Every now and then a news story or article really makes me stop and think. I just listened to an interview on NPR on Monday, April 14, with Dr. Martin Blaser, infectious disease specialist and author of the new book “Missing Microbes.” He is the Director of the NYU Human Microbiome Program. The microbiome refers to the diverse array of micro-organisms that live in or on our bodies. It turns out that some 70-90% of the cells in and on our body are not our own human cells – they are cells of various bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other critters we cannot see with our eyes or normally detect with any of our senses.
These organisms apparently co-evolved with humans over the millennia and many of them perform important functions for maintaining our health. Yet until quite recently, virtually all of our theory and thought and research and health-care practices have proceeded without any consideration for this major part of our physical body. Much of our medical practice may help the obvious problem being addressed (e.g. an ear infection) but unintentionally impact the invisible part of us we have not recognized. One example is the fact that antibiotics can exacerbate the effect of a high-fat diet. Antibiotics have been used for years at sub-therapeutic rates in livestock to promote growth, to increase efficiency of feed conversion. Dr. Blaser wondered whether the same thing might happen in people as an unintended consequence of antibiotic use for disease control. He and colleagues conducted a number of studies on mice and found that “…if we put mice on a high-fat diet, they gain weight, they get fat. If we put them on antibiotics early in life, they also get fat. And if we put them on both together, they get very fat. And we’ve done this in male mice. We’ve done this in female mice. It’s clear that the effects of the antibiotics potentiate the effects of the high-fat diet.” He attributes this to a change in the microbiome in the gut.
Another example is the inoculation of newborn babies with their mother’s microbiome at birth. This appears to play an important role in the immune system function of babies. Babies born via C-section, often for pressing medical reasons, miss out on this step and their microbiome is totally different. And in studies done on cohorts of kids born by C-section versus vaginal birth, they exhibit a higher rate of obesity. Studies are now being done to see if inoculating a C-section baby after birth with the mother’s microbiome can successfully replicate the effect from a vaginal birth. This research is fascinating, on a topic as close to home as possible, but one to which we are essentially oblivious.
At the other end of the spectrum is our changing knowledge of the universe, the domain of the astrophysicists. There is increasing evidence that much or most of the world around us and out into the universe is not accounted for. In their book “Matter, Dark Matter, and Anti-Matter: In Search of the Hidden Universe”, Alain Mazure and Vincent LeBrun hypothesize that atoms, our contemporary concept of “hard” reality, only account for 4.6% of the energy/matter in the universe. The rest is dark matter (24%) and dark energy (71.4%), about which we know very little. Again, it looks like our standard practice with chemistry and energy operates in total ignorance of the majority of the system we exist in. It is hard to grasp what the implications of these other parts of the universe are and will be as we understand them more.
These two examples, going from the micro- to the macro-, suggest that there are very likely some parallels in our approach to agriculture. There is increased interest in soil biology in recent years, recognizing that the soil is a living system, and that many organisms in the soil are interacting, for better or worse, with the plants we are trying to grow for food. But what about microbial communities on the leaves, and perhaps within the plants themselves? Our farming practices proceed as if they don’t exist. Similarly, one can read about various alternative agriculture approaches that rely on “manipulating energy fields” or “retuning the plant’s frequencies so pests are not attracted.” Agricultural research has largely ignored these ideas as well, just focusing on the chemical elements we can measure.
The point all this drives home for me is that we really know a lot about a small portion of the “system” we are trying to manage, but have a whole lot more to learn about the characteristics of the system itself. This suggests that there are great opportunities for improving our agricultural systems in the future, if we first can see the whole “elephant”, not just the trunk, or the tail, or the foot. As Wendell Berry once said, “We don’t know what we are doing because we don’t know what we are undoing.” I think the challenge is larger than that, as the world may not be what we have been taught.