Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
[flagged] Long Live Microbiomes (scientificamerican.com)
66 points by dlumpkin 63 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 48 comments

I just can't make it very far in articles like this anymore. I've heard too many breathless food/nutrition takes vectored in too many different directions, and now I'm utterly desensitized.

And part of me is screaming for citations while the other part knows that an examination of the literature would reveal the same structures, just one level deeper---one or more warring camps that aren't even talking to each other any more.

How do you use a small set of scientific studies to prove one is better? Studies are reductionist, which is a very powerful and useful perspective...but not as useful when you have to measure a dynamic living system that can be optimized along maybe 100 dimensions or more? Worse, what is the funding source of these studies, and what incentives are tied to it?

So you have many different types of soils, and that will produce variations. You have different histories on those soils, you can measure for a dozen minerals, but what about those tiny trace minerals? Top soil optimization...nutrient run-off that creates fungal blooms in the ocean killing life in the ocean, price per pound to produce produce, shelf life of produce, how it looks, is the taste in fashion ----- so take those dimensions that you can measure things on --- and then multiply that by the number of different veggies and fruits and all their different types (eg. how many different apples are there??)

It's too massive problem space to solve with a few studies...and the financial incentives and ideological thinking further muddies the waters.

You do this with a proper understanding of statistical power, and you report "no conclusion" when you don't have studies of adequate power. This is not actually a terribly difficult problem with a proper understanding of Bayesian statistics, it just doesn't lead to good headlines, because a lot of the time the answer is "the study couldn't really provide an answer."

I'm not saying you're wrong but doesn't that inherently favour the side claiming "there is no problem because you can't prove there's a problem." Until by the time someone can prove there's a problem we already have a generation with lead poisoning or a collapsed ecosystem or whatever it may be.

    Louise Elizabeth Maher-Johnson is a retired English teacher and current regenerative farmer, who raises heritage chickens at Skyhill Farm

Scientific American should be embarrassed to have published this. This is textbook pseudoscience: cherry-picking evidence to support a position that you're already predisposed to believe.

This doesn't mean it's necessarily wrong, just that it is not even remotely a scientific perspective on the situation. Its "USDA citation" is to what amounts to a marketing-focused whitepaper.

>Its "USDA citation" is to what amounts to a marketing-focused whitepaper.

Can you elaborate on this point?

> An individual today would need to consume twice as much meat, three times as much fruit, and four to five times as many vegetables to obtain the same amount of minerals and trace elements available in those same foods in 1940.

Wait, really?

Did they accurately measure them in 1940? I would also think trace minerals vary at least a little based on geographical location.

Anyway here is a journal article by a Canadian govt scientist that refutes that minerals in food/soil is depleted:


> available in those same foods in 1940.

I guess most people today eat much more than five times the amount commonly available to people in the bloody days of WWII.

If so that's pretty upsetting and impossible unless you're a super athlete taking in 5x calories a day.

Trace minerals not calories

In order to take in those minerals you'd need to eat more, which equals more calories

Check the citation.

If you want to read more about this topic, I recommend a good book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston A. Price DDS. ISBN-13: 978-0916764203. ISBN-10: 0916764206 A good book to understand that the food we eat is related to our diseases problems.

Does Scientific American usually put out badly overgeneralized, sparsely detailed editorials like this?

Just a question for those in the know: is regenerative farming even scalable to meet the needs of a booming population? Can grow enough food without current industrial agriculture?

First, population is leveling off, not booming.

Second, yes, by definition regenerative agriculture is scalable.

It might require as much as double the labor requirements (so 3% of the population rather than 1.5%) but it's likely that automation will amortize that.

See "How is China able to provide enough food to feed over 1B people?" https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20537409 which describes some aspects of China's agriculture that are regenerative.

Also, I recommend Toby Hemenway's "Redesigning Civilization with Permaculture" talk for background and future directions. http://tobyhemenway.com/videos/redesigning-civilization-with...

Geoff Lawton's "Greening the Desert" project converted salty desert to producing figs and other food in just two years. https://permaculturenews.org/2007/03/01/greening-the-desert-...

- - - -

Just to mention one (gross) example: It's a little-known fact that Eisenia fetida worms will devour "night soil" (#2's) and produce clean-smelling castings, while doubling in biomass in approximately 40-50 days. This could easily be scaled to handle urban sewage densities, returning that matter directly to the ecosystem without expensive treatment/chemicals etc.


Municipal wastewater treatment does not use expensive treatment or chemicals. It is a huge bioreactor where the only input is aeration and stirring.

Okay but it's still gonna be cheaper to poop into a bucket of worms. Grosser, but cheaper. ;-)

Have in mind, animal products are our natural diet. the amount of nutrients per gr is way higher. 200g of liber is way more nutritive than 10kg of tomatoes, avocados, and other vegetables all together. And you can eat (as i do) local meat, which is eco friendly. Most of the vegetables you eat are overseas or from neighbour countries. Check the labels, you will be surprised.

I'm not sure if the amount of plants grown for direct human consumption is still too big. Especially the protein rich ones, like beans, lentils.

I believe the booming population thirsty for beef, chicken and similar massive products is driving the agriculture of corn, soybean and wheat to its limits.


What if we don't throw half of it away instead of eating it?

It'd be nice if there were different food grades for this stuff. So instead of wasting food you can give the less visually appealing a lower grade and sell to food manufacturers/restaurants for uses where the person eating it doesn't see or eat it in the original state.

That doesnt fit human consumption patterns. Or at least American consumption patterns.

Just read the beginning so far, but it sounds like home-grown is safe (even if not self-started plants)? Ie, the article (so far) makes it sound like it's an issue of soil microbiome. If that's the case, and I no-dig grow my own veggies, I'd be okay?

They are saying corn is toxic because it has round-up chemicals in it - and they can't be washed off.

So growing food in your backyard, assuming you don't spray it or have heavy metals in your soil that are ingested by the crop, are likely fine.

How alive is your backyard's soil? A lab would have to analyze it. It may or may not have the right minerals, depending on what you're trying to grow.

You can also buy simple take home soil test kits that do the job just fine, FWIW.

> How alive is your backyard's soil? A lab would have to analyze it. It may or may not have the right minerals, depending on what you're trying to grow.

I brought in a lot of compost to "start" it, so who knows what is in there. Furthermore my home is recently purchased, and the previous owners did the land no benefits (unkept dogs in the lawn, terrible looking dirt, etc). However I'm working towards / practicing no dig, heavy mulching of both green and brown (both in beds and out of beds) to promote natural breakdown and soil improvements, and tumbler composting (to combat rodents).

I plan to soil test in a few years, once I've become more established. Right now I'm primarily concerned with establishing whatever is sustainable for me, and then measuring what I might need to tweak. We'll see how it goes, hah - I'm pretty new to all of this; and I have more yard than I (an indoor man) knows how to deal with :D

> corn is toxic because it has round-up chemicals in it

If this is known to be the case, how does this pass food safety?

Can't you just get ecological produce or elsewise produced without round up?

/s Is the water you use for irrigation chlorinated or fluorinated?

You jest, but someone's been vandalizing stop signs in my area with bumper stickers that read something about "they're putting fluoride in the water!"

It amuses me somewhat, because most of the people here are either on wells or the water coop, and AFAIK the latter only chlorinates. But, education never stopped a good conspiracy from roping in true believers...

You'd probably be ok, if you only ate the veggies you grew yourself. But what about meat, dairy and other animal products? What about bread, rice and other cereals?

I have a friend who is incredibly conscious about such things and they convinced a farmer to raise chickens on non-gmo, organic feed; chickens are free range, and treated humanely. They called it the “holy grail” chicken.

Yes, they did inspect the chicken, feed, etc.

Total cost to purchase is $20/lb. majority of the cost coming from feed.

Regardless if you can pick apart my story or how honest the entire process is, I’m not sure this is sustainable. Who can afford such prices?

If this is the case (and true at face value), what are our choices?

I don’t want to be a Debby Downer, just passing along info.

The interesting part is that current lowest-cost food production is a semi-random walk of various optimization paths to arrive at the status quo. That someone tried a different path, optimizing different parameters doesn't give any guarantees that further attempts could or could not go as low in price, or maybe at get to an overall higher value to a wider set of end consumers even if the price were higher.

We could be creating less waste, or healthier food products, the question is how do we systematically explore new spaces like that, even when there isn't immediate payoff. We shouldn't just rely on lucky whims of individuals - if nothing else our overall system conspires to a smaller ration of fewer individuals financially capable of indulging such exploration.

> Who can afford such prices?

Not sure about $20/lb - I guess this means most don't eat chicken often - but...


It may well be that we just have to spend more on food and less on rent (for example). In aggregate it wouldn't be much of an issue if over a period of 10-20 years food prices increased and something else (due to limited individual budgets) decreased.

It’s possible to raise chickens as part of a broader regenerative system where much of the feed is an output from elsewhere in that system. This has been done profitably by folks like Joel Salatin, but it has its own constraints (for example, availability of pasture land).

you don’t necessarily need meat, dairy, other animal products, bread, rice, and other cereals.

You kinda really need at least a substantial subset of those

I think it depends on the history of your soil.

Wow, so some food has had their nutrients decreased by 100%? Seems a bit far fetched to me.

'Minerals and trace elements'. Makes you wonder how they calculated the 'trace elements' (whatever those are) in food from decades ago? Easy! Just say you did.

Scientific. American.


Why would Scientific American have a blog post from an organic farmer devoid of any reference to studies or actual science?

Scientific American is another magazine like Quanta. A lot of exacting discussion of very little substance.

worse, it might even be a promoted piece:



Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact