Optimal health is one of my passions and nutrition is one of the best tools I know of on how to achieve it. But the key to getting healthy organic vegetables, of course, is the health of the soil in which it’s grown.
Research scientist Dr. Elaine Ingham1 is internationally recognized as an expert on the benefits of sustainable soil science.
She was formerly an associate professor at Oregon State University and well on her way to full-tenure professorship when her research on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) led to her being forced to resign.
The biotech industry, led by Monsanto, funds a large part of the budget for Oregon State University, and her findings were not welcome as it threatened the University’s funding.
Dr. Ingham went on to develop a company called Soil Foodweb Inc., which helps farmers and gardeners understand the health of their soil. The company analyzes soil samples and also helps develop a composting plan that is specifically targeted for the plants you’re seeking to grow.
She’s also the chief research scientist at Rodale Institute which I plan on personally visiting in the near future. I’ll provide you with some video of that visit afterwards.
One of my new passions is to understand, at the deepest levels, how to achieve high performance agriculture by grilling the leading experts in the world, then digesting the information and sharing it with you in easy to understand and apply bits.
Helping Farmers and Gardeners Take Back Control of Their Soil Health
Just how is plant growth affected by the health of the soil? The key lies in having the right helper organisms; beneficial species of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, beneficial nematodes (not the weedfeeders), microarthropods, and earthworms—all of which contribute to plant growth in a number of different ways.
“If we get a problem like around the root systems, around the surfaces, above ground – the seed, the leaves, or the branches of the plant – these organisms will prevent diseases from being able to even find the plant,” she explains. “The pests won’t locate the plant. So, disease suppression, pest suppression, and all of those things are part of what the life in the soil does for your plant.”
Nutrient cycling is another major issue. According to Dr. Ingham, there’s no soil on Earth that lacks the nutrients to grow a plant. She believes the concept that your soil is deficient and needs added phosphorous or nitrogen, etc. in order to grow plants is flawed, and largely orchestrated by the chemical companies, because it’s based on looking at the soluble, inorganic nutrients that are partly present in your soil.
But the real nutrition your plants require actually is derived from microorganisms in the soil. These organisms take the mineral material that’s in your soil and convert it into a plant-available form. Without these bioorganisms, your plants cannot get the nutrients they need. So what you need is not more chemical soil additives, what you need is the proper balance of beneficial soil organisms. According to Dr. Ingham:
“It’s very necessary to have these organisms. They will supply your plant with precisely the right balances of all the nutrients as the plant requires. When you start to realize that one of the major roles and functions of life in the soil is to provide nutrients to the plants in the proper forms, then we don’t need inorganic fertilizers. We certainly don’t have to have genetically engineered plants or to utilize inorganic fertilizers if we get this proper biology back in the soil.
If we balance the proper biology, we select against the growth of weeds, so the whole issue with herbicides is done away with. We don’t need the herbicides if we can get the proper life back into the soil and select for the growth of the plants that we want to grow and against the growth of the weedy species.”
The Science of Ideal Microbial Balance for Plants
The science of establishing the ideal microbes for a specific plant is already well-established. Reference material on how to identify what those ideal bacterial, fungal, protozoan, nematode, and microarthropod communities are can be found in Dr. Inham’s books, which include:
- 10 Steps to Gardening with Nature
- Soil Biology Primer (co-authored with Andrew R. Moldenke and Clive A. Edwards)
- The Field Guide for Actively Aerated Compost Tea (AACT)
- Compost Tea Quality: Light Microscope Methods
- The Compost Tea Brewing Manual
The first book, 10 Steps to Gardening with Nature, reviews many of these soil communities and explains the mechanisms behind how these life forms in the soil benefit your plants. You can also find valuable information and resources on the Rodale Institute’s website.2 Once you’ve identified the optimal communities of soil organism, you can then modify your compost to correct any imbalances. For example:
“Woody materials – saw dust, paper, cardboard, wood chips, and dry ground leaves that fell from the trees at the end of the growing season – are going to grow fungi. You choose whether you need more fungal or more bacterial. And then design your recipe for your compost according to what is missing in your soil, so you can put back in what is not there,” she explains.
Most people don’t realize that trees, shrubs and perennials require healthy levels of fungi rather than bacteria in the soil to optimize their health. The materials she described above can help create the environment to grow them. Also directly inoculating the soil with fungal cultures can accelerate the root colonization by the beneficial fungi.
Interestingly enough, you can use a starter culture to boost the fermentation and generation of beneficial bacteria, much in the same way you can boost the probiotics in your fermented vegetables. For compost, this strategy is used if you want to compost very rapidly. In that case, you can use a starter to inoculate the specific sets of organisms that you need to encourage in that compost. For optimal physical health, you need plant foods to contain the full set of nutrients that allows the plant to grow in a healthy fashion, because that’s the proper balance of nutrients for us human beings as well.
“When we look at a lot of the GMO plant material, and when we look at conventionally grown plant material, they may be extremely high one nutrient, but lacking in many, many others,” she says.
“We’ve done some studies of that in New Zealand, looking at facial eczema in dairy cows. We were able to cure all of the animals from that facial eczema, because it was a nutritional deficiency that was causing it. It wasn’t really a disease; it wasn’t an illness. It was a nutrient deficiency in the grass... If the food that you’re eating doesn’t contain the proper set of nutrients, you are not going to be healthy. You’ve got to get those nutrients in the proper balances back into the food you’re eating.”
Hybridization and Genetic Engineering Are Two Very Different Animals
Many advocates for genetically engineered foods insist that “genetic engineering” has been done for centuries in the form of hybridization; so we’re really just using higher technology to achieve the same thing faster. This is a fatally flawed argument, as these two techniques are profoundly different and do not produce the same result. In normal breeding techniques, you never go outside of that species. You simply cannot breed one species with another species, such as a plant with an insect, for example.
“By definition, when we’re doing normal genetic manipulation using breeding methods, it’s all going to be done within the normal, natural restrictions of reproductive abilities of organisms. You can’t go outside of the species.”
Through modern genetic engineering techniques, they are mixing genetic material from entirely different kingdoms of organisms. There is absolutely nothing natural or normal about this process, and there’s nothing natural or normal about the end product that results from such cross-species manipulation. To even achieve this feat, genetic material must be blasted into the genetic material of the organism being altered with a high-powered gun.
Now, if you inject this unique genetic sequence into any random place on the DNA, most of the time the organism will not live. But on rare occasions, after the sequence has been blasted into countless cells, the organism may survive and begin to express the inserted trait. At that point, multiple different protein changes will occur, yet no one knows exactly which proteins were altered, how they were modified, or what metabolic processes are going to be disrupted because that new genetic material.
“When you look at GMOs, you have to understand each specific genetic engineering event. It’s hard to make a simple statement about the effect of all GMOs, because each one is a very specific mechanism,” Dr. Ingham says.
“When we’re really trying to understand each and every different kind of engineered organism, the effects are going to be mediated a little bit differently. But pretty much across the board, we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen with any engineered event, because we have not studied what happens when that GMO plant is subjected to extremes of weather or extremes of climate, for example. That, to me, is one area of major concern with every GMO that has been produced.”
How Bt and Roundup Ready Plants Threaten Plant, Animal and Human Health
Take the genetically engineered Bt plants, for example. In these plants, a specific genetic material for a single toxin protein has been separated from the bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt) and placed into the genetic material of a plant, such as corn, soybean, and potatoes. Other Bt plants are also in the pipeline. According to Dr. Ingham, there’s very clear evidence of harm in animals that consume Bt plant material. They end up with severe ulceration, starting in the digestive system.
“We saw massive damage to the liver and to many of the internal organs in the body of those animals when we went to compare the Bt plant material fed to those animals versus non-Bt plant material fed to a herd that started out exactly the same. We’re seeing very clear effects,” she says.
Unfortunately, and tellingly, virtually none of this research is being done in the US because no one is willing to fund it, and patent laws effectively prevent independent safety research on patented seeds. However, research done overseas, in Australia and elsewhere, clearly show genetically engineered feed is causing severe health problems in animals. Yet there are no human studies to evaluate the health effects of eating foods that contain a protein toxin in every single cell...
“What’s the effect on human beings? We can show you what the effect is on animals. And it makes you really wonder if all the digestive problems we have right now might not be due to the fact that so much of the American public is ingesting this toxic protein,” she says.
Another genetically engineered type of plant is Roundup Ready plants, in which the plant material has been engineered to be resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup. With the advent of Roundup Ready plants, farmers have had to dramatically increase the amount of glyphosate used. The reason for this is because when you apply Roundup to the soil in massive quantities, it causes a significant reduction in all of the beneficial organisms in the soil.
According to Dr. Ingham, Roundup causes “a massive balloon” of bacteria in the soils, because glyphosate is a bacterial food. This bacterial overgrowth then takes up all the soluble inorganic nutrients that are present in the soil, leaving the plants stressed through lack of nutrition. To combat this, farmers apply more fertilizers to keep the plants alive, and before you know it, a truly vicious circle has been created.
“Every single genetically engineered plant has to be really examined very carefully for the effect that it has on the whole ecosystem – on the soil, animal health, and human health. We just don’t have the studies. They weren’t done. They weren’t required,” Dr. Ingham says.
Disasters in the Making, and One That Was Averted...
The research that cut Dr. Ingham’s career with Oregon State University short related to a particular genetically engineered (GE) bacterium that grows in soil. The USDA and EPA had not yet tested it. Instead, all of the test organisms they were using were non-soil organisms. When Dr. Ingham and her colleague placed that GE bacterium into the root systems of plants, and compared it against the parent plant that had no GE bacteria in the soil, they found that the GE Klebsiella planticola caused total death to all plants that they put into the system. They were within just TWO WEEKS of that genetically engineered organism being released outside when Dr. Ingham presented her data at a United Nations meeting, which prevented outdoor plantings. Still, the USDA didn’t want to believe the results and questioned the methodology.
“The results from that testing clearly shows that the genetically engineered organisms can be of a great deal of risk, higher than the parent organism,” she says. “We need to do a much better job of testing these genetically engineered versions of plants, microorganisms, or whatever we’re talking about. They need to be better tested. And that the regulatory language 'genetically engineered organisms are of no greater risk than the parent' is clearly incorrect. It’s invalid. We need to go back and think better of a valid regulatory statement by the USDA.”
Unfortunately, as I’ve discussed so many times before, the USDA-APHIS, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, has a revolving door going straight to the industry.
“For those who really want to look at that history, go talk to the folks at the Edmonds Institute out of Washington State, because they very well documented how much turnaround there is,” Dr. Ingham says.
“You come from the industry. You’re on the USDA panel, promoting every company that you came from in, and then you go back to that company. The US public needs to wake up and pay attention to what’s really controlling the regulations on these genetically engineered organisms. The regulatory literature is not scientifically valid. We need to stop that rotating door into the regulatory agencies, so that people coming from the industry are not writing the regulatory language. “
According to Dr. Ingham, Roundup Ready crops are already a disaster in the making, as the chemical removes nutrients from the soil, effectively “starving” the plants of the nutrients they need to thrive. Eating such plants is bound to have a detrimental health effect. Worse than Roundup Ready crops are probably Bt crops, as the research clearly shows how the Bt toxin in these plants are harming the digestive systems of pigs, cows, horses, and other livestock.
“If it’s causing that kind of damage to their digestive system, what’s it doing to human beings?” Dr. Ingham says. “It’s got to be causing the same type of damage. But we know nothing about it, because we don’t know when we’re actually eating a genetically engineered material that has those toxins in it.”
A Three-Step Self-Help Plan to Avoid Genetically Engineered Foods
Unfortunately, Americans have been prevented from making their own choices in this matter. The biotech industry has successfully thwarted any and all attempts at labeling GE foods in the US, so what can you do to protect yourself and your family from them? Dr. Ingham offers the following three suggestions:
- Choose organic food. This is a must if you want to stop supporting the likes of Monsanto with your hard-earned dollars. Also, genetically engineered seeds and materials are not allowed in organic farming and food production, so at present it’s the only way to ensure you’re not accidentally buying something with GE ingredients.
Beware that the label “natural” or “all-natural” has absolutely NO meaning when it comes to GMO’s. There are no regulations preventing “natural” products from containing genetically engineered ingredients, so the natural label is not in any way interchangeable with the organic label.
- Support GMO labeling campaigns. “You really want to know whether you’re eating potatoes that have a protein toxin in every cell of that potato that you’re eating,” she says.
- Improve the soil in your garden and grow your own vegetables. This is my new passion so shortly I will be creating many helpful interviews with leading experts in the field on high performance agriculture to teach you simple strategies on how to easily do this in your home or local garden.
REMEMBER, 'There Is No Such Thing as a Safe GMO'
According to Dr. Ingham, due to the way genetic plant engineering is currently done, there’s really is no such thing as a safe GMO. It appears plant geneticists have no understanding of what they’re doing to the system as a whole. They believe they can tinker with one small aspect of agriculture, the seed, and it won’t affect anything else. This is foolish in the extreme.
“We need to go back to a less environmentally damaging way of doing agriculture. We need to get off the chemical addiction and return to putting the proper biology back into the soil,” she says.
Optimizing the soil with high performance agriculture techniques is a simple inexpensive and practical alternative to reliance on bioengineering, GMO crops and reliance on dangerous herbicides. The key to global climate change, to better nutrition in our plants, to human nutrition, and to human health is recognizing that we have destroyed the life in our agricultural soils. As modern agricultural techniques flourished, we failed to address its overall impact, and we’ve not fully understood the damage these techniques cause—until now.
“In the last 30 years, we have started to recognize and to understand what the damage is and how to easily – very easily – fix this. It’s not going to take billions of dollars to remedy the problems that we have with our soils. Erosion, cementation and water quality could be brought back very rapidly if we could just put the proper biology back in the soil.”
A lot of the work Dr. Ingham has done on GMO’s is available from the Edmonds Institute in Washington State. You may contact Beth Burrows as the institute to get those materials. For more information on proper soil treatments, see the Rodale Institute’s web site, or pick up one of Dr. Ingham’s books that I listed earlier. The book 10 Steps to Gardening with Nature by Dr. Ingham and Carole Ann Rollins is a good place to start. Another book that I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed, especially the last part, is Jeff Lowenfels’ book, Teaming with Microbes. There are many more details you need to know that are not presented in the book but it is a good start for some foundational concepts.