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Want to go organic? Use compost

By Silvano Borruso

There was a time when fruits tasted as they ought to and flowers smelled as they should. It is of extreme importance to understand why.

The ‘dudus’ were at work. Soil science calls them “microflora”. Invisible to the unaided eye, under the microscope, they appear as a bewildering variety of millions upon millions of live micro-organisms, from protozoa to bacteria, worms, crustaceans and more. A complete analysis of humus has never been carried out, and there is no sign it will ever be. More forcefully, humus is a closed book to scientists. It refuses to be opened and read.

In pre-scientific times it was thought that humus was the food of plants, although no trace of it could be seen in roots, leaves or stems. The ‘dudus’ real job was to act as live, active conveyors of nutrients from the soil to the roots of crops, in the time and mode intended by nature. Roots took long to grow, but so strong and healthy on sprouting their first leaves, that the plants resisted attack by insects, fungi, bacteria etc. by themselves.

They conveyed nutrients guaranteed a thorough photosynthesis, which produced all, or almost all, the nutrients needed to sustain the health of humans and their livestock.

Such healthy nutrients were ingested and passed on to the blood, whence they were conveyed to the body cells. Only a few nutrients were not in the soil and therefore not in the blood.

The ‘dudus’ worked night and day, free of charge, assuring natural nutrition, growth and reproduction to man and beast. Their quantity was estimated at some 100 tonnes/hectare. Farmers instinctively knew their task was not to feed the roots of plants, but the ‘dudus’ of the humus, and not with raw manure but with compost.

Compost-making is an art, handed down since antiquity. It consists in mixing animal manure with plant residues, let the mix ferment by watering and airing it, and waiting until turning into a black, homogeneous, odourless mass to be let down into the soil. Hence the appetising taste of food and the lovely odour of flowers.

The advent of “modern” science upset the apple cart. A German chemist, baron Justus von Liebig (1803-1873) decreed that the real food of plants were the salts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and that the dudus were “inert matter insoluble in water”.

Fed with these salts, agricultural produce grew big and beautiful, but consumers quickly noticed that the taste of yesteryear was gone. Why?

Concentrated salts from inorganic fertilisers kill the dudus, bypass their action and feed the roots of crops directly. The ordered flow of nutrients to the cells of the body described above is diluted, reduced, or even stopped dead, in a soil now duduless. Crops “jump out” of the soil faster than when dudu-driven. And photosynthesis no longer produces as many compounds as it did to nourish men and livestock. It has been known since the 1930s that carrots grown with inorganic fertilisers fail to produce carotene (vitamin A), thus being reduced to roughage.

Inorganic fertilisers appeared in Kenya with the colonialists, and are today incorporated into the soil at the rate of some 600,000 kilogrammes/year. Farmers notice an increase in the size of crops and and in income, but crop yield is relentlessly declining. Plants are weaker than formerly. Assorted parasites and weeds attack them, and the agro-industrial complex shoots powerful poisons at them.

But nature is not mocked. For quite some time she has been presenting an ominous bill.

That bill is malnutrition for humans and for animals. A continued dearth of nutrients causes the immune system to collapse, but at different times, in different parts of the body, and with different symptoms; so different, in fact, as to be mistaken by the medical profession for “degenerative diseases”.

Such “diseases” have been neatly classified with common names: cancer, diabetes, hepatitis, depression, or with learned ones, such as the names of their “discoverers”: Parkinson, Alzheimer, Hodgkin, etc.

Drugs, prescribed according to the textbooks, do not cure. They make symptoms disappear, to re-appear later either as a different symptom in the same place, or as the same symptom elsewhere. Destroyed cancer cells make room for more. And the carousel continues, until “a short – or long - illness bravely borne” carries off the malnourished wretch to the grave.

Among them is an 84-year-old mzee going down after 14 years, a 48-year- old athletic man succumbing in two weeks, a 21-year-old young man in two years, and, most pathetic, the ‘watoto’ of a children cancer ward unlikely to attain their teens. Their collapsed immune systems do not recover from malnutrition.

Even if the medical profession returned to Hippocrates’ sentence “let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food”, diagnosing what nutrients are actually lacking in the bodies of Tom, Dick and Harry would remain a closed book. What to do?

Listen to nature: press the dudus back into service, personally, socially and politically.

Personally, reject produce from industrial agriculture. Eat only fresh, organically grown food. Patronize mama mbogas instead of supermarkets. The chance of contracting “degenerative diseases” would not be zero, but it would be confined to within reasonable limits.

Socially, grow your own food on any piece of land, however small, around or near home. This method is already in existence, but can expand: it is amazing how bountiful nature is when seconded.

Politically, the health of people would require weighing the following suggestion.

Nine million cattle roaming the vast arid and semi-arid areas of the North produce, at a rough estimate of 1kg x head x day, nine thousand tonnes of dung. A health-inspired decision would divert money now allocated to chemical fertiliser factories domestic or foreign, to the pastoralists roaming those immense areas in search of pastures. A good price per kg of dung would entice them into bringing the stuff to collecting lorries, to be conveyed to compost-making centres in farming areas, and the compost sold to farmers at cost, or even given free, considering the huge gain in national health.

As an added bonus, Kenya could advertise itself on the tourist circuit as “organic country” guaranteed to nourish health-conscious visitors with savoury, varied and health-inducing food.

- Silvano is an agronomist

silvano.borruso@gmail.com

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