An In Depth Interview with Dr. Elaine Ingham – Keynote Speaker at the Food & Farm Conference

elaine-soil-food-webDr. Elaine Ingham is the Founder and President of Soil Foodweb Inc. and is Director of Research at Environment Celebration Institute.  She has dedicated her career to learning about the organisms which make up the soil food web. Her goal is to translate this knowledge into actions that ensure a healthy food web that promotes plant growth and reduces reliance on inorganic chemicals. Dr. Ingham is a keynote speaker at Sierra Harvest’s Food and Farm Conference, which is happening January 6th through 8th.  Register TODAY to see Dr. Elaine Ingham speak in person!

SH: I would call you a soil scientist, but you are so much more than that – how would you sum up what you do for a layperson?

EI: I’m a soil ecologist – I work with all aspects of the soil. I want to understand the processes and the functions that are important. In the past, people have seen things that work and think that it’s great, but didn’t realize we were destroying that system. Pouring on fertilizer and killing the pests seemed like a good idea, but after a few years, the chemicals didn’t work anymore, and we had to use stronger chemicals. We kept going to the next more toxic thing and then the next. 

Another example, our great grandparents would have only tilled the soil maybe once a year but in “modern” agriculture, they till many more times than that, maybe as much as 14 times a year. That destroys the soil – it takes a while to destroy all those organisms in the soil, but we’ve done it with too much tillage.

Nature understands how to conserve water, prevent pests and diseases.  There are better yields in natural ecosystems than in chemical agriculture systems. But we pay no attention to how natural systems work.  The soil food web in a forest is a map that nature has put together, and we could have looked and seen how that system works.  Trees that live for 2000 years without any inorganic fertilizer inputs, no pests hurting them.  How can that be?  How does nature manage this?  We need to learn how to grow plants that way. 

SH: How did you get interested in soil?

EI: I’ve always loved microbiology. My dad was a veterinarian and took me out on farm visits with him. When I was 6 years old, he plopped me down in front of a microscope and told me to count the bacteria – it was a way of babysitting, right?  My Dad would arrive at a dairy where half the cows in the herd were staggering, not eating, clearly dying.  He’d ask me to find out if there were any poisonous plants in the fields and I would come back with nothing but poisonous plants. There were too many animals on too little land and once the animals ate all the grass, there is nothing left but the poisonous plants to eat, so they ate them. 

SH: Can you describe something you learned in your research that surprised you or made you think about the world differently in some way?

EI: I’m always amazed by how clever nature is. Nature figured out these interactions to keep the system going. Just incredible. As we look more and more closely at how root systems interact with all this life in the soil, and how rapidly we are destroying that functioning system, it’s amazing that human beings haven’t wiped ourselves out faster. We assume we are in control, but in fact, we don’t know what we are doing, so we destroy what we need to stay alive. Human arrogance always surprises me and our inability to see the destruction.

SH: What do you plan to talk about at the Sustainable Food & Farm Conference?

EI: How soil organisms build soil structure and do all these jobs to prevent diseases and pests from attacking plants we care about. How to get rid of weeds and still grow the plants you want to grow. Our current agricultural system actually promotes weed growth and we need to stop adding things to soil that make our job harder. How we can hold more water in the soil and make sure root systems get to that water. Talking about these things in a way that doesn’t require a PhD to grasp these important concepts.  Explain how you can promote the growth of better organisms and prevent the growth of the bad guys. If we could get everyone in the United States to compost correctly, to make compost that stays aerobic, and put that compost into the soil to help plants grow better, we could take most of the elevated CO2 and put it back in the soil, and reverse climate change rapidly.

I’ve been working with other scientists that understand the gut microbiome and together we are seeing how the soil food web, or microbiome, affects and improves the human condition. The organisms in your gut originally come from the surfaces of the foods you eat. We need those beneficial organisms that should be on the surfaces of lettuce, cauliflower, tomatoes, etc. If your food is grown in sterile dirt, or if your soil is sterilized, there is no way you can get the beneficial organisms on the surfaces of the food you eat.  It’s no wonder that people are having trouble with their digestive systems. We need all these organisms – they support our ability to replenish mucous layers needed to protect our gut lining from disease organisms. So tell your kids to go jump in that pile of leaves, eat some soil (not dirt!) – just make sure those leaves were not sprayed with an herbicide, and that it is really soil they are playing in.

SH: Why do you enjoy attending the Sustainable Food & Farm Conference?

EI: It’s a great group of people, really active and willing to help each other. I really enjoy coming to the conference for all the great interactions and the learning that happens.