Scientist says plants — not soil — are the building blocks of life

Australian soil scientist Christine Jones challenges conventional thinking 
by arguing microbes and fungi are the key to soil health

soil scientist at a lecture
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Though many claim that soil is the building block of life, Christine Jones has a different approach.

“It’s not the soil that is the building block of life. It’s the plants,” the internationally acclaimed soil scientist and agricultural consultant said at a sold-out appearance in Olds.

The Australian also drew a large crowd in Rycroft, including a High River producer who was so eager to hear her that he booked a ticket to fly to the Peace Country to attend the event.

In Olds, Jones spoke about the critical role that mycorrhizal fungi and microbes play in building healthy plant stands and how management of plants helps build soil.

“Up to 85 to 90 per cent of the nutrient acquisition and plant needs is controlled and regulated by microbes,” she said.

The key is the relationship between mycorrhizal fungi and plant roots, she said. The fungi link plants together, and help exchange water, nutrients, and even information (in the form of chemical signals that can warn, for example, that pests or diseases are attacking nearby plants).

They also create energy in the form of what Jones calls “liquid carbon” that is used by microbes to create biologically available nitrogen.

“It’s not about adding things to the soil to fix it,” said Jones, a critic of heavy use of chemical fertilizers, which she says harm soil quality.

man at a classroom lecture
Steve Kenyon, a producer and grazing consultant from Busby, said that Jones’ message is one that producers should hear. photo: Alexis Kienlen

Instead, she said, farmers need to increase plant diversity on their fields and pastures, and foster plant growth for as long as possible in a season in order to boost the amount of photosynthesis. Both are key to building healthy and diverse microbial populations in soil, she said.

She outlined two pathways to build soil carbon: The decomposition pathway, which occurs when plants break down, and the liquid carbon pathway, which occurs when plants add sugars that stimulate microbial activity.

“This is why plant diversity is so important,” said Jones. “We need to have a diversity of functional roots in the soil.

“It’s like a hidden village where you have a bank and a gas station and a post office and school and all those things. That’s what makes the community work — having all those things there. When you start taking those things away, it’s not going to work. To have functional groups of microbes in the soil, you have to have different plants above ground.”

Microbial nitrogen fixing can happen on any plant, provided there are aggregates around the roots. This can be seen when soil sticks to the roots.

Some producers may not want to hear it, Jones said, but adding chemical fertilizers can actually be detrimental because they can interfere with the interaction of the soil microbes. It’s possible to reduce or even eliminate chemical fertilizers, but plants first need to be weaned off them until rich microbiological activity is restored, she said.

A controversial approach

Among those in attendance was Grant Lastiwka, a livestock and forage specialist with Alberta Agriculture in Olds.

Lastiwka, who raises cattle near Innisfail, was looking for answers on how to deal with drought when he stumbled across Jones’ work two decades ago.

“As I tried to dig through things, I realized it came back to an approach,” he said. “For soils to be resilient and plants to be productive, it came down to the management of the green plant material so that the relationship with the plants was one in which they were partners with the soil and the soil organisms.”

Jones’ approach was at odds with conventional practices, but made sense to him, he said.

“I started to realize that in systems, things don’t add up,” said Lastiwka, who practises holistic management at his farm. “Things are synergistic or antagonistic, but they are never neutral. So much of science is based on a linear approach to things. It can’t really deal with systems.”

Adhering to Jones’ principles changed his farming practices, he said.

He started maintaining a ground cover, which captured water and protected his soil. He improved soil quality by using bale grazing to amend the soil structure. This resulted in pastures that turned green earlier in spring, maintained that growth longer into the fall, and were more lush, especially under adverse conditions.

Another enthusiastic attendee was Steve Kenyon, a grazing consultant and custom grazing operator from Busby.

Encouraging development of soil organisms is central to his consulting work, he said.

“When the mycorrhizal fungi is intact, it expands the root system,” said Kenyon. “As soon as you do one process that inhibits that — boom! — you can’t reach the network.

“The mycorrhizal fungi is like the Internet — it interconnects every plant and they all communicate through it.”

Jones’ take on soil and current farming practices is “something producers need to hear,” Kenyon said.

“Although a lot of producers never will — even if they were here, they might not hear it,” he said. “This is controversial to traditional farming for sure, but it’s not controversial to sustainability or how we should be treating our primary resource. As agricultural producers, we need to take care of that, and that’s exactly what she is explaining to us.”

A collection of papers and presentations by Jones can be found on her website, Amazing Carbon.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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