Phosphorus was the 13th element to be discovered, and the first that was not known since ancient times. For this reason, and also due to its use in explosives, poisons and nerve agents, it is sometimes referred to as “the Devil’s element.”1, 2 German alchemist Hennig Brand is credited for discovering this element in 1669 when he distilled approximately 5,500 liters of human urine to produce 120 grams of a glowing substance which he ultimately named Phosphorus, from the Greek word for “light-bearing.”
For over a century, Phosphorus has had multiple functions in soil chemistry. Today we know that optimum levels of Phosphorus enhance early root formation and growth, flowering and seeding, uniform crop maturity, and stalk and stem strength. It is important for photosynthesis and respiration. Respiration is the process by which plants convert photosynthates such as sugars, back into energy for growth and other metabolic processes.
Soil Phosphorus is immobile for the most part and the level of soluble Phosphorus immediately available to plants is rather small. In order for plants to satisfy their need for Phosphorus, their root systems must explore large areas of soil. Mycorrhizal fungi greatly assist plant root systems in this exploration by forming a symbiotic relationship with them. The thread-like hyphae of the fungus connect with plant root hairs and extend great distances into the soil, taking up nutrients and transporting them back to the plants. This results in increased Phosphorus uptake. In exchange, the mycorrhizal fungi receive sugars and other compounds from the roots.
The uptake of Phosphorus can be limited by soil compaction, pH, and moisture. Even in high Phosphorus soils, anything that inhibits aggressive root growth, such as compacted soil, will have an adverse effect on Phosphorus uptake. With a pH greater than 7.0, Phosphorus can be fixed in less available forms by excess Calcium. With a pH of less than 6.0, Phosphorus can be fixed in less soluble forms by excess soluble Aluminum. Phosphorus availability is at its highest at pH 6.4 to 6.8. Optimum levels of Phosphorus will result in higher Phosphorus uptake at all moisture levels. However, moisture stress results in lower Phosphorus availability. Moisture levels exceeding soil capacity exclude the oxygen required for Phosphorus uptake.
Phosphorus is a highly reactive element and does not exist in elemental form in soil. Plant roots take up nearly all Phosphorus as phosphate. (P2O5) Orthophosphate is the simplest phosphate with the chemical formula PO4-3. Primary orthophosphate has a chemical formula of HP204–, is dominant in acidic soils, and is taken up much more readily than the secondary form, HPO42- that is the dominant available form of Phosphorus in alkaline soil conditions. All Phosphorus sources added to soil must be converted to the orthophosphate forms before plants can utilize them.
Organic, biodynamic, and biological farming/gardening practices utilize a direct application of rock phosphate as the source of Phosphorus. Colloidal soft phosphate rock and Tennessee Brown Phosphate rock are inexpensive, commonly available Phosphorus sources, both of which are approved for organic use by the USDA National Organic Program. Phosphate rock is a largely insoluble, slow release Phosphorus source. Only about 3% orthophosphate is soluble and readily available to plants. The rest remains “locked up” or chemically bonded to Calcium and is gradually released for plant use by the action of soil microbes. So the Phosphorus is long lasting, remains insoluble and in reserve, and is not subject to leaching. Optimum levels of phosphate rock in the soil contain enough “reserves” to provide the release of available Phosphorus in more than adequate quantities for early season requirements, as well as a continuous supply throughout the growing season.
Phosphate rock is also the raw material used to make highly mobile, water soluble Phosphorus fertilizers (WSP fertilizers) used by large scale farming operations. The global fertilizer industry consumes nearly 90% of the world’s phosphate rock production in the manufacture of WSP fertilizers. The remainder is used to make elemental phosphorus and animal feed supplements, or is applied directly to soils. Phosphate rock and sulfuric acid are the raw materials used in the manufacture of single superphosphate (SSP) and phosphoric acid. Phosphoric acid is an intermediate by-product used to make triple superphosphate (TSP) and ammonium phosphate. Highly concentrated, compound NPK formulations now form the mainstay of the global fertilizer industry (Engelstad and Hellums, 1993; UNIDO and IFDC, 1998).
Unfortunately, the high solubility of these concentrated NPK fertilizers, and their overuse in efforts to achieve huge yields of big, tall, expanded but nutrient deficient crops, is very detrimental to our environment. Unlike phosphate rock, which stays in the soil and releases its “reserves” of Phosphorus over time, superphosphate fertilizer is subject to leaching and runoff. Extensive use of concentrated NPK fertilizers destroys microbes, earthworms, and other beneficial soil organisms. The soil loses its beneficial texture and becomes less capable of absorbing water. Topsoil erosion becomes problematic and the runoff of rain carries soil particles, and the Phosphorus attached to them, into streams, rivers, and lakes.
Unnaturally high Phosphorus levels in these bodies of water fuel excessive growth of algae. In a process called “eutrophication,” these algae die, and are decomposed by bacteria that use dissolved oxygen. This creates “dead zones” resulting in fish kills, surface water scum, decreased recreational use, and foul odors.
Most phosphate rock is mined using large-scale surface methods. Michael Astera of Agricola has written one of the most insightful concepts regarding the mining of all minerals used in agriculture. It appears as follows:
“Mining of the needed minerals need not entail long-term environmental damage
either. Mines and quarries can be carefully worked by those who care about their
home planet, and when the mines are depleted they can be landscaped and
planted to be as or more beautiful than before mining. It’s also worth noting that
many of the economically viable sources for agricultural minerals contain such
high concentrations of these minerals that they are toxic to soil life and little or
nothing grows there. Removing these toxic concentrations and using them to
make other parts of the planet healthier and more productive can, at the same
time, open up these formerly toxic soils to the growth of forest or grasslands.
None of this should be done on the basis of greed or short-term gain, but rather
wisely, intelligently, and in harmony with Nature.”
Phosphorous, when present along with 10 other important minerals, all in ideal ratios to each other, results in a fertile soil capable of producing vigorous, nutrient-dense crops of superior quality. Such a mineral balance also works to sequester carbon, improve soil texture and drainage, provide adequate water retention, prevent erosion by water or wind, promote biological activity, and reduce costly annual inputs. Balancing the minerals in the soil is the first step toward sustainability because if the minerals are not in the soil, they can’t be in the food or recycled on the farm or in the garden.
Organic, biological, and biodynamic farming and gardening systems strive to reduce “outside inputs.” Once the minerals in the soil are balanced, you won’t have to add them in those quantities again. A soil test in the spring and fall will indicate any minor adjustments needed. Sulfur and Boron will be the minerals most likely needing attention as plants readily take them up. The superior health of a minerally balanced soil greatly reduces the need for inputs other than these minor adjustments. Since the minerals are in the soil, they will be in the crop residues, cover crops, and livestock manure and will be recycled through these sustainable systems.
Justus von Liebig, considered to be the founder of organic chemistry, popularized The Law of the Minimum. “The availability of the most abundant nutrient in the soil is only as good as the availability of the least abundant nutrient in the soil.” Whichever nutrient is in the shortest supply will limit the performance of the crop. This illustrates why balance, and optimum quantities of mineral nutrients, is so vital.
The Farming Systems Trial (FST) at Rodale Institute, is America’s longest running side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional agriculture. Over thirty five years of scientific data from the FST have proven that organic systems produce yields equal to conventional, outperform conventional yields in years of drought, build rather than deplete soil, and are actually more profitable than conventional farming.
We have focused on Phosphorus and its importance to sustainability. We have discovered that it takes a synergy of Phosphorus and ten other mineral nutrients to maximize soil fertility, and we have looked at just a few of Rodale Institute’s FST empirical, scientific findings. Moving forward in sustainability calls for the coming together of many ideas, scientific facts, and schools of thought.
1 Emsley, John (7 January 2002). The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-471-44149-6. Retrieved 2016-08-26.
2 Weeks, Mary Elvira (1932). “The discovery of the elements. II. Elements known to the alchemists”. Journal of Chemical Education. 9: 11. Bibcode:1932JChEd…9…11W. doi:10.1021/ed009p11.
“We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.”
– Leonardo DaVinci
Biological activity in the soil is imperative to the development of vigorous, disease- and pest-resistant crops in the garden or field. Fungi, and bacteria are beneficial soil organisms that have a symbiotic relationship with the plant through its root system. They also play a major part in the breakdown of organic matter and the freeing of nutrients that may be in the soil, yet unavailable to plant roots. Some fungi even produce antibiotics that protect the plant from disease.
95% of plant species have a relationship with fungi. Mycorrhizal (my-ko-rize’-ul) fungi have an elaborate root system of fungal filaments that grow yards, both deep into the soil and in the root zone. Several miles of these filaments can be found in a few grams of soil. Mycorrhizal fungi seek out moisture and nutrients and bring them back to the plant roots. Therefore, the surface absorbing area of plant roots can be increased hundreds of times.
Myco means fungus. Rhizae comes from rhizome, meaning roots. This translates into fungus root. There are two types of mycorrhizae, (my-ko-rize’-ee) Endo-mycorrhizae, and ecto-mycorrhizae. Endo-mycorrhizae (meaning inside) actually penetrate the tiny root hairs of plants without changing the root’s cell structure, effectively extending the plants root system. The fungi bring moisture and nutrients back to the roots and in turn, the roots share sugars and other carbohydrates with the fungi. The fungi also release powerful enzymes that dissolve, and make available, nutrients that are tightly bound and difficult to access. Phosphorous, for example, a very active mineral with a strong negative charge can bond with Calcium, which has a double positive charge. The result is Calcium phosphate, a very stable compound. The enzymes break the Calcium/Phosphorous bond making the Phosphorous available for uptake by the plant roots. 90% of cultivated plants have a symbiotic relationship with endo-mycorrhizae.
Ecto-mycorrhizae fungi (meaning outside) grow next to plant roots but live completely outside of the roots. They share nutrients with the plant roots through the soil water/nutrient solution.
Certain types of bacteria, called rhizobia, live in symbiosis with legumes such as red clover, cowpeas, and alfalfa. These bacteria form and inhabit nodules on the roots of legumes and are able to take Nitrogen from air in the soil and create ammonia, which the plant uses to create amino acids and other compounds. The rhizobia in turn receive carbohydrates from the plant. These Nitrogen-gathering or Nitrogen-fixing bacteria are not found on common crop plants except legumes. Green manure is a rich source of Nitrogen for the soil and comes from turning these legumes under in your garden or field.
Some soil inoculant products contain numerous species of endo-mycorrhizae, ecto-mycorrhizae, and beneficial bacteria. When used, the species that are right for a given soil and climate will adapt and thrive. Soil inoculants increase the capacity of roots to absorb water and nutrients resulting in improved plant vigor, health, quality, and yield.
Whatever crop you are growing, enhancing biological activity in the soil vastly improves the crops capacity to reach its full genetic potential. Soils that are out of balance and lacking in needed minerals will most likely have a limited amount of biological activity. But when mineral nutrients are balanced and brought up to optimum levels, the fungi and bacteria will have something to work on and the soil will come alive. Using biological activators, or soil inoculants, will enhance and expand that activity by ensuring the bacteria and fungi that will best adapt to the soil and climate are present.
Bring your soil into balance with a custom soil prescription and amendment blend. Check out Step One to get started.
Nip It In The Bud And Nip It Before It Buds
Bromesedge, or Broomsedge as it is often called, is a member of the grass family. Its vegetative portion grows close to the ground producing light green, curly leaves. In the reproductive stage, Broomsedge produces a fibrous, golden stem that was often cut and bound together for use as a broom. However, its nutritive value as a forage is very low and grazing animals find it unpalatable.
We were discussing this problem with a local farmer a couple of weeks ago who runs a mixed herd of Scottish Highland and Irish Dexter beef cattle on his 34-acre farm near Odessa, Missouri.
Broomsedge is an opportunist. It capitalizes on situations of weakness in desirable forage crops. When a desirable plant is lost, it leaves a void in the canopy allowing more light to penetrate. This sets up the environment for Broomsedge to propagate and thrive.
The condition that most favors Broomsedge is poor soil fertility. Nutrient deficient pastures, especially with low levels of phosphorous and acidic soils, pH (<5.5) are a detriment to desirable forages and at the same time, provide the conditions for Broomsedge to invade. Phosphorous is very important to the maintenance of legumes in the pasture. So the first step in winning the battle with Broomsedge is to address nutrient deficiencies in the soil. This begins with a basic soil test.
Although the soil test will most likely show a Phosphorous deficiency, other mineral nutrients should not be ignored. Optimum soil fertility requires balancing the primary and secondary minerals. This is how we “nip it in the bud.” With the eleven primary and secondary minerals at optimum levels and ratios to each other, desirable plants will thrive and out-compete Broomsedge and remove the conditions favorable to its growth. If the budget is tight and you are unable to add all the minerals, begin with Calcium if it is required, and add the rest gradually over the next few years as recommended.
Things are not always as they seem. A Phosphorous deficiency may not mean a lack of Phosphorous. When the mineral nutrients are out of balance, the availability of Phosphorous may be affected even though there may be plenty of it in the soil. A shortage of one nutrient may “tie up” several others. This possibility emphasizes the importance of a soil test. You must know where you are if you are to get where you want to go.
We have nipped it in the bud by addressing soil fertility. So how do we “nip it before it buds?” Cattle may actively graze on the palatable, young Broomsedge vegetative growth occurring early in the season. Defoliation at this stage will reduce its vigor so early season grazing pressure can be part of the solution when Broomsedge is already a problem. On the other hand, inadequate defoliation pressure reduces stress on the Broomsedge and increases stress on desirable forage plants, giving Broomsedge the competitive advantage.
Other methods that have been used as a means of controlling and removing Broomsedge have their caveats. Burning can improve the regrowth quality of forage but Broomsedge is a warm season grass not damaged by early spring fires. Repeated burning on cool season pastures will eventually reduce the desired plants.
Any herbicide that would be effective against Broomsedge would also damage desirable plants. Targeted spot spraying may be possible but that would defeat the purpose of farming organically.
Mowing is really not effective because by the time Broomsedge is high enough to mow, it has reached the reproductive stage. Mowing would just facilitate seed disbursement.
Addressing soil fertility and evaluating grazing strategy are the most effective means of keeping Broomsedge out of the pasture and eliminating it when it becomes a problem. It took time for Broomsedge to gain a foothold and it will take time to get it under control. Optimizing soil fertility and patience will be rewarded with vigorous, nutrient-dense, Broomsedge-free forage.
Alas, the “Great Salt Myth.” Are salts created equal? Not quite. Commercially manufactured iodized salt is heavily processed and highly refined to remove impurities. Those impurities however are the trace minerals our body needs. Further degrading the quality, anti-caking agents have been added for uniform pouring since the early 1900s.
Table salt is 99% sodium chloride and 1% trace minerals. In contrast, Redmond Real Salt, mined underground from an ancient seabed that is now central Utah, is 97% sodium chloride and 3% trace minerals. That 3% contains 60 trace minerals. Himalayan sea salt, from an ancient seabed protected by lava, is 86% sodium chloride and 14% trace minerals of which there are 80+. What does all this mean? Reducing intake of processed foods high in sodium makes room for the use of mineral rich sea salts for most people. Our bodies really do require sodium for many important functions and benefits from the many trace minerals. There are exceptions, so it is imperative you check with your doctor.
Regarding cholesterol, the nutrient-dense animal foods listed in part three of the Mineral Message comprise 25% of the 1,100 to 1,700 milligrams of cholesterol we may have in our blood on a given day. The remaining 75% is actually produced inside our bodies by the liver. It has been shown that dietary cholesterol has very little impact on blood cholesterol levels in 75% of the population. The other 25% are referred to as hyper-responders with their cholesterol showing a moderate increase in LDL and HDL but does not affect the ratio of LDL to HDL or increase the risk of heart disease. Although other risk factors should not be dismissed, evidence suggests that the LDL particle number is a much better marker of heart disease risk than LDL level or total cholesterol level.
I originally planned to “examine more closely” the fact that if nutrient minerals are not in the soil, they can’t be in our bodies. It is such a simple fact but most of us are just not aware of the importance of our soils and how they serve as “the plants’ stomach.” By feeding the soil rather than the plant, we can ensure we get an abundance of the mineral nutrients we need. It all begins with a basic soil test indicating the levels and ratios of 11 mineral elements found in all soils. When we know where we are, we can determine where we need to go to balance these minerals for optimum nutrient density and flavor. Whether you are a home produce gardener, an organic farmer, or a rancher, healthy soil means healthy people and animals.
For further reading and research citations, see http://chriskresser.com/popular-posts/.
Chris Kresser, M.S., L.Ac is a globally recognized leader in the fields of ancestral health, Paleo nutrition, and functional and integrative medicine. Chris was recently named by Greatist.com as one of the 100 most influential people in health and fitness, along with Michelle Obama, Michael Pollan, Dr. Andrew Weil, Tim Ferriss, Mark Sisson, Robb Wolf and Dr. Mercola—and his work is frequently cited in national publications such as Time, The Atlantic, and NPR.
It has been said that we are what we eat. A more accurate statement might be we are what we absorb from what we eat. The truth is, animal fats help restore greater gut health, which increases the absorption rate of minerals and vitamins. That brings us to the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Eggs yolks for example, are rich in vitamin A, beta-carotene, choline, Selenium, Manganese, as well as pantothenic acid, and vitamins, D and K. Choline is necessary for brain building and reproductive function. More Magnesium and Niacin are found in the egg whites. We need both the egg yolk and the egg whites for complete nutrition.
Let’s examine a few other foods on our ostensibly taboo list from part two. Vitamin E works as an antioxidant at the cellular level and is found in unprocessed oils as well as in animal fats like butter and eggs. True vitamin A is found only in animal foods such as cod liver oil, fish and shellfish, butter, eggs, and liver from pasture fed animals. Vitamins B6 and Bsub>12 are found only in animal foods. Vitamin D, required for mineral absorption, is found in organ meats, butterfat, and eggs from pasture fed animals. The diets of our ancestors contained ten times more vitamin D than the typical American diet today.
Minerals like Magnesium and Zinc are vital components of enzymes and are more easily absorbed from animal fats. CO-Enzyme Q1o, highly protective against cancer, is found only in animal foods. Cholesterol is a potent antioxidant that protects cell membranes against free radicals.
Bone broths are a source of much-needed minerals and collagen, and nourish the connective tissues throughout our bodies. Raw milk and cheese from pasture fed cows are rich sources of Calcium.
For those who are lactose intolerant, soured dairy products such as yogurt, sour cream, and ghee, (clarified butter from which the milk solids have been removed) are more easily digestible.
Finally, the traditional diet of our ancestors included meat and dairy from pastured animals. These animal products are nutritionally superior to products from grain fed ruminants that require antibiotics and other medications to relieve bloating, and that suffer other diseases resulting from unsanitary and cramped confinement.
In the fourth and final part of The Mineral Message, we will dispel the great salt myth, summarize how these aforementioned foods are not our enemies, and examine more closely the fact that if it’s not in the soil, it can’t be in the food.
In part one we looked at just one of the many health problems caused by malnutrition. If the minerals we require are not in the soil, they cannot be in our food nor can they be in our bodies. Without those mineral nutrients in adequate quantities, our bodies cannot synthesize the vitamins, amino acids, and proteins needed for a strong immune system. How do we get those nutrient minerals into our bodies? Quite easily!
We can begin by choosing whole foods grown and raised organically, but let’s not stop at just organic. We must go beyond organic to food produced in a soil that is in optimum mineral balance. It is then our bodies will have luxury amounts of the stuff strong immune systems are made of. Through modern research coupled with thousands of years of experience from our ancestors, the answers are easier and closer than you think.
Raw milk, cream, sour cream, cheese
Eggs from pasture raised chickens
Bacon and pork from pasture raised pigs
Grass fed and finished beef
Organic fruits and vegetables raised in minerally balanced soil
Cholesterol (Yes, cholesterol!)
Salt (Indeed, salt too!)
In part three we’ll examine the foods above, the nutrients and compounds they contain, and why they are important to our health.
To begin learning more about these foods and how they nurture us:
Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats by Sally Fallon, Mary Enig, and Marion Dearth. Or watch Dr. Kaayla Daniel on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/DrKaaylaDaniel
One of the biggest human health questions in our medical and educational communities is why so many youths and adults seem to lack the ability to be calm and focused, learn necessary skills, or function well in a regular classroom.
Trace minerals, or Micro Elements as they are often referred to, are essential for soil, plant, animal, and human health. We know more about this subject today then ever before. These micro elements are needed only in very small quantities; a few parts per billion to a few parts per million are adequate.
First, let’s take a look at the primary and secondary minerals essential to plants, animals, and humans.
The primary minerals needed in a healthy, fertile soil are the cations:
Calcium (Ca) ++
Magnesium (Mg) ++
Potassium (K) +
Sodium (Na) +
The primary anion minerals needed are:
Phosphorous (P) –
Sulfur (S) – –
The secondary minerals are:
Boron (B) 3 + or – (Cation or anion)
Iron (Fe) +
Manganese (Mn) +
Copper (Cu) +
Zinc (Zn) +
Chlorine (Cl) –
Silicon (Si) 4 + or – (Cation or anion)
It is important to remember that the term secondary refers to the smaller quantities required and not to their relative importance. These secondary elements are essential to the function of the primary minerals.
Now let’s get back to the trace elements. The standard soil test does not test for trace elements. It tests only for the first eleven minerals listed above with the addition of exchangeable Hydrogen and Aluminum. There are several ways to ensure that your soil has adequate amounts of trace elements. The best sources are:
• Azomite Volcanic Minerals (Sourced from Utah and contains 71 trace elements)
• Glacial Rock Dust (Sourced from British Columbia and contains 67 trace elements)
• Jersey Greensand (Contains trace elements and is also a long term source of Potassium)
• Kelp Meal (Sourced from Nova Scotia and contains 60 trace elements with the added benefit of growth stimulants)
• Redmond Mineral Salt (Sourced from Utah and contains 50 trace elements)
All of the following micro (Trace) elements are essential in very small quantities:
Chromium (Cr) –
Cobalt (Co) +
Fluorine ((F) –
Iodine (I) –
Molybdenum (Mo) –
Nickel (Ni) +
Selenium (Se) –
Tin (Sn) +
Vanadium (V) +
Good examples of the importance of trace elements are illustrated by Molybdenum, a catalyst necessary for Nitrogen fixing bacteria in the soil. Also, Selenium is essential for proper immune system function, is associated with resistance to viruses, and is a co-factor with vitamin E. Cobalt is essential for ruminants such as sheep and cattle. They produce vitamin B-12 in their digestive system when Cobalt is present in their forage. When Cobalt is absent, these animals may be subject to numerous diseases and infections.
There are at least 30 other trace elements contained in the source list above. Sustainable Soils highly recommends the use of these sources to build the healthiest soil possible.
“The Ideal Soil 2014” A Handbook for the New Agriculture v2.0 by Michael Astera with Agricola.
“The Biological Farmer” by Gary F. Zimmer
“Hands-on Agronomy” Understanding Soil Fertility & Fertilizer Use by Neal Kinsey & Charles Walters, 3rd Edition
Absolutely! Cover cropping is not just for farmers or large-scale growers and is well suited to any garden. Cover crops reduce erosion, suppress weeds, improve soil structure by creating soil aggregates or “crumbing,” and feed the soil as they exude sugars and other substances through their roots.