Microbial Myths

My parents’ generation was taught that Best Parenting Practices included lots of sterilization of everything that went into baby’s mouth. By the time I was changing diapers there was talk of how introducing babies to germs early in life helped them develop a more robust immune response to defend against nasty bacteria later. Now we are realizing microbes influence on health is not just about disease organisms, but that a healthy and balanced microbial population both on and within our bodies is helpful, and probably required, for us to avoid illness and promote our health. 

Feed the World

I recommend Michael Pollan's excellent article, Some of My Best Friends Are Germs,recently published in the New York Times Magazine. To quote Pollan, “It turns out that we are only 10 percent human: for every human cell that is intrinsic to our body, there are about 10 resident microbes— including commensals (generally harmless freeloaders) and mutualists (favor traders) and, in only a tiny number of cases, pathogens. To the extent that we are bearers of genetic information, more than 99 percent of it is microbial. And it appears increasingly likely that this “second genome,” as it is sometimes called, exerts an influence on our health as great and possibly even greater than the genes we inherit from our parents.”

The metaphor of the healthy natural ecosystem that we have widely applied to the agricultural field (“feed the soil, and the soil will feed the plant”) we should now apply to our own bodies. We are an ecosystem, and diversity and balance are important.

A recent publication by the American Academy of Microbiology emphasizes that the same kinds of relationships exist between plants and microbes. The booklet Microbes Can Help Feed the World notes that most scientific study of microbial influence on plants has been focused on plant diseases, resulting in the discipline of plant pathology. But plant/microbe interactions are much more than disease. To quote that publication, “For plants, vulnerable as they are to changes in their immediate environment, the services provided by microbes are critical. In their natural, unmanaged environments, all plants are supported by a vast, invisible world of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live in and around their roots, stems, leaves, seeds, pollen, fruits, and flowers.”

Microbiologists are gaining more sophisticated understanding of the interactions between microbes and plants, and learning ways that we can manage the interactions for greater plant health. Perhaps instead of fighting plant disease by killing microbes, we will promote plant by adding more.

I find it very ironic that, at the same time we are becoming more mindful of the awe-inspiring lessons from nature for promoting health by maintaining thriving and balanced populations of microorganisms on and in people and plants, our government’s answer to a mandate to reduce food-borne illness is simply more sanitation. The regulations that the Food and Drug Administration is recommending will be more easily met by large concentrated farms and ranches, and will almost certainly force at least some smaller operations, both growers and processors, out of business. Where will this leave the growing consumer desire to eat local and “know your farmer”?

[The Food and Drug Administration is seeking public comment on their proposed rules. The comment period will extend through November 15. To learn more about the proposed rules and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) stay tuned to the Southern SAWG website, or visit the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition FSMA site.]               *Jim Lukens, Executive Director; SSAWG

Pam Kingfisher