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  • Jackie Skrypnek

Skeptical of a Cucumber

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

By now it seems we're all familiar with the "microbiome" - the complex of microbes that inhabit our body at a rate of at least one bacteria for every human cell. It wasn't so long ago we barely knew this part of ourselves existed, but its crucial role in our health is now widely acknowledged and we're encouraged to tend our microbiome with cultured foods, supplements, and even exposure to soil.

Ah yes, soil - the stuff under our feet, right? The stuff we want scrubbed from our veggies, the stuff that's home to bugs and worms? It turns out that soil is essentially the earth's microbiome. And like our own microbiome, we're just beginning to grasp its massive and indispensable role. Soil is alive, but like the bacteria in our guts, that life is largely invisible to us so it's easy to write it off as insignificant. Yet entire civilizations have collapsed after depleting their soil - it's that crucial!

This is why I think we should be deeply skeptical of foods grown in the absence of soil. I'm talking about hydroponic greenhouse veggies found in grocery stores, but also about several technologies aimed at producing food completely divorced from land: personal tower gardens, high-rise food farms, and even 3D printed food. These technologies treat food as simply a series of inputs and outputs - a formula of nutrients in, an edible result out. But plants aren't machines. They're lifeforms that continually interact with their environment including the soil residents and that actually possess sentience, according to mounting evidence. When we claim to be able to raise food in isolation, in denial that the earth plays a part, one of the real dangers is that we no longer need to pay attention to the soil. We may technically be feeding more people without the need for as much land and we may find it easier to produce in perfectly controlled environments, but we risk sacrificing something more fundamentally important.

Just some of the unintended consequences I can think of are:

~ Without having looked up the nutrient density of hydroponic versus field-grown produce, I suspect the former contain less nutrition, if not in the commonly-measured vitamins and minerals, then in the more subtle health-giving components (like antioxidants) that plants develop as survival defences outside of an artificial growing environment.

~ No traces of soil left on the food we ingest means we miss out on soil microbes' role in building our immune system, especially as children.

~ Plants will fail to adapt to their local climate. Instead, perhaps they become adapted only to an artificial growing environment that we are then forced to maintain in perpetuity (using external energy and resources).

~ Because soil is integral to the cycle of biology (breaking down dead matter, making nutrients available to plants, etc.), if we remove it from the system it then falls on us to provide all of its resources and services (many of which, let's be honest, we may never fully understand).

~ If we no longer view soil as the basis of how we feed ourselves (and how all pant and animal life thrives), how likely are we to ensure its health? If food can instead be grown indoors in a nutrient solution, could our land not conceivably be paved over and developed into housing, for instance? Soil needs plants to be healthy just as plants need soil. The earth's "microbiome" would be imperilled and the whole planet would suffer as a result.

~ Taste! Let's not forget the superior flavours of foods plucked from rich soil and the nuanced differences in the terroir (flavours brought on by a region's soil).

I'm not sure how to calculate (or not calculate, perhaps, but discern) what the right food choice is at the store sometimes, especially in a place where the food-growing soil is frozen solid for half the year. A hydroponically-grown cucumber from Alberta in November seems a better choice than one shipped from a field in Mexico. But maybe the question we need to ask in that case is "how far into winter do I really need a cucumber?". Certainly when you have the option of buying produce that someone in your region grew in soil, especially without the use of chemicals, go for that. These growers are the people stewarding our local land and water and we'll be much better off entrusting them with our sustenance than a device from Amazon. I'd say any food-producing innovations that appear to be able to detach entirely from ecological processes - that claim to be smarter than millions of years of evolution - deserve a hefty dose of skepticism.

Long live the soil!


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