By Dr. Mercola
Politico tells about a young generational farmer, Jonathan Cobb, who'd made the difficult decision to quit farming. Using increasing amounts of chemical herbicides and fertilizers, "planting row upon row of corn on 3,000 acres … was becoming rote and joyless."1
While job hunting one day, he happened to stop at the local U.S. Department of Agriculture office in his Texas town to pick up paperwork. The staff there happened to be conducting a training session and doing a demonstration on healthy and unhealthy soils. The side-by-side comparison contrasted the startling difference:
"A clump of soil from a heavily tilled and cropped field was dropped into a wire mesh basket at the top of a glass cylinder filled with water. At the same time, a clump of soil from a pasture that grew a variety of plants and grasses and hadn't been disturbed for years was dropped into another wire mesh basket in an identical glass cylinder.
The tilled soil — similar to the dry, brown soil on Cobb's farm — dissolved in water like dust. The soil from the pasture stayed together in a clump, keeping its structure and soaking up the water like a sponge."2
Cobb realized he was seeing not just an exhibit on soil types, but the potential for a new farming philosophy and made the instant decision to stay on his farm "and be part of that paradigm shift." Trending in agriculture today is a new viewpoint that may be turning from a push for productivity to one that emphasizes the environment and human health.
The Problem With 'Modern' Farming
Generations of reliance on and insistence on the use of chemicals has rendered farm ground across the U.S. dry and literally lifeless, unable to hold either nutrients or water. The problem negatively impacts not only farmers but our food supply and, ultimately, your health in many ways many have never considered or realized. Drifting topsoil laden with chemical residue is even causing respiratory illnesses in rural areas.
Pesticides leaching into drinking water have exposed thousands to levels the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deems troubling. In fact, the water that 210 million Americans drink is contaminated with nitrate, a routinely used fertilizer chemical linked to cancer and serious developmental problems in children.
As if those problems weren't bad enough, instead of retaining it, soil depletion is releasing carbon, which morphs into the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, which is considered by the United Nations (U.N.) to be a grave threat to human health, especially in the next few decades. Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies maintains it's responsible for:
"A massive loss of soil carbon into the atmosphere. The importance of soil carbon — how it is leached from the earth and how that process can be reversed — is the subject of intensifying scientific investigation, with important implications for the effort to slow the rapid rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere."3
Another incident related by Politico is of a group of scientists in a lab at Arizona State University in 1998. Amid luminous glass containers of bright green algae, a biologist told Ph.D. candidate Irakli Loladze they'd discovered something odd about zooplankton, the microscopic critters floating in the world's oceans and lakes that eat tiny algae.
The scientists found the algae grew faster when more light was shined on them; it increased their food supply. The zooplankton should have flourished, but as the scientists focused more light on the algae, even though it grew faster and supplied more food, the tiny organisms were beginning to decline. It turns out that the algae, while plentiful, were greatly diminished in nutrition, essentially becoming a junk food.
Loladze couldn't help wondering, "Could the same problem affect grass and cows? What about rice and people?" In terms of human nutrition, the similarities and parallels were sobering. The problem wasn't more light — it was more exposure to carbon dioxide over years.
"If shining more light results in faster-growing, less nutritious algae — junk-food algae whose ratio of sugar to nutrients was out of whack — then it seemed logical to assume that ramping up carbon dioxide might do the same. And it could also be playing out in plants all over the planet. What might that mean for the plants that people eat?"4
Not Just More CO2, but Sterile and Depleted Soil
Not just the scientific community but an increasing percentage of the general population are beginning to understand that many of the foods we've counted on for the highest nutrition are becoming as depleted as the soil they're grown in. Many have assumed it's been due to the farm industry's mass departure from nutrition-based food-growing methods toward higher yields through hybridization.
A 2004 University of Texas study5 found in an evaluation between 1950 and 1999 that protein, calcium, iron, vitamin C and other vitamins and minerals in garden crops have been becoming increasingly depleted; in fact, by as much as 40 percent. Just as sobering, Politico states:
"Before the industrial revolution, the earth's atmosphere had about 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Last year, the planet crossed over the 400 parts per million threshold; scientists predict we will likely reach 550 parts per million within the next half-century — essentially twice the scarcity that was in the air when Americans started farming with tractors."6
Some scientists believe that as rising CO2 increases photosynthesis, plants grow more, but at the same time, they load up with more carbohydrates like glucose, which shuts out other more valuable nutrients such as iron, protein and zinc.
One thing that bothers Loladze is the scarcity of data in the way CO2 affects crops like rice, which billions of people count on for nutritional sustenance. Further, he notes that the way studies are conducted and funded hasn't made it easy for anyone tracking how CO2 is impacting human health. "It is simply not discussed in the agriculture, public health or nutrition communities. At all,"7 Politico states.
Soil Health and What It Means for Sustainable Agriculture
One study8 noted that nearly 3 billion of the world's population is malnourished due to diminished nutritive elements and vitamins in plant-based food. It showed three areas pointing to the sharp decrease in the nutrients of plant-based foods grown in the U.S. and the U.K.:
- Early studies on fertilization found a link between crop yield and mineral concentrations, known as the "dilution effect."
- Three recent studies of historical food composition data reported decreases amounting to 5 percent to 40 percent or more in some minerals in certain vegetables and possibly fruits; one study examined vitamins and protein with similar results.
- Side-by-side plantings of low- and high-yield broccoli and grain cultivars revealed consistently negative links between yield and concentrations of minerals and protein — genetic dilution effect.
Seemingly unable to pull away from the practices put in place to increase yield ostensibly for the sake of "global food security," one study9 called fertilizers and pesticides a "necessary evil" for industrial agriculture, but noted, too, that soil health is crucial for it to be sustainable and maintain biodiversity.
At the same time, the damage done to soil microflora is something that can't be denied. The study noted it as a key component of agricultural ecosystems in regard to soil being optimally fertile in its ability to produce crops. The study stresses the impact microbial activity has on "pursuing eco-friendly practices like bioremediation and biocontrol of phytopathogens in agricultural soils."10 Their presence is an indication of soil health.
While such studies cryptically mention how fertilizers and pesticides "influence" nutrients, organic carbon, pH, enzymes and rhizodeposition (the exchange between plants and soil, which plays a role in soil carbon turnover11) in plants, one of the biggest problems with the use of chemicals in farming is that the effects linger and cause a "shift" in the number of crucial microflora which, in essence, means "destroy."
Microbial Revolution, Cover Crops and Fungi
Science News published a study discussing the microbial communities in soil needed for plant development and to improve crop and plant yields. University of Queensland's School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences professor and director for the Australian Centre for Ecogenomics, Phil Hugenholtz, explained:
"Plants have evolved over 400 million years to provide favourable environments for microbes, which they host all over their bodies, from leaves to roots … My group is interested in the relative effects of nature versus nurture on host-associated microbiomes, and you need a good evolutionary cross-section of the host group to see whether microbiota are evolving with their hosts (nature) or are the result of environmental conditions (nurture)."12
However, Hugenholtz was convinced that researchers needed to focus on a wide spectrum of plant species, which another researcher and agriculture and food sciences professor, Susanne Schmidt, suggested might be found at the Cooloola dunes, a huge expanse developed over millennia in what is now Australia's Great Sandy National Park.
The dunes are noted to include a wide range of plant species in close proximity in very different soil environments, from which the researchers gathered root and soil samples from seeded and nonseed plants — "lycopods, ferns, cycads, conifers and flowering plants" — so they could examine their bacteria.
Just as the importance of gut microbial communities in animals has been revealed, scientists are also recognizing evidence that plant health depends on favorable microbes. They believe a core root microbiome has evolved with terrestrial plants over 400 million years. Because plants are stationary, Schmidt said, microbial communities associated with plants have to be primarily drawn from the environment. She added:
"Increasingly, farmers want to capitalize on beneficial microbes to support their crops, and science can assist the design of effective crop probiotics to make crops healthier, hardier and more productive, by increasing their resilience to pests, diseases and environmental stresses, and improving access to nutrients."13
Schmidt further believes all plants hold microbiomes and that further study may lead to a better understanding of the relationship between microorganisms and plants, and how the roles they play can help them realize the potential for ecological agriculture.
Microbial Revolution: Cover Crops and Fungi
Outbreaks of salmonella from eating raw tomatoes were once an annual problem for public health officials all along the East Coast. While they're not huge outbreaks, whether they make only one or even 100 people ill, food poisoning can kill the elderly or very young.
Eric Brown, director of microbiology at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, began wondering why it kept happening on the East Coast and not on the opposite side of the continent. When researchers scrutinized the microbiome of the soil, they found that strains of bacteria in the East Coast soil were less dense in comparison with those in the soil of the West Coast, where tomatoes were also grown. Scientific American observes:
"West Coast tomatoes, it turned out, grow in the company of soil bacteria that inhibit and even kill Salmonella. In a pilot study in Virginia, the FDA … has been brewing up populations of one of these local bacteria, Paenibacillus, spraying them onto tomato seedlings and getting the same anti-Salmonella effect on the crop."14
Adding bacteria to crops to prevent such diseases may be the key for developing food safety far beyond tomatoes. Spinach, lettuce, sprouts, cantaloupes and every other food crop implicated in serious disease outbreaks, including Escherichia coli (E. coli), could conceivably be a thing of the past.
The little-understood microbial community, or agribiome, has brought key revelations into how the natural health of the soil is dependent on as many as 40,000 microbe species in a single gram of soil through technologies like DNA sequencing. Botanists are brushing up on the variances in soil environments and how seasons, temperatures and surrounding fauna fit into the mix.
As a greater understanding is reached in regard to how soil microbes optimize the nutrients in plants — not just grow bigger food and more of it — scientists are also seeing how plants and soil microbes complement each other. Unlike the "Green Revolution" that took place in the 1960s and '70s where fertilizer and pesticides became the by-words, it's more like a microbial revolution — a transformative restoration.
Aside from the astonishingly brutal practices "modern" agriculture has often strong-armed farmers into using, farmers with up-to-date soil technology that implements agribiome practices are slowly beginning to realize that methods like genetic engineering have opened a Pandora's box of problems, not just for farmers, but for humanity. In contrast, a "cocktail" of microbes may enable them to farm with much less reliance on factors like weather, and without the use of the chemicals that started the problem in the first place.