Soil and Health in Permaculture

Permaculture Designers Manual



Section 8.2 –

Soil and Health in Permaculture

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As long as we live, we will be discovering new things about the soil-plant-animal relationship.

Soils harbor and transfer both diseases and antibiotics; plants will take up from the soil many modern antibiotics (penicillin, sulfa drugs), and we might then ingest them at concentrated levels.

Animals will retain residual antibiotics (therefore new and resistant strains of disease organisms), and will contain residual hormones and biocides. Plants and animals may concentrate, or nullify, environmental pollutants.

Most of these pollutants are in fact concentrated by both plants and animals, but the degree to which this happens varies between species.

Both dangers and benefits arise from our food.

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Natural levels of soil antibiotics may sustain us, and natural resistance to disease is in great part trans milled to us via food. It is certainly the case with vitamins and trace elements that they maintain the function of many metabolic processes, in minute but necessitous amounts.

When people lived as inhabitants of regions (as many still do) they adapted to local soils, plants, and nutritional levels or they died out.

Today, we bring in global food to global markets, and so risk the global spread of “agricologenic” (farm-caused) diseases.

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Like the home water-tank, the house garden represents a limited and localized risk under our control, and little risk to society generally.

Public water supplies and commercial foods are a different matter, distributed as they are throughout many modem societies.

In soil rehabilitation, we are forced to start with what is now there. Only rarely have we a soil containing all the nutrients a plant may need to grow. Most gardeners and farmers who have developed sustainable soil systems allow 3-4 years for building a garden, and 5-15 years to restore a devastated soil landscape.

This applies only to the physical restoration of soils and to the development of appropriate plant systems.

There are far more lengthy processes to be undertaken where past chemical pollution has occurred.



Orchards, sugarcane areas, pineapple, cotton, tobacco crop, and banana plantations (to name just a few well-known cases) have had such an orgy of mineral additives, arsenicals, Aldrin, DDT, copper salts, and dioxins applied that even alter 18-20 years of no chemical use, a set of apple orchards in West Australia produces unsafe levels of Aldrin and Dieldrin in the eggs of free-range chickens.

Attempts to grow prawns in ponds on such lands have failed on the basis of residual Dieldrin levels in soils.

When we come to assess the total environmental damage caused by persistent misuse of chemicals, we will find many farms (as well as bores and rivers) that will need to be put into for non-food production (as fuel forests or structural timber) for decades to come.

The same may already hold true for soils within 100 m of roadways where leaded petrol is used (and where 800-1000 cars pass daily).

We face lock-up periods of tens or at times thousands of years for the radioactives blowing off, or leaking from, waste dumps and strategic stockpiles of yellowcake Uranium (Iowa, Kentucky, Russia and the UK or France), or from “accidents” such as those occurring at atomic power plants, or from their wastes.

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Cadmium and uranium-polluted soils of chemically based and heavily-fertilized market gardens, waste dumps of industry, and the long-term effects of nitrate-polluted soli waters can be added to those lists of already-dangerous areas.

Even now, applied health levels would close down many farms and factories, and (as awareness rises) this will be done in the near future by public demand.

The costs of rehabilitation (as for acid rain) already far outstrip the profits of degradation, and may in fact be prohibitive for areas that were developed for farming from 1950 to the present (the age of agricultural pollution).

Large quantities of lead, arsenic, copper, and persistent biocides are applied on most apple orchards. Data is available for some metals <ECOS 40, Winter ’84).

Copper and lead stay at or near the surface of soils in high concentrations. Arsenic may also stay at this level in clay soils, or wash down to subsoil (50 – 60cm deep) in add sands. Leaching from clays or organic profiles 10-20 cm) is unlikely, although phosphate application may dislodge arsenic to deeper levels.

In pasture plants under such orchards, copper can reach 50 ppm (poisonous to sheep). Excess copper in the diet causes toxaemic jaundice (Uver poisoning) and blood in the urine. (People in Australian deserts often show high copper blood levels and blood in urine.)

Molybdenum, zinc and sulphur may buffer copper uptake in sheep at least; uptake by plants Increases with temperature and acidity (for lead and copper), as for vegetables. Arsenic uptake is not related to acidity; silver beet (Swiss chard) fed with nitrogen lose high arsenic concentrations, but may then be unsuitable for children due to high nitrate levels.

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Several substances have now polluted soils. There are no easy remedies for polluted soils, but the following strategies may help:

LEAD (from car exhausts and lead paint, pipes, battery burning). Wont cases are in urban areas of older buildings. Lead at 1,100 ppm can be present, and is both taken up by and dusted on the surface of vegetables.


However, it is possible to garden by:

Cracked bricks or gravel as a base.
Building up beds to 30cm deep, and making up a rich composted soil of over 40% organic content.
Growing vegetables and having leaf analyses done; washing in dilute vinegar if lead is still used locally in petrol.


PERSISTENT BIOCIDES, especially DDT, Aldrin, Dieldrin,  BHC,  etc.

If you buy or inherit an old orchard, canefleld, or plantation (banana, pineapple, cotton, tobacco) it is unlikely that any animal product (milk, eggs, meat) will be free of high levels of biocides.

There is no choice but to go into forestry, and to produce non-food crop until other methods are developed.

Also, test your own vegetables for residual toxic materials.

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GROUNDWATER can contain 80-90 biocidal substances below farms, including those derived from fertilizers, sprays, and fuels. Near industrial waste dumps, dioxins, radioactives, and heavy metal wastes (cadmium, chromium, mercury) can be added.

Do not use untested wells or bore waters for any purpose.

Drink tank water and try to harvest surface run-off for gardens.

It is estimated that several decades may be needed to clear most aquifers of pollutants. Almost every state of the USA has serious problems.

Rainwater harvest and strict water conservation are indicated for the long-term future.

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Several substances are added to town water supplies, and these may include chlorine, fluorine, alum (aluminium sulphate) and other metabolic poisons.

We must not add to this mess. Avoid all biocides, high levels of nitrates, and watch on-farm disposal of oils and fuels.



The subject of human nutrition is complex, and under fairly constant assessment by scientists from many disciplines.


Four very broad statements can be made:

A normally-mixed diet (omnivorous) has been exhibited by most human groups. Excessive dietary simplicity, reliance on too few foods, or a restricted dietary range has its dangers, while a mixed diet of local foods, plus an active life, has usually proved healthy, providing good hygiene is also observed (public, personal, and domestic).

In the developed countries, refined and processed foods, too much inclusion of animal fats, and a plethora of food additives have certainly resulted in malnutrition and on degenerative diseases (obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease). There is now a general move away from smoking, heavy drinking, and many fatty or processed foods, and a rising demand for lean meats, fish, and clean vegetables, fruits, and nuts.

In areas subject to famine, semi-starvation, or where very low levels of critical vitamins (commonly C, A, B-complex) or minerals (iron, zinc) exist, it is necessary to take great care with human and soil health, and to have a very sound knowledge or the possible results of any new dietary change (whole grains and pulses may strip out the little zinc the body retains where there are starving people in alkaline desert areas; zinc tablets may then been needed if such foods are commonly used). Traditional diets, long maintained, are a guide to local food tolerances.

There is a complex and constant interaction between food, soil, trace elements, pH, biocides, and fertilizers. Too often, product yield, weight or processing suitability is the only reason given for using biocides and fertilizers; nutrition is rarely mentioned in plant breeding programmes. Heavy use of fertilizers – the macro-nutrients – can cause a deficiency of micro-nutrients (ApTech 6(1). 1984).


We are individually different in our ability to metabolize and tolerate foods.

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For some of us, specific food allergies are very real, and at least in part (e. g. lactic acid intolerance) arise from little exposure to certain food groups in our racial history. Individuals can test for ill effects by becoming conscious of headaches or other symptoms, and experimentally eliminating some foods or beverages from their diet, or even a class or food (e.g. dairy products, grains), still leaving a very wide range of foods from gardens, farms, ponds, and nature.

Another basic individual variable (apart from metabolic efficiency) is body weight itself.

Dosages of any substance vary with body build, fats, and dosage per kilogram weigh so that alcohol and anaesthetics (for instance) may have a very different metabolic effect on two people of equal weight, one of whom is fat and one lean.

So it is with specific foods.

The same procedure in health is to maintain basic hygiene, grow and eat healthy plants and animals, avoid biocides and pollutants, take easy exercise, drink clean water or beverages, and stay as cheerful as this world permits (or adopt a positivistic lifestyle).

The rest is up to chance, traffic accidents, or megalomaniacs and wars, and these demand commonsense changes to the social systems, plus a little good luck.


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