A newer science that’s not tied to petroleum profits is emerging to challenge the industrial approach to agriculture and gardening. Enormously powerful, politically connected giants like Monsanto, Bayer, and Dupont will continue to make money, but after 60 years of dominance, the “Better Living Through Chemistry” model can no longer hide its fatal flaws. Mountains of evidence now point to the downside of chemical agriculture: poisoning the earth, driving global climate change, causing major health problems, killing pollinators, destroying the life of the soil. The good news is that a more long-range, wholistic view called Biological Agriculture and Gardening is starting to take its place.
This “new” method is based on an entirely different paradigm or model of plant culture. Instead of the bellicose mentality that birthed the pesticide-fungicide-herbicide and chemical fertilizer approach, the biological approach taps the same cooperative relationships that Nature herself has long employed successfully for survival and sustainability. Instead of seeing bacteria as germs, fungi as diseases, and insects and weeds as pests, the biological model sees Nature as brilliantly creative and diverse, and basically good. The scientific truth is that few insects, bacteria and fungi are harmful; most are beneficial or essential to plant development, plant health, and subsequently for human health.
Instead of blaming Nature for symptoms of poor plant health that result from bad management, and instead of looking at soil, plants, and human health as separate, the biological approach sees the soil as a living ecosystem interconnected with the lives of plants – chemically, biologically and systematically. Whereas the chemical approach regards soil as the dirt that holds the plant up so chemical fertilizers can deliver NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) nutrients, the biological view is that soil is actually billions of living beings that have evolved with plants to function as their digestive and immune system. Long absent from the chemical equation is the vital role of micronutrients which, although not needed in large quantities, are critical in helping plants to produce complete compounds and essential oils that are important for natural defense.
In order to better understand this biological method and the soil science upon which it depends, I attended the Acres USA Conference in Columbus, OH in December. Founded 40 years ago by the late Charles Walters, Acres USA magazine has been an education vehicle for farmers, ranchers, and orchardists who have rejected the chemical method, and who seek practical solutions and products to succeed with a non-toxic, more realistic approach.
I attended talks taught by farmers and consultants to farmers who are applying these ideas to hundreds of acres, so they have to be economically sustainable as well as ecological. If some of these principles sound airy-fairy, know that they are grounded in practical application and science. Great strides have been made in the last 10-15 years in the study of soil biology and the soil food web. Many of us in horticulture consider it common sense that plants evolved with soil organisms and microorganisms over millions of years. Their natural intelligence to survive has developed a complex system of mutual benefit.
Soil functions as plants’ digestive system by breaking down raw and complex materials, both organic and mineral, into simpler forms that can be absorbed and metabolized by the plants. The mere presence of a nutrient like phosphorus does not mean that it exists in a form plants can use. Because this digestive process is carried out by diverse populations of soil organisms, the biological method includes introducing naturally occurring soil bacteria and beneficial fungi that have been propagated in a laboratory, and providing organic matter and minerals that support and increase the microorganisms already present in soil. As they break down materials, beneficial bacteria and beneficial fungi also release various acids, which are by-products of their metabolism. These acids dissolve minerals and chelate them (make them available).
Beneficial fungi known as mycorrhizae function as extensions of a plant’s root system, increasing the absorbing area up to 700 times to bring in more water and nutrients. In exchange, plants are very generous with the nutrients they produce during photosynthesis, sending them out through their roots for their partner fungi. Some fungi produce antibiotic substances to protect plants from diseases, while others out-compete pathogenic fungi on the leaf surfaces.
These symbiotic relationships profit both the above- and below-ground populations of what can be viewed as a single ecosystem, almost like the diverse organs of a single organism.
John Kempf, a young rising star in the biological movement, referred to the soil as the digestive system of plants. Like other speakers at the Acres conference, John is focused on soil chemistry. He uses various instruments and soil-testing labs to understand specific soils and to measure the effects of various soil treatments. His investigations show clearly that there is a direct relationship between the organic content and mineral balance in the soil and the vitality of the microbial populations. And further, they show that the health of these soil life populations is directly connected to the nutrition and health of the plants, which is directly connected to the nutrition and health of humans and animals eating those plants.
Soil Building Reduces the Need for Pest Management • Insects and plant disease organisms have simple digestive systems that cannot break down complex carbohydrates, proteins, and plant oils. If a plant is sufficiently well-nourished to store complete carbohydrates, it will not be attacked by pathogens like fusarium blight; when plants are healthy enough to store complete proteins, insects like aphids, corn earworm and cabbage looper will no longer be able to eat them; when plants can store complete lipids (plant oils), powdery mildew, late blight and fireblight cease to attack them; and when plants are able to build complex essential oils, they have a high level of tolerance to environmental stresses and cannot be attacked by beetles.
This is not a theory; it is based on field experience. It means pest resistance or immunity can be achieved through nutrition. Plant nutrition depends on a proper balance of nutrients and a strong microbial community to digest the nutrients and make them plant-available. Over time, soil building could replace or reduce other forms of pest management.
Compost Teas Greatly Increase Soil Microbes • Compost tea is a method for rapidly increasing populations of beneficial soil microorganisms, and for digesting organic fertilizers like fish hydrolase into a more valuable plant food. The process requires a high level of aeration to support the soil microbes, and offers a local source for soil innoculant and plant fertilizer.
Compost & Worm Teas Prevent Plant Damage • Worm casting and compost teas sprayed on the foliage of plants have been found to prevent fungus problems and even some insect damage.
Plants & Soil Are One, Don’t Compete • Plants send as much as 60%-80% of the nutrients they produce during photosynthesis to the community of beneficial bacteria and beneficial fungi in the neighborhood of their root zones. To human thinking, this is “giving away the farm,” but plants and their soil community are so interconnected and interdependent, they do not see themselves as competing or separate. It is how they have adapted to survive.
Plants Communicate Through Fungal Networks • As insects hatch and begin to feed on plants, the plant chemistry changes. A “wound signal” moves into the root zone with the normal nutrient “leakage.” This chemical signal is then carried through the vast network of fungal mycelium to hundreds or thousands of other plants that “read” the signal and begin to change their chemistry to be offensive or even lethal to the insects. This natural defense system works best when there is a strong microbial population, and when plants have enough nutrition to build their defense chemicals.
Microbes R Us • The idea that soil microbes are the digestive system of plants is not unique. Termites can’t digest cellulose in the wood they eat, but bacteria in their guts can. Plant roots of legumes cannot “fix” or capture nitrogen from the air, but the bacteria in their roots can. Animals also have beneficial bacteria and fungi living in our digestive systems, which are essential to our well-being. Interspecies cohabitation is common in nature. Paul Hawkin once said, there are so many microorganisms living in and on our human bodies, we should refer to ourselves as We, not I.
Distinct Bacteria Types in Humans • German researchers recently discovered three separate “families” of bacteria living in human guts. These “enterotypes” are as distinct as blood types and may explain why medicines and nutrients affect people differently.
Compost Benefits are Biological, not Chemical • Chemists have never been able to explain why compost, which is usually less than 1% NPK, has such a strong beneficial effect on plants. The answer is biological, not chemical. Compost feeds the soil life, dynamically increasing the availability of nutrients in the soil, and the microorganisms. New patents for non-toxic biological fungicides and insecticides that can replace petrochemical products are on the rise.
Invest in Long Blooming Flowers for Pest Control • An investment in seeds of flowers that bloom through the summer will provide more pest control (attracting beneficial insects) than the same investment in pesticides.
“Push-Pull” with Repellant and Trap Plants • Push-pull technology developed in Kenya and adopted by 46,000 small farmers, uses biological thinking. Maize is intercropped with repellant plants and surrounded by an attractive trap plant in the border. A destructive pest is “pushed” by the repellant plant and “pulled” by the attractant plant. which together protects the maize.
The system also reduces a prevalent weed, reduces erosion, increases soil organic matter, fixes nitrogen, conserves soil moisture and supports beneficial insects.
Brilliant solutions to problems of survival have been selected by Nature over time. These solutions follow basic principles: life creates conditions that support life; life changes and adapts. Following these principles naturally leads to sustainability and efficiency. Especially now, with the leverage of petroleum becoming less reliable, we can learn to support our farming and gardening with biological solutions. However, this is still a new science and work needs to be done to learn about and apply it in the most practical, economical, and local ways.