By Joan Gussow
Although I’ve been seriously food gardening for more than 50 years, I was for decades stunningly naïve about the lives that were being lived under my feet. Then two Christmases ago a friend sent me a marvelous book by Cornell Professor David Wolfe—Tales from the Underground. It turned out to be one of those rare volumes that change your whole view of the world. Of course I’ve heard as you surely have about the millions of organisms in the soil—most of them too small to be noticed. But Wolfe takes it further.
“Push your thumb and index finger into the root zone of a patch of grass and bring up a pinch of earth. You will likely be holding close to one billion individual living organisms”
Notice he said a pinch; and he said ONE BILLION—
“perhaps ten thousand distinct species of microbes, most of them not yet named, catalogued, or understood. Interwoven with the thousands of wispy root hairs of the grass would be coils of microscopic gossamer-like threads of fungal hyphae, the total length of which would be measured in miles, not inches.”
Let me repeat that phrase of his to remind us all how ignorant we are. He says there are 10,000 species, not organisms, not individual creatures, but species of microbes, and miles of fungal threads “most of them not yet named, catalogued, or understood.” That’s in just a pinch of earth.
Wolfe goes on to say that we know more about the movement of celestial bodies than we do about the soil, at least partly because it’s nearly impossible to study these organisms in the laboratory. Scientists are lucky, he says,
. . .if they can come up with the right nutrient mix to culture and study one percent of the microbes found in a typical soil sample. This poor success rate is due in part to the complex interdependence between subterranean organisms. They can’t survive when isolated from their neighbors.
So that’s what’s in your farmer’s dirt and your dirt, and mine when we dig it—billions of interdependent organisms about which we know very little.
And that brings me to my war story, which is about the laboratory modification of plant genes known as genetic engineering which I will call GE from here on. There is widespread public ignorance in this country about GE. Most people, for example, think they aren’t eating anything made with genetically-engineered crops, but since 94% of soy and 88% of corn planted in the U.S. are planted to biotech crops—and since products made from soy and corn are in almost all processed foods—most people are living in a dream.
The great majority of these two crops—soy and corn—are what are called Round-up Ready, meaning that they are engineered to survive being sprayed with the weed killer Round-Up—Monsanto’s proprietary name for the chemical glyphosate. In other words, a farmer can simply plant his or her crop, and when it comes up and is growing, the farmer can spray the whole field with Round-up, which will kill only the weeds. This, of course, means that a hell of a lot of glyphosate is being sprayed on U.S farm fields.
Last year, the USDA held meetings with various stakeholders asking whether alfalfa, the nation’s principal forage crop—the crop most fed to animals—should be approved for unregulated planting in a Round-up ready form. The organic community was universally opposed, fearing—knowing really—that pollen from biotech alfalfa could contaminate any organic alfalfa growing nearby, thus threatening the entire organic dairy industry. (Because, as you may know, the only guarantee you have that you’re not eating GE foods is the USDA organic label) This January, before the decision was made, a noted soil scientist, Emeritus Professor Don Huber of Purdue University, wrote a letter to USDA Secretary Vilsak, describing a series of very disturbing problems affecting production agriculture that appeared to be related to glyphosate and urging that the decision be postponed to allow for more research.
The identified problems included infertility and early-term abortions in cattle and hogs fed on GMO crops—largely corn and soy—a loss of the next generation of animals that was putting some dairy farmers out of business. And researchers in the field were noticing a rise of harmful fungi and parasites, while benefical fungi and other organisms that help plants utilize minerals were declining. (those are some of the millions of organisms I was talking about earlier.) Professor Huber warned that there appeared to be a new pathogen apparently related to the use of glyphosate that was affecting the health of plants in the field and animals fed those plants. “I believe the threat we are facing from this pathogen is unique and of a high-risk status,” Huber wrote. “In layman’s terms it should be treated as an emergency.”
What Huber was asking was that the decision about whether to approve yet another GE crop be slowed down, allowing time for careful studies. He sent the letter confidentially to Secretary Vilsak and the letter was leaked—apparently by the secretary’s office. Once the letter was leaked and made it into the blogosphere, there was major pushback, denunciations, denials and so on. And by the end of January, Vilsack approved unrestricted planting of GE alfalfa.
So that’s the war story. Since Professor Huber’s observations have been widely circulated, a number of scientists—in the teeth of a flood of hostile criticism—are reporting problems with crops and animals exposed to Round-up but the USDA has nevertheless decided to allow a glyphosate-resistant form of the nation’s most important forage crop, a crop grown on 20 million (ck) acres to be planted—thus exposing even more of the soil organisms to this toxin.
What is so shocking about this is that we really know nothing about what we are doing because as David Wolfe’s book points out, we don’t know anything much about the organisms that are down there. What we do know, as Professor Huber pointed out in a seminar he gave last March in Nebraska, is that “when you change one thing, everything else in the web of life changes in relationship.” So if you spray something on the soil that harms certain organisms others will multiply to take their place.
And that brings me to my peace-making story. Last year, my beloved garden on the west bank of the Hudson river was utterly destroyed by that river, and at the moment of my stunned grief, Mother Nature kindly presented me with a solution to what had become chronic flooding. My long narrow piece of land running to the river was higher on both sides as well as on the riverbank where it met the Hudson and at the other end where my house stood, so I gardened in a bathtub into which water not only entered at every high tide, but stayed until it soaked in.
But this storm—the worst of my 15 years in Piermont—arrived at exactly the right time. Because an old house on the lot north of me had been torn down, it became possible for the first time in 100 years, for a truck and bulldozer to gain entrance to my land. To cut a long, long story very short, I took up every paver, brick, plant, tree, bulb, corm, whatever, in my yard, brought in 200 yards of fill (the stuff they excavate when they start to construct a new building), put a little top soil over it, and started over, replacing every paver, brick plant, tree, bulb, corm—whatever—and then planting the year’s garden.
Most of the rebuilt garden ended up with some topsoil—some of mine scraped off and put back and some of it donated from the famous MacEnroe Farms in upstate New York. But in the end, four three by five foot beds, the final ones to be laid out, had no topsoil. They were filled to the top with subsoil, so rock-hard that when a friend came by and broke up one bed with a pickaxe, we tossed out the lumps from the surface because they were just too unyielding to break up.
What to do with these beds? I couldn’t just empty them and start over with purchased soil. That sort of solution didn’t fit either my financial constraints, or my beliefs—I was taught by my mentors in sustainability not to rob that much fertility from elsewhere on the planet. But how did I begin to turn this dead concrete-like stuff into actual fertile soil? I knew how to do it over time, but I wanted to use the bed immediately, and I struggled to imagine what might agree to grow there.
I did what digging I could, taking out boulders the size of my head and pails of other rocks, and then, I planted nitrogen-fixing soybeans in one of the beds in the hope that they might help improve the terrible stuff it was filled with. In the next-door bed I decided to plant sweet potatoes, since it had been my experience that sweet potatoes would grow anywhere and at least cover the bed with pretty foliage. I collected all the garden trash and a crock of kitchen scraps and dug them in as well as I could, raked the bed level, and covered it with two pails of woodchips, the best I could do for short-term soil improvement.
Toward the middle of June, I went out and dug twelve small holes worked a bit of fertilizer and lime into each hole and planted the rooted slips which I had sprouted indoors from one of last-year’s sweet potatoes. As expected, the sweet potato bed produced its usual mountains of beautiful foliage which at least made it look good; and come October, a friend and I dug in to see what had developed underground.
Considering the situation, I had a remarkably good crop—23 pounds of sweets from a bed 3 ft wide and 12 feet long—but what really astonished me was not the crop but what its presence underground had done to the soil. In one growing season the sweet potato roots had converted a bed of silt that hardened into rock when you looked at it into a crumbly soil that you could plunge your hand into.
I found the transformation so astounding that in the following days I kept going out and running my fingers through what was now soil instead of dead dirt to convince myself that this miracle had actually happened. And after vainly trying to find evidence on the web that the beneficial effect of growing sweet potatoes was common knowledge, I concluded that it was not. Everyone I spoke to was equally stumped until I mentioned my garden miracle to a farmer who is also a trained microbiologist. He was the first person I had talked to who was not surprised. You can do the same thing with turnips or daikon or any big rooted crop, he told me; the soil organisms that collect around the heavy roots secrete mucilaginous substances that glue together the overly-fine soil particles into clumps to prevent them from turning into rock. Will wonders never cease.
In preparation for giving a talk to my community garden colleagues I e-mailed the microbiologist/farmer and asked him for details. He said that the organisms involved are called arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF), and are classified in the order Glomales, They collect around the hairs that come off the heavy roots and secrete a compound called glomalin. This glues together the fine soil particles to prevent them from packing down into a rock-like mass.
And now we come to the reason I feel the need to tell this tale. The most stunning fact is not that nature can remake my soil in one year if I give her the chance; it’s not that there is an order of organisms called Glomales that literally hold our soil together. No, the most stunning fact is this one, which turned up on the first page of the pamphlet on Glomalin that the farmer sent me in response to my request for more information.
What is Glomalin?
The pamphlet was titled. And here’s the text.
Glomalin . . . was identified at USDA in the early 1990’s on hyphae (hair-like projections) of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF). These fungi are ancient microorganisms that evolved with plants to aid in acquiring nutrients, especially immobile nutrients like phosphorus (P).
So now we know. Here is a vital organism absolutely critical to the texture, the phosphorus availability, and therefore the production capacity of our soils. As the pamphlet on Glomalin said, it is, literally holding our farms together, and yet—as another soil book of mine reports, glomalin “was considered an unidentified contaminant of humus until 1996!”
And so it is clear that we have grown our food as if Nature were a combatant and we were at war with her, drenching our soils with chemical concentrates, bombing our fields with toxins without knowing anything about what we were doing to the soil organisms about which we know almost nothing. We have waged war on Nature in order to kill the organisms we deemed our enemies, with no concern that we might, in the process, be killing our friends. And to turn back to my war story, we have now dumped a single chemical, glyphosate on literally millions of acres of soil, year after year on the assumption that it would do only what we intended it to do—kill weeds.
Yet, as is clear from the data that Professor Huber and others are turning up, that it is probably also doing a lot of damage to the invisible life of the soil. If we assault these wondrous, beneficent soil organisms sufficiently with chemical weed and insect killers, we can change their functions and their relationships to us and to each other with what may be unimaginable unintended consequences. When will we stop and think?
In sum, there is life not only visibly around us but invisibly under our feet, and although we are hardly aware of its existence, those underground organisms are perhaps more vital to our long term survival as a species than any of the living things we encounter every day. So we had better be sure to take care of them and not dismiss them as dirt.
I have no grand answers about how you can do this, as individuals except to pay attention and be aware. And know that we need to look at every proposed “solution” to what are presented to us as our problems with the understanding that Nature is ultimately in charge. I personally don’t want to hear any more about how genetic engineering will feed the planet when there is absolutely no evidence to date that it increases yield. And now it appears to be causing novel plant and animal diseases that could wreak havoc with production and which are not being examined because the companies that control the seeds will not even allow researchers to have them for research.
Had I given my other talk, you would have a history of why you should try to eat more seasonally and locally. Now, you’ll just have to take my word for it. Beginning to shorten our food chain, beginning to bring food growing back home will not solve all, or even most, of the problems the ongoing industrialization of the planet is creating. But it’s a good start and it’s something all of us can do, every day when we choose what to eat. And eating well will make us strong to fight all the other battles that we need to fight if we are to keep this planet a home for the human species. As someone wrote recently, “by . . . embracing the radical notion that we can and must live within the limits of one planet, we will turn this difficult time into an opportunity.”
Joan is the author of This Organic Life, at the heart of which is the premise that locally grown food eaten in season makes sense economically, ecologically, and gastronomically. Joan is the former chair of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation. She is a Founding Member of Slow Money and a member of our Advisory Board. To get more involved with Slow Money, sign the Principles: http://www.slowmoney.org/principles