From CT NOFA's Organic Advocate

bill duesing

Garden! Our Guts, Soil Life and GMOs

"Garden," was Michael Pollan's short answer to the NYTimes' blogger's question: "Aside from eating fermented foods, and not going nuts with the Purell, is there anything else that you recommend to improve your microbiome?" Read the full article here.


He added, "The exposure to soil is probably a good thing and, unless you live in a Superfund site, gardening is a good way to safely increase your "microbial pressure" on a daily basis. Having a dog may be a good thing too [1]."


This interview was a follow-up to his NY Times Magazine cover story "Some of My Best Friends are Germs," in which he describes the microbiome which makes up most of our bodies. In round numbers, 90 percent of the cells in our bodies are microbial, that is, are not human. We could not live without them. They inhabit all parts of our bodies. They are especially important in our guts.


The Microbiome

The human microbiome. Photo:

In general, the microbiome, that is the bacteria, fungi and other organisms which live on and in us, on all the surfaces of the planet, indeed, EVERYWHERE on Earth, [2] doesn't get enough respect or consideration. See more on the human biome in this very interesting book [3].


Understanding the importance of the microbiome helps us connect such seemingly disparate things as why organic methods work and why so many people report getting better from a range of symptoms when they stop eating foods that contain GMOs, foods derived from genetic engineering.


That understanding reinforces the importance of local, organic food and organic methods of growing food. This recent NYTimes article provides validation of the theory and practice of organic growing [4].)

Our Guts

In the last century, I learned from Dr. Sidney Baker that "every adult has a surface the size of a tennis court lining his or her intestines. This surface is inhabited by bacteria and fungi similar to those found in healthy soil. According to Dr. Baker, the one hundred trillion organisms in each human's gut constitute the second largest organ in the body." Read more here and here.


This relationship between the organisms in us and those in the soil shouldn't be surprising since for at least 100,000 years, humans lived in close relationship to local soil, plants and animals. We are an integral part of the environment.


Bacteria Are Different

From the wonderful book Microcosmos, I learned that bacteria are different from us in two important ways. One, they are essentially immortal; they just keep dividing, responding to and creating their environment. And two, they can exchange genetic material at any time with each other. We have to mate and reproduce in order to pass on our genes. Bacteria just bump against each other and genes may be passed from one to another as each then keeps dividing unendingly. Essentially bacteria are fast learners. (We can see this in how quickly antibiotic resistance spreads.) These two characteristics are why bacteria were able to create most, if not all, of the systems that are needed for larger organisms like us to exist during the first several billion years of Earth's life.


This sweet corn is both Roundup Ready and contains Bt in every cell. It doesn't have to be labeled yet.

GMOs and Guts

There are at least three ways that GMOs may be interacting negatively with your gut microbiome. There is evidence that the bacterial toxin Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that is in every cell of some GMO corn can pass into the blood stream from the intestines. If it makes it to our intestines, which is how it gets into our blood stream, then it has a chance to exchange genetic material with the bacteria in our intestines. Who needs a pesticide factory in her intestines?


GMOs contain other exotic genes inserted into the plant DNA; things like viral markers and antibiotic genes used in the process of genetic mutating, I guess that should be engineering. Read more here, and here, and here.


A second reasonable connection is the Glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, that is used on so many of the GMO crops. (The EPA is currently considering increasing the level of Glyphosate residue allowed on food. Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket.) Although RoundUp was tested for its effects on humans, and found to be apparently of low toxicity, that did not address its effects on the non-human part of us.


Recent research outlines a pathway. "Thus, glyphosate enhances the damaging effects of other food borne chemical residues and environmental toxins. Negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body. Here, we show how interference with CYP enzymes acts synergistically with disruption of the biosynthesis of aromatic amino acids by gut bacteria, as well as impairment in serum sulfate transport. Consequences are most of the diseases and conditions associated with a Western diet, which include gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer's disease. We explain the documented effects of glyphosate and its ability to induce disease, and we show that glyphosate is the "textbook example" of exogenous semiotic entropy: the disruption of homeostasis by environmental toxins." Read more here. Also see the Grist article here.


Purdue soil scientist Dr. Don Huber has become very alarmed at the mischief that Glyphosate causes in the soil ecosystem as it acts to hold on to or chelate elements in the soil.


In so many ways, things come back to the holistic nature of organic thinking. We can't have healthy people if we don't have healthy soil. If a product damages the organisms in the soil, it likely damages the organisms in our guts.


The third way that GMOs cause problems for our health is that they provide the vast quantities of low-cost and low-quality raw materials for the processed, junk, and fast, food and meat that is also damaging to our intestinal health.


Food Safety

Of course this all relates to food safety, including the narrow definition of safety addressed in the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and now open for comment. NOFA and its partners helped secure the Tester amendment with may exempt smaller farms from the worst of the coming regulations. (These regulations are needed if you are going to harvest thousands of acres of greens in California, process them and send them all over the country in a plastic container. There are a lot fewer risks in a local food system.)


Among the changes the FSMA may make are:

  • Manure: The regulations greatly expand the time period considered necessary for application of raw manure before crops can be harvested. They say 9 months, rather than the 3 or 4 months called for by organic regulations.
  • Water: Both irrigation and wash water will need to be monitored. E. coli levels of 126 cells per 100 milliliters have been proposed by some scientists for irrigation water, and 0 for wash water.
  • Worker Hygiene: Toilets with toilet paper and hand washing stations will need to be available. For folks who use isolated land and transport crews this may be problematic.
  • Domestic and Wild Animals: "Working animals" may have access to produce growing land, but it is up to the farmer to prevent "contamination". While biodiversity is recognized as valuable, it is still up to the farmer to monitor fields and avoid harvesting produce that might be contaminated.

While these sound sensible, many people, including the former Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, are concerned about the problems these regulations may cause for small and medium sized farms.


So now we have more reasons to garden and to have a garden in every school. Perhaps this is why gardeners tend to be healthier and happier.


I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

  1. Of course most of us know that a garden close to where we live is the most environmentally and economically sound way to obtain the delicious stored solar energy that powers our bodies. We also know there are many other benefits to gardening besides increasing the health of our microbiome.
  2. I highly recommend Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution by Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan. Dr. Margulis was an originator of the Gaia Hypothesis. They write "The environment is so interwoven with bacteria, and their influence is so pervasive, that there is no really convincing way to point your finger and say this is where life ends and this is where the inorganic realm of nonlife begins."
  3. The Wild Life in Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites and Partners That Shape Who We Are Today by Rob Dunn.
  4. Read this fascinating article about the life in the soil and the importance of biodiversity in the soil ecosystem. The author's prescription for a healthy soil ecosystem that "may sustain plants naturally, without chemical inputs" is don't till, avoid synthetic chemicals, add compost. Sound familiar? Those are at the heart of organic practices. See the USDA definition: "Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity."A Cornell scientist states, "The greater the soil diversity, the fewer diseases that emerge in plants."
CT NOFA's Organic Advocate, Bill Duesing, is available to share his expert opinion as a long time organic farmer, founder of CT NOFA, and president of the NOFA Interstate Council. He can come to speak at your event for $300 plus mileage from Oxford, CT. To book Bill Duesing as a speaker, call us at 203.888.5146 or email