.

Calcium is also in a class by itself, since it causes multiple reactions when it crosses a cell membrane in plant, animal and human. Without extra calcium that is not tied up in more complex molecules, the plant can’t communicate to defend itself against insects and diseases.  These calcium ions are usually stored in the spaces between cells rather than in the cell itself.  They can transfer into the cell and then back out again, ready to send the next signal.

Two other non-metallic elements that are under-appreciated are sulfur and selenium.  Sulfur compounds are extremely important in the information/energy transfer by way of oxidation-reduction reactions.  Oxidation –reduction reactions are the basic way molecules of compounds are put together and taken apart.  Selenium becomes a part of certain amino acids in plants, but more importantly, it provides the ability for animals and humans who consume the plants to have active, healthy immune systems. Recent research of garlic for humans has verified that process.

EVALUATING PRODUCTS: Based on the above information, I would like to discuss several products that may or may not be approved for organic certification.  When I first started using liquid calcium in the early 80’s, I was amazed at its effectiveness in making far more calcium available in the soil than was contained in the actual product.  Back then, most liquid products were made from dry or liquid calcium nitrate mixed with a chelating agent such at glucoheptonate.  Those types of liquid calcium will never be approved, since calcium nitrate is not approved.  Calcium nitrate cannot be approved, because it is made from nitric acid and limestone.  The nitric acid requires a high energy input manufacturing process which violates the tenets of the organic paradigm.  Now, lets say we start with a basic mined product like calcium chloride instead of limestone (calcium carbonate). Since calcium chloride is one of the few soluble calcium salts in nature, it is an ideal material to make a non-energy requiring solution in water.  Then you can add another natural material that is organically approved such as lignon sulfonate; citric, malic, or ascorbic acid; or a long chain sugar that will bind with the calcium to form a biologically available product for soil and plant use.