Let’s talk dirt, or more specifically soil.
(Disclaimer: if you’re here for the recipes, sorry, today it’s about how our food grows instead)
So, this entire blog post is because the most recent episode of The RobCast was too good not to share. I know many of you that just aren’t podcast junkies like myself so I wanted to do a synopsis of all the good information Rob and guest, Jeff Tkach, Chief Impact Officer for the Rodale Institute, dive into. But for those of you that do enjoy a good listen, I’ve included the episode below.
Dirt versus Soil
Did you know dirt and soil are not the same? Have you ever thought about it? I hadn’t. Soil is alive. And soil is the single most complex life on Earth. But we only know about 10% of what it’s made of. Crazy, right? There are 9 billion microorganisms in just 1 teaspoon of healthy soil. Dirt, on the contrary, is essentially dead soil. Soil that’s lost is life. There’s this thing called glomalin that allows soil to hold itself together while dirt will simply fall through your fingers like sand. However, most of us have become so disconnected and estranged from where our food comes from and how it’s produced that this is like a foreign language.
Here’s the alarming part of the story, we (humans) have degraded nearly one-half of the world’s topsoil. Science estimates there are about 60 growing seasons left (Growing season is approximately one year). Soil sustains us ALL. And this realization by a man named J.I. Rodale is what is now the Rodale Institute, a non-profit research and education that works in the area of organic farming. As a business man owning a manufacturing company he understood inputs and outputs but when he decided to enter the farming industry and was told to “use these inputs to get this yield”. At first this made sense, but then he was left thinking about what kind of alchemy happens in the soil when it’s exposed to chemicals. And so, he wrote on the chalkboard “Healthy Soil = Healthy Food = Healthy People” and that is the mission statement of the Rodale Institute.
What “kills” soil?
Well what causes soil to become dirt? I’m sure this is what you’re thinking by now. The answer is, many things. Plowing “kills” soil. Plowing turns up the earth is large quantities, leaving it vulnerable and disrupting it’s ecosystem. There are roughly 70 earthworms per one square foot in healthy soil. Think of how a plow could disrupt just the earthworms. But we’ve been plowing for…. ever? A long, long time. The 17th century actually. And industrialization in farming multiplied the effects of plowing over time. Remember the Dust Bowl? Turns out we quickly forgot the devastation caused by modern farming practices.
Monsanto, Glyphosate and the rise of disease
In the early 1970’s the company that was formerly Monsanto patents glyphosate, the active ingredient in its herbicide Roundup®. In 1974 Roundup® was introduced to the consumer market and quickly became one of the best-selling herbicides. Farming became a yield-driven industry. Profit trumped sustainability. And if soil controls yield…. You can see how this model is not sustainable.
- 1 in 5,000 children were diagnosed with autism in 1975. That figure is 1 in 36 today.
- 4% of the population in 1960 experience a chronic illness in their lifetime. Today, 1 in 2.
Since 1975 we’ve seen a dramatic rise in autism, autoimmune disorders, depression, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. Glyphosate is essentially a patented antibiotic, something that inhibits the growth of or destroys microorganisms. Here’s a few antibiotic stats for you:
- 833 of 1,000 people take 1 course of antibiotics per year.
- There is a 25% increased risk of depression within a year of taking an antibiotic.
“Humans functioned, in relationship to the soil, in a particular way for most of our time here. And then, within two generations, through new methods and technologies, and pesticides, etc. we’ve done this to ourselves and we didn’t have to.” – Rob Bell
“You understand what, essentially, we’re doing, we’re eradicating life, all life, in the soil in the name of food, for yields. And in our medical system we’re eradicating our own microbiomes through this, you know, rapid prescriptions of drugs and antibiotics. It’s really one in the same.” -Jeff Tkach
“As the soil goes, we go. ” -Rob Bell
On June 7th, 2018 Bayer (largest pharmaceutical company) purchased Monsanto (largest food company) for $66 Billion. Monsanto owns about 80% of all the genomes for all the seeds in the world. Over time, the original seeds are lost. We’re “stripping down all the varieties in our food system to the variety that work with the inputs,” explains Jeff Tkach. Inputs meaning the chemicals used to grow that food. Seeds are being designed to handle the inputs, being genetically modified in a laboratory to handle being sprayed by an herbicide or pesticide. This is a genetically modified organism – GMO.
Meanwhile, Monsanto employees 150+ lobbyists in Washington. The Rodale Institute has one, part-time lobbyist and the Organic Trad Association has just one. Jeff mentions it can seem like taking on Goliath.
Let’s Talk Organic
You’ve probably seen USDA Certified Organic labels in the grocery store. Well how did that come about? Prior to the 1990’s many had approached our government to set standards for organic farming. Our government wanted to see the science. Bob Rodale (shout out to Bob) decided to do just that. He started the farming systems trial, a 40 year study of conventional versus organic farming. After just ten years the evidence was sufficient for the USDA and in 1990 they began their USDA certified organic program. The study ultimately teaches us that in years of extreme drought or heavy rainfall, organic systems out perform conventional systems by up to 40% in terms of yields. The organic methods use 40% less energy and are up to three times more profitable. That’s shocking (or is it?).
Jeff explains that there are methods like the roller crimper that farmers can use that doesn’t disrupt the soil like conventional plowing. The device attaches to the front of a tractor and rolls over cover crop, creating a carpet like covering for the ground. Another device behind the tractor then sews the seed, creating only a small pocket.
The Shikimate Pathway
Plants have a shikimate pathway, a pathway that allows plants to take up nutrients from the soil. A recent one-year study of the protein in conventional versus organic wheat revealed that there was no statistical difference in protein content. However, the weight per bushel was much higher in the organically grown wheat. Not only that, but the essential amino acid content was exponentially higher in the organic wheat. Herbicides like glyphosate inhibit the shikimate pathway and rob our plants of nutritional density. We are now able to see the consequences of this under a microscope. And we only know about 10% about our soil.
Another Study – Ergothioneine
Jeff explains how years ago he was contacted by the head scientists from Penn State Hershey Medical Center, one of the top cancer research centers, about a amino acid they had discovered. This amino acid was ergothioneine. They were studying it against chemotherapy in petri dish. Cancer cells and the chemotherapy in one petri dish. The ergothioneine and cancer cells in another petri dish. The ergothioneine was out performing the chemotherapy. So they were wondering where does this come from? It’s actually synthesized in our soil by fungi and soil bacteria. We used to get this in our food. Pre-1960 we’d get this in our food but now it’s almost completely eradicated from our food system.
Things like going outside, breathing fresh air, walking barefoot, connecting with Earth. These are all ways to improve our microbiome. Avoid antibiotics, stock up on probiotic rich foods, EAT ORGANIC.
Jeff shares his personal health journey, very similar to mine. I encourage you to listen to the podcast to hear all the details. But his advice is, essentially, food is medicine. Also, he wants you to support your local farmers. “One of the greatest spiritual acts we can do is get to know a farmer. I think everyone should have a relationship with a farmer. I think there are these intrepid souls out there that are stewarding soil, these farmers that are doing the right thing,” says Jeff.
Ultimately,we’ve seen the organic market steadily increasing. Every time you buy organic you’re voting. You’re voting with your dollars. While organic may be more expensive now, think back to new laptops, smartphones, flat screen TVs. In the beginning, new things are more expensive. But after a while, they catch on. Therefore, as demand increases and with that prices fall.
Support things like the Rodale Institute. Their work takes a considerable amount of money. Yet, you can support them without monetary donations too. Visit their website. Share something about their work on social media. Or simply, get to know a farmer, like Jeff recommends.