The terrestrial food chain begins with the soil, which supports all life on land. More creatures live within the soil than in any other environment on the planet. It is the single most diverse ecosystem. Bacteria, fungi, insects, worms, and a myriad of life-forms are essential for creating the texture, water retention, availability of nutrients, and general fertility of healthy soil. Healthy plants with high nutrient density are dependent on healthy soil. Any way of eating that undermines healthy, living soil is, ultimately, bad for the planet—and bad for us. Published in the Atlantic, the article “Healthy Soil Microbes, Healthy People” emphasized the importance of healthy living soil.
“The single greatest leverage point for a sustainable and healthy future for the 7.6 billion people on the planet is arguably immediately underfoot: the living soil, where we grow our food.”
Within the soil, root systems of plants develop intricate relationships with fungi. The fungi function as a communication system. It can even alert plants about the presence of harmful insects or pathogens. Utilizing these relationships increases plant health. When we put intensive nitrogen-based fertilizers (N) on soil, there is a loss in this fundamental relationship. In a report published in Nature.com the authors report:
“It is estimated that global N fertilizer use will increase threefold by 2050 to meet the growing need for food. The use of chemical fertilizers is often accompanied by inefficiencies that result in pollution and soil degradation. The type and quantity of N fertilizer affects physical, chemical and biochemical properties of soil as well as bacterial and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungal (AMF) communities in the rhizosphere.”
These single-celled miracles in the soil recycle nutrients within their ecosystems. A small percentage cause disease (pathogens), but the over- whelming percentage are beneficial and essential. The microbiologist William B. Whitman estimates that the number of bacteria in the world is five million trillion, trillion (a five with thirty zeros after it). They are fundamental to the nutritional density of plants and soil. We are on a mission to wipe them out.
A teaspoon of living topsoil can contain more microorganisms than there are humans on the planet. Healthy soil serves as a digestive system for the environment by breaking down organic material into a form that can be absorbed by root systems. This helps plants to maintain health. Soil microbes not only digest nutrients, they also protect plants against pathogens and other threats. Over millions of years, these microbes have developed a symbiotic relationship with plants. Fungi colonize plant roots and extend out from these roots over a hundredfold. The filaments of the fungi channel nutrients and water back to the plant. The soil biome knows how to manage its own needs. All we have to do to cooperate with the soil is to replace depleted organic matter and get out of the way.
Recent experiments in the UK showed that mycorrhizal filaments act as a conduit for signaling between plants, strengthening their natural defenses against pests. When attacked by aphids, a broad bean plant transmitted a signal through the mycorrhizal filaments to other bean plants nearby, acting as an early warning system and enabling those plants to begin to produce the defensive chemical that repels aphids and attracts wasps, a natural aphid predator. Another study showed that diseased tomato plants also use the underground network of mycorrhizal filaments to warn healthy tomato plants, which then activate their defenses before being attacked themselves.
Organic vs Conventional Agriculture
No matter what we eat—animal or vegetable—we can trace it back to the soil and the microorganisms that enrich it. When the soil is unproductive, life is damaged. Living soil produces healthy, nutrient-rich food. Studies show that we are experiencing continual soil depletion over time, resulting in poor crop yields. Our current system of agriculture creates declining nutritional value and a sick planet.
The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s long-running study, comparing organic and conventional agriculture, shows that:
“Farmers interested in transitioning to organic production will be happy to see that, with good management, yields can be the same, with potentially higher returns and better soil quality.”
Healthy soil protects against drought by holding water more efficiently, increasing carbon storage (important for buffering climate change), reducing chemical runoff pollution, protecting against soil loss through erosion, reducing soil acidity, and promoting mineral-rich soils. Conventional agriculture creates these problems; healthy soil can redress them.
Promoting healthy soil is as central to the organic food debate as is the effect of toxic sprays. What could be more fundamental in choosing foods for the best nutrition than eating food that is healthy for the planet? the soil’s organic life is reflected within us; we are deeply and significantly connected. Wendell Berry wrote:
“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it, we can have no community, because without proper care for it, we can have no life.”
Healthy Soil – Healthy Food
The most recent and far-reaching study on the nutritional value of organically grown food was carried out at Newcastle University in the UK. According to Prof. Carlo Leifert, there are “statistically significant, meaningful” differences, with a range of antioxidants being “substantially higher” (between 19 percent and 69 percent) in organic food. The study, based on an analysis of 343 peer-reviewed studies from around the world, was published by the British Journal of Nutrition. It examined differences between organic and conventional fruits, vegetables, and cereals.
The higher antioxidant levels are important. Plants produce many of their antioxidant compounds to fight pest attacks. Antioxidants strengthen plant immune functions. Higher levels of antioxidants in organic crops may result from their lack of artificial, chemical protection, in the same way that children living on farms exhibit fewer allergies, or that the overuse of antibiotics undermines natural resistance. The movement toward organic growing is wise for individuals, society, and the planet.
Organic agriculture can reverse many of the problems of the excessive use of chemicals in farming. Organic farming encourages the use of natural, organic compounds to fertilize soil, maximizing the content of microorganisms that enliven the soil biome. The direct benefits of organically grown food on human health are important, but the long- term environmental benefits may be even greater.
Cover crops, crop rotation, and the avoidance of chemicals promote living soil. It is not unlike creating a healthy gut biome. Organic farming not only saves the soil but enriches it. It increases productivity and produces healthier crops.