Earth Repair: A Unified Theory

Is Fixing Trophobiosis the Key to Beating Everything from Coronavirus to Locust Swarms to Climate Change?

The problems of land degradation and desertification have previously been linked to chronic drought & flooding (along with the associated soil erosion and reductions of soil quality, including organic matter & nutrient content).

Many parts of the world frequently experiencing these events are also prone to catastrophic and highly destructive infestations of pests (such as locusts) and increased incidence of disease in both vegetation and humans alike.

Perhaps more relevant now, the emergence of the Coronavirus/COVID-19 does not appear out of a vacuum.

This current pandemic, and most of the viruses that have made an appearance in recent years, are zoonotic in origin and can be attributed to loss of crucially needed animal habitat that serves as a buffer capable of limiting contact between animals and humans.

These breaches of environmental and ecological boundaries have, again, been translated directly into immense economic and social disruption – as well as increasingly precarious situations with regard to human security and stability.

I’ve written about some of this in more detail in previous pieces.

Yet, there is another underlying condition needing to be included with this assessment which is imperative to understand in properly comprehending the best solutions for ultimate resolution.

It’s a phenomenon known as TROPHOBIOSIS.

Trophobiosis can be said to be a symptom or product of land degradation and poor land management, generally-speaking.

Some of the previously mentioned issues, such as the periodic occurrence of locust infestations and prevalence of other “pest” & disease attacks, are basically manifestations or expressions of Trophobiosis.

This condition is further exacerbated by excess concentrations of carbon (and other greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere (a problem largely attributed to long-term changes made in land use that involve the removal of Earth’s major terrestrial carbon storages, typically being supplanted by atmosphere-polluting technologies) since this has been found to impede the ability of vegetation to take up essential nutrients.

The overall effect can be observed in alterations made to global climate, food quality, and ecosystem function – all for the worse, it should be said.

Biogeochemical impacts of tropical deforestation

What follows are excerpts cited from a number of references covering a few closely related topics.

They provide an overview of foundational components forming the development of a “Unified Theory” of Earth Repair.

The aim is to facilitate our ability to solve several urgently pressing contemporary challenges simultaneously through well-informed & well-directed practical action.

Excerpts taken from “Trophobiosis Theory: A Pest Starves on a Healthy Plant” By John Paull (Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University, Canberra).

Pests shun healthy plants.

Pesticides weaken plants.

Weakened plants open the door to pests and disease.

Hence pesticides precipitate pest attack and disease susceptibility, and thus they induce a cycle of further pesticide use.

Essence of Trophobiosis Theory

This is the essence of Trophobiosis Theory, a thesis presented by Francis Chaboussou, an agronomist of France’s National Institute of Agricultural Research (INRA), in “Healthy Crops: A New Agricultural Revolution”.

We need to overcome the idea of ‘a battle’; that is – we must not try to annihilate the parasite with toxins that have been shown to have harmful effects on the plant, yielding the opposite effect to the one desired.

We need, instead, to stimulate resistance by dissuading the parasite from attacking.

This implies a revolution in attitude, followed by a complete change in the nature of research” (p. 209).

Francis Chaboussou


In taking a non-military approach to farming, Chaboussou is taking a position in solidarity with proponents of organic agriculture including the earliest, Steiner (1924), Pfeiffer (1934), and Northbourne (1940).

And so with the biological-dynamic methods we work not against Nature but with Nature (1934, p.16).

Ehrenfried Pfeiffer

Pfeiffer put it this way:

When the biological balance is upset, degeneration follows; pests and diseases make their appearance.

Nature herself liquidates weaklings.

Pests are therefore to be regarded as nature’s warning that … the balance [has been] sinned against (1958, p.16).

Ehrenfried Pfeiffer


Northbourne wrote that:

There can be no quarrel between ourselves and nature any more than there can be between a man’s head and his feet …

We have invented or imagined a fight between ourselves and nature; so of course, the whole of nature – which includes ourselves as well as the soil – suffers …

We have tried to conquer nature by force and by intellect.It is now for us to try the way of love (1940, p. 191, 192).

Northbourne

From the outset of organic agriculture, Northbourne had nailed the escalation problem of chemical farming:

True, plants continue to grow on the ground, but why is it that more and more spraying is necessary?

What answer can there be but that diseases and pests are more and more rampant; in spite of the fact that far more is being done, far more skill is being lavished on the combating of disease than was ever dreamed of in the past …

It is liability to disease and not disease itself which indicates ill-health (1940, 101).

Northbourne

This is the issue that Chaboussou addresses with trophobiosis theory.

Trophobiosis is derived from two Greek roots – trophikos (nourishment) and biosis (life):

The relationships between plant and parasite are primarily nutritional

Chaboussou, p. 206

According to the trophobiosis theory, it is nutrient deficiencies and imbalances that lead to pest and disease outbreaks, and that synthetic pesticides and fertilisers can cause such deficiencies and imbalances.

The trophobiosis theory has been summed up by Dr. Ulrich Loening of the University of Edinburgh as follows:

Most pest and disease organisms depend for their growth on free amino acids, and reducing sugars in solution in the plant’s cell sap.

Every farmer has experienced the increase in diseases after heavy fertilisation with nitrogen; the Green Revolution varieties are good examples in which rich fertilisation creates susceptibility to pests, requiring more pesticides to control.

Dr. Ulrich Loening, University of Edinburgh

Chaboussou explains why.

Almost all conventional chemical agricultural technologies create favourable conditions for the growth of pest and disease organisms …

the susceptibility of the crop is increased: when offered free nutrients, pests grow better and multiply faster.

In this sense therefore, agro-chemicals and poisons cause pests and diseases

Chaboussou (2004, p. x, xi)

Under Chaboussou’s theory, an excess, within the plant, of less complex biochemical molecules, such as amino acids (rather than proteins that they build to) and/or simpler (reducing) sugars such as glucose (rather than the more complex carbohydrates such as glucose polymers – starches – and other polysaccharides) offers an attractive milieu for pests and disease.

The trophobiosis argument is that resistance and susceptibility to attack are a function of the nutritional state of a plant,

when proteins are being synthesised, the plant is resistant, and when proteins are being broken down, the plant is at risk.

Organophosphates inhibit protein synthesis …

this is the cause of the plant’s increased susceptibility, not only to sucking insects such as mites, aphids, aleurodes [aphids] and (so it seems) psyllids but also to diseases, fungal and otherwise (p. 55).

Chaboussou

Chaboussou states that

all herbicides are toxic for all plants

Chaboussou (p. 57)

He reports

a parallel between the effects of herbicides and those of nitrogen fertilisers.…

the pesticides that contain nitrogen – practically all chemical pesticides – are cations.

They can replace cations such as Ca, Mg, and Zn from the exchange complex.

Chaboussou (p.156)

And hence applications of herbicides and synthetic fertilisers can lead to deficiencies in the treated plant.

Chaboussou states that:

Artificial organo-chemicals have a very special affinity for plant tissues” (p. 39) and pesticides applied to the leaves – foliar application – find their way into the body of the plant.

This can be through the cuticle and through the stomata – since light promotes the maximum opening of the stomata, penetration of pesticides will be greater where the poison is applied in daylight.

Penetration of pesticides into the body of the plant can be via the leaves, and also the roots, the seeds and the branches.

Chaboussou

Having penetrated the plant, Chaboussou identifies that pesticides can be transported through the plant via both apoplastic (extracellular) pathways and symplastic (intracellular and intercellular exchange – within a cell and from cell to cell – via the cytoplasm) pathways.

The plant, so weakened, is thus susceptible to pests and disease.

How are these nutritional imbalances best addressed?

As highlighted in some of my earlier writings, focusing efforts on improving soil quality and biological activity through intelligent land management is clearly the path that must be taken.

There is no other way.

Soil biology (in all of its forms) must be permitted to – and aided in – determining the chemistry best suited to maintain the functional health of landscapes globally.

The primary purpose of Earth Repair is to create the habitat and conditions conducive for these biological elements to perform the work they’re built for doing – and to refrain from undermining their ability to do it!

soil restoration with the complete soil food web in place
soil restoration with the complete soil food web in place
soil restoration with the complete soil food web in place
Credit: USDA NRCS

Excerpts taken from “Living With Locusts: Connecting Soil Nitrogen, Locust Outbreaks, Livelihoods, and Livestock Markets”
ARIANNE J. CEASE, JAMES J. ELSER, ELI P. FENICHEL, JOLEEN C. HADRICH, JON F. HARRISON, AND BRIAN E. ROBINSON

Locusts require specific soil conditions for ovipositing eggs in the ground: damp enough to prevent desiccation but not wet enough to promote fungal and bacterial infections.

Rains that bring new vegetation can encourage the rapid growth of hatchling nymphs.

However, precipitation can create cooler microclimates, potentially slowing growth and extending intergenerational times.

Locust plagues are often the result of multiple generations of population growth, culminating in one to several generations of sustained high populations followed by a crash in which populations return to low density levels (Joern and Gaines, 1990).

However, precipitation is just one factor that is thought to influence the propensity for locust outbreaks; plant quality can also affect the growth rate, survival, and fecundity of individual insects, thereby affecting the rate of population increase.

The specific aspects of plant quality that influence locust growth are also complex and vary across grasshopper species.

For example, in the desert locust, S. gregaria, the fastest growth rates occur when the insects consume equal amounts (by mass) of protein and carbohydrate (Pener and Simpson 2009), whereas the Mongolian locust, O. asiaticus, favors diets with a 1:2 protein-to-carbohydrate ratio (Cease et al. 2012), a lower protein preference than that of any grasshopper previously studied (Behmer 2009).

Plant quality—including the amounts and balance of protein, carbohydrate, and other nutrients that locusts can obtain from plants—depends greatly on soil quality and the nutrients that plants can extract from soils.

In turn, soil quality is greatly influenced by land-use practices, particularly in rangelands and agricultural ecosystems.

Research in the arid grasslands of Inner Mongolia in northeast China illustrates the complex feedback that connects livestock management to Mongolian locust outbreaks in scenarios in which locusts originate from human-dominated landscapes (Cease et al. 2012).

This literature demonstrated that excessive livestock grazing promotes Mongolian locust outbreaks in an unexpected way: by lowering plant nitrogen (N) content (Kang and Chen 1995, Cease et al. 2012).

In this pathway, heavy grazing promotes loss of nutrients (e.g., nitrogen) by amplifying soil erosion through leaching and by export of manure (figure 1; Giese et al. 2013).

This results in N-poor plant tissues (Chen et al. 2002).

Because most N in plants is in the form of protein, low plant nitrogen content implies protein-poor forage.

In contrast to the commonly held view that herbivores are ubiquitously protein limited (White 1993), Cease and colleagues (2012) showed that the Mongolian locust preferred and performed best on low-protein plants found in degraded or heavily grazed pastures.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that related West African and Australian locusts have a similar preference for low protein-to-carbohydrate ratios in their diets.

Intriguingly, agricultural reports indicate that outbreaks of these species are common on degraded lands (Amatobi et al. 1988, Bailey 2007, Deveson 2012).

However, the connections among land use, soil quality, plant nutrient content, and locust plagues have yet to be investigated in species other than the Mongolian locust.

The convergence of these patterns suggests that a common mechanism may promote locust outbreaks on degraded lands in several parts of the world.

Overgrazing alters plant nutrient content

Excessive grazing depletes soil nitrogen, resulting in forage that is of lower quality for livestock (an intertemporal externality) but—because low-N plants are of higher quality for the locust—increasing the production of migratory locusts (an ecosystem externality).

This feedback generates a spatial externality (Smith et al. 2009) that potentially induces feedback via market mechanisms and governmental responses.

Therefore, to understand locust outbreaks, one needs to understand human systems, locust and grassland ecology, and the connections among them.

Additionally, a number of studies have discovered that increased levels of atmospheric carbon coupled with a warming climate restricts the ability of plants to absorb nutrients – making them not only less healthy, but also more susceptible to pest attack (as previously noted).

See:

What becomes very apparent is the vicious cycle set into motion by failing to address the practices that have led to the further degradation of landscapes – and seeming refusal to prioritize taking action on rehabilitating those places in need of repair to re-establish healthy ecological functioning.

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Rhamis Kent
 

Rhamis Kent is a consultant with formal training in mechanical engineering (University of Delaware, B.S.M.E. ’95) and permaculture-based regenerative whole systems design serving as a registered certified Permaculture Design instructor with PRI Australia. He serves as a co-director of the Permaculture Research Institute, Executive Director of the Italy-based World Permaculture Association, a member of Permaculture Sustainable Consulting Pty Ltd (PSC) and on the Supervisory Board of The Netherlands-registered non-profit Ecosystem Restoration Camps. As of September 2017, he serves as founder & director of Agroecological Natural Technology Systems Ltd. - a Companies House (UK) registered business (#10962612). He is working with the Giuseppe Tallarico Consultation Company in supporting the Government of Jordan to develop permaculture systems in the country. Rhamis has taught Permaculture Design (formal Certification and short Intensive courses) in Palestine/Occupied West Bank, Greece, Ethiopia, Yemen, Turkey, Thailand, Malaysia, Italy, Spain, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Australia, and The United States (Michigan, California & Vermont). He has also performed additional consultancy work on projects in Spain, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Oman, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Somaliland, and Western Sahara.

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John Button

Shabash-ji, a really excellent article and super inspiring the way you’ve presented so much info clearly in such a compact document with so much supporting evidence. Bravissimo!

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