Microbes: Are They The Future Of Farming and Saving the Planet?


Microbes: Are farmers using the wrong techniques when growing crops? According to Anthony Woods, today’s soils are not deficient in minerals – they are deficient in microbes. 

Microbes are the most remarkable of creatures. These tiny lifeforms are mother nature’s little foot-soldiers. They are forever tasked with creating healthy fertile soil – the lifeblood of the planet.

Behind every mineral is a microbe and inside every handful of rich soil are trillions of microbes hard at work. Yet modern farming practices are destroying microbes at a rapid rate. This in turn strips the soil of its natural ‘life-force’ and fertility.

In a little over a century, humanity has managed to destroy half of all topsoil on earth and has become addicted to chemical farming in the process. Many of our modern medicines are made from soil microbes. The ground-breaking medicine Penicillin was made from the soil fungus Penicillium. This one medicine has saved millions of lives and prevented untold human suffering. Many of the modern antibiotics used to fight illness were derived from soil microbes, particularly the genus Streptomycetes.

Microbes as Medicine

Researchers analysing soil from Co Fermanagh have recently discovered a previously unknown strain of bacteria. It is effective against four of the top six antibiotic-resistant superbugs, including the dreaded flesh-eating MRSA.

Soil microbes are an overlooked area of scientific research. There are millions of undiscovered strains all over the world, many of which hold the key to huge future medical breakthroughs.

The ancient Greek philosopher Hippocrates famously said, “Let thy food be thy medicine.” This nugget of wisdom has never been more relevant than it is today. Whether we like it or not, every time we eat food, we also ingest millions of microbes. This is unavoidable.

When we eat healthy natural food, we also ingest millions of health-promoting microbes which form a key part of the body’s natural immune system. The body forms a win-win relationship with these microbes and literally uses them to fight disease.

Microbes, not minerals, are the determining factor of a soil’s fertility. And, behind every mineral is a microbe. Nature uses microbes to feed plants and plants to feed microbes in a win-win symbiotic relationship. Through the process of photosynthesis, plants transform the sun’s life-giving rays into liquid ‘carbon-sugar.’ This flows down to the plant’s roots where it feeds the microbes in exchange for water and nutrients.

Microbes: Are They The Future Of Farming?

As carbon-sugar flows down the plant, nutrients and water flow up. This relationship has been used for millions of years. The plants depend on microbes to provide them with nutrients. And, they literally reward them with carbon-sugar which in turn causes the microbes to multiply. This increases the fertility of the soil.

Microbes and Nitrogen

Some of these microbes suck nitrogen straight out of the air and bring it to the plant. Others forage deep into the subsoil to find trace elements. Others break down organic matter (animal manure, dead plants etc) and create humus – the rich dark brown substance known as the ‘king of soils.’ Humus creation is the master key to soil fertility and humus is what’s left after the microbes weave their magic.

Farmers and growers would do well to remember that plants depend on microbes for their very existence. So intertwined are plants and microbes that they even communicate with each other. A plant can literally broadcast a signal to microbes informing them what nutrients it needs.

Modern soils are not deficient in minerals, they are deficient in microbes. Nature has been successfully using microbes to grow plants for over four hundred million years. Man has been using chemical fertilisers for a little over a century and has managed to destroy half of all the earth’s soil in the process. Nature knows best. There are hundreds of different types of soil microbes, all with their own unique part to play. Let us focus on just three – nitrogen-fixing bacteria, mycorrhizal fungi and protists.

Nitrogen-Fixing Bacteria

Nitrogen-fixing bacteria literally suck free nitrogen out of the air and bring it to the plant in exchange for carbon-sugar. These bacteria also enter the root hairs of host plants, where they stimulate the formation of root nodules. These are little balls within which the bacteria convert free nitrogen from the atmosphere into ammonia which the host plant uses to grow.

The atmosphere above every single acre of farmland contains around 30,000 tonnes of nitrogen. Tapping into this vast resource of free nitrogen using natural bacteria is a lot more sensible than spreading ever-more amounts of artificial chemical nitrogen on the land.

On a global scale, bacterial nitrogen accounts for around 65% of the nitrogen used by crops and pastures. This supply of natural nitrogen is inexhaustible and sustainable as nitrogen comprises almost 80% of the earth’s atmosphere. Unfortunately, microbes are largely ignored by modern farming who are addicted to ‘quick fix’ chemical fertilisers. These strip the soil of its natural fertility as each year ever more is needed to produce crops.

In addition, chemical fertilisers also poison the water supply and release nitrous oxide. This is a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more harmful than carbon dioxide and is a major contributor to global warming. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria also protect the plant from disease, pests and play a major part in the creating humus.

Mycorrhizal Fungi

Mycorrhizal fungi are a special type of microbe that tap into plant roots to create super-root structures. These thread-like structures are called hyphae. They greatly increase the absorptive area of a plant, acting as extensions to the root system. The extensive use of fungicides has seriously damaged the number of beneficial fungi in soils.

Most plants on earth form a win-win relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. These extraordinary microbes access water, and protect their hosts from pests and diseases. They also transport nutrients such as organic nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron and trace elements including copper, cobalt, zinc, molybdenum, manganese and boron – in exchange for liquid carbon-sugar.

Mycorrhizal fungi also excrete glomalin. This is a sticky substance that helps binds soil particles and create rich humus. In addition to mycorrhizal fungi, there are numerous other species of beneficial soil fungi. This includes decomposers – they break down organic matter and turn it into useful nutrients.


Although soil bacteria and fungi are well studied another very important category – protists – are not. Although, in recent years scientists have discovered that protists also play a key part in soil health. Some protists help fight off disease while others degrade organic matter.

While bacteria and fungi are heavily affected by modern chemical farming practices, protists are the most impacted by chemical fertilisers. There is a huge overlap between the microbes found in the soil, the gut and the ocean. 73% of the microbes found in the ocean are also found in the human gut.

Interestingly, just a few months ago a team of scientists exploring the Atlantic made a remarkable discovery. There are microbes that kill and eat viruses. For the first time ever, humans have found something that can actually kill a virus – two little-known protists called Choanozoan and Picozoan. Perhaps these two recently discovered microbes could be used in a similar manner to create the medicine needed to permanently end the coronavirus pandemic.

There are millions of as-yet undiscovered microbes in the world’s soils and ocean. Fully utilising these remarkable creatures will help spark a global revolution. In truth we have only scratched the surface in our understanding of soil microbes. As a species we actually know more about the stars in the sky than we do about the soil beneath our feet – our most precious resource.

Microbes: Are They The Future Of Farming?

Microbes = Healthy Soil

Rich healthy soils have an abundance of both microbes and organic matter. Organic matter is the remnants of something that once lived and is broken down into nutrients by microbes in a never-ending recycling system. Microbes and organic matter are like the king and queen of healthy soil and together they make a kingdom.

Most of the world’s intensively farmed soils are seriously deficient in both however this can be quickly repaired using natural methods. Soil simply cannot function without a healthy community of microbes and healthy soils don’t need chemicals. After all, no-one ever had to fertilise a forest.

Environmentalists often claim that we must ‘save the planet’ however this is not strictly accurate – we must save ourselves. The planet was perfectly fine long before we arrived and will be perfectly fine long after we are gone.

The earth has shaken many species off her back. Humans can exist in harmony with nature by restoring the world’s soil. Microbes play a key role in determining the nutrition of our food. Soil health is public health – healthy soil equals healthy people.


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