God, Hope & Helping Others
February 08, 2015
By Dr. Mercola
There’s no question your health is directly related to the quality of the food you eat, and that the quality of the food in turn is dependent on the health of the soil in which it is grown.
In her book, The Soil Will Save Us, Kristin Ohlson describes the complex relationship between the soil and the food we eat.
Kristin grew up in a small town in Sacramento Valley, California. Her grandparents were farmers, growing field crops and fruit trees, and raising cattle. Her parents were also avid gardeners, maintaining an olive orchard, a large garden, and sheep.
“One of the strongest memories of my childhood was being with my parents, looking at the way things were growing, evaluating the crops, and being out with them in their garden – pulling things up, snipping things off, and eating them,” she says.
While she’d developed an interest in sustainable agriculture, the real impetus for the book came from a chef in Cleveland named Parker Bosley, who’s a staunch advocate for locally grown foods.
He had started a restaurant in the ‘80s and wanted to source as many of his ingredients as he could from local sources. In so doing, he helped build the pipeline of local foods going to local consumers frequenting restaurants.
“He was very aware of soil health. He was one of these chefs – I think probably the only chef – who was calling up legislators and saying, “You know that bill that you’re working on? That really could be damaging for soil health,” Kristin says.
“I had written this profile of Parker Bosley for Gourmet magazine and I stayed in touch with him because he was such an interesting thinker about the connection between agriculture and food.
One day, I called him up and I said, ‘What’s interesting going on in agriculture and food? What should I be paying attention to?’
He said, ‘Carbon farming... It’s farmers planning their activities in a very different way... They’re looking at what’s happening with the microbes in the soil and how those microbes are helping to build up carbon in the soil, thus the term carbon farming.’
I immediately thought, ’Well, if they’re building up carbon in the soil through these farming practices, wouldn’t that then decrease carbon in the atmosphere?’ I was really interested in this from a variety of perspectives. That was what prompted me to write the book.”
Most conventional farmers and gardeners use commercial fertilizers such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK). But very little is done to address the need for carbon.
Increasing the carbon content or the organic content of your soil is actually a key component of soil fertility, as the carbon will feed microbes and help retain moisture, allowing everything to grow much better, and provide far more nutrient-dense foods.
In recent years, we’ve learned a lot about microbes. We’re now starting to get an understanding of just how important they are—both inside (and on) your body—as part of your microbiome—and in soil. According to soil scientists, there are about six billion microorganisms thriving in each teaspoon of healthy soil.
“People have known ever since microscopes were invented that there were these things in the soil that we couldn’t see with the naked eye... But people did not understand, for decades, what role those things in the soil were playing,” Kristin says.
“When we talk about ecosystems, we typically think about everything that’s above the soil line. We think of plants and animals, and humans... But we haven’t thought about this vast kingdom of life that’s underneath the ground.
To really understand our world, we have to understand this ancient partnership between plants and soil microorganisms....”
For starters, consider this: through their leaves, plants use sunlight (photosynthesis) and remove carbon dioxide from the air, converting it into a carbon fuel that they use to stimulate and promote their own growth. But that’s not all.
Up to 40 percent of that carbon fuel actually goes to the roots of the plant, where it’s leaked out into the soil. There, it becomes food for soil microorganisms. So the plant nourishes the soil as much as the soil nourishes the plant...
Soil microorganisms use the carbon to sustain themselves. In other words, it’s used both as nourishment and for creating a suitable habitat, with the appropriate amounts of water and air.
In exchange, the soil microbes bring the plants micronutrients from the soil. There are about 98 naturally occurring elements in healthy soils, and these micronutrients are liberated from particles of rocks, sand, silt, and clay by the enzymatic activity of soil microbes.
A complex and sophisticated communications system also exists between plants and the soil microorganisms, whereby the plants can signal their nutritional needs to the microbes.
The toll our modern, chemical-based farming practices takes on the environment is significant. Conventional farming is a factor that is speeding up the depletion of water reservoirs, for example. Farmers are using more water than nature can replenish, and by digging ever deeper wells, water tables are being exhausted.
Most conventional farmers also tend to leave much of the soil bare, which allows water to evaporate, and hastens soil erosion. A simple answer is to use cover crops and mulch, to provide, as Gabe Brown would say, an “armor” over the soil.
This armor can virtually eliminate the need for irrigation when done right. The standard practice of plowing is also inadvisable, as it not only disturbs the microorganisms, it also releases valuable carbon from the soil. Then there’s the chemical assaults of pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers, which are not only killing soil microbes, they’re also killing offbees, butterflies, and other flora and fauna. More than one billion pounds of pesticides are used in the US each year, an amount that has quintupled since 1945. As with antibiotic overuse, the onslaught of pesticides and herbicide to combat pests has led to the development of weeds and bugs that are now resistant to the chemicals.
The answer to increasing resistance has been to apply greater amounts of chemicals just to keep up. Now we’re also facing the next-generation of genetically engineered (GE) plants designed to withstand even more toxic chemicals, including 2,4-D (an Agent Orange ingredient), and dicamba. Add to all of this the destruction of diversity through the practice of monocropping, and what you end up with is a recipe for all-around destruction—everything within the ecosystem is detrimentally affected: soil microbes (and hence the soil), plant life, air, water, animals, and ultimately mankind itself, through our food.
The good news is that we now know how to help regenerate soil, and actually create new fertile topsoil. It basically comes down to mimicking what goes on in nature. In nature, the surface of the soil is not cleared away. It’s never bare, or very rarely so, and the ground is not turned over as is done when plowing. You also never see a monocrop. In one square foot of pristine prairie land, you’ll find about 140 different plants!
There’s an incredible diversity of plant and insect life going on. In nature there’s also the impact of animals. “You can’t really separate out the plant life from the animal and insect life, and expect that piece of land to flourish,” Kristin notes. Gabe Brown and other regenerative farmers are basically just mimicking nature, to the best of their ability. They use no-till and try to minimize the disturbance of the soil as much as possible. They also pay great attention to diversity. That’s when cover crops come in.
“If you realize that there’s this community of soil microorganisms underground that are depending upon plants to bring it varied sources of food, varied sources of exudates, you know that you have to have not just one plant growing there; you need a lot of plants bringing all those different nutrients that community of soil microorganisms need,” Kristin explains.“Gabe Brown could have 25 to 30 different cover crops growing on a piece of land that he’s not planting for harvest, just to improve the soil.”
The key is to not have any bare soil, ever, if at all possible. Native grasses and pastured products are the best way to support this regenerative and sustainable form of agriculture.
“I don’t really like the word ‘organic’ anymore even though it’s still in use because it has a legal meaning now. A lot of people think of it as a word that just reflects what you can’t do. You can’t use this spray. You can’t use this chemical. I think ‘regenerative’ is a much more valuable word. It’s even a better word than sustainable agriculture.
As one of the people who I interviewed in my book said, ‘Why would we want to sustain this degraded landscape we have now? No, we want to regenerate it. We want agriculture that makes the land healthier.’ That’s what a lot of these small farmers that are at our farmers markets are doing. They’re really focused on making their soil healthier, because they know that that is what is going to ultimately make their land and their business succeed.”
Another factor many fail to consider these days is where our seeds come from, and which seeds will be most helpful for regenerative agriculture. “Most of us think a lot about the question of GMO seeds but the issue is even bigger than that,” Kristin says. Most of the seeds that American farmers have access to are produced by a handful of companies.
These are seeds from plants that were specifically bred to flourish in industrial agriculture—plants that no longer have the capacity to develop strong roots that forage for nutrients, as they’ve been bred to flourish among chemical nutrients. They also lack the natural resilience against insects, pests, and disease, because they’re bred to flourish in a system where pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are applied. So the heirloom seed movement is really part and parcel of the regenerative agriculture movement.
“I think we’re living in a really exciting time,” Kristin says. “We’re often told that we have a choice between having enough food and having good food. The supporters of industrial agriculture say they’re the only ones who can provide us with enough food... More and more we’re seeing that that is just not true, that we can have both enough food and we can have really good food...
By changing our agriculture, we can have a huge impact on other things that we haven’t even considered as being related—climate, water quality, air quality... All these things are so connected. I think we’re in a very powerful time right now, where we’re seeing those connections and acting upon them. ”
Ultimately, you cannot be healthy unless you eat good, nutritious food. Growing it yourself is in many cases the simplest and least expensive option. What makes organic 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.
To learn more and get inspired for spring, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Kristin’s book, The Soil Will Save Us. You can easily apply all of these regenerative principles to your own home garden—no matter how small it is. And urban, small-scale gardening is undoubtedly an important step toward building a more sustainable food system.