Time to Remake your Soil

Current soil tests are designed by fertilizer sales groups who want you to buy more potash. We need real tests that demonstrate how good (or not) your soil is. Especially if we’re going to add sewer sludge to farms.

Microbes Will Feed the World, or Why Real Farmers Grow Soil, Not Crops

By Brian Barth on April 22, 2014

Out on the horizon of agriculture’s future, an army 40,000 strong is marching towards a shimmering goal. They see the potential for a global food system where pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers are but relics of a faded age.

They are not farmers, but they are working in the name of farmers everywhere. Under their white lab coats their hearts beat with a mission to unlock the secrets of the soil — making the work of farmers a little lighter, increasing the productivity of every field and reducing the costly inputs that stretch farmers’ profits as thin as a wire.

The American Society of Microbiologists (ASM) recently released a treasure trove of their latest research and is eager to get it into the hands of farmers. Acknowledging that farmers will need to produce 70 to 100 percent more food to feed the projected 9 billion humans that will inhabit the earth by 2050, they remain refreshingly optimistic in their work. The introduction to their latest report states:

“Producing more food with fewer resources may seem too good to be true, but the world’s farmers have trillions of potential partners that can help achieve that ambitious goal. Those partners are microbes.”

Mingling with Microbes

Linda Kinkel of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Plant Pathology was one of the delegates at ASM’s colloquium in December 2012, where innovators from science, agribusiness and the USDA spent two days sharing their research and discussing solutions to the most pressing problems in agriculture.

“We understand only a fraction of what microbes do to aid in plant growth,” she says. “But the technical capacity to categorize the vast unknown community [of microorganisms] has improved rapidly in the last couple of years.”

Microbiologists have thoroughly documented instances where bacteriafungi, nematodes — even viruses — have formed mutually beneficial associations with food plants, improving their ability to absorb nutrients and resist drought, disease and pests. Microbes can enable plants to better tolerate extreme temperature fluctuations, saline soils and other challenges of a changing climate. There is even evidence that microbes contribute to the finely-tuned flavors of top-quality produce, a phenomenon observed in strawberries in particular.

“But we’re only at the tip of the iceberg,” says Kinkel.

In the Field

Statements such as, “There are 10 to the 6th fungal organisms in a gram of soil!” and, “This bacterial biofilm has tremendous communication properties!” are breakroom banter among microbiologists, but what does it all mean for farmers? The answers reach back into the millennial past of agriculture, back to the dawn of life on earth.

Whenever a seed germinates in the wild or a crop is planted by a farmer, the microbial community that helps that species to grow and thrive is mobilized. Chemical signals enter the soil via the exudates of the plant and a symphony of underground activity commences. Genetic information is exchanged; the various microbial players assume their positions on the tissues of the plant; often, one microbe colonizes another, providing a service that helps the first microbe to assist the plant whose roots it is embedded in.

Though this elaborate dance takes place without any input from humans, we have been tinkering with it for a long time.

For example, the process of nitrogen fixation in plants of the legume family (which includes beans, peas, peanuts and many other crop plants) is one of the little bacterial miracles that makes our planet habitable. Anyone who has ever observed the roots of a legume knows that they are covered in strange white or pinkish growths, about the size of ants, which appear to be an infection of some sort. Undoubtedly, ancient farmers had an intuitive understanding that these warty protuberances had something to do with the noticeable ability of legumes to improve the soil, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the mystery began to unfold.

While Louis Pasteur was discovering how to preserve milk and becoming famous as the father of microbiology, a relatively unknown colleague of his with a penchant for plants was making another discovery, of perhaps even greater historical importance. In 1888, Martinus Beijerinck, discovered that tiny bacteria called Rhizobia infect the roots of legumes, causing the swollen nodules. Rather than an infection that weakens the plant, the nodules are the fertilizer factories of the plant kingdom, disassembling atmospheric nitrogen — which plants are unable to use — and refashioning it in a soluble, plant-friendly form.

Rhizobia are key ingredients of the earth’s verdancy and harnessing the bacteria to improve soil fertility has long been one of the cornerstones of sustainable agriculture. Yet, modern day microbiologists are now aware of scores of other equally profound plant-microbe interactions, discoveries they believe will have a big impact as human populations continue to soar on a planet of finite resources.

Making the Translation

In her lab at the university, Kinkel experiments with antibiotic bacteria that suppress plant pathogens and tests various soil management strategies to see their effects on microbial communities. In Colombia, microbiologists have learned to propagate a fungus that colonizes cassava plants and increases yields up to 20 percent. Its hyphae — the tiny tentacles of fungi — extend far beyond the roots of the cassava to unlock phosphorus, nitrogen and sulfur in the soil and siphon it back to their host, like an IV of liquid fertilizer.

Though microbiologists can coerce soil to produce extraordinary plant growth in their labs and test plots, transferring the results to everyday agricultural practices is not a straightforward process.

“Connections to farmers are a weak link,” Kinkel laments, alluding to a “snake oil effect” where farmers have become leery of salesmen hawking microbial growth enhancers that don’t pan out in the field. “The challenge of [these] inoculants,” she says, “is they may not translate in all environments.”

Though researchers continue to develop promising new microbial cocktails, there is an increased focus on guiding farmers to better steward the populations that already exist in their soil. Kinkel is working on an approach she believes will help farmers sustain optimal microbial communities by ensuring they have the food they need — carbon — at all times. She calls it ‘slow release carbon’, but it’s not something farmers will see in supply catalogs anytime soon. Kinkel says she has access to resources for her academic research, but lacks a “deliberate pipeline for product development.”

It Takes a Global Village

The 26 experts from around the world convened at the ASM colloquium concluded their discussions with a bold goal for the future of agriculture: They’ve challenged themselves to bring about a 20 percent increase in global food production and a 20 percent decrease in fertilizer and pesticide use over the next 20 years.

With an indomitable belief that science will do its part to make this dream a reality, the scientists are looking to their corporate and regulatory counterparts to build a pipeline of information to farmers. They’re hoping that top-down investments in research and technology will meet directly with grassroots changes in the culture of farming — without all the snake oil-vending agribusiness interests in the middle. Ultimately, they envision a future where farmers again trust in the unseen forces of the soil — instead of the fertilizer shed — for answers to their challenges.

RelatedPlants and AnimalsmicrobesSoil

 

 

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Organics: the gutting floor

The NY Times has put together an interesting documentary text by Stephanie Strom of how the big corporations are gutting the organic movement. One needs to keep Rodale’s Organic Manifesto at hand for the context, but these facts and opinions are useful.

Canada’s government of course is just playing toady to the multinationals by accepting almost everything the US does: in the name of “free” trade. Here are the sole exceptions: (ref: http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/organic-products/equivalence-arrangements/us-overview/eng/1328068925158/1328069012553 )

Imports from the United States into Canada

  1. Agricultural products produced with the use of sodium nitrate shall not be sold or marketed as organic in Canada.
  2. Agricultural products produced by hydroponic or aeroponic production methods shall not be sold or marketed as organic in Canada.
  3. Agricultural products derived from animals must be produced according to livestock stocking rates as set out in CAN/CGSB-32.310-2006-32.310-2006 (amended October 2008).

Exports to the United States from Canada

  1. Agricultural products derived from animals treated with antibiotics shall not be marketed as organic in the United States.

Thus, 99% of the dubious decisions and buyouts described in the excepts below apply to all US “organic” food sold in Canada. We have passed effective legislative approvals for this field  to the US.

*************excerpts******************
Michael J. Potter is one of the last little big men left in organic food.

More than 40 years ago, Mr. Potter bought into a hippie cafe and “whole earth” grocery here that has since morphed into a major organic foods producer and wholesaler, Eden Foods.

But one morning last May, he hopped on his motorcycle and took off across the Plains to challenge what organic food — or as he might have it, so-called organic food — has become since his tie-dye days in the Haight district of San Francisco.

The fact is, organic food has become a wildly lucrative business for Big Food and a premium-price-means-premium-profit section of the grocery store. The industry’s image — contented cows grazing on the green hills of family-owned farms — is mostly pure fantasy. Or rather, pure marketing. Big Food, it turns out, has spawned what might be called Big Organic.

Bear Naked, Wholesome & Hearty, Kashi: all three and more actually belong to the cereals giant Kellogg. Naked Juice? That would be PepsiCo, of Pepsi and Fritos fame. And behind the pastoral-sounding Walnut Acres, Healthy Valley and Spectrum Organics is none other than Hain Celestial, once affiliated with Heinz, the grand old name in ketchup.

Over the last decade, since federal organic standards have come to the fore, giant agri-food corporations like these and others — Coca-Cola, Cargill, ConAgra, General Mills, Kraft and M&M Mars among them — have gobbled up most of the nation’s organic food industry. Pure, locally produced ingredients from small family farms? Not so much anymore.

All of which riles Mr. Potter, 62. Which is why he took off in late May from here [Michigan] for Albuquerque, where the cardinals of the $30-billion-a-year organic food industry were meeting to decide which ingredients that didn’t exactly sound fresh from the farm should be blessed as allowed ingredients in “organic” products. Ingredients like carrageenan, a seaweed-derived thickener with a somewhat controversial health record. Or synthetic inositol, which is manufactured using chemical processes.

Mr. Potter was allowed to voice his objections to carrageenan for three minutes before the group, the National Organic Standards Board.

“Someone said, ‘Thank you,’ ” Mr. Potter recalls.

And that was that.

Two days later, the board voted 10 to 5 to keep carrageenan on the growing list of nonorganic ingredients that can be used in products with the coveted “certified organic” label. To organic purists like Mr. Potter, it was just another sign that Big Food has co-opted — or perhaps corrupted — the organic food business.

“The board is stacked,” Mr. Potter says. “Either they don’t have a clue, or their interest in making money is more important than their interest in maintaining the integrity of organics.”

He calls the certified-organic label a fraud and refuses to put it on Eden’s products.

Big businesses argue that the enormous demand for organic products requires a scale that only they can provide — and that there is no difference between big and small producers. “We’re all certified, and we all follow the same standards,” said Carmela Beck, who manages the organic program at Driscoll’s, which markets conventional and organic berries. “There is a growing need for organic products because the demand is greater than the supply.”

Many consumers may not realize the extent to which giant corporations have come to dominate organic food. Then again, giant corporations don’t exactly trumpet their role in the industry. Their financial motivation, however, is obvious. On Amazon.com, for instance, 12 six-ounce boxes of Kraft Organic Macaroni and Cheese sell for $25.32, while a dozen 7.25-ounce boxes of the company’s regular Macaroni and Cheese go for $19.64.

“As soon as a value-added aspect was established, it didn’t take long before corporate America came knocking,” Mr. Potter says. He says he gets at least one e-mail a week from someone seeking to buy Eden, which is based in Clinton, Mich., and does about $50 million a year in sales. “Companies, private equity, venture capital, even individuals,” Mr. Potter says. “The best offer I ever got came from two guys who had money from Super Glue.”

Between the time the Agriculture Department came up with its proposed regulations for the organic industry in 1997 and the time those rules became law in 2002, myriad small, independent organic companies — from Honest Tea to Cascadian Farm — were snapped up by corporate titans. Heinz and Hain together bought 19 organic brands.

Eden is one of the last remaining independent organic companies of any size, together with the Clif Bar & Company, Amy’s Kitchen, Lundberg Family Farms and a handful of others.

“In some ways, organic is a victim of its own success,” says Philip H. Howard, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, who has documented the remarkable consolidation of the organic industry. Organic food accounts for just 4 percent of all foods sold, but the industry is growing fast. “Big corporations see the trends and the opportunity to make money and profit,” he says.

BIG FOOD has also assumed a powerful role in setting the standards for organic foods. Major corporations have come to dominate the board that sets these standards.

As corporate membership on the board has increased, so, too, has the number of nonorganic materials approved for organic foods on what is called the National List. At first, the list was largely made up of things like baking soda, which is nonorganic but essential to making things like organic bread. Today, more than 250 nonorganic substances are on the list, up from 77 in 2002.

The board has 15 members, and a two-thirds majority is required to add a substance to the list. More and more, votes on adding substances break down along corporate-independent lines, with one swing vote. Six board members, for instance, voted in favor of adding ammonium nonanoate, a herbicide, to the accepted organic list in December. Those votes came from General Mills, Campbell’s Soup, Organic Valley, Whole Foods Market and Earthbound Farms, which had two votes at the time.

Big Organic lost that round. Had it prevailed, it would have been the first time a herbicide was put on the list.

Kathleen Merrigan, a deputy secretary of agriculture, disputes that corporate interests are behind the increase in nonorganic materials deemed acceptable in “organic” food. “The list is really very small,” says Ms. Merrigan. “It’s really very simplistic and headline-grabbing to throw out those sorts of critiques, but when you get down into the details, there are usually very rational and important reasons for the actions the board has taken.”

The expanding variety of organic products is partly behind the list’s growth, Ms. Merrigan says, adding that the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which governs certification, has tried to check the powers of board members. It requires, for instance, that the board reconsider each substance five years after the last approval of it — though only just a few have ever lost their status.

“Yes, there are some large organizations that make up a portion of the board, but they’re not at all a majority,” says Will Daniels, senior vice president for operations and organic integrity at Earthbound Farms Organic, one of the country’s largest organic produce processors. “Four of the 15 board members could be considered from a corporate structure, a number that means they don’t have power to do much of anything.”

Those four are Earthbound, Driscoll Strawberry Associates, Whole Foods and the Zirkle Fruit Company. Only one of them, Earthbound, has a fully organic business.

Critics say the system has never truly operated as intended. “It’s been neutered,” says Mark Kastel, director of the Cornucopia Institute, an advocacy group.

Cornucopia began taking a harder look at the history of the addition of carrageenan and other substances to the accepted organic list after a bruising battle last December over the addition of docosahexzenoic acid algae oil, or DHA, and arachidonic acid single cell oil, or ARA. Its research led to a paper titled “The Organic Watergate.”

“After DHA got onto the list, we decided to go back and look at all of the ingredients on the list,” Mr. Kastel says. “The average consumer has no idea that all these additives are going into the organic products they’re buying.”

Mr. Potter of Eden Foods was initially supportive of the government’s efforts to certify organic products. But he quickly became disenchanted. He has never sought a board appointment, for himself or anyone at Eden. “I bought into the swaddling clothes wrapped around it,” he said. “I had high hopes the law and the board would be good things because we needed standards.”

By 1996, he realized that the National Organic Program was heading in a direction he did not like. He said as much at a National Organic Standards Board meeting in Indianapolis that year, earning the permanent opprobrium of the broader organic industry. “They think I’m liberal, immature, a radical,” Mr. Potter says. “But I’m not the one debating whether organics should use genetically modified additives or nanotechnology, which is what I’d call radical.”

Charlotte Vallaeys, director of farm and food policy at Cornucopia, found that two large companies, General Mills and Dean Foods, and the vast cooperative Cropp, which sells produce under the Organic Valley brand, “have held nearly continuous influence on the board.”

Such influence is not always obvious. For instance, early members of the board from Cascadian Farms, Muir Glen and Small Planet Foods were the chief advocates for allowing synthetics into organic production. By the time synthetics made it into the final rules, passed in 2002, all three had been swallowed up by General Mills. Tracy Favre, newly appointed to the standards board, works for Holistic Management International, a nonprofit that advises clients on sustainable agriculture. Holistic Management has done work for Dean Foods to help it address criticism of production practices for its Horizon organic milk brand.

Ms. Favre referred calls to the Agriculture Department.

Cornucopia has also lodged complaints about the board’s composition with the secretary of agriculture and the department’s inspector general. Based on one of the complaints, the inspector general is looking into how materials are added to the list.

Cornucopia has challenged the appointment of Ms. Beck, the national organic program manager at Driscoll’s, to a seat that is, by law, supposed to be occupied by a farmer. Officially, “farmer” means someone who “owns or operates an organic farm.”

The Organic Foods Act calls for a board consisting of four farmers, three conservationists, three consumer representatives, a scientist, a retailer, a certification agent and two “handlers,” or representatives of companies that process organic food.

Ms. Beck works with Driscoll’s organic farmers here as well as in Mexico and Chile, helping them develop and maintain their organic systems plans. “I work with growers from as few as a couple of acres to up to hundreds of acres,” she says.

But Ms. Beck does not own or operate a farm.

In contrast, Dominic Marchese, who produces organic beef in Ohio, has tried and failed three times to win a board appointment as a farmer. “I don’t have anything against her,” Mr. Marchese says, referring to Ms. Beck. “She’s probably very smart. But how do you select someone who’s not an organic farmer to represent organic farmers?”

Driscoll’s nominated Ms. Beck for one of the handler seats — but Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, appointed her to one of the seats reserved for farmers.

Similarly, the three consumer seats have never been filled by anyone from a traditional consumer advocacy group like the Organic Consumers Association or the Consumers Union. Instead, those seats have largely gone to academics with agricultural expertise and to corporate executives.

“If you fill the slots earmarked by Congress for independent voices with corporate voices, you greatly mitigate the safeguards built into the supermajority requirement of the law,” Mr. Kastel says.

MILES V. McEVOY, deputy administrator of the National Organic Program, says that all appointments are cleared with the Agriculture Department’s general counsel. “The board is designed to have interests and for the members to have biases and represent their particular interest groups,” he said. “We are trying to make sure the board represents the diversity of the American public and of organic agriculture.”

Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director at the Organic Consumers Association, says her group has no quibbles with that goal: “I understand that there are very few 100 percent organic businesses left. But to add someone from a company like General Mills that has such a big interest in promoting genetic engineering, promoting nanotechnology, promoting a variety of things that are so antithetical to organic principles, is that really necessary to achieve diversity?”

She was referring to Katrina Heinze, a General Mills executive who was appointed to serve as a consumer representative on the board in December 2005 by Mike Johanns, the agriculture secretary at the time. The outcry over her appointment by advocates and independent organic consumers was so intense that she resigned in February 2006 — but rejoined the board late that year after Mr. Johanns appointed her to the seat designated by law for an expert in toxicology, ecology or biochemistry. During her second stint on the board, which ended last December, critics said they were shocked when she did not recuse herself from the vote to add DHA to the list, since its manufacturer sometimes uses technology licensed from General Mills in making it.

Ms. Heinze is responsible for food safety and regulatory matters at General Mills and has degrees in chemistry. She referred calls to General Mills, which in turn referred questions to the National Organic Program.

Driscoll’s was the only company that allowed an employee serving on the board to talk to The New York Times. The rest — even Cropp, the 1,400-farmer cooperative that sells more than $700 million in products, many under the Organic Valley brand — had more senior executives do the talking.

Organic purists would consider Cropp’s board representative, Wendy Fulwider, as one of the corporate executives on the board. During her tenure, Ms. Fulwider, Organic Valley’s animal-husbandry specialist, has voted almost in lock step with its corporate members, even though her vote may be supporting something Organic Valley does not allow its own members to do.

“Wendy’s a public citizen on that group and is supposed to vote what her own integrity is and not what our company’s view is,” said George Siemon, Cropp’s top executive and a former member of the organic standards board.

Ms. Fulwider surprised many observers at a board meeting in May by voting in favor of keeping carrageenan on the organic list. Before that meeting, Organic Valley was saying that it planned to find an alternative to the additive, and there is a long and active list of consumer complaints on its Web site about the cooperative’s use of it in things like heavy cream and chocolate milk.

Ms. Fuldwider has also voted to let organic egg producers give their chickens just two square feet of living space, when Cropp requires its own farmers to provide five.

Most controversially, she voted to add DHA and ARA to the list for use in baby formulas. Milk fortified with DHA commands premium prices, and Mr. Siemon said Organic Valley had to have a version of its milk with the additive “because that’s what the consumer wants.”

He said, however, that Organic Valley uses DHA derived from fish, not the variety Ms. Fulwider approved for the list. “For us, algae didn’t seem like the real deal. It’s almost like a wannabe,” Mr. Siemon says. “But hey, what do I know? I’m told all the studies showing the benefits of DHA are based on the type from fish oil, so we use the type from fish oil.”

Mr. Siemon says Organic Valley’s goal is to eliminate all additives from its products. The cooperative, for instance, is working to find a substitute for carrageenan, which it uses to prevent separation in products like cream and chocolate milk.

AMID such issues, Mr. Potter has tasked his daughter, Yvonne Sturt, to find a way to preserve Eden’s independence after he’s gone. Four of his children are now involved in the business and, he says, they must earn any control of the family company.

“People keep telling me that all the work we’re doing with organic farming and agriculture and processing, some of that could be deemed charitable work,” he says. “Maybe we should start a church.”