The man who repairs the earth
Saving the land
Fertilizers and pesticides are the main reasons for the death of the now fertile earth. The question is, how can you revive that once-fertile soil? Scientist and entrepreneur Pius Floris, a Dutch student working with US Professor Donald Marx, discovered a part of the answer. They’ve been working on the symbiotic relationship between certain fungi and the roots of trees and plants, a process called Mycorrhizae. The fungi, with the help of bacteria, extract minerals and other nutrients from the soil and pass them on to the trees and plants. While the process has repeatedly been demonstrated in laboratories, Floris and Marx devised a way to grow these mycorrhizal spores on an industrial scale, to save water and make agricultural processes more sustainable.
Pius Floris, “Our slogan is ‘we grow soil’. We provide the fungi and the bacteria to help the soil restore itself with the help of plants.”
‘I’ve always loved trees, but this has developed into a love for ‘the tree’s growth’
Floris, “While plant roots only extend minimally, fungi threads are significantly thinner and longer, and provide the plant with nutrients it could never reach on its own. In exchange, the plant provides the fungi with fuel in the form of sugars. Both organisms profit, and the soil is enriched. It’s really that simple, the only problem is that our society has become addicted to using artificial fertilizers and pesticides.”
We met Floris at his home in the Netherlands just before he left to work on new projects in Ecuador and Peru. He has worked hard to introduce this process globally, and has a team of twelve people located around the world. “In 1981, I started a company specialized in tree maintenance. We were consulted if there was a problem with trees. We would take soil samples and noticed that the problem was often a lack of various nutrients, especially minerals. We drilled holes to bring the nutrients to the roots, but over time, we found that this didn’t always solve the problem.”
“I’ve always loved trees, but this has developed into a love for ‘the tree’s growth’. Some 30 years ago, I started realizing the importance of soil, the ground under our feet. I am a vehement opponent of using artificial fertilizers; we’ve seen even well established, large trees dying from fertilizer use. All plants, animals, and humans are 100% dependent on that thin layer of earth, about 30cm, which we refer to as arable soil. The same soil which, whether consciously or not, we’re destroying right now.”
The countryside in Spain is experiencing an exodus, all the young people are moving to the city, leaving the older people behind. The elderly literally survive on EU subsidies for ‘working their land’. In 2012, his company, Plant Health Cure, started a subsidized LIFE project in Spain. Together with Spanish Universities and agronomists, they started a very daring project on two desert areas of 25 hectares, one in Castilla y León, the other in Zamorra.
Floris, “Currently, we’re looking at millions of hectares of dead soil; fields that used to be solid fertile arable ground. These two regions in Spain used to be major providers of grain, but in just three decades, the sensitive living soil of 25cm has completely eroded and washed away. We were asked to set up a task force to recreate fertile soil. When we started the project in 2013, we added some of the missing soil-building biology in the form of mycorrhizal fungi and selected bacteria. Obviously, all of this was done with organic fertilization, and after two years we planted fruit trees at specific distances to increase the biodiversity. We ended the project this year with higher yields of food crops on our rain-fed land, than our neighbours with irrigation pivots and chemical fertilizers.”
Chemical fertilizers make plants ill; this is true for every plant, always! They are fed an overabundance of nitrogen and too few other necessary nutrients. For some reason, the general idea behind fertilization is that fertilizers provide all the necessary nutrients. The problem is that the knowledge we work with is 160 years old; it’s really no longer valid. Compare this with human nutrition. How many useful nutrients have been added to our menus in the last two decades? Not so in plant fertilization.
If the soil is healthy, many plants can be raised, even in the desert
Chemists can easily explain the loss caused to our soil from using chemical nitrogen fertilizers. The soil dwelling bacteria that receive excessive amounts of nitrogen are forced to consume the organic matter in the soil. In other words, a farmer might think that adding 30 tons of compost benefits the soil biology. However, by adding these amounts of fertilizers, most of the organic matter added will be transformed to CO2 before the season is over. It also seems normal to spray plants when they’re infected with aphids or fungi. The intelligent farmer may ask, “Why do these aphids or fungi choose these plants to eat, while other plants in the field grow without any signs of infestation?”
Floris’s company is currently in the complex process of upscaling. Everything is moving at a rapid pace, both nationally and internationally. Their work in Spain, and now in Abu Dhabi, Ecuador and Peru as well, is spectacular. The execution is always left to the local population, otherwise it just doesn’t work. That is where the desert earth is revitalized. If the soil is healthy, many plants can be raised, even in the desert, sometimes with a minimum of irrigation.
A better soil makes a better farmer; a better farmer provides humankind with better food
“Our customers are very suspicious in the beginning. Usually we are number X in the row of companies that were asked to restore barren soils. But somehow these companies don’t seem to understand the complexity of the matter. It is not just the soil, the fungi, bacteria or the plants. It’s the symphony of understanding all these life forms, how they work and making them work together. In our vision it’s not magical, it’s simply common sense! As a company, we strive to restore soils. We are noticed because we’ve done some spectacular things. But practically, we mostly work with European farmers who understand that they need to change the current practice of agriculture. We work with the farmers who understand that 85% of agriculture currently depends on fossil fuels, while in 1970 it was only 5%. Agriculture worldwide is changing rapidly. Farmers understand that their future depends on the soil. A better soil makes a better farmer; a better farmer provides humankind with better food; better food keeps people out of hospitals longer! The system is very logical, but at the same time, it’s a threat to the industry that depends on the farmers’ wallets.”
The world needs to start realizing that chemical fertilizers are much more harmful to the world than most pesticides. The reason for using most pesticides lies in our use of chemical fertilizers. If we really want less chemicals in our food, we need to rethink the use of synthetic fertilizers in a world where we have enough plant-based and animal-based fertilizers to feed the world twice over!