Two distinct yet analogous food systems, both of which are beginning to surface at the mass-consciousness level, seem worthy of our attention: the human microbiome (those trillions of microbes living inside you, principally in your gut) and its role in individual-system health; and the soil microbiome and its role in farm-system health.
From the Oxford Farming Conference last year, Dr. Elaine Ingham described the symphony of organisms (bacteria, fungi and protozoa, for three), organic matter, sand, silt, clay, rocks and pebbles that comprise a healthy soil ecosystem. Beyond its role in supporting nutrient-dense plant life for us to eat, Graeme Sait explains how humus acts as “soil glue” to strengthen land against erosion and dust storms, and as a storage system for carbon, water and minerals.
Few of us understand this world. Only 2 percent of the U.S. population farms to feed us and not all those farmers subscribe to a “natural” approach to land management. Regardless, what is becoming clear is that “natural” is in fact highly complicated, sophisticated and interconnected. “We are the gardeners of this planet,” said Ingram. “Our job is not to extract, not to destroy, but to maintain natural interactions.”
At TEDMED in 2012, Joel Salatin described “a community of beings, this invisible world in the soil—and we have trillions of them inside of us!” Indeed, as pesticides are to the soil (killers of pests but also of symbiotic allies)—so antibiotics can be to the societies of our guts. And yet, equally, interest in the gut world is relatively new and unfathomed. In June 2012, Scientific American put the human microbiome on its cover. The following spring, Michael Pollan joined the conversation with his Some of My Best Friends Are Germs. Locally, Janssen (one of Johnson & Johnson’s pharmaceutical companies) launched its Human Microbiome Institute in Kendall Square, Cambridge in February 2015.
Both these invisible worlds call for our curiosity and wonder. Humus, human and humility all share the same root, Sait points out.
What is unfortunate is that such food issues—the ones that deeply matter when it comes to our inner and outer webs of life—don’t receive the mainstream media or entrepreneurial attention that they deserve. “Cupcakes are sexier than carbon sequestration,” writer Eve Turow commented to me (a few weeks before penning her How Millennials Faked the Food Movement). “And much easier to understand.”
This Examiner hopes that our penchant for navel-gazing may lead us to see the parallels between our own bellies and the land that feeds us, and in the process sensitize us to the plight of the planet’s soils, under assault all across the earth.
And in case this sounds a little too Kumbaya, then let’s turn to Monsanto, which last month announced its plans to invest more seriously in microbes over chemicals. Chief Technology Officer Robb Fraley: “[As] the human microbiome has been a breakthrough for human medicine, I think the crop microbiome will become a breakthrough for crop production.”
UPDATE: On May 13, the White House announced the launch of a National Microbiome Initiative. Yogurt giant Dannon is leading the industry-funded charge.