Soil Health and Safety
It Takes a Healthy Planet to Birth Healthy Beings
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. ~ Max Planck
Earth is what we all have in Common ~ Wendell Berry
The other day, weeding the spot where last year’s runner beans had grown, I found a fallen bean that had started to sprout. Already there were little pink nitrogen nodules clinging to its tiny roots and the sight of them took me instantly back to my days in Australia, working to fill our thirty acres of over-grazed land with new trees. One of the important lessons I learned was that in order to ensure survival of nitrogen-hungry eucalypt species, one should first plant hundreds of fast growing but short-lived wattle trees. These take nitrogen from the air, accumulate it on their roots and release it into the soil when they die. This interdependence of living organisms, this beautiful symbiosis that we find happening everywhere we look in Nature is, according to the late Lynn Margulis, every bit as basic to life on Earth as the random genetic mutations theorised by Charles Darwin. Gaia, our planet, wastes nothing, recycles everything. Over and over we find that the waste from one organism is food for another. Interdependence is a basic law of Nature.
Organic farmers and vegetable growers know this, which is why they use methods like crop rotation, composting, companion planting and so on. It is a well-proven fact that organic growing methods and the avoidance of pesticides, GMOs, irradiation or chemical fertilisation, strengthens the health of both the soil and the crops and frequently improves yields. It is also beyond doubt that organically produced food is the healthiest option for all creatures, including humans. To be healthy we need healthy food and to grow healthy food we rely on that great bed of nurturing fertility on the Earth’s crust that we call soil. We need that soil to be healthy because we have learned a lot about how healthy plants grow out of healthy soil. We must also keep in mind that our metabolic regulatory patterns were formed from our environment as we evolved. Thus, it behoves us to study, insofar as possible, the environmental components that influenced our evolution. It is often said that we are what we eat. The nutritional value of what we put in our mouths is paramount in maintaining a healthy body and depends wholly on the quality of our environment. Yet something has gone badly wrong. What has gone wrong and why?
Humans have significantly altered the face of our planet Earth. In North America alone, the Great Plains prairie once spread across 560,000 square miles (that’s a little over twice the size of Texas!)—but less than 2% of native prairie remains today. Nearly one third of the world’s arable topsoil has been lost over the last forty years at
a rate of over ten million hectares yearly. It can take from five hundred to one thousand years to build an inch of topsoil. In many areas, desertification has destroyed topsoil permanently. During all those hours spent on my knees planting trees on those rocky hillsides I was constantly aware of how desperately thin the Australian topsoil was and how the thoughtless importation of European farming methods into such a different ecosystem had worsened the problem in the last two centuries.
As we learned from the Gaia Theory formulated by Lovelock and Margulis, Gaia has been able to regulate temperature, atmospheric content and many other factors, including soil, to stay healthy. When we fail to observe this and ignore Gaia’s modus operandi, we endanger all life. So why do most farmers continue to deplete the fertility of the soil and make it so much harder to produce healthy food?
There is no simple answer. Claiming that farmers are greedy is not a good place to start. A reasonable starting point might be with the realisation that we are strongly conditioned by our culture’s language. In our minds, ‘Nature’ and ‘Earth’ have been separated. We learn that ‘Nature’ refers to all living things outside of ourselves that the Earth is a lump of rock that we live ‘on’. Thus we grow up with the illusion that:
1. We are not part of Nature, and…
2. Although Nature is alive the Earth is not.
Many of us talk about how deeply we feel connected to Nature. But this doesn’t go far enough. Our observations that we are ‘connected’ to the Earth are valid, but connectedness paints a fairly dim image of our relationship to Gaia and obscures its fundamental truth. In fact, we, Nature and Earth are all one and the same. The truth is that we do not just live ON Gaia, we ARE Gaia.
Consider a tree. We use our thinking function to subdivide a tree into parts such as leaves, trunk and roots. But referring to the leaves, for instance, does not negate the fact that the leaves are the tree. The trunk and roots are also the tree. To say that the leaves are connected to the tree obscures the fact that the leaves are the tree. To say that my hand or arm is connected to me obscures the fact that all my parts are me.
We see ourselves as advanced, self-organising living beings and most of us also consider ourselves to be conscious beings. Yet although we are entirely dependent on Gaia for our health and survival and our very existence, we often fail to appreciate that our planet itself is a living, self-organising organism, even more so than we are. We need to recognise that the wondrous beauty, diversity, and life-supporting qualities of Gaia are not due to dumb luck or the result of random shakes of cosmic dice. Gaia has a development and maintenance system that we must examine from the realisation that using machine-checking instruments to probe what we view as dead matter will inevitably result in further destructive behaviour. The carbon cycle is a good example of one of the many ways in which our planet exhibits self-organizing and self-sustaining behaviour. By interfering with that, we have created problems that at best will stretch Gaia’s healing abilities to the utmost and at worst could totally change the shape of life as we know it.
A further obstacle to working in a way that is healing for us and all life forms and the planet is our anthropocentric outlook which sanctions governments to treat Gaia like a vast cookie tin with a label on the top that says “for humans only”. We are egocentric and not ecocentric in our outlook on land use. Again, our use of words such as ‘resources’, or phrases like ‘ecosystem services’ constantly reinforces the view that Gaia is simply a source of wealth for humans only.
Once we truly understand that we are the Earth, that the Earth is a living, conscious being and that it is NOT all about us; we will surely recognise that our health and Gaia’s health are not just connected but utterly intertwined, joined and interdependent. They are one and the same. Our healing and the wellbeing of all life are dependent on Gaia’s healing. Neither we nor any other living organism can be healthy unless Gaia is healthy.
So what can we individuals do? So much of the environmental destruction we read about is caused by forces beyond our ability to influence. However, taking an interest and supporting the production of clean local food is a realisable goal for every single one of us. The higher the demand for organic, locally grown food, the more the market will respond and the more the farming sector will be encouraged to turn to decentralized and diversified farming practices that naturally boost soil health and farm resilience. These include: crop rotations, cover crops, reducing tillage where it makes sense, and building local food systems. We all need to encourage our local food stores to accept nutritious locally produced food.
Recently, a food survey conducted by Oklahoma State University found that: more than three-quarters of the consumers polled said adopting a more ‘natural’ agricultural production system—that includes additional local, organic and unprocessed foods—would be most effective at addressing the future food challenges rather than adopting a more ‘technological’ agricultural system. Science, New Series, Vol. 267, No. 5201(Feb. 24, 1995) 1117 – 1123.
And we can plant seeds. Even if it is just a container on the windowsill or a planter on a balcony, we can all grow something to eat. This year, I shall plant my runner beans in a different spot to maximise the health of the soil in my garden. Knowing that the more local my food is to my bioregion the lower its carbon footprint, I shall be shopping once again at the farmers market. Every little helps when you want to become a healthy planet.
ISIS Report 28/10/13
Plants Warn One Another of Pest Attack through Mycorrhizal Fungal Network
Underground intercom between plants
A network of the soil microorganism – arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi – act as an underground intercommunications system between plants to warn off aphid attacks, a recent study from the University of Aberdeen in the UK reveals .