By Dr. Mercola
One of my new passions is sustainable, biological farming, and Dr. Arden Andersen is a world leader in this field. His position is particularly interesting as, in addition to being a soil scientist and agricultural consultant, he is also a physician.
He happens to be a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) just like I am, specializing in nutritional management. He also advises farmers in building biology, helping them to optimize the energy environment of buildings, homes, and livestock facilities.
Originally raised on a dairy farm in Michigan, his father had a deep understanding of the direct correlation between nutrition and animal health. Dr. Andersen got a degree in agriculture from Arizona, and did a work exchange program in the Netherlands.
All the while during his schooling, he was struck by the fact that what he was taught didn't correlate to what he saw on his family's farm, particularly as it pertained to animal health and nutrition.
He recounts one such disconnect between the real world and what the University was trying to perpetuate as the status quo:
"In 1981 or 1982, I took a short course from Michigan State University on potatoes. It was very interesting to me that professors stepped in front of the class and said, 'You cannot grow potatoes in alkaline soils.'
Having gone to the University of Arizona, they raise a lot of potatoes in Arizona in all alkaline soils. I recognized as well that Idaho, which is the number one potato-producing state in the country, is alkaline soil.
That didn't jive. I was like, 'Wait a minute, these guys here at this university tell me you can't grow potatoes in alkaline soil when the majority of potatoes in the country are grown in alkaline soils.'"
The Root of Health Begins in the Soil
Dr. Andersen decided to delve deeper into the biological approach and took a class from Dan Skow and the late Carey Reams, where he learned the Reams' Biological Theory of Ionization (RBTI). This theory proposes that the cure for any animal or human disease can be found in the health and composition of the soil that the food is grown in.
He started consulting with and for them, and also worked with the late veterinarian Dan Skow.1 Later, he went back to medical school, realizing that this would allow him to have a far greater impact.
"As a result, I can talk to 100 percent of the population," he says. "As a physician, you can talk to all [people]. As a consultant in agriculture, I can essentially only talk to two percent of the population, which is the farming population. Being a physician, even when I talk to farmers about soil, they also have a personal life. They have personal health issues. I can bring that whole thing together for them.
...I was taught as a child: you have to observe. Taking Carey Reams' course, one of the things he said is 'see what you look at.' His little book called The Farmer Wants to Know was my introduction to why weeds are there; why we have insects..."
What are those pesky bugs good for? As Dr. Andersen explains, insects are nature's garbage collectors. Thanks to their specialized digestive systems, which differ from ours, they remove that which is not fit for us to eat—things we cannot digest. And weeds are nature's way of evolving the soil—it's an intermediate plant that mobilizes nutrients in order to alter the soil, making it more suitable for the next evolutionary level of plants to grow in it.
"That can happen maybe over 1,000 years, or we can actually manage that to happen in over three to five years," he says.
Once you understand this natural cycle, it allows you to address weeds, insects, and plant disease at its point of origination, without ever resorting to chemical herbicides, pesticides, fungicides or synthetic fertilizers.
Soil Health Dictates Everything
One of the fundamental basics taught by Carey Reams is that the higher a plant's sugar content is, the higher its nutrient density. To measure sugar content in your plant, you use a refractometer, also called a Brix meter. (I'll discuss this tool further below.)
Sugar content is often used as an indicator of quality—not because the sugars are in and of themselves necessarily an indicator of quality, but they're typically associated with the plant's mineral content. Hence, it can be used as a marker of quality. Brix meters are available on Amazon.com and other places, and can be had for under $100.
Two other fundamental soil principles relate to calcium and carbon. Reams used chicken manure as a calcium inoculant, and steer manure as a carbon source. Today, most chicken and steer manure is contaminated, thanks to the way animals are raised in large-scale factory farms. According to Dr. Andersen:
"Chicken manure today is not safe. Most of it has been tested – it's got glyphosate in it. It has genetically engineered proteins in it. Because of the poor health of the chickens, it doesn't have a microbial inoculation in there. We actually have companies producing probiotics, if you will, for the soil. We use those."
As for carbon, rather than using potentially contaminated steer manure, Dr. Andersen is now using things like humic acid or humates. This promotes the proliferation of beneficial microorganisms in the soil, which then sequester carbon in the soil. The principles Dr. Andersen teaches in his three-day class on soil health are still fundamentally Reams' principles, because that's the basic science. Current technologies are then integrated to execute those principles with the greatest efficiency and effectiveness.
The Problem with Genetically Engineered Plants
High performance agriculture methods are a FAR superior alternative to attempts at "improving" agriculture through genetic engineering. Upon closer investigation, many of the claims that proponents or genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) advocate simply aren't true. Here's Dr. Andersen's take on this issue, as it relates to environmental and human health:
"Fundamentally, conventional agriculture and conventional medicine are all about the fighting of disease and the perpetuation of that fight of disease, because that's where the profit is. But as long as you continue to target disease, you will never solve disease, because you never look at the underlying cause why that disease exists. That really is their fundamental business plan.
The difference in the approach that we take is the understanding that agriculture really is about producing food for people. That food has to provide nutrition in order to sustain us. In order for us to be healthy, we have to have full nutrition. We really do have a dichotomy as far as the approach: targeting disease versus targeting health.
The whole GMO approach is only a continuation of that 'let's target disease' mindset, because the majority of GMOs are simply [a means] for them to be able to use herbicide on the crop itself, like the Roundup Ready corn... It has nothing to do with improving the actual nutrient value of the corn... It's completely geared toward: 'how do we use more herbicide?' Unfortunately, at the same time, that whole process of putting in a foreign gene, we are creating a foreign protein, which is highly inflammatory to any mammalian consumer."
What Is a 'High-Tech Farmer,' Really?
When people think of technology, they think in terms of about mechanical and electronic technology. The chemical industry uses a powerful play on words when they claim to be "high-tech farmers." Dr. Andersen vehemently disagrees with this choice of words, as all they're really doing is perpetuating the attack on disease—in this case, pests, weeds, and plant disease. In doing so, they can sell more of their chemical products. Genetically engineered seeds are little more than a facet of an overall business plan that aims to increase sales of agricultural chemicals.
"Understand that it has nothing to do with producing food with sustainability or food with nutrition in it. That really is the big dichotomy, the difference," he says, noting that many of today's large-scale farmers have "completely, entirely, lost the whole concept that food is supposed to be produced for human consumption ultimately with nutrition in it. They've completely missed that.
The approach that we look at really is first, fundamentally understanding that food is about human health. It's about the nutrition necessary for human health. Disease, weed, and insect problems are all about a lack or imbalance of that nutrition in the soil and in the crop. If we're really going to address those, we have to address those fundamental things – the nutrition and the soil health issues.
"...When people talk about high-tech farming, what they think about is, 'Oh, that's biotechnology.' No, real high-tech farming is carbon sequestration in the soil, raising the Brix readings of crops, improving the soil tilth, improving the humus levels in the soil, increasing the water-holding capacity in the soil, and reducing water use."
Why Labeling GMOs Is Such a Critical Issue
According to Dr. Andersen, labeling GMOs is absolutely necessary, because genetically engineered foods are not just a matter of a difference in belief system or opinion, it's about fundamental toxicology. He states, quite unequivocally, that genetically engineered foods are toxic, as they contain foreign proteins that have been proven to cause inflammation.
As physicians, we are in complete agreement on this point, because the evidence overwhelmingly shows that inflammation is a driver for disease processes in the human body. Diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and many if not most other chronic diseases are fundamentally rooted in inflammatory processes, which are perpetuated by factors in the environment, such as your diet. To solve these disease problems, you have to address the cause of inflammation, and genetically engineered foods are one such cause.
Add to that is the toxic nature of the agricultural chemicals used on these already inflammatory crops. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup, has been shown to be FAR from safe. Unfortunately, even Poison Control still claims it's safe—based on Monsanto documents from the early 1980s. This despite the fact that, since the early 2000s, hundreds of scientific articles have been published showing glyphosate to be highly toxic, through a number of different mechanisms, including:
- Chelating trace minerals out of the system
- Killing microorganisms. Monsanto holds a recent patent on glyphosate as an antibiotic; so clearly, it does kill microbes such as bacteria. That's what antibiotics do. Studies also confirm that glyphosate can kill gut bacteria, which are essential for proper digestion and assimilation of nutrients. Continuously getting a low dose of antibiotics with each meal can also promote the proliferation of pathogenic microbes, and hardier, more antibiotic-resistant versions of them
"Without question, we have to have labeling, because that's the only way that we're going to stop this big lie," he says. "The big lie about how safe it is and we can't feed the world without it—it's quite the opposite. We will destroy the world as long as we continue GMOs. We can only feed the world without GMOs and with good nutritional management of the soils.
Biological Farming Helps with Carbon Sequestration
Rising carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere is a concern that has many scientists worried for the future of humanity. Interestingly, one of the most pernicious contributing factors to this is not necessarily the burning of fossil fuels (although that's certainly a factor as well), but rather it's our modern agricultural practices.
I'm really excited about the alternatives, especially the application of biochar (charcoal created by slowly heating biomass such as wood and plant materials in a low-oxygen environment). Once added to soil, biochar helps sequester carbon for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years, and radically improve soil fertility by serving as a substrate for beneficial soil microbes.
Adding biochar to just 10 percent of the world's croplands would store 29 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. This roughly equals the world's annual greenhouse emissions. As mentioned, the addition of biochar also improves soil fertility, allowing for healthier crops, so it's a win-win situation. That said, Dr. Andersen claims that by simply following appropriate, sustainable farm management practices you don't even need to go through the process of creating and adding biochar.
"If we follow those, by default we solve the carbon sequestration issues. We solve the environmental issues. Because what happens is that we increase the carbon in the soil, and that's sequestration of air carbon," he says. "A couple of different studies that I am familiar with showed that just by sequestering carbon in 15-20 percent of the arable land in the world, we would more than reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air that is causing a problem. As I said, by default, we solve all the environmental problems if we just do appropriate farming."
In addition to reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide, by increasing carbon levels in our soils, we can:
- Decrease weed proliferation. The USDA Soil Tilth Laboratory showed that increasing the carbon level in soil can decrease weeds by as much as 75 percent.
- Increase the soil's water-holding capacity. The Organic Horticulture Benefits Alliance (OHBA), an organization in Houston, Texas that do organic turf management, have shown that they can decrease water use for lawns by 50 percent by biological means alone.
Three Basic Principles of Biological Gardening
It's important to realize that modern farming systems have veered quite far from the basic sciences of soil cultivation and plant nutrition. According to Dr. Andersen, the reason they've been able to make such great strides in increasing the nutritional density and yield of their crops is by returning to those basic sciences, and using those basic sciences to explain how and why these high performance methods work so well.
"Fundamentally, what we really have to understand is that all life really is about microbiology," he says. "If you take care of the microbiology in your gut, they take care of you. The same principle holds true in the soil. If we take care of that probiotic population in the soil, it will then take care of us. Because fundamentally, if we study microbiology and then subsequently biochemistry, what we understand is that those microbes are the ones that are really sequestering nutrients for us, digesting food for us, and then making those things available for our stimulation, whether it be amino acids, trace minerals, vitamins, or whatever that vital nutrient might be."
The exact same thing happens in plants. In order for plants to flourish, the soil must first be made hospitable for beneficial microorganisms. To accomplish this, you need to:
- Have the right nutrient balance in the soil
- Inoculate the soil. This can be done by adding soil probiotics or basic fermentation products such as compost tea
- Apply proper food (fertilizer) for the microorganisms to consume and thrive. The microbes in turn will then feed the proper nutrients to the plants grown in that soil. The better you're able to fertilize the microbes, the healthier your plants will be, and the fewer plant diseases, pest infestations and weed problems you'll have
See What You're Looking at
Before delving into high performance gardening, you'd be well advised to do some reading. Dr. Andersen has written a number of useful books, such as Science in Agriculture: Advanced Methods for Sustainable Farming and Anatomy of Life & Energy in Agriculture. These will teach you the fundamentals of what you need to do. Note that the latter is quite expensive, and may be better suited for more serious gardeners or farmers.
Dr. Andersen also recommends learning some basic observation skills in the field or in your garden. Here, Michael McNeill and Graham Shepherd's work on visual soil assessment can be recommended.
"As a farmer and as a gardener, you need to learn that the history and physical are 80 percent of the diagnosis," he says. "What does that mean? You go out into the soil. You dig in the soil. You see what you look at. What does it smell like, what does it feel like, what do you see growing, what don't you see growing, and what kind of organisms do you see or don't you see out there? Just kind of a gestalt overview of what is or isn't there.
Plants tell us what's going on. If we've got broad-leaf weeds, we know that we have a biological deficiency. We know that we have an imbalance between potassium and phosphorous. If we've got grass weeds like foxtail and quackgrass, we know that we have a functional calcium deficiency. Those kinds of observation skills tell us what actually is happening."
The Refractometer—A Useful Tool
One of the tools Dr. Andersen teaches people to use is a refractometer, sometimes referred to as a Brix meter. Reams proved that, because of the fundamental biology of photosynthesis, all plants are designed to make sugar. They can only make sugar if they have adequate nutrition. Only then can they take that sugar that is made and convert it into fats, proteins, and carbohydrates—if they have the adequate nutrition for that to occur.
It's a simple tool to use. By adding some sap or juice from a plant to the prism of your refractometer, you'll get a reading on a scale of 0 to 32 Brix. This tells you the percentage of sucrose in the plant (i.e. a Brix reading of, say, 10 Brix equates to a 10 percent sucrose level in the plant). The higher the Brix reading is, the higher the nutrient density, and hence the higher the level of health of that plant.
Interestingly, you may have heard that GMO apples are now in the works, designed to not brown once cut. But if an apple has a high enough Brix level, it will naturally resist browning, courtesy of its elevated nutrient and antioxidant content. It will still brown once cut, but not nearly as quickly as most commercial apples of today.
"A refractometer is an excellent tool if you're growing your own garden," he says. "Let's say, you purchase a foliar mix that you're going to spray on the plant. Did it actually raise the Brix reading of the plant? You can find out within about 30 to 45 minutes by checking the Brix reading of your plant. Apply the foliar spray, wait 30 to 45 minutes, and then recheck. If the Brix reading came up, that plant's saying, 'Hey, this is good stuff. I like it. It's helping me with nutrition.'"
You can easily find a refractometer online. Just make sure you get one calibrated for plant Brix readings, opposed to one calibrated for the medical industry. Typically, you'll want to make sure it's properly calibrated by using some distilled water to calibrate it to zero. Simply place a drop of water on the prism, and adjust the scale to zero. Some meters are already permanently calibrated however.
Dr. Andersen's book Food Plague discusses the use of refractometers. It's only $10 for the Kindle version, and is a good place to start. The print version of this book can be purchased through Acres USA.2 You can also learn more about the use of refractometers on HighBrixGardens.com.
For more information about genetically engineered foods and modern agriculture, check out Dr. Andersen's online PowerPoint presentation: "Modernized food and its collateral damage."3 His books Science in Agriculture: Advanced Methods for Sustainable Farming and Anatomy of Life & Energy in Agriculture are the primary textbooks for gardeners and farmers, describing where to start and how to do it.
If you're a farmer, you may want to attend his three-day course. Upcoming classes are typically advertised in Acres USA Magazine,4 so that's a great magazine to subscribe to. Acres USA5 also sells Dr. Andersen's three-day course on DVD, as well as individual lectures that he's given through them.