Healthy Food from Healthy Soils, GMO not a Solution

Consumers are becoming aware of the good taste and health benefits of organic food and demand is increasing. Organic farmers and gardeners recognise negative factors in our industrialising food production systems. They actively undertake soil fertility management by improving soil biology and soil organic carbon.

Carbon is of critical importance and needs to be maximised either through capture by green plants and or by being supplied by compost. Soil carbon works for us in two ways, firstly by improving soil fertility and secondly by slowing climate change through lowering carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere. Before we can hope to improve systems, however, we need to understand:

  1. Why they are the way they are.
  2. How science and practice can help to actively manage soil biology to improve and maintain soil fertility, and to achieve more sustainable and productive food production systems.

This raises the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMO). GMOs can be seen as scientific short-term solutions that treat symptoms of problems, don’t receive proper safety testing and thus create long-term problems.Minerals and microbes are the key in both human health and soil health. Over the past 60 years, mineral density of foods has declined to less than half of former levels. Genuine differences have been found between nutrient content of organic and conventional [] – improvements which could be even greater if all organic crops were actively managed with microbes and minerals. Real medicine must start with our diet and food preparation, least refined and processed [].

The long recommended use of fertilisers, pesticides and other synthetic chemicals to address problems in our agricultural production has been leading to compromised food quality, soil degradation, animal health problems and resistant insects, diseases and weeds. Soluble nitrogen fertiliser makes plants more susceptible to diseases and insects, and increases weed problems, all requiring more sprays. Resistance is then nature’s answer, a genetic adjustment to adapt to changed conditions, to withstand the next attack. Chemicals are tested one-by-one for their safety by regulators. However, what about the impacts of manifold long-term use and chemical cocktails in soil and food?{mospagebreak}

Current recommended practices continue with the use of harsh synthetics and ignore the delicate balance of humus, microbes, trace minerals and nutrients in the soil. Such management has resulted in marked losses in soil organic carbon (including humus) and greatly reduced diversity and abundance of microbes (eg. algae, bacteria, fungi) and larger organisms (eg. mites, beetles, worms) in the soil foodweb [].

Modern farming methods have reduced the essential layer of humus in the topsoil. This layer functions as a sponge for water and nutrient retention, while the associated soil micro-organisms power the recycling of nutrients – acting together to prevent leaching and loss of resources for plant growth. Loss of organic carbon and disruption of soil biology leads to problems, such as:

  • compaction
  • reduced infiltration and water holding capacity
  • erosion
  • soil borne diseases
  • nutrient deficiencies
  • salinity

The petrochemical solution is not working – all such production systems in the world are on a treadmill, needing more and more chemicals and fertilisers to maintain yields as natural soil processes are increasingly weakened in their role of supporting plant growth. This makes soils and plants more and more dependent on inputs being supplied from bag and drum. It is difficult to stop this addiction.

Some scientists are now proposing GMO as the solution for many of the problems – risking yet another oversimplification in our fragmented agricultural science, a ‘techno-fix’ with more band-aids over the real cause of our problems which is degrading soils. A foreign gene is inserted in the DNA of a host to deliver a special function. However, the foreign gene is unstable and single genes are but a small part in the complex system of nature with its cyclical processes towards adaptation. Genes are interacting and switching on or off due to circumstance.{mospagebreak}

Tolerance to drought, salinity and frosts? Increased nutritional value? These promises have been made since the start of genetic engineering but the only GMO crops that have been grown commercially are those with herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. The production of both types has resulted in problems on farms with the arrival of resistant weeds and new pests. Fertility of farm animals is also affected [].

There is no published science giving us long-term, generational answers regarding environmental and food safeties of GMO. Unofficial reports show gut, liver and fertility damage in rats and mice fed with GMO food. GMO is a commercial venture needing markets in the shortest possible time. Federal regulators seem willing partners. GMO is a short-term solution with long-term costs []. Progress on GM wheat has been halted because of safety worries even in the USA.

Where can we go? The modern scientist specializes and, as a result, knows more and more about less and less. Focusing too intensely on single, isolated components of the bigger “real-world” system means we are blind to larger cycles and patterns within which component parts exist. In this way, the biological sciences themselves fragment our understanding by creating false divisions that break the cycle of life. New problems keep emerging as each of them is dealt with as a single issue, resulting in partial solutions.

We can’t understand a system by combining the available knowledge of component single issues. That is, the holistic whole is not the sum of reductionist detail. If agricultural research is to deliver anything approaching sustainability, therefore, we need to change the way we do science. Or as Albert Einstein said: “No problem will be solved with the same level of thinking that created it in the first place”.{mospagebreak}

In quantum physics, non-linearity is now well accepted; so surely it should not be so hard to accept non-linearity in biological systems. But, we have not yet learned to measure (or at least sense) the important differences to which even the simplest component organisms in a complex system respond.  Even our domestic cats and dogs know when to walk away from non-nutritious food without even tasting it.

We have to return to plants being fed by soil which creates internal resistance to insects and diseases, and produces mineral-dense food. In a balanced system, plant roots are colonized by benevolent soil micro-organisms that feed on plant root exudates, and in return deliver nutrients in plant-available form and protect roots from pathogens.

Biological systems are non-linear and massively interconnected. GM technology cannot provide the answers as plants interact strongly with a complex soil biology as influenced by soil, water and nutrients, climate and management. Increased complexity and diversity of organisms and interactions within the soil foodweb allows the establishment of a living, self-organising, re-generating, healthy soil, which results in higher plant productivity.

Biological farming is the gradual transition from the current industrial agriculture towards organic during which a healthy soil is recreated. If chemicals are needed as a last resort, only fertilizers and herbicides with the least impact on soil are used in small amounts, in conjunction with additives to make input more effective and to boost surviving microbes. In most districts today, there are properties applying such farming practices with resulting productivities above district average. These practices have been achieved by persistence, through trial and error, under financial pressure, and on fragile soils in our highly variable climate.{mospagebreak}

Companies now supply biological inputs (ie compost tea, worm juice) with which the transition can be supported. The aim is to balance minerals, provide a food source for the soil biology and, by increasing their activity, to improve calcium and phosphorus availability, nitrogen fixation, decomposition of crop residues, and the health of plants and grazing animals without reliance on chemicals or drugs. This is aided by soil tests assessing biological rather than chemical availability of elements.

Organic-biological farming methods that improve soil are beneficial on a landscape and catchment scale. They result in farming systems that stimulate biodiversity, stabilise the soil and balance the hydrology, thereby reducing off-farm impacts. Trees are an important component of the soil food web and as shelterbelts in our dry, wind-swept continent. There are examples in many districts where farmers have converted a proportion (say 10%) of their property to trees and wetlands (often from say 0.5%), resulting in improved productivity and decreased sensitivity to droughts.

Practice is way ahead of science. Science is still not supporting organic-biological farming principles. If we have learned anything from the Green Revolution, it is that the next successful modernisation in agriculture will be through eco-technology, where farming works with, not against, nature. Nature confronts us with complex systems, with intricate food webs, and with a myriad of dynamic visible and invisible interdependencies – confirming the need for agricultural research to move to a holistic approach. We can feed the world using organic-biological farming techniques.

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