At its best agriculture is a deliberate concentration of natural-living systems for human benefit, but in modern times it has increasingly become a manipulation of Mother Nature. There is no part of agriculture where this is more true than in defending crops from pests and disease organisms—in approaching farming more as an art than a science, a feel than a process. For instance, most growers tend to look at a pest infestation or disease outbreak as bad luck, which results in growers attempting to kill their problems with powerful toxins that end up in our food and eventually in our bodies. But the progressive farmer understands pests are attracted to unhealthy plants, and disease is a result of a bad diet. Thus the perspective drives the action. Pests and disease damage is very costly to farmers.
One example is the invasive Asian citrus psyllid, a plant juice-sucking bug smaller than an apple seed that carries a disease called “huanglongbing.” It disfigures oranges and turns them bitter, leaving citrus growers no choice but to destroy their trees. Over the last few years, it has cost the U.S. citrus industry billions of dollars in damages. There is no known cure.
No event in the history of American forests is better known or sadder than the introduction of the chestnut blight fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, from Asia in the late 1890s. The effects of its introduction will be felt forever, as the chestnut devastation was so widespread that oaks filled the void and collapsed under non-ideal conditions. The entire forest ecosystem was altered and still has not recovered fully. No control was found for the destruction of the blight.
As an agricultural consultant, I don’t like the idea of not having a cure for target pests and diseases. I hear it all the time regarding the local tomato blight issues we have in North Carolina, or when people say chinch bug, ground pearl or mole crickets in their lawns cannot be cured. The issues may not be treatable with chemicals, but compost tea will eliminate them with consistent applications.
Sometimes the most logical approaches for healing are not even considered. The same is true in modern medicine where doctors who have not been trained in nutrition prescribe pills to manage symptoms rather than dig deeper to determine modalities, such as probiotics, altering diets or juicing—all of which have potential to actually heal and regenerate.
Rather than focusing organic methods to encourage fertility in natural living systems, the majority of the last century of agronomy has been focused on how to increase yields at all costs, and eliminate the problems created from the use of empty fertilizers and toxic biocides with technology and human ingenuity. The result is a public health epidemic which grows by the day.
In the U.S. more than 68 percent of adults are overweight or obese, compared to 30 percent worldwide. As people grow larger, so do plants. From 1985 through 2011, average wheat yields in the U.S. increased 26 percent. Hydroponics—or growing plants in water, supplemented with artificial fertilizer salts—is capable of increasing yields up to 20 times per acre for certain crops.
The constant march toward higher yields comes with a price. Unfortunately, the problem is so subtle and profound it is very difficult to diagnose. Yet, it turns out, for the most part, poor soil and poor diets are the reason for the majority of pest infestations and disease outbreaks in crops.
The artificial approach to fertility that dominates and defines conventional agriculture uses toxic “biocides,” like pesticides, fungicides, etc., as a means of trying to kill the pest or disease created by these empty fertilizers. The approach is best defined as what the great Charles Walters aptly called “toxic rescue chemistry.”
So, how did we get here? The Industrial Revolution brought about the concept of biocides, but the world wars made them famous. The munitions used in combat became fertilizers, and chemicals like DDT were transferred from the battlefield to the growing field. In fact, due to the success of DDT in killing insects, World War II was the first U.S. war in which diseases—many like typhus and malaria carried by insects—killed fewer people than bullets and bombs. Though the objective worked, it came at a huge ecological cost.
Then the Green Revolution introduced the concept of genetic engineering (GMO). For the first time, rather than having to consider killing a crop plant with the chemicals being used, we started altering plant DNA so that it could withstand toxins sprayed on it. The method gets utilized for upwards of 90 percent of non-organic commodity crops, like corn and soy in the U.S. GMO farming has resulted in a dramatic increase in the use of biocides in crops and represents a growing danger to humanity.
Conventional agriculture is the equivalent of taking the pill to treat our symptoms so that we can eat more fast-food. It doesn’t make sense. What happens to people when they eat fast food for every meal? They get sick.
This is not to say a healthy field would never have a pest or disease infestation, no different than a healthy human would never get sick, but when considering an average diet delivered to plants, it is no wonder they are ill. Take for instance how common artificial fertilizers contain as few as five elements, but plants require no less than 15 to grow successfully (known as “essential elements”). What do we expect to happen when we feed plants less than half of what they require in order to grow?
Artificial fertilizers are not just empty, they are man-made and unrecognizable to Mother Nature and the overall ecosystem, specifically to beneficial soil microbes, like bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes. These microbes are capable of building the maturity in soil to where it can support plant growth on its own if we encourage them. Consider that the forest grows trees with no fertilizer.
Generally speaking, a disease organism is simply a microbe feeding on a weak plant that has nothing to eat it. Compost tea works as a great fungicide and there are many biological disease-control products on the market containing concentrated soil organisms. Consider the balance, strength and diversity of the life forms in the ocean; so it is with the soil food web. Rather than kill the symptom, heal the system.
Target pests have predators, too. Integrated pest management, or IPM, is a common approach in organic-growing operations where beneficial insects, such as ladybugs or praying mantis, are used for pest control. The approach of using balance rather than force wins in the long run.
Plus, it turns out pests cannot digest complete proteins from plants. Proteins are made up of amino acids, and amino acids are nitrogen-based organic compounds defined by amine (NH2) functional groups. Soluble nitrogen is irresistible to a plant; greening up the lawn with nitrogen makes it obese, and forces it to produce amino acids with which the metabolism of the plant cannot keep pace. This is pest and disease food.
The idea of a poor diet for plants actually creating pest infestations and disease may sound conceptual, but it is very literal. Movies such as “Supersize Me” or the book “Fast Food Nation” illustrate the sickness created when people eat fast food for every meal.
Dr. Philip Callahan’s “Tuning Into Nature” documents his work and describes the attraction of target pests to the infrared emissions of plants. He also divulges why treating symptoms with poisonous pesticides does not solve the real problems in agriculture. Dr. Callahan received a Ph.D. in entomology (study of insects), and spent his life pursuing an understanding of energy, or life force, particularly as it influenced agriculture and health. He documented the phenomenon of target pests being attracted to unhealthy plants through infrared vibrations emitted by empty proteins and perceived by their antennae. Rather than flying by a neighborhood and landing on plants, pests actually “see” food in plants fed a bad diet.
Food for thought.
There is more to life than what is physically here, and pests and disease in agriculture is about more than bad luck. We cannot kill our problems without strengthening the ecosystem. It is not possible, and we are paying for it in more ways than one. As a general rule, the best defense against pests and disease in the garden is a healthy plant. A healthy plant is a result of healthy soil. Healthy soil is created by diverse soil microbes and a healthy ecosystem. If we can grow our soil rather than just our plant, we win. It really is as simple as that.