Microbes, Medicine, and Agriculture

“It’s time for a new, conservation-minded view of the microbial communities that live on and in us”

With this tagline, an article in the current issue of American Scientist nicely captures an argument that is fundamental to organic farming, though the authors never directly make the connection to agriculture. The piece describes the complex interactions of microbial activity within the human body, a system medical science is only beginning to really understand. A series of fascinating details emerges through the piece, discussing the incredibly specialized microbial communities (“The skin on our right forearm, for example, harbors a different microbial community than that of our left forearm”) that work together to produce a functioning whole.

Once establishing the importance of these communities, the authors go on to discuss their fragility, and how easily the human body’s functions can be disrupted if the microbial community is disturbed. Naturally, this leads to a discussion of the role antibiotics play:

“Because antibiotics kill bacteria indiscriminately, collateral damage far exceeds target destruction, and our microbial supporting cast is decimated in pursuit of the pathogen. Under the old view of human-microbe interactions, we accepted this collateral damage as a small cost to pay for ridding ourselves of bacteria. Under our proposed ecological model, however, we can understand that we no longer need to destroy the village in order to save it. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are properly seen as agents of major perturbation. Recent studies make clear that antibiotic exposure reduces the diversity of resident microbial communities and makes it easier for pathogens to invade.”

The basic argument being made here is very applicable to agriculture as well. Soil, too, is a very complex chemical and biological system, hosting an incredible diversity of microbial life that is integral to balancing and maintaining soil health. At the core of organic agricultural methods is the principle that nature has created a very dynamic, stable system that we are best off supporting rather than replacing. Instead of reducing soil and plant nutrition to just a few key elements (N-K-P), organic agriculture seeks to maintain the soil as close to a natural condition as possible. Instead of relying on herbicides and pesticides to eliminate all problems, organic agriculture seeks to maintain a healthy balance of pest and predator. In the same way that it’s worth being sick now and then to strengthen the immune system, it’s worth having some pests and weeds because they’re integral to the larger health of the soil and the ecosystem. I’ve seen many reports that medical researchers feel people are weakening their immune systems due to over-reliance on drugs; the same dynamic happens in soil that is regularly disturbed, sterilized, and chemically imbalanced by artificial inputs and treatments.

In addition, the over-use of artificial substances (whether antibiotics or farm chemicals) can actually be directly counter-productive by encouraging the development of resistant strains of bacteria, weeds, or pests. No spray can kill 100% of all pests or weeds, just as no drug can destroy 100% of harmful bacteria. The inevitable result is the survival of the few individuals whose genetics gave them more resistance, and over time these strains can become far more problematic than the original concern. This is actively happening in both the medical and agricultural worlds.

The author notes that “In much of the developed world, and certainly in the United States, we appear determined to make the planet microbe-free. The advertising, pharmaceutical and home-products industries have tried to persuade the public that every microbe is the enemy. But the more we learn about the biological world, the less this perspective makes sense.” The same dynamic is present in agriculture, and the result is ever-more reliance on artificial inputs as the natural ability of the soil and ecosystem to maintain a healthy balance is undercut.

I could go on for pages (I haven’t even touched on the obvious implications for antibiotic use in industrial meat production), but hopefully this demonstrates the underlying connections that can be made across the board. Organic farming is often characterized as an unscientific, pseudo-pagan, Earth-Mother belief system characterized by mythology rather than science, and this reputation is earned in some circles. However, the perspective we take is that true organic farming is deeply rational and scientific when approached with the philosophy outlined in this article; that we are best off understanding and working with the complex natural systems already available, rather than attempting to engineer a new reality without understanding what we’re replacing.

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