What affects Gut Health, Food Quality and Soil Health? How are they connected?

A dietician’s and agricultural scientist’s insights and suggestions.

Summary from Baw Baw Food Movement workshop ‘Healthy soils, Nutritional food, Healthy people‘, 21 September 2017.

By Marieke Rodenstein, Dietitian and Nutritionist (www.thenutritionpractice.com.au) and Dr Maarten Stapper, Farming Systems Agronomist

The mention of the word bacteria typically conjures up fears of disease and has us running for our hand sanitizer. Most people think of bacteria as dangerous and dirty, more foe than friend. Subsequently, our focus has been on the microbes that harm us, ‘those germs’, and how we can eradicate them. Yes, there are many bad bugs that can have serious consequences on our health. What goes largely unnoticed is the critical role that bacteria play in keeping us healthy.

Microbes are the smallest and most prolific organisms on planet Earth. The vast majority manage the health of larger organisms both from the inside and outside, and create healthy environments for all to live (eg human, animal, plant, soil, landscape). Such ecosystems are characterized by a symbiosis, an interdependence between organisms. Pathogens, which form less than 15% of microbes, on the other hand, play another game. They cause disease when they find a hole in the defence systems created and maintained by beneficial microbes.

We hear more and more about the microbial worlds around us as science is now enabling us to identify through DNA, the make-up of microbial communities, also known as microbiomes. Molecular biology methodologies are routinely used to characterize microbiomes in gut and soil at low cost. In these complex systems, we are now on a path to find out what it means what we can measure.

We humans harbor over 100 trillion bacteria in and on our body and the majority of these microbes live in our gut. In fact, the gut is one of the most complex ecosystems on the planet. Look after it and you are guaranteed better health. Harm it, and you risk harming the health of your entire body. Discover the different ways your gut affects your health, from your digestion to your weight, mental health, immune system and skin.

A spoonful of healthy soil can have 1 billion microbes. Frequent use of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals over time, however, have substantially reduced soil food web activity. Resulting soil problems stem from gross oversimplification of fertilization and ‘plant protection’ practices that use harsh synthetic chemicals and ignore the delicate balance of microbes, nutrients and carbon in the soil. Planet Earth has a skin disease!

In making soils more fertile and productive by re-activating the soil food web which significantly sequesters soil carbon, plants and animals become more resistant to disease, and yield nutrient dense produce.

Why is a soil healthy? When is a soil sick?

Dr Maarten Stapper focussed on the health of soils with the Horticulture class at Central Midlands Senior High School in Moora, 9 March 2017.

Firstly, we went to the garden and compost heap. There we wondered how we can see whether a soil is healthy or sick. Looks can deceive! By digging with fingers, we can feel the soil status, crumbly (aggregation = healthy) to dusty, or too hard to penetrate. We discussed the composting process; how a good finished compost looks, feels and smells, and what it does when applied to soils. Then we went to the class room to discuss various aspects of soil status with pictures.

There is a focus on healthy soils, but what is a sick soil? Students came up with a list of soil conditions that lower production: compaction, acidity, salinity, low soil carbon, water repellent, poor infiltration, water logging, and wind and water erosion. Next the importance of soil biological activity to create and maintain soil health was shown and explained.

The lesson made a significant impact on the teachers and students. The students who are aspiring to be our future farmers, learnt something about the new practice of biological farming. One with a focus on restoring the soils to health and productivity, rather than the current problem focussed approach to farming.

Students were encouraged to have a positive outlook to farming with and within the environment.


Building Healthy Communities

Dr Maarten Stapper discussed food production & processing, with support of Marieke Rodenstein, nutritionist & dietitian, ‘How our gut flora influences our health’.

World-wide industrial farming practices are degrading soils and bringing about dependency on the use of more synthetic fertilisers and chemicals, which increase chemical contamination of foods and the environment. Their continuous use affects the health of humans and soils. It decimates the abundance and diversity of soil-microbes which greatly lowers the nutrient density of food. Synthetics in foods and living environments are also increasingly associated with chronic diseases.

Healthy soils and healthy humans are both dependent on an abundance and diversity of beneficial microbes. Producers’ soil awareness and consumers’ healthy food demand are now leading to farming practices that use far less synthetic fertilizers and chemicals, or none (ie. organic). Such agroecological, low-external input farming improves food quality, soil health, landscape biodiversity and farm profitability. Associated soil carbon sequestration, reduction in GHG emissions and increased soil water retention help slow global warming.

Our gut flora influences our health. The gut is a major producer of our immune system and the gut-brain connections determine what and how we feel. Consumers, supported by nutritionists, are driving the process of change to healthier foods.

An important skill consumers, gardeners and farmers do need to (re)develop and use is the capacity to be biosensitive, that is, to trust nature and to be in tune with, sensitive to, and respectful of the processes of life.

Northern Valley News: Farming – in harmony with nature

Published April 2017 by Rachelle Armstrong, Business Manager, Soil Restoration Farming.

Former CSIRO scientist, Dr Maarten Stapper, delivered some hard hitting messages to Dandaragan farmers recently about the challenges modern farming practices are creating.

“Current soil problems are the result of gross oversimplification of fertilization and ‘plant protection’ practices that use harsh chemicals and ignore the delicate balance of microbes, trace minerals, nutrients and carbon in the soil”, said Dr Stapper to the room of 40-farmers and industry sponsors who travelled long distances to hear the renowned biological scientist present.

The two-day program was put on by Soil Restoration Farming, a non-profit, education-based business that strives to improve the farming community’s awareness of biology-friendly farming and grazing practices that increase biodiversity above and below ground.

The event had 9 sponsors, including the Northern Agriculture Catchment Council (NACC) and 8 biologically aligned companies, supporting independent education that empowers farmers to make decisions about farming in harmony with nature for more productive and profitable outcomes. The companies were, Hi-Tech Ag Solutions, C-Wise, NutriSoil Liquid Biological Fertiliser, Best Environmental Technologies, EcoGrowth, IntuitEarth, Australian Mineral Fertilisers and Konynen Farm.

Local soil problems were discussed with a recognition that most issues such as low fertility, compaction, salinity and acidity start with the loss of both active soil biology and soil organic matter (carbon) which is why farmers end up having to depend on synthetic fertilizers and chemicals.

“It’s a vicious cycle and it’s common Australia-wide and world-wide regardless of different environments and soil types,” Rachelle explained later.

“Farmers will be more profitable if they can harness the power of natural soil processes and thus can improve their use of inputs and understanding those practices that negatively impact on soil health,” Dr Stapper said.

Dr Stapper explained how biological agriculture combines the science of agriculture and environmental sciences on-farm.

Therefore, lower use of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals leads to higher biodiversity, less runoff, better water and air quality, and thus results in healthy catchments.

Farmer speakers, Di Haggerty of Wyalkatchem and Nick Kelly of Newdegate, presented compelling case studies from their farms, with practices put into place that align with biological principals discussed. They had both found the current recommended agricultural practices challenging to be profitable and looked for ways to farm by enhancing natural processes.

Feedback from participants at the seminar was that it was a really worthwhile two-days. Those already engaged in biological farming received plenty of information and motivation to continue. Furthermore, they felt compelled to share the learning with others, raising public awareness of the importance of the consequences that farming practices have on soil health and ultimately food quality.

The day after, Dr Stapper gave a community health presentation in Dandaragan. Along with alarming concerns about the effects that the food we eat has on our health, he offered practical suggestions for healthier eating to improve our gut health, that links to many health conditions, including the brain and thus our mental health. Following this, he spoke to a Horticulture class at Moora Secondary College, which made a significant impact on the teachers and students. The students who are aspiring to be our future farmers, learnt new ways of farming that focus on restoring the soils, other than problem focussed, encouraging them to have a positive outlook.

Events like these bring knowledgeable people, industry and farmers together which is necessary to build the biological farming movement. As a self-organising group, fast growth, success and acceptance as ‘the norm’, is critical to restore soils and secure our land and future food production for the health of our nation.

For future educational programs, please contact Rachelle Armstrong of Soil Restoration Farming via email soilrestorationfarming@gmail.com.

National Biological Farming Conference

“Reducing Soil Inputs and Increasing Profit”

Dr Maarten Stapper gives a presentation about typical results in Biological Farming decreasing use of synthetic fertilizers by 50% and chemicals by 80% for similar yields with improved quality. Click here for this presentation in audio with slides on the Conference webpage.

National Biological Farming Conference

“Healthy Soils for Healthy Quality Food: Producing the real ‘Clean & Green’”

Dr Maarten Stapper’s closing address of the National Biological Farming Conference dispelling the ‘Clean and Green’ myth of current production systems, and demonstrating the cleaner and greener biological farming systems on healthy soils. Click here to watch the presentation on the Conference webpage.

Matching Supply with the Demand for Healthy Foods

by Dr Maarten Stapper

Conference AGRIFOOD XXIII: ‘Food and the Asian Century: Opportunities and Challenges in the ‘Neighbourhood’

Industrial farming compromises both environment and food quality. Industrial farming is degrading soils to low fertility, instigating increasing dependency on synthetic fertilisers and chemicals. This process greatly lowers food nutrient-density and increases chemical contamination of food, soil, water and air.

Nutrition-related diseases are escalating but science, governments and public institutions keep ignoring the link with methods of food production. They hold onto the money trail of vested interests from industry. However, at the grassroots, consumers and producers are moving increasingly to foods produced with less (Biological) or no (Organic, Biodynamic) synthetics. Such production systems are defined as agroecological farming, which is still being treated as ‘alternative’ by government institutions and academia.

Agroecological farming has been endorsed by UN agencies as the way to feed the world without a need for Genetically Modified foods, whose long-term safety hasn’t been proven. It avoids the use of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals, and aims for harmony with nature in a biodiverse landscape with healthy soils. Associated soil carbon sequestration (= soil fertility) and reduction in emissions will help slow global warming. Scientific papers are being published that quantify the resulting improved food quality in regards to nutrition and chemicals.

Real medicine must start with our diet and how we produce, process and prepare that food with minimal use of synthetics. Consumers are slowly driving this process of change. Demand for ethical & ecological food is leading to changes in food provisioning. It is time for science and governments to follow and help guide!

The Real ‘Clean & Green’ Farming and Demand for Healthy Foods

Dr Maarten Stapper FAIA, BioLogic AgFood

PO Box 4209, Weston Creek ACT 2611

World-wide soils are degrading to lower fertility under high-input farming, thus requiring more and more synthetic fertilizers and chemicals which do exacerbate the problem. The outcomes on foods produced are reduced nutrient density and increased presence of chemical residues. Recurring use of more synthetics affects the health of soils, landscapes and people. Food processing and preparation is further reducing the nutrition of food. All these factors increase malnutrition and contribute to obesity and chronic diseases.

Australian farmers have become highly dependent on outside suppliers and advice. To secure income they have to apply synthetic inputs of herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and fertilizers to maintain yields under high risks of weather and markets. Such farming tends to compromise the environment and farmers now also face pressures to reduce associated greenhouse gas emissions.

Australian agriculture is still being promoted as ‘Clean and Green’. However, Australia does not have a pesticide monitoring system. The difficulty in assessing the use of agricultural chemicals led to a 2002 report recommending the establishment of a comprehensive and integrated pesticide use reporting system to assure the integrity of the quality of agricultural produce. However, little has changed as a 2013 report finds very little data on pesticide use and environmental impact. It questions implications for human health and the environment under continued exposure to these toxins.

Possible impacts of diet on human health were assessed in Australian studies by measuring presence in urine of, for example, organophosphates (OP; active ingredient in many insecticides). One study showed that for adults one week on an organic diet reduced OP by 90%. Another study with children showed the OP exposure to be higher than in US studies with no differences between rural and urban kids; thus OP through the food chain.

Producers’ awareness of negative impacts of synthetics may come from direct contact during work, seeing environment degrading or lower returns on inputs. Some producers then become certified Organic, which doesn’t allow the use of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals.

A more recent practice has been reducing the use of synthetics by improving soil carbon through re-activation of soil biology and biodiversity in landscape. Such Biological Farming re-generates soil and soils become healthy. Thresholds are raised in critical soil and plant processes, and plants become resistant to diseases and insects, not needing fungicides and insecticides. Nutrient density of produce is high, and product quality generally not affected by small amounts of synthetics of choice. Farming beyond thresholds, within resilient local ecosystems, is called agroecological farming, which includes Organics.

Agroecological farming is still being treated as ‘alternative’ by government institutions and academia. It receives little R&D as it works against vested interests. It has received, however, in several UN reports science-based endorsement to enable feeding the world. This without a need for Genetically Modified (GM) foods, whose long-term safety hasn’t been proven.

Consumers, supported by nutritionists, are slowly driving this process of change and create a demand for the real ‘Clean and Green’ agroecological foods: healthier with better taste and shelf life.

The Canberra Times: Scientist Maarten Stapper takes us inside his Canberra garden

We last met agricultural scientist Dr Maarten Stapper when he was working with grains at the CSIRO (Kitchen Garden, August 31, 2004). Since then, he has featured on the ABC’s Australian Story (2009), about his road into biological farming systems and withdrawal from the official world of science.

He wants to help farmers harness the power of natural soil processes to regenerate and create healthy soils, to improve the quality of food, animal feed and landscapes, and make them more resilient in a variable climate.

Read more from Goodfood, March 7, 2016 


Outback Story: Restoring the Balance

“The shift to agro-ecological farming is fundamental to the health and wellbeing of the people of our planet,” says former CSIRO scientist and now regenerative consultant Dr Maarten Stapper. “Using regenerative agriculture we can feed nine billion people with half the fertilisers and 80% less chemicals, and increase yields by half for traditional farming systems in developing countries by stimulating soil biology.”

Click here to read the full article from Outback Magazine, issue 101, June/July 2015