World-renowned soil biologist Dr. Elaine Ingham and her Soil Food Web Approach has successfully been implemented to restore ecological functions of soils on more than five million acres of farmland around the world. She joined us to share deep insights about how to ensure the continuance of life on this planet by turning to Nature and using biological vs. toxic, chemical approaches to heal and balance soil.
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Dr. Elaine Ingham’s Soil Food Web Approach is the Essence of Soil Regeneration
The UN has classified at least 40% of the Earth’s land as degraded. That figure is estimated to be somewhere between 1 billion, even up to 6 billion hectares of degraded land. Much if not most of this degradation can be attributed to human activity, particularly that of modern agriculture, its impacts & methodologies. Land degradation affects the physical health of all life, biodiversity, the nutrient cycling of plants, the quality of our air, water and food and our access to them.
World-renowned soil biologist Dr. Elaine Ingham and her Soil Food Web Approach has successfully been implemented to restore ecological functions of soils on more than five million acres of farmland around the world. She joined us to share deep insights about how to ensure the continuance of life on this planet by turning to Nature and using biological vs. toxic, chemical approaches to heal and balance soil. By working with beneficial microorganisms that inhabit the soil, we can support Nature in transforming inert, degraded dirt into life-giving soil.
Learn how freeing rivers from channelization and using biocomplete compost instead of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides can activate the immune systems of plants and restore balanced nutrient cycling of soil and water. Proper ratios of beneficial microorganisms in the soil improves our own microbiome and ensures vital, disease-free, nutrient-dense plants and crops. The key to regenerating the world’s soils begins with feeding microbiology and properly nurturing the Soil Food Web. In this episode, Elaine reviews the ins and outs of thermophilic compost, applications of compost teas and extracts, the functions of beneficial microorganisms, the interrelationship of soil and water, and the genuine potential of restoring soil faster than we are degrading it.
Excerpt from the Interview with Dr. Elaine Ingham
Carrie Kim: Starting at the beginning, could you explain to us what is the soil food web? In brief? I mean, I know we can have you here for a week talking about that alone.
Dr. Elaine Ingham: Well, basically, the Soil Food Web is these sets of microorganisms that live in the soil, interact daily with plants. And in those interactions, there are seven different benefits to the plants for having these microorganisms living and growing around their root systems. So the characters in the Soil Food Web are bacteria, and we want to make sure that we’re always selecting for beneficial bacteria.
So, in general, we have to have things in that root system area have to be aerobic. You can’t have compacted, anaerobic soils, because you’re not going to be able to grow a plant. They can’t get their roots down without those roots being killed. So it’s very important to understand that we’ve got to select for the beneficials. And so with bacteria, we want to make certain that it’s aerobic. So we get all of the thousands of species of bacteria that are unique to the biome that we’re working in.
The second group that we want to understand is fungi. And fungi grow as long threads. And it’s some of the most beautiful pictures in the world are of these organisms interacting in the soil. And all this activity and things that they’re doing is just amazing to watch. So when you’ve got a good, healthy soil, there’s lots of activity, lots of things going on. It’s when you look at your soil using a microscope and it’s like, hey, guy, anybody moving in here? Anything happening? Nothing’s going on. You might get your first clue that there’s something terribly wrong with your soil. And in fact, you don’t have soil, you have dirt. And you’re not going to grow plants in dirt just using Mother Nature’s approach. If you’ve got dirt, you’re going to have to use inorganic fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides and all of those very toxic, very expensive materials to try to get your plant to have any kind of production.
So we’ve talked about the bacteria and the fungi. They have very different functions in soil. So understanding how these two things interact with your root system is very important. PH is caused by these organisms. The kinds of decomposition is caused by these organisms doing their jobs well. You can get too many bacteria and too many fungi. And so you could tie up all your nutrients in those bacteria and fungi and your plant would be up a crick. Sorry. All of your nutrients are in the broom closet, and we can’t get the broom closet open. So what are you going to do? Well, so you die.
Mother Nature has a plan for that. She has protozoa, which are bacterial feeders, almost strictly bacterial feeders. And there are those protozoa that are meant for anaerobic conditions. So there’s a really easy way for you to see if your soil is turning into dirt. Because if you’ve got too many of the anaerobic indicators, you are not going to be growing your crops, you’re not going to get the yield you want, you’re not going to get the nutrients in your crops. So protozoa, we want to see lots of flagellates and a lot of amoebi. We do not want to be seeing those ciliates.
The next group are the nematodes. And there are four different kinds of nematodes are bacterial feeders that, amazingly enough, they eat bacteria. So between the protozoa and the nematodes, they’re going to keep the populations of the bacteria, uh, at a stable level. Not too much activity, not too little. The next, um, group of nematodes are the fungal feeding nematodes. And of course, they go after the fungi, releasing nutrients from that fungal biomass. Um, and there’s the stability for your fungal communities. These nematodes are going to make certain that they don’t get to be too great in number, but then they aren’t going to be too little in number. We then have predatory nematodes. And those predatory nematodes typically consume the disease causing nematodes.
So they are predators on nematodes, but they are specifically taking out the bad guys, the root feeders. And so those root feeding nematodes attack your root system whenever the immune system of your plant is inadequate. Well, what is this immune system of the plant? It takes the bacteria and the fungi, protozoa and the nematodes to be in the proper balances for that plant to get the nutrients that it needs, so that plant can turn on its immune system. If you don’t have these microorganisms in the soil, your plant can’t turn on its immune system. And so diseases and pests will attack and consume and get rid of them. And really, when you look at these disease causing organisms that are dealing, killing plants, something’s wrong with your soil, because this shouldn’t be happening if you’ve got a good, healthy soil.
Mother Nature sends in the diseases and the pests to take care of plants that are not supposed to be there. The nutrient cycling in the soil isn’t adequate for them. There’s something very different. This plant shouldn’t be present. And so the diseases and pests are really meant to take care of the things that aren’t supposed to be there. That’s how Mother Nature does it.
Carrie Kim: Go ahead, Elaine.
Dr. Elaine Ingham: So when we’re looking at the soil, we don’t want to see any refugee nematodes, we don’t want to see any of the, um, protozoa that like anaerobic conditions. We’ve got to make certain all these characteristics of the soil are what we need to balance nutrient cycling to get rid of the weeds, to have enough water being retained in the soil. All of these different benefits for the plant.
And so as we go from early successional, highly disturbed systems into less disturbed, they’ve been here longer, they’re growing different kinds of crops. That ratio of fungi to bacteria is what controls that shift, that movement through selection, through succession. And so people all the way to forest? Yes, all the way back up to forest. So strictly bacterial. That means you’re growing weeds. If you look in your soil and all you see are bacteria, well, uh, your weeds are going to be growing better than anything. So how do you deal with that? You’ve got to get more fungi into the system. You got to get more protozoa, more nematodes. And so we start to build that fungal community.
So now you grow veggies, now you grow tomatoes. You keep going on a little bit further. You have highly productive grasslands. That’s what you want to have cows and horses and sheep and all of those grass grazers. You want them to be in that perennial grassland, which is an equal biomass of fungi to bacteria. Not early in succession. It was just bacteria. Well, if it’s 75% bacteria, 25% fungi, you’re going to be growing veggies and kale and brassicas, things like that. You get up to the row crops. And what we want is an equal balance of fungi to bacteria. And you’ll get maximum yields, you’ll get maximum nutrient concentration. And so it’s now perfect food for you and I to be consuming.
But if we look at the nutrients that are in our chemically raised plants, we are lacking the nutrients to keep people healthy. You’ve got to eat ten oranges or 20 oranges. These kinds of comparisons are made all the time. You got to eat 20 oranges now in order to get what you used to get in one orange. So think about how much more food you’ve got to eat and to get the nutrients that you need. No wonder we have obese people. No wonder we have folks that are giant sized because their body is saying, feed me, feed me. I don’t have the nutrients. I don’t have the nutrients. You got to feed me more. Well, they’re eating empty calories. So you can see where all of this impinges in so many ways on human health. We are what we eat. And you better be eating the good stuff, not the junk. Okay?
Dr. Elaine Ingham, Founder and President of Soil Food Web Inc. and Director of the Soil Food Web School, has advanced the knowledge about the Soil Food Web for nearly four decades and since has been conducting pioneering research and advocacy empowering ordinary people to bring the soils in their community back to life. Her Soil Food Web Approach has been used to successfully restore and regenerate the ecological functions of soils on six continents. The Soil Food Web School’s curriculum was designed to be accessible to individuals who wish to train and embark on a meaningful and impactful career that will help ensure the survival of all life.
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Hosted by Carry Kim
Intro by Jessica Aldridge
Engineer and Original Music: Blake Quake Beats
Executive Producer: Jack Eidt
Photo credit: Dr. Elaine Ingham
Originally Published 18 July 2022, Updated 28 June 2023