Developing disease suppressive soil
Diseases and insects only become a problem when plants are unhealthy, lacking nutritional integrity and microbiome integrity. The tools of nutrition management and microbiome management are so effective, they have been and are used as management protocols for bio warfare weapons mitigation.
From the Regenerative Agriculture Podcast with Michael McNeill:
John: Michael, we’ve been circling around this topic of soil health and the impacts of tillage, herbicides, animal manures, cover crops, and so forth. At the beginning, you mentioned that there’s a correlation between soil health and the diseases that are present. You mentioned some work you were doing in Maryland—studying diseases as a weapon. What did you learn from that experience? And how does all of that tie into what we’re talking about?
Michael: Let’s say you want to use a fungal disease as a weapon—that you can get this disease introduced into the soil. Not only does it kill a crop this year—it’ll continue to kill it into future years. So hey, that’s a pretty good weapon—you shut down a people’s food supply. They have a problem.
Well, if you have good pseudomonas bacteria in the soil, they act as a policeman in the soil, if you will, and they’ll take out the pathogenic fungi that can arise. But if you use products like glyphosate—that’s an antibiotic type of product—you’re going to kill all the pseudomonas, and then you have no protection. And it’s very easy to get a huge population of fusarium going in the soil, which probably is a pathogenic fusarium—or pythium or phytophthora. You’ve lost the natural balance. If you have that balance, though, the pathogenic fungi are not going to do much to you. Your good bacteria will clean it right up.
John: So you can actually have a disease-suppressive soil where you don’t have challenges with those pathogenic fungi. I think I also heard you mention that you were working on developing solutions to those diseases as weapons. What were the types of solutions that you were working on?
Michael: There are all kinds of approaches. If you need a fast cure, of course you’ve got to look at chemistry and the fungicides and that sort of thing. But what you find is that if you get the soil contaminated, how do you fix it? Because if you put anything on it, you’re going to kill everything in the soil. Using a soil sterilizer is not necessarily a great idea. But there is microbial life in the soil that will hold everything in balance. And if you have the right nutrition available, everything will take care of itself.
I’ll use you as an analogy, John. If your nutrition gets pretty poor, you’re going to get pretty run down, and you’re going to be very susceptible to all kinds of diseases. Would you agree?
John: Oh, I think that’s just the story of the people who are trying to sell me supplements. (Sarcasm, I take many supplements, and believe they are important.)
Michael: That’s funny—but when that occurs, you can take this supplement or this drug to prevent the disease, but you’re still improperly nourished. You’re going to get another disease, and then you’re going to get another disease. But if you get your nutrition back and properly balanced, and everything is at the correct level, your immune system starts to function properly. A good share of your immune system is in your digestive tract—there are a lot of microbes working for you.
And the soil is no different. You get those microbes working for you, you’re going to stay healthy. The soil is going to stay healthy, and so are the plants.
John: Are you saying that when you manage the nutritional balance of the soil and the microbial population of the soil, that it’s possible to grow crops that don’t have disease?
Michael: Yes. When a plant is perfectly healthy, it’s very hard to get a disease to invade it, and an insect will not even stop to look at it. Why is that? It’s because an unhealthy plant cannot convert the sugars it’s produced into complex sugars—starches and lignin—which insects and diseases can’t use. They can use simple sugars and the nitrate nitrogen in the plant. The nitrate nitrogen is taken up by the plant, and it’s immediately converted into amino acids and proteins in a healthy plant. An unhealthy plant—a plant that does not have the right mineral balance to make all those processes and cycles work—will have a pretty heavy load of nitrate in it—a fantastic food for the insect. They can detect that, and they will land on that plant and feed on it. Disease and insects are Mother Nature’s garbage collectors—getting rid of the bad stuff, the weak plants.