Honour the Microbes and don’t Kick the Cow

Why is it that one carrot just tastes ho-hum and another carrot seems to explode with flavour in your mouth? What’s going on? Aren’t they both just carrots? In short, your ‘wow’ response to the flavourful carrot is your body’s way of telling you to focus on getting more of that item into your mouth. 

Flavour is a powerful indicator of the mineral and antioxidant content of food. Flavour sets up a positive feedback loop encouraging us to seek out that produce to more fully nourish ourselves. Flavour tends to equate with nutrient density. Nutrient density is shorthand for foods with high levels of health-giving minerals and complex plant compounds that contain the vitamins and molecules we need for building all aspects of our bodies with nutritional integrity. With the exception of the purposefully addictive, processed variety, food tastes good because it is good for us. 

This is in large part why children tend to not like vegetables. Most of the vegetables they are served are flavourless and low in vitamin and mineral content… they lack nutrient density. This is a practical, at-the-dinner-table manifestation of the decline in nutrient density that has rapidly accelerated over the last 100 years. In part, it is a result of massive hybridisation of our commercial seeds, but mostly it’s because of how we are fertilising and managing our agricultural soils. We can turn this around and for the sake of our health we’re best to get on with it pronto. In the New Zealand context it is a precious opportunity to further excel.

Fasten your seatbelts for a brief biology lesson. If you want to change a system wisely, you need to understand how it functions. The element, microbe, plant, energy cycles that underpin agriculture are complex. That’s a good thing. We just need to get a snapshot of how the parts of the ag ecosystem can fit together for optimal quality, production and environmental integrity.

Plants and microbes have a marvellously complex relationship. All plants need some form of microbial assistance in order to access their nourishment and defend themselves. We have to get over our aversion to ‘germs’ and realise that diverse, robust microbe communities are crucial for flavourful, healthy produce and meat. The microbiome is also pivotal for our own gut and mental health. Microbes are our ancestors and we alienate them at our peril. Microbes rule the roost on this planet so we should understand their roles better.

There is an ecological continuum of microbe species from zones populated mostly by bacteria (lava flows and hot pools) where little plant biomass is created, to fungal dominated zones (old growth forests) where plant biomass is the highest. Where we farm and eat is in the zone of about equal numbers of bacteria to fungi in our soils, with a leaning towards more fungi than bacteria when we grow vines, bushes or fruit trees. High fungal numbers are a sign of good soil health and are needed to create humus and long storage carbon in our soils. So, fungi can play an important role in reducing greenhouse gases.

All ecosystems have a tendency to move from bacterial to fungal dominance. Where we, the weather or animals disrupt soil and remove plant cover, the balance shifts toward bacteria and that’s when weedy plants take over. Weeds aren’t inevitable, they’re simply indicators of soil health and nature’s way of trying to re-establish fungal dominance in the soils. Spraying herbicides only makes things worse as fungi are particularly sensitive to ag chemicals. 

A particularly important class of fungi to our creation of food with flavour are the mycorrhizal fungi that can set up miles of interconnecting filaments, hyphae, that act like a water and mineral freeway as well as a plant communication internet. Fungal hyphae networks do actually transport compounds between plants that can be 100s of metres apart. These fungi enable mutually supportive, complex relationships between plants of completely different species. The more different species that get connected on this grid, the more productive and resilient those plants will be and the more carbon will be sequestered in the form of humus. 

Humus is the world’s most complex molecule. So complex, in fact, that we don’t have a standard test for it and tend to use soil carbon content as a surrogate measurement for humus. However, testable or no, humus formation is the best determinant of ecosystem function and whether we’re headed in the right direction with our soils and ag products. No humus means little mineral storage is occurring, soil is hardening and microbes are malnourished. This means the plants we are cultivating won’t have their minerals delivered to them by microbes in the optimal, colloidal form and thus plants won’t have all the complex building blocks they need for photosynthesis, when and how they need them. 

Never underestimate the importance of photosynthesis. Seeing as it is the basis of all life on the planet, we need to ensure that the plants we grow have everything they need to optimize their photosynthetic capacity. Microbes, fungi in particular, are crucial to productive, disease free plants that do lots of photosynthesis. High levels of photosynthesis mean plants have lots of energy and minerals for changing glucose into starches, starches into amino acids, into complete proteins, into fats and ultimately into complex plant secondary metabolites (PSMs).  


Source: Pure Advantage

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