Ever since I read “Drawdown”, I am fascinated by nature, agriculture and in particular soil. I am also now of the firm opinion that chemical fertilisers should be banned immediately. It is like giving plants hard drugs, delivers false growth and nutrition, and it kills no only soil but also poisoning our water and us.
The hidden half of nature
Read “The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health”. Telling the story that our planet— plants, animals, and people—is completely covered, inside and out, with microorganisms. Complex microbial communities drive many things we depend upon, from soil fertility to a healthy immune system. And altogether, microbes are estimated to make up half the weight of life on Earth. More bacteria live in a handful of rich fertile soil than the number of people who live in Africa, China, and India combined.
An unfathomably vast array of invisible life—bacteria, protists, archaea, and fungi—thrives on us and in us, as do innumerable viruses (which are not considered alive). Their cells outnumber our cells by at least three to one, and many say ten to one. And we should mind them because they are essential for our health and the health of the planet. The fundamental truth about the terrestrial ecosystem is that microbial life is the foundation supporting them all.
Part of us
It is a part of us, not apart from us. Microbes drive our health from inside our bodies. Their metabolic by-products form essential cogs of our biology. And the tiniest creatures on Earth forged long-running partnerships with all multicellular life in the evolutionary fires of deep-time. All around us they literally run the world.
Everything is connected
Think animal husbandry, gardening and health management on a microscopic scale. Soil soup, hyphae (the internet of trees), extracting nutrients plants need from rocks, catalysing the global carbon and nitrogen cycles, geobiology, symbiogenesis and all kinds of other very complicated concepts that I not understand. In very short, everything on earth is connected. Biological quantum physics.
We are killing the soil
The key message is that we are killing our soil with chemical fertilisers. It is like putting plants on crack cocaine. Now known as “the great nutrient collapse”. We are and will be paying a heavy price. In disease (plants and humans), yield and cost.
You are what you eat
Because we are what we eat. When we eat plants, the micronutrients in their tissues become part of our bodies. And those nutrients, combined with bacteria, protists, archaea, fungi keep us healthy. We need to move away from chemistry. And go back to biology as the foundation of modern agriculture. It is not that we did not know.
Sir Albert Howard
Sir Albert Howard discovered the rejuvenating effects of organic matter on soil fertility. By 1910 I had learnt how to grow healthy crops, practically free from disease, without the slightest help from mycologists, entomologists, bacteriologists, agricultural chemists, statisticians, clearing-houses of information, artificial manures, spraying machines, insecticides, fungicides, germicides, and all the other expensive tools of industry. He found out that using pesticides and herbicides to protect crops from pests made it harder to grow healthy crops—and increased the need for more poisons. Agrochemicals treated symptoms, not causes. Howard came to see chemical fertilisers as agricultural steroids, a way to enhance short-term performance at the expense of long-term soil fertility and plant health.
Ammunition and fertiliser
The reason that it was ignored is that ammunitions factories were easily transformed into fertiliser factories. At the end of WWII, governments around the world were looking for new uses for instantly obsolete munitions plants.To keep those companies in business, we are now slowly poisoning the life of the soil by artificial manure. It is one of the greatest calamities which has befallen agriculture and mankind.
Long term versus short term
Long-term farming should be founded upon nature’s principle of recycling life’s hard-to-find ingredients. Soil fertility depends on the health of the soil microorganisms as much as the makeup of the soil itself. Healthy, living soil is the key to soil fertility, plant resilience, and disease resistance.
The emerging view of soil ecology as the basis for soil fertility is not only undermining the chemical foundation of conventional agriculture. It is also changing how we see nature. We are starting to realise the role of microorganisms, fungi, bacteria, worms and fungal hyphae.
Wood Wide Web
Fascinating. Fungal hyphae, for example, are the largest life forms on Earth, forming a subterranean forest, with networks that extend for miles. A single teaspoon of fertile soil can contain a half-mile of fungal hyphae. The Wood Wide Web (one day someone is going to use hyphae for our internet). Trees and plants talk to each other. When beneficial microbes are present in the soil near roots, they send messages to plants that lead to an immune-like response called induced systemic resistance. There is an underground economy. The rhizosphere around plant roots is the site of countless trades between plants and soil microbes. Both fungi and bacteria consume plant exudates, and in exchange, they provide plants with nutrients and metabolites essential for growth and health. The invisible recycling machine, As every living thing in the soil, eventually becomes something else’s meal, an endless cycle of eating, dying, and pooping builds fertile soil from which new life springs.
The human body is also one vast ecosystem. Actually, it’s more like an entire planet with a rich palette of ecosystems, as different as the Serengeti and Siberia, each hosting multitudes of microbes. For every one of your cells, your harbour at least three bacterial cells. Bacteria alone bring about 2 million genes into our bodies, several hundredfolds more than the roughly 20,000 protein-coding genes of the human genome. Add the genomes of other members of our microbiome—viruses, archaea, and fungi—and the number of microbial genes in our bodies could be as high as 6 million.
Your human gut in the neighbourhood of about 1,000 bacterial species and many different strains of these bacteria. Of all your bodily habitats, the richest in terms of abundance and diversity is your twenty-two-foot-long digestive tract. In particular, the last five feet—your colon—houses almost three-quarters of our gut microbiome, many trillions of denizens. 80% of your immune system is associated with the gut, in particular, the colon.
That is exactly what we need to productively interact with microbes from across the tree of life. Environmental factors such as different food sources, or a new microbe entering or leaving the community, are among the reasons that bacteria change hats. Like plants, we tap into the nature of our immediate environment to assemble and cultivate our microbiome. That means we need to immerse ourselves in the diversity of microbial life. Sterile is bad. We have never had sterile bodies free of microbial life. And if we were to achieve such a state we would be profoundly unhealthy.
Globally, about 90% of all antibiotics used are given to animals with no apparent infection. The rapid spread of antibiotic resistance in microbes infecting both people. Antibiotics kill most of the microbes in your gut. With the result that more and more people have autoimmune diseases such as asthma, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel and allergies. In the past fifty years, researchers have seen but a fortyfold increase incidence of gut dysfunctions, from one in 10,000 people affected to one in 250 people.
Everything is connected
Everything is connected. We need to look after the soil, and you need to look after your own microbes. You should use food as a vehicle for getting probiotics into the body. Prebiotics are fibre. A diet rich in complex carbohydrates yields the highest level of beneficial microbial metabolites. Wheat, barley, or rice, all have the basics—proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, along with many of the vitamins and minerals essential for health. Fermented food is good too. Eat your sauerkraut or kimchi. I have started having Greek yoghurt with muesli for breakfast after reading this book. I am considering growing my own food in the future.
The business angle
What is the business angle? The importance of diversity, biomimicry, health and ethics.