The classic BBC radio comedy series “Beyond Our Ken” used to feature a gardener called Arthur Fallowfield, played by Kenneth Williams. His response to anyone who asked him anything was, always, (in a cod West Country accent) “the answer lies in the soil”. That may be true for gardeners and farmers up to a point, but the weather plays a role as well.
The soil or terroir is a complex mix of micro-organisms that break down organic material, mix it with minerals and provide nutrients for plants. Good soil contains a diversity of micro-organisms that supports the growth of a range of plants. Certain crops will encourage the growth of some species and not others. Legumes for example will encourage the growth of nitrogen fixing bacteria that produce plant protein. Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides act like antibiotics to deplete the soil microbiome. The growth of a monoculture will also limit the micro-organisms.
Adam in the long running agricultural soap opera, The Archers, has been banging on about herbal lays for the last year or so. He has a point. Herbal lays not only provide a diversity in food stuff, the plantains and clover and vetches tap into differ layers of soil, loosen it and mix it up. Mob grazing, whereby cattle and sheep are confined to different pastures within a field, cropping it and enriching it with compost before being moved to the next pasture is another way of improving the quality of the soil by increasing the diversity of the microbiome. Farmers are returning to crop rotation and leaving a field go fallow as a way of improving soil quality instead of using chemical sprays.
So the microbial content of the soil is not just a fixed entity. It is entirely dependent responsive to changes in climate. Frost, snow, rain, drought all have a major effect. Drying desiccates the soil depleting the soil microbiome while waterlogging can lead to a reduction in oxygenation, a limited range of micro-organisms and a more acidic soil. Richard Park from Low Sizergh Farm near Kendal is interested in holistic farming, which means farming in a way that conserves the environment while remaining sustainable, but as his father, John commented, farmers have still got to make a living. The trick is to take what you need in a way that maintains productivity.
There are parallels with medicine. It is so important we look after our colonic environment; the terroir of the gut. Applying herbicides, and pesticides is a bit like giving antibiotics. They may improve soil quality in the short term, but the long term effect can be disastrous. And perhaps mood is a metaphor for the weather. Storms of anxiety may flush out the gut depleting the microbiome, whereas stagnation associated with depression may reduce the pH and reduce the quality of the colonic ‘soil’.
The connections between farming and medicine go further. Richard and his sister, Alison, have started a charity scheme, called ‘growing well’ (www.growingwell.co.uk), which supports people with mental illness build emotional resilience, good physical health and set goals for the future by offering practical, meaningful work. ‘Our lovely fruit, vegetables, flowers and herbs are grown by people recovering from mental illness, and cultivates their own good health in the process’.
It sounds like how the people, who spoke at The IBS Network’s anniversary event last year, described how they got over their IBS by doing something practical and meaningful, like starting a radio programme and making and selling artisan chocolate.