Soil Health is Gut Health
“Someday we shall look back on this dark era of agriculture and shake our heads. How could we have ever believed that it was a good idea to grow our food with poisons?” —Dr. Jane Goodall
The past year I have taken on more kitchen duties through my partner’s pregnancy and now birth. Watching her develop into a full woman and subsequently have our child has solidified the fact we are what we eat. I make a conscious effort to prepare the most nutritious, and delicious, meals knowing we are feeding the next generation.
I find myself more engaged in discussion around rising autoimmune disorders in children. Worrisome for sure, but research is showing we are not completely powerless to a certain fate.
We are living through and raising a child in an extreme time in human history. Our evolution has always placed us at the whims of nature, responding to her. Humans have gradually learned to buffer against nature and protect ourselves. Clothing is an early innovation in these regards. By layering in skins humans were able to explore wider terrain and settle in less than ideal environments. Growing food, selecting crops, and saving seeds allowed a further buffer.
Science has increased our capacity to make serious attempts at overcoming the wild. Antibiotics initially cleared us and our livestock of infections. Synthetic fertilizers achieved outrageous plant growth. These technologies have made tremendous strides and propelled the human population to exceed 8 billion.
Initially these technologies benefited growers. Now they have become almost indispensable to continue producing in such naturally removed ways. Without consistent innovation Nature catches up. Weeds have become immune to herbicides and require higher concentrations of chemicals to kill them. Viruses and bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics, making infections more difficult to overcome. We have fooled ourselves into thinking that band-aid applications of technology to achieve efficiency can create health in complex interwoven systems.
Few of us suffer the same diseases of our ancestors. We, and I am discussing the US however other developing nations are not far behind, are experiencing completely new challenges. Rather than polio, we have obesity. Instead of smallpox, chronic autoimmune disorders are affecting sleep, cognitive development, and digestion. Our bodies have become the product of sedentary and undernourished lives.
Population growth has incentivized funding towards genetically modified organisms (GMO), herbicides, and medicines to keep people “healthy”.
We are told problems of feeding the world and being cured require high level science, money, and experts to fix. But where have the “experts” left us? The US spends 16% of its GDP on healthcare, an average of over $10,000 per person annually with no sign of decreasing spending and chronic autoimmune disorders on the rise. This makes it one of the highest spending countries in the world.
Many issues we face with human health are ongoing. Mainstream medicine and research looks to solve these problems through the application of drugs pinpointing the symptoms without looking deeper to understand the root causes. The same is true in conventional agriculture where funding is primarily directed towards allopathic solutions that require the purchasing of off-farm products.
Round-Up, a revolutionary pesticide, changed the way farmers produce food. This effective herbicide eradicates weeds before planting. As the technology developed, scientists created GMO plants that are completely resistant to glyphosate (Round-Up Ready), making it possible to spray living crops like corn, soy, sugar beets, alfalfa, and cotton with the herbicide. This broadened the use of Round-Up as farmers converted to Round-Up Ready GMO seeds.
Glyphosate enters plants through the shikimate pathway which shuts down the plants ability to metabolize amino acids. Plants, bacteria, fungi, algae, and many parasites utilize this same pathway to convert amino acids into protein. The blocking of these essential proteins causes the non-Round-Up resistant plants to die. Animals and humans do not have the same pathway, thus allowing this chemical to be passed as “safe”.
The problem is we are not 100% human. Human cells are outnumbered in the body 10-1 by nonhuman microorganisms. Many of these microorganisms are found in our digestive tracts, helping the body to process, sort, and distribute nutrients from the food we consume. Longterm, low level exposure to Round-Up has been shown to negatively affect microorganisms in our gut, lowering our ability to effectively gather nutrition from food.
Happening simultaneously, nutrient density in food has plummeted between 5 and 40% over the past 100 years. The loss of nutrients has been caused through the advent of chemically intensive farming and tillage practices that destroy soil biology.
The application of pesticides, especially glyphosate, decimates populations of weeds, soil bacteria, and fungi. These microorganisms provide the same service to growing plants as our gut biome. Bacteria and fungi break up hard to access nutrients in the soil, exchanging these products for sugars created through photosynthesizing plants. Working together in an equal exchange, plants and microorganisms create healthy habitats where they both can thrive. Everytime we spray shikimate pathway blocking chemicals the populations of both non genetically modified plants and microorganisms are devastated leading to lower soil fertility.
In turn farmers are having to spend more on inputs every season. Without healthy topsoil diseases become more prevalent, pest populations rise, and the soil’s nutrients are lowered. Problems that are solved through greater application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Just like chronic autoimmune disorders, conventional agriculture practices are furthering the use of medications to subdue the problems without providing long term solutions to rid these ailments completely.
Just as nature is right on our heels “causing” these problems, she is also there to solve them. While terms like “regenerative agriculture” and “sustainable farming” get thrown around without very clear definitions, there are clear positive impacts. For one, farmers end up spending less money annually on inputs. By incorporating growing practices that build healthy soil, naturally prevent weed growth, and foster microbial diversity plants have an easier time growing. Some of these practices have been used to break dry-land corn yield records. Albeit this record was not broken using organic practices, the growers used no-till methods which will arguably improve soil quality and lower input costs.
The combination of lowered food quality and our inability to fully process these foods understandably leads our bodies to chronic illness. It also increases the amount of money we are spending on medication to band-aid the symptoms of these diseases without actually healing our bodies.
Regenerative healing begins with knowing we are what our food eats. Commodity grains and livestock fed a diet of chemicals rather than diverse microbial soils will affect our bodies causing them to require the same short term band-aid solutions. Diets full of living food whether vegan, carnivore, or in between can help the body's microbial communities recover. Instead of spending on patented inputs, we need to invest in solutions available for every community member produced locally.
Diet is the first step but true healing will require much more than simply changing eating individual habits. Community-scale support networks based on equal exchanges regardless of financial status must be implemented. We need to feed each other emotionally as well as physically. I could give my wife the best quality meals, but if I am not a present partner/father the household will lack health.
I am not a dietician, I am a farmer, and a father. My role is to grow food for people to eat and provide a positive atmosphere for my family to thrive. The growing practices we use here on the farm strive to increase both the quality of our food and our soil, while decreasing spending on inputs, and allow a life outside of work. Changing my habits is not linear. Healing takes time and collaboration with other people on a similar trajectory. The goal is to get a little better, as a farmer, father, and person, everyday.