The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Death
David R Montgomery and Anne Bikle
The Hidden Half of Nature explores parallels between the microbiome* (see The Care and Feeding of Gut Bacteria) that inhabits the human intestine and the microbiome surrounding the roots of healthy plants. As in humans, the plant microbiom (aka the rhizosphere) co-evolved with higher plants to perform functions they couldn’t perform for themselves. In other words, the rhizosphere is just essential to plant health and growth as our microbiome is to our own health. Sadly industrial agriculture (particularly synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides) have been just as harmful to the rhizosphere and plant health as the corporatization of food production and medicine has been to the human microbiome and human health.
Montgomery and Bikle describe in elegant detail the research into the rich exudates plants secrete into the soil to attract helpful bacteria and fungi. In turn, the latter produce a broad range of chemicals that promote plant growth, as well as forming a defensive wall of antimicrobial compounds (most antibiotics used in western medicine are derived from these compounds) that protect the plant against pathogens.
This book also traces the history of our scientific understanding of microbes in the development of early vaccines, antibiotics and synthetic fertilizers. Like many important scientific discoveries, the process for manufacturing synthetic nitrogen fertilizer grew out of the war industry. The production of dynamite (ie nitroglycerine) employs the same chemical pathways as the production of synthetic fertilizer. Thus in the lead up to World War II, both the British and the US government required farmers to switch from organic to synthetic fertilizers due to the easy conversion of fertilizer factories to munitions factories and vice versa.
After the war, the heavy use of synthetic fertilizers would lead to the systematic destruction of healthy soil on western farms. As they gradually lost the friendly bacteria that protected them, they because increasingly susceptible to pests and required heavier and heavier use of synthetic pesticides that totally wiped out the rhizosphere.
I was very surprised to learn the basic principles of organic farming were identified in the late 19th century and abandoned due to government and corporate pressure.
The role of probiotics in human health was identified even earlier – when Turkish visitors to the court of France’s Francis I cured him of life threatening diarrhea by offering him some yogurt.
Envoys from the Ottoman Empire were also the first to introduce inoculation to Europe in 1716. Inoculation against infectious diseases was first introduced in the US by African slaves.