By Cheri‐Lynn McCabe and Sandra Bartram
Historically, soils have not received the respect nor the attention they deserve. Mechanical and biological processes have not been as well understood as they need to be because the green revolution has masked the severity of the crisis. Ironically, the green revolution was the period of time in the twentieth century during which crop yields were dramatically increased through the use of chemicals and high‐yield cropping. In addition, the degradation of soils through nutrient loss, infertility, increased salinity, erosion and desertification has been identified by the United Nations as one of the most serious threats facing humanity today. Healthy soils are as essential as clean air and water, and protecting these basic elements should be the foundation of all sustainability policies. Globally, plants provide, either directly or indirectly, 99.7% of all food calories for the planet.1 Soil conservation and management should be the top priority of all nations, and appropriately the UN has designated 2015 as the International Year of Soils.
There couldn’t have been a better way to kick off 2015 than with Dr. Elaine Ingham’s 3‐day intensive course, “The Living Soils Workshop”, hosted by Mycelium Montreal at Concordia University. This internationally acclaimed soil expert held the entire class of over 120 farmers, students, gardeners and environmentally conscious people enthralled with her contagious enthusiasm, creative demonstrations and easy‐to‐understand animations. Elaine gave a very detailed introductory course on the soil food web that was infused with an empowering message of hope. With sound scientific principles of soil ecology, proper composting techniques as well as compost tea and extract formulas, Dr. Ingham demonstrated that it is possible to halt soil degradation and re‐establish soil fertility within a very short period of time.
The course began with a comprehensive overview of soil and its ecology. Elaine emphasized the importance of a healthy soil food web and clearly outlined the difference between soil and dirt. Dirt is devoid of life, but conversely, soil is a living ecosystem that is home to a diverse collection of biota. Soil is the basic medium of transfer for nutrients and water and provides physical support to anchor roots for all terrestrial plants. Applying toxic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to soil systems decimates the fragile populations within. Elaine challenged tilling practices that began in the Fertile Crescent over 10,000 years ago and continue to this day. The constant slicing and dicing of soil organisms tends to leave these fragile ecosystems weak and sets up conditions for a diverse array of problems including bacterial and fungal pathogens, viral diseases, desertification, compaction and erosion. In addition, tilling favours weedy plants that are the first to colonize areas of disturbance. Industrial farming has developed into a tilling and chemical addiction, a dependency that is increasing difficulty to break.
potassium was sure to provide some results.” Dr. Elaine Ingham Montreal 2015
Elaine explained scientific jargon using creative parables that will remain with students long after the class was over. She creatively demonstrated the symbiotic relationship among roots, bacteria and fungi and explained the complexity of the soil food web using techniques such as parallels to the human world and well known folk stories. The words “oxygen” and “aerobic” became tangible entities that bounced off the classroom walls and permeated everyone’s consciousness. Today, many composting facilities are mistakenly producing putrefied organic matter instead of aerated compost. Disease‐causing organisms flourish in anaerobic conditions. Elaine has perfected composting techniques through many years of study and has created an easy and efficient way to create aerated compost full of beneficial bacteria, fungi and other members of the soil food web that can be tailored to specific farming requirements. Using extracts and aerated compost and
compost tea is an efficient way to successfully apply the beneficial organisms essential for a healthy ecosystem within the soil. With a tool as simple as a microscope to confirm the correct biological ratios in compost tea and extracts, anyone can easily replicate this technique. These cost‐effective methods create healthy nutrient‐dense plants that can resist pests, pathogens and disease and eliminate the need to rely on the expensive and toxic agrochemical industry.
All the answers to our most perplexing problems from eutrophication and erosion to food security and political stability are buried in the soil. Peace is not possible without food security, and food security is not possible without healthy soils. Backed by sound scientific principles, Elaine has been working hard these past few years to enlighten a new generation. Her persistence, coupled with her contagious message and the courage it takes to stand strong against the well‐entrenched practices of modern agriculture is inspirational. Everyone came away from the course charged with knowledge and hope. To learn more about this exciting topic please visit the Soil Food Web at https://www.soilfoodweb.com.
Nicholas Burtner of Schoolofpermaculture.com will be interviewing Dr. Elaine Ingham on his website, please checkout his website to see the interview time.
1. Pimentel David, Food for Thought: A Review of the Role of Energy in Current and Evolving Agriculture: Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences , Vol. 30, Iss. 1‐2, 2011