In today’s episode, we’re joined by Dr. Elaine Ingham, founder of Soil Food Web. For decades, Elaine has been working all across the world in multiple continents to improve soil quality. Turning dirt into soil ultimately improves the quality of both the food we consume and the environment in which we live.
Elaine’s passion for soil began in childhood. Her father was a veterinarian and taught her how to look for problems in the pastures. She realized the animals’ illnesses were due to their consumption of poisonous plants, connecting the dots that everything has to do with soil. She then explains a study she conducted while attending Texas A&M University on the microorganisms and digestive systems of oysters. It was found the oysters needed very specific microorganisms in their digestive tract to grow properly. Later on, while conducting her PhD research at Colorado State University, she discovered that many people in the field didn’t believe the microorganisms in the soil played any important role.
Working alongside her husband, Elaine’s research proved plants put out exudates specifically meant for certain bacteria and fungi to consume, then make the enzymes to create structure of the soil. In fact, weathering in soil is not primarily due to weather, but by fungi and bacterias. She compares the spaces around the roots of a plant to a pantry, or a place for them to store the nutrients they will need in the future. Additionally, it acts as protection from disease, pests and problem organisms, negating the need for toxic pesticides.
Elaine mentions the descriptions of plants and soil of the early European settlers who moved across the Great Plains, estimating the organic matter back then was around 50%. Now, however, organic matter constitutes less than .5%. We are truly now plagued by the consequences of turning soil into dirt for so long. The easiest way to reverse this is by composting food waste grass clippings, dead leaves and stems. Composting, if done properly, can take as little as 21 days. In order to get back to what we should be doing, we have to understand the biology of the soil.
While Elaine was working on her PhD in the late 70s, soil was still around 2-5% organic matter. Now, however, organisms are scarcely found in many places. It’s important that beneficial microorganisms stay local to conditions they are meant to tolerate. She’s noticed more people gravitating towards self sustaining, regenerative methods of farming. It’s a relatively easy process depending on the method you choose.
The United States currently has the biggest problems regarding industrial agriculture. This is because Americans have been told that the only way to be successful with farming is to keep expanding acreage and equipment. Clean water, soil and nutrients are being destroyed as a result. Without realizing, most people are likely to have nutrient deficiency. The best way to contribute to reversing this horror is by eating food that is grown regeneratively and encourage others to do the same.
If everyone in The United States started composting and using that compost in plant production, we could pull all of the elevated CO2 in the atmosphere and get it back in the soil in about 12 years. If, hypothetically, it happened worldwide, it could happen in 3-6 years. Elaine has dealt with backlash in this belief for her whole life.
0:05 – Introduction to today’s episode and guest
2:30 – How Elaine became passionate about soil
6:50 – Elaine’s PhD study at Colorado State University
12:00 – How healthy plants store nutrients and protect themselves from pests and disease
18:25 – Soil quality of early settlers vs. now
20:15 – How to begin turning dirt back into soil through composting
24:15 – The state of agriculture while Elaine was conducting her PhD research
29:30 – Are people gravitating more towards smaller regenerative farms?
30:05 – Different methods for composting
39:40 – How Soil Food Web came to be
45:00 – How to contribute and the potential if everyone got on board
52:31 – How regenerative systems increase harvest yields
Learn more about Elaine Ingham.
Visit the Soil Food Web website.
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