A Microscopic Food Post
I'm in this deep underworld right now in my work life. Literally. I'm studying soil and ruminant microbiology. This means I'm taking pasture soil, and compost, and poop, and looking at them under a microscope.
Why? And what does it have to do with food?
Well, its complicated. That's precisely why it is so fascinating. The key to soil health, ruminant animal health, and as it turns out, human health, is in the health of the microorganisms they host. So, when I look at soil or compost, I'm getting a tiny glimpse of what is going on underground, and can use that information to inform what will happen above ground. For example, soils with a high population or homogenous (only one species or type) population of bacteria as opposed to other microorganisms will favor the growth of weeds. If we want favorable forage species in our pastures or healthy row crops, and suppression of weeds, we need to favor the diversity of soil microbes to include many species of bacteria, as well as protozoa, fungi, and other critters. The same carries in gut health, both in the animal's rumen and in the human gastrointestinal system. You want rich, diverse microscopic life in there, a microscopic food web, where everything is food for something else feeding food which feeds us. If you don't have that diversity, you run into health problems. Looking at microscope samples using methodology from Dr. Elaine Ingham, and understanding the hierachy of organisms present, we can understand, to an extent, what to expect and how to improve the soils that feed our plants, which feed animals and humans. And, we can assess how richly those foodstuffs have been fed by microbes to deduce how richly they will support our own health.
Further, I want to look at the succession of microbial ecosystems. This is fascinating to me, and something I wrote about in the Ethical Meat Handbook. How nature is highly organized to minimize energy and maximize productivity, and it organizes in higher and higher ways until a cataclysm. After that cataclysm, be it a forest fire, a flood, oil spill, parking lot, moldboard plow, or piece of gum, re-organization has to begin anew. That process of re-organization has a method, in that certain organisms are designed to colonize the disturbed system, and their living, feeding, and dying change the system to make way for a secondary set of organisms to colonize. These organisms further change the system, making way for yet higher beings to establish and thrive. Onward and upward the system organizes and changes. Scientists are all familiar with this concept. One can look at the type of trees in a forest, the kind of lichen on a rock, and indeed, the kind of microorganisms in a soil sample, and determine roughly how mature or young the system is, especially if you have insight into the way humans have interacted or continue to interact with that system.
Consider human interaction as general cataclysm. Well, especially when it comes to agriculture. An acre of soil taking the blow of a tiller over and over again, enduring the harsh death induced by chemical additives, or the sudden removal of diverse native species only to be inundated with one crop. Most likely corn. Even in organic systems, we see repeated disturbance, repeated input, repeated output. Imagine what we could learn, if we just glimpse at the effects of these seemingly small or isolated events on the incredible microscopic world underground. Over time.
Microbes have bearing on the efficiency with which cows can process cellulose in their gut. They affect how many animal farts are being farted into the atmosphere daily. They hold volatile gases in the atmosphere in awesome balance. They have bearing on the way seeds sprout and the way minerals and nutrients get released to crops. They have bearing on whether your saliva works properly and how thoroughly you can digest and process food. And while there is a lot to understood about this, the importance of microbes in nearly every aspect of our lives has only quite recently gained credibility and correlation and context, thereby opening the door to many daunting and thrilling questions. In the field of agriculture, food, and nutrition, the questions abound.
Examples of questions I wrote in my notebook just THIS week:
1) When ruminants are genetically well-adapted and fed a rich diet of forages supportive of good rumen function, do they contribute more methane or less methane to the atmosphere than ruminants fed human-consumable grains which are not adapted to their gastrointestinal flora?
2) In management intensive grazing, what species mixes of seasonal forages promote the most favorable ruminant gut health?
3) What different combinations (there are potentially thousands) of annual cover crops as well as perennial and annual forage crops can most quickly rehabilitate soil, if animals are used in the rotation?
4) Can microbial life from other, more mature soil ecosystems be transplanted (think compost tea) to management-intensive or otherwise frequently disturbed systems to favor more stable microbial diversity ?
The list goes on. Oh my, it goes on and on, to the point where I brim with anxiety at how much we have to learn, but I also brim with hope that we have so so many OPPORTUNITIES. It's mind boggling, this work. Here's the rabbit hole I'm in currently:
Monday: Sample compost being developed for pasture application. Wow! look at all the soil nematodes! This is fantastic. They will keep bacteria in check, and cycle carbon and nitrogen. Yay!
Tuesday: No nematodes now. What gives? Begin reading peer-reviewed research about nematode succession. What species are present early in decomposition process? What do their eggs and offspring look like? Are they still there, just in larval form or in egg form? Am I looking at a sample between generations? Or is there something happening that caused them to die?
Tuesday afternoon: find photos of nematode eggs, look for them in samples.
Wednesday: "oooo, what's that funny dark thing on the slide? Not a nematode egg. Could it be a microarthropod egg?" (Microarthropods are like microscopic insects that chop and shred organic matter in the soil.)
Google 'microarthropod eggs under microscope' and find little helpful info. However, find images of whipworm eggs which look like something seen on another slide from yesterday. uh oh...
Thursday: Resample, to find egg-like things on the slide that must be worm eggs. But what kind? Could they be livestock intestinal parasites, like roundworms? We did use barn bedding in this compost...
Wait, intestinal roundworms ARE nematodes. Oh dangit. What if bacterial feeding nematodes, generally thought of as a GOOD thing in soil health, are also pre-parasitic forms of intestinal round worms, which will eventually be BAD for the herd or flock?
Begin researching morphology of pre-parasitic larvae of sheep parasitic nematodes.
Continue researching succession.
Look at poop samples.
Look at sample of brine from homemade pickles. To calm down.
Question personal sanity to trusted loved ones.
Friday: Blog about insanity, because why not?
The thing is, it may not be important for me to be able to identify the L2 larval stage of a parasitic roundworm in my compost or soil, because in a naturally managed system, perhaps the checks and balances of the microscopic food web will control the population of pathogens. Or perhaps the heat of the compost will kill the eggs. Or, perhaps the proper removal time between grazing paddocks will eliminate the ingestion of the worms by the animals. Or, maybe the right cover crop will kill them with its nematode-fighting exudates......
My brain hurts. Just...add another question to the list:
5) Do consistently renewing managed ecosystems that favor high soil diversity also favor pre-parasitic roundworms? If so, what is the implication for highly integrated cropping systems which favor no till annual and perennial plant production alongside rotational grazing?
I think that's enough for now. I'll just leave you with this picture. Which is the antennae of a microarthropod. Isn't it beautiful? Like a microscopic leaf made of bones. A bacterial fairy wing. A soil feather. Or, as my mentor joked: a microscopic Russian listening device.