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The Underworld

05 Mar 2020
The Plough2

When the history of human interaction with our planet is written by wiser iterations of ourselves in some hopefully intact future, there will be many sub-headings that say: ‘Oops, shouldn’t have done that.’ Apart from everything that would have led to the climate crisis, one of them will be our love affair with the plough.

When World War 2 ended, huge factories tooled for tanks, guns and explosives shifted into tractors, harvesters and fertilisers, sparking the Green Revolution.

Across the planet, rivers were blocked by dams and sluiced into irrigation High-yielding varieties of wheat, rice and maize were planted on vast monocrop fields to supply burgeoning populations.

It worked. At the end of the war there were 2.5 billion humans, by 1970 there were four billion and we are now at 7.5. In terms of numbers, the plough/fertiliser relationship was a resounding success.

It was soon apparent, however, that the fields didn’t do well unless they were artificially supplied with nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPP). Nobody enquired too closely why the plants couldn’t find this themselves, as they had for millions of years.

The sea is full of natural NPP, but when plants first emerged on land a few billion years ago the land had very little. Plants developed a symbiosis between those that converted sunlight into carbohydrates and those that dug essential elements out of sand and rocks. They fed each other.

Today beneath trees and grassland is the dark, invisible support system of the mycorrhizae. They are fine, hair-like filaments of fungus that attach themselves to roots and create vast, intricate underground nutrient supply networks, the importance of which mycologists are just beginning to understand.

Mycorrhizal networks act as inter-tree chemical internets and food chains. They can span entire continents, partnering 95% of all plants... except for plants on our fields for two reasons. Our chemical load kills mycorrhizae and, because they mostly live within the top 20cm of soil, ploughing destroys them. THAT’S why we have to fertilise.

It’s perfectly possible to plant crops by lightly scarifying the soil surface, leaving the mycorrhizae intact. If we did that we wouldn’t need fertiliser. Or ploughs. Or have dead rivers.

But imagine agricorps like Monsanto, Bayer, Dow Chemicals or John Deer permitting the shutdown of global financial opportunity? Not gonna happen.

About the Author:


Dr Don Pinnock is an investigative journalist and photographer who, some time back, realised he knew little about the natural world. So he set out to discover it. This took him to five continents – including Antarctica – and resulted in five books on natural history and hundreds of articles. The Last Elephants, published this year with Colin Bell, is his 18th book.

His other books include:

Gang Town, which won the City Press Tafelberg Non-Fiction award,
Writing Left, a biography of the journalist Ruth First.
Voices of liberation
The Brotherhoods,
Gangs, Rituals & Rites of passage
Rainmaker, a novel shortlisted for the 2009 European Union Literary Award.
Natural Selections,
African Journeys,
Just add dust,
Loveletters to Africa,
Blue Ice: Travels in Antarctica,
The Woman who Lived in a Tree and Other Perfect Strangers.
Wild as it Gets,
He has degrees in criminology, political science and African history and is a former editor of Getaway travel magazine.

He was one of the primary drafters of the White Paper that became the Child Justice Act, a trustee of the Chrysalis Academy for high-risk youths, a board member of Widerness Foundation Africa, a member of the Conservation Action Trust and was the facilitator of the Western Cape Government’s gang strategy roadmap.

His day job is as environmental investigative journalist.