By Dr. Mercola
Industrial chemical-based agriculture, which produces the vast majority of US food crops, is actually destroying the soil that makes the growing of food possible in the first place.
This is not true in other countries. Worldwide, 70 percent of the food is grown in backyards or small farms. That number is likely well under two percent in the US. It is my goal to motivate, inspire, and encourage tens of millions of people to start growing their own food so we can radically change these numbers.
You likely know I have been active in supporting the labeling of GMOs and I think this is great, but even better would be to eliminate their market and one of the ways we can do this is by growing our own nutrient-dense food in our yards or community gardens.
The featured film, One Man, One Cow, One Planet, presents one inspiring alternative—"A blueprint for a post-industrial future, revealing what an environmentally friendly biodynamic food system capable of feeding everyone could actually look like."
However, I strongly believe that there are far simpler and less expensive ways that would allow most of you to effortlessly grow your own food. And in the coming years, I will seek to inform you on how to easily and inexpensively do that.
The Drawbacks of Chemical Agriculture Make It Unsustainable
One particularly destructive aspect of industrial agriculture, which for the most part is little more than 50 years old, is the proliferation of genetically engineered (GE) seeds—seeds that, in India, for example, cost farmers up to 400 percent more than conventional seeds, and produce 30 percent less yield...
One 2006 study found that 60 percent of Indian farmers using GE seeds could not recoup their investment, causing more than 250,000 farmers to commit suicide. Many can't even feed their own families. And yet farmers are increasingly left with few options, as Monsanto and other chemical technology companies are buying up seed companies, effectively eliminating the competition.
Proponents of genetic engineering claim GE seeds is the most effective way to feed the world, by producing plants unnaturally equipped with internally-produced insecticides, or with genes making them resistant to chemical herbicides. Some are advertised as drought resistant, and/or higher yield producing. But, the truth turns out to be quite different.
GE plants produce foreign proteins making them highly allergenic, and more often than not, they actually require more water to thrive, and therefore end up producing less than conventional seeds. In the end, everything and everyone suffer more because of the "chemical marvels" of modern agriculture, and the corporate control of our food supply.
Additionally, the industrial farming practices that use GE seeds waste massive amounts of water and contribute to large losses of our precious topsoil. Simple inexpensive alternatives can virtually eliminate the need for irrigation and create, rather than decimate topsoil.
GE Crops Destroy Soil Fertility—Possibly Irreversibly
As GE plants increasingly take over the major food-producing areas of the world, including the US, China, India, Argentina, and Brazil, reduced soil fertility has a high probability of leading to worldwide famine on a scale never previously seen.
The mechanisms for this loss of soil fertility are just beginning to be understood, and what was recently only theory has inched closer to reality as science shines more light on the consequences of introducing genetically engineered organisms into the soil.
Special genetic elements (vector DNA) are present in all GE plants. This vector DNA enables unrelated microorganism species to mate, but can also be transferred to soil microorganisms.
Soil fertility depends on the presence of a diverse blend of microorganisms, all serving different roles in balancing and optimizing the soil. But when unrelated species mate, the soil ecosystem loses diversity, which is proven to damage fertility.
Until recently, the transfer of genes between GE plants and soil bacteria was only theoretical. However, this mechanism has now been demonstrated by science, and it's our soil's worst nightmare. It should be noted that this same process of gene transfer has also been shown to occur in your gastrointestinal tract when you eat GE foods—turning your intestines into a virtual pesticide factory...
Biodynamic Farming Benefits Earth and Man
The video features Peter Proctor and Sarvdaman Patel, two biodynamic farmers working in India. Over the past 15 years, Proctor has watched a slow but steady grassroots revolution occur, with biodynamic farms spreading across India's countryside.
It's important to realize that the entire food chain is connected, from soil, plant, and insect health, all the way up to animal and ultimately your health. That is why it is so important to pay attention to the details as supporting the diverse set of soil microbes at the bottom of the food chain ultimately supports your health.
Biodynamic farming is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture that was initially developed by Dr. Rudolf Steiner1 (1861-1925). This approach can provide far superior harvests relative to conventional chemical based agriculture. It provides superior crops both in volume and increased density of nutrients, and biodynamic farms are completely self-sustaining.
Biological gardening has been one of my passions for the past few years, and I have read many books, every issue of ACRES USA for the past few years, and interviewed many experts in this area. So far, I've attempted to apply this by converting about 50 percent of the ornamental landscape around my home to an edible landscape.
Over these past few years, I have applied many different strategies to improve plant growth, such as vortexed compost tea, rock dust powders, magnetic structured water, ionized water, biochar, many types of foliar sprays, and ground covers like woodchips.
I really enjoy this challenge as to me it is like a puzzle, and if I solve it there are massive benefits to large numbers of people, not only myself. My three decades of studying health and treating tens of thousands of patients helped provide me with the basic science necessary to understand these systems, which has helped accelerate my solving this puzzle. I have learned that complex and expensive solutions are rarely the foundational answer. Just as in human health, the final answer is actually really simple... And although I haven't carefully studied biodynamics and read Dr. Steiner's voluminous work, I believe I'm familiar enough to form a few conclusions
The Importance of No-Till Agriculture
I believe many of the biodynamic farming principles are valid and useful, especially the application of structured water, discussed in the video. However, I firmly believe the vast majority, if not all of the benefits of biodynamic farming, can be achieved far more easily and less expensively. The video is an interesting demonstration of this conclusion. How many of you would have the time out of your day to learn this complex system, and more importantly, apply it?
Additionally, in the featured video, you will see that they are still using the plow, and there is no question in my mind that this is an incorrect and highly counterproductive method. Most experts I know firmly believe no-till agriculture is the best approach. The last thing you want to do is disturb the soil. I believe this is because it disturbs soil microbes, especially the fungi. You might not realize that 70 percent of the soil microbes responsible for plant health and plant communication are fungi, and tilling will disrupt these mycorrhizal fungal filaments.
Wood Chips Is One of the Best Ways to Improve Your Soil Health
I am so grateful to Paul Gautschi, whose video Back to Eden, helped me understand the value of using wood chips. I struggled for years seeking to unlock the puzzle of growing nutrient dense food that reaches its maximum genetic potential before his recommendations. The simplicity and low cost were massively appealing for me. When I studied it more carefully, I realized it was the single best way to optimize soil microbiology with very little effort.
Most anyone would agree that wood chips are useful for gardening. But it has been my experience that large numbers, perhaps even the majority, don't understand how to use them properly. They believe, as the video shows, that they need to be converted to compost first and then spread into the soil. In my mind, this is an enormous waste of effort for less than optimal results.
I still need to research this, but my initial analysis suggests far more greenhouse gases, like CO2 and methane are released when chips are composted than when they are used as ground cover. I love Paul Gautschi's take on this as it is loaded with common sense. Paul replicates what occurs in nature, which doesn't make compost piles, but degrades the ground cover of leaves, twigs, and stems slowly over time.
It seems obvious to me that this is precisely what the type of environments that soil microbes are adapted to. The key here is to create stable carbon complexes. Biochar is certainly one way to do that as it will last in the soil for centuries, but you can actually create something similar for far less time and money with woodchips. The chips and leaves gradually break down and are digested and redigested by a wide variety of bacteria, fungi, and nematodes in the soil. Once the carbon can't be digested anymore, it forms humates that last in the soil for centuries and provide a host of benefits that I will describe below.
Benefits of Woodchips
One of the foundational principles of biological gardening and farming is to not till the soil as it will massively disrupt the soil microbes. This is precisely what woodchips will allow you to do. After a few short months you will develop lush soil underneath the chips that will happily support food or trees that you would like to grow. The longer you leave the chips on, and the deeper you put on the wood chips, the deeper the topsoil will be.
A major reason why most people don't want to garden is they abhor the weeding chores that can easily overwhelm your plants. Woodchips will radically reduce your weeding, probably by over 90 percent, and the weeds that do grow are easily pulled out by their roots so it becomes relatively effortless to keep the area clean.
As you know, many parts of the country are challenged with droughts and may not get more than 10-20 inches of water a year. Woodchips are the perfect solution as they will eliminate water evaporation from the soil, but better yet, at night they will grab moisture from the air and release it into the soil in the day when the soil needs it. Paul Gautschi only gets 12 inches of rain a year and hasn't irrigated his orchard or vegetable garden for over a decade, yet grows incredible juicy fruits and vegetables.
Another major benefit is the elimination of fertilizers. One of the reasons why industrial agriculture is so damaging is their use of chemical salts that decimate the soil microbes. When you use chips you not only radically increase the bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes, but chips are essentially an earthworm magnet. You might be aware that earthworms create vermicompost, one of the best composts on the planet.
I believe the mistake most people make with vermicompost is to purchase it or create it by establishing earthworm farms. Then they have to spend loads of time collecting and spreading it. It is far more efficient to feed the worms that are already in your soil and they love woodchips and leaves and rapidly reproduce. You can easily create many tons of free compost every year right where you need it most, under your plants, with no effort on your part. It is even possible to create a thousand tons of worm castings every year in particularly nutrient-rich soils, like around the Nile.
You can eliminate expensive soil testing as it is simply unnecessary when you use chips. Most tests are seriously antiquated as they have no measure of the quality of the soil microbes. They are artifacts of an ancient era when farming was thought to be a chemical experiment. Woodchips will normalize whatever soil you have. Paul Gautschi shares his results that someone did for him after using woodchips for decades and most of his nutrient levels were literally 10 times higher than the great levels, and he never added any fertilizers.
Finally, woodchips serve as a great insulation blanket for your soil and moderates the temperatures in the summer and the winter. When you have a foot to two foot blanket of chips over your plants, the soil will be highly unlikely to freeze in the winter and damage your plants. In the hot summer months, it keeps the soil cooler so the roots can work more efficiently with the soil microbes.
How to Work with Wood Chips
All you need to do is use your computer and type in tree cutting services and the name of your town and you will get a list of companies you can call to have them drop the chips on your driveway. Typically, most companies dump them in a landfill as waste, and pay to do that. Most companies are more than happy to dump them on your property. It is highly recommended that you tip them; $20 is good, and you can even give $50 if you're feeling generous.
Even at $50 this is an amazing bargain as you are getting around 2,000-3,000 pounds of material that will give you incredible soil. Even on a small property you will likely need many truckloads. Woodchips work because of the volume of carbon you are dumping into the soil. Even though a truckload may be bigger than your car and weigh thousands of pounds, it is likely you will need many truckloads to convert your soil. I am converting about ¼ of an acre at my home and am using about 20-30 truckloads.
Once you lay the chips down though and your soil is established with the earthworms, you can go for many years without having to put them in again. You will likely only need a few truckloads a year to top them off. You don't have to use woodchips but they are the best. If you don't have access to them, you can use pretty much any other waste biomass that you have freely available in your area, like straw or cornstalks. You could use sawdust but it is far inferior to woodchips as it is far more natural and won't overwhelm the soil like sawdust can.
Ideally, it is best to use hardwoods like oak. When they have fresh leaves on them, the leaves are loaded with phosphorus and nitrogen and balance the carbon in the wood. Ideally, it is best to spread them shortly after the wood is cut. If you wait more than 48 hours, they will start to decompose and when you move them in the wheelbarrow there will be loads of dust that can cause problems. If you are using older chips, please wear a mask so you don't inhale the woodchip dust. This is not an issue with fresh chips.
Put at least four inches of chips down if you are planting a vegetable garden. If you are preparing your soil for next year, you can go much deeper as much of it will decompose over the winter. You just need to make sure you only have four inches when you put your plants in otherwise the chips will cover the plants. Never plant in woodchips. You only plant in the luscious and magnificent soil it creates immediately below the wood chips. Also, never bury the woodchips, which would violate no till principles and consume massive amounts of nitrogen to digest the chips. You can go to 16 to 24 inches if you are laying the chips around your trees. It is not necessary to keep the chips away from the tree as they will be just fine. Just make sure the chips are below the first set of branches.
Plan for Next Year
Soil is the key to any successful garden and for most it is a bit too late in the season to prepare your soil for this year, but you can easily do it for next year. One of the challenges for most is to find the space to garden. You can easily convert your lawn to a garden by laying cardboard over the grass and putting the chips directly on the cardboard. The grass won't grow through it and it forms terrific compost. Just be sure to take all the tape off the boxes and not use any boxes with shiny ink as that would not be good for the earthworms that otherwise love cardboard.
If you start now, you should easily be able to get all the chips you need and lay them down before winter, and by the time spring rolls around next year you will have soil that will be the envy of most. If you spread the chips deep enough, they will provide an incredible blanket of insulation to protect against any freeze damage in the winter.
Take Action to Protect Organic Standards
The US Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990. At that time, they also created an independent citizen advisory panel called the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), and gave it statutory authority to assist the Secretary of Agriculture in the implementation of the law. Without the creation of NOSB, it's unlikely that the organic farming community would have supported OFPA in the first place.
NOSB consists of 15 members, including farmers, environmentalists, public interest groups, food processors, a scientist, a retailer and a certifier. However, the NOSB is now being seriously undermined by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Last fall, the USDA stripped the advisory panel of much of its authority and power. Without the NOSB, there's no buffer between corporate lobbyists and the USDA, and this poses a very clear threat to organic standards.
To protect the integrity of organic standards, I urge you to sign this White House petition, asking President Obama and USDA Secretary Vilsack to restore power that was stripped from the NOSB.
You Too Can Become a Successful Gardener
What makes organic and biodynamic gardening so effective is the focus on soil health. And your health truly begins in the soil. By optimizing the soil microbiology, your plants will be healthier and more nutritious, and these benefits translate into health benefits when you eat them. Optimizing soil biology also strengthens plants against pest infestations without having to resort to chemical warfare that kills far more than the insects they're designed to destroy.
You can easily apply these principles to your own home garden—no matter how small it is. Even if it's just a few pots on your balcony. There's no doubt that urban gardening and small-scale farming is an important step toward building a more sustainable food system. During World War II, 40 percent of the produce in the US was grown in people's back yards in so-called "Victory Gardens."
The US needed Victory Gardens back then in the war effort, but I believe we are in an even bigger war now. Our soil is being decimated and even most local organic farms aren't using these principles, they are merely avoiding the use of fertilizers and pesticides. That will not produce nutrient-dense food. One has to address the soil microbes to provide that. Additionally, we are getting more and more GE crops so it will become harder and harder to find high quality food. The simplest, least expensive and healthiest solution is to grow your own garden with the principles I outline above.
If you're unsure of where to start, I recommend starting out by growing sprouts. Broccoli, watercress, and sunflower sprouts are foods that virtually everyone can and would benefit from growing. It's inexpensive, easy, and can radically improve your overall nutrition. Sprouts can actually contain up to 30 times the nutrients of organic vegetables! They also allow your body to extract more of the vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and essential fats from the rest of your diet. That said, I hope you take the time to watch the video, as it really drives home the point that if it's health we're after, we have to start looking after our soils, and pay attention to how our food is grown.