“Cancer prevention possible; change the way we produce our food”

Australian soil ecologist Dr. Christine Jones is among few who has understood soil biology and linked its deterioration due to extensive use of inorganic chemicals to cancer. She offers an accessible, revolutionary perspective for improving landscape health and farm productivity. Interviewed by Acres USA, Dr. Jones explains the life-giving link between carbon and healthy topsoil.

Here is what I learnt from the interview.

  • The issue we’re facing is that too much of the carbon that was once in a solid phase in the soil has become a gas. That could be dangerous for the human species. Climate change is just one aspect. Food security, the nutrient density of food and the water-holding capacity of the soil are also very potent reasons for keeping carbon in a solid phase in the soil.
  • Sugars are formed in plant chloroplasts during photosynthesis. Some of the sugars are used for growth and some are exuded into soil by plant roots to support the microbes involved in nutrient acquisition.
  • The most significant finding, at least from a human perspective, is that the flow of liquid carbon to soil is the primary pathway by which new topsoil is formed. In order for carbon to “flow” to soil, there has to be a partnership between plant roots and the soil microbes that will receive that carbon. We inadvertently blow the microbial bridge in conventional farming with high rates of synthetic fertilizers or with fungicides or other biocides.
  • Most life-forms obtain their energy either directly or indirectly from the sun, via the process of photosynthesis. Plants are what we call autotrophs. That is, they feed themselves by combining light energy with CO2 to produce biochemical energy. As heterotrophs, we obtain energy by eating plants or eating animals that ate plants. Even microbes in a compost heap are obtaining energy by breaking down organic materials originating from the process of photosynthesis.
  • We breathe out more CO2 than we breathe in, because as we utilize the energy we obtain from the assimilation of food, our cells release CO2. The decomposers in the soil are doing exactly the same thing — breaking down organic materials and releasing CO2. Rather than sugar being the end point, sugar is the start point. Soil microbes use sugars to create complex, stable forms of carbon, including humus.
  • Humus is an organo-mineral complex comprising around 60 percent carbon, between 6 and 8 percent nitrogen, plus phosphorus and sulfur. Humic molecules are linked to iron and aluminum and many other soil minerals, forming an intrinsic part of the soil matrix.
  • Phosphorus is a highly reactive element. As soon as there’s any free phosphorus floating around in the soil, including whatever we may add as fertilizer, it becomes fixed. In other words, it forms a chemical bond with another element like iron or aluminum or calcium, making it unavailable to plants. But certain bacteria produce an enzyme called phosphatase that can break that bond and release the phosphorus. Once released, the phosphorus still has to be transported back to the plant, which is where mycorrhizal fungi come in. Mycorrhizal fungi also transport a wide variety of other nutrients, including nitrogen, sulfur, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron and essential trace elements such as zinc, boron, manganese and copper. In dry times they supply water. Mycorrhizal fungi form networks between plants and colonies of soil bacteria.
  • If a plant photosynthesizes faster it’s going to have higher sugar content and a higher Brix level. Once Brix gets over 12, the plant is largely resistant to insects and pathogens. High-Brix plants have formed relationships with soil microbes able to supply trace elements and other nutrients that the plant needs for self-defense, for its immune system. When plants are able to produce high levels of plant-protection compounds, the insects go elsewhere.
  • Cultivating the soil and using chemical fertilizer and pesticides break up the mycorrhizal networks. If plants can obtain nitrogen or phosphorus easily, they will stop pumping carbon into the soil to support their microbial partners. If carbon is not flowing to soil via the liquid carbon pathway, soil deteriorates. Carbon is needed for soil structure and water-holding capacity as well as for feeding the microbes involved in nutrient acquisition. When soil loses carbon, it becomes hard and compacted.
  • If the soil is well aggregated, it will look like a handful of peas. If the soil remains in hard chunks that don’t break easily into small lumps, then it isn’t well aggregated. The aggregate is the fundamental unit of soil function. A great deal of biological activity takes place within aggregates. For the most part, this is fueled by liquid carbon. When aggregates aren’t forming — because of cultivating the soil or using chemicals or having bare soil for six months or more with no green plants — crops are not able to obtain sufficient nitrogen. The tendency is then to add fertilizer nitrogen, exacerbating the situation.
  • Nitrogen fixing bacteria produce ammonia, a form of inorganic nitrogen, inside soil aggregates and rhizosheaths which are protective cylinders that form around plant roots. They’re basically a bunch of soil particles held together by plant root exudates. You can easily strip them off with your fingers. Within these biologically active environments the ammonia is rapidly converted into an amino acid or incorporated into a humic polymer. These organic forms of nitrogen cannot be leached or volatilized. Amino acids can be transferred into plant roots by mycorrhizal fungi and joined together by the plant to form a complete protein.
  • Inorganic nitrogen applied as fertilizer often ends up in plants as nitrate or nitrite. Nitrates cause a range of metabolic disorders including infertility, mastitis, laminitis and liver dysfunction. There is also a strong link between nitrate and cancer. Milk can also have nitrate levels above the safe drinking standard, but people happily consume it, not realizing it’s unhealthy.
  • The first rule for turning hard, compacted soil into loose, fragrant soil teeming with life is to keep the soil covered, preferably with living plants, all year round. Aggregates will break down unless the soil is alive. Aggregation is absolutely vital for moisture infiltration and retention.
  • Maximize diversity in both cover crops and cash crops. Aim for a good mix of broadleaf plants and grass-type plants and include as many different functional groups as possible. Diversity above ground will correlate with diversity below ground.
  • Minimize the use of synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, insecticides and herbicides. There are countless living things in soil that we don’t even have names for, let alone an understanding of their role in soil health.
  • In Australia many farmers plant seeds treated with fungicide “just in case.” They’re actually preventing the plant from forming the beneficial associations that it needs in order to protect itself. After a few weeks of crop growth, they will then apply a “preventative” fungicide, which also finds its way to the soil, inhibiting the soil fungi that are essential to crop nutrition and soil building. The irony is that plants are then unable to obtain the trace elements they need to fight fungal diseases.
  • Not that long ago the cancer rate was around one in 100. Now we’re pretty close to one in two people being diagnosed with cancer. At the current rate of increase, it won’t be long before nearly every person will contract cancer during their lifetimes.
  • It’s not just the toxins in our food that are the problem, but the use of biocides — chemicals that kill living organisms — which reduce the nutrient content of food. If the plant-microbe bridge has been blown, it’s not possible for us to obtain the trace elements our bodies need in order to prevent cancer — and a range of other metabolic disorders.
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  • We’re ingesting chemical residues, but not the trace elements and phytonutrients we need for an effective immune response. Plants need trace elements, like copper and zinc, to make these phytonutrients.
  • Cover-crop enthusiasts are experimenting with 60 or 70 different species in their mixes. The trend to polyculture is the most significant breakthrough in the history of modern agriculture.
  • Sometimes when farmers realize the importance of soil biology they immediately stop using fertilizers and chemicals. This is not necessarily a good thing. It takes time for soil microbial populations to re-establish. Include some clovers or peas with your wheat, or vetch with your corn — just on one part of the field. This reduces the risk. When farmers see that they’ve gained rather than lost yield — and that the crop looks healthier — they will be inspired to try a larger area and a greater variety of companion plants next time.
  • Plant a multi-species cover crop on part of the land that would normally be devoted to a cash crop. Once the diversity ramps up, the ladybirds and lacewings and predatory wasps appear and the need for insecticides falls away. And after heavy rain, it’s obvious that water has infiltrated better in the parts of the field where the cover crops were.
  • An easy way to transition is to reduce the amount of nitrogen applied by around 20 percent the first year, another 30 percent the next and then another 30 percent the year after. At the same time as reducing fertilizer inputs it’s absolutely vital to support soil biology with the presence of a wide diversity of plants for as much of the year as possible.
  • Another way to gradually reduce fertilizer inputs is to use foliar fertilizers rather than drilling fertilizer under the seed. Foliar-applied trace minerals can also help during transition. These can be tank-mixed with biology-friendly products such as vermi-liquid, compost extract, fish hydrolysate, milk or seaweed extract. Whichever path you choose to support soil biology, the overall aim is for soil function to improve every year. The overuse of synthetic fertilizers will have the opposite effect.
  • A team of University of Illinois researchers investigated how the fertilization regimes that were commenced in these plots in 1955 discovered that the fields that had received the highest applications of nitrogen fertilizer had ended up with less soil carbon — and ironically less nitrogen — than the other fields. The researchers concluded that adding nitrogen fertilizer stimulated the kind of bacteria that break down the carbon in the soil. The reason there is less nitrogen in the soil even though more has been applied is that carbon and nitrogen are linked together in organic matter. If carbon is decomposing, then the soil will also be losing nitrogen. They decompose together.
  • In most of our agricultural soils, we have far more bacteria than fungi. The good news is that farmers use multi-species cover crops, companion crops, pasture cropping and other polycultures — and the ranchers who manage their perennial grasses with high density short duration grazing accompanied by appropriate rest periods — are moving their soils toward fungal dominance. When you scoop up the soil, it has that lovely composty, mushroomy sort of smell that indicates good fungal levels.
  • The focus needs to be on transforming every farm that’s currently a net carbon source into a net carbon sink. If all farmland sequestered more carbon than it was losing, atmospheric CO2 levels would fall at the same time as farm productivity and watershed function improved. This would solve the vast majority of our food production, environmental and human health problems.
  • Many scientists have confused themselves — and the general public — by assuming soil carbon sequestration occurs as a result of the decomposition of organic matter such as crop residues. In so doing, they have overlooked the major pathway for the restoration of topsoil. Activating the liquid carbon pathway requires that photosynthetic capacity be optimized. There are many and varied ways to achieve this.
  • Compost is certainly a fantastic product, but compost alone is not enough. It will eventually decompose, releasing CO2. However, the application of compost to appropriately grazed pastures or polyculture crops can increase plant growth and photosynthetic rate, resulting in more liquid carbon flowing to soils. Diverse microbial populations — particularly fungi — supported by the compost, can aid in humification, improving soil structure, water-holding capacity and nutrient availabilities.
  • The use of natural plant or seaweed extracts as biostimulants is a relatively new but rapidly expanding area of R&D and farmer-adoption worldwide. The advantage of biostimulants is that they function at very low rates of application — milliliters per hectare — as opposed to a product such as compost which needs to be applied in tons per hectare. These products stimulate soil biota and enhance plant root function. The proliferation of roots is quite obvious when you dig in the soil. There can also be rapid improvements in soil structure.

For more visit http://www.amazingcarbon.com


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