Newsletter August 2015

China trip

WanglinI have spent the last months touring around China with Xiulan (my wife) and Lina (our daughter).

I fell I owe an apology; I try to provide a help service to wicking bed growers and to write a newsletter each month. China is a country of contrasts, much is great but one of the negatives is internet blocking which has prevented me from circulating a newsletter and properly answering the many questions I receive.

There is a common theme among the questions which are of general interest to many readers so I am rereading these and will write a general response in the forthcoming newsletters. For now I will try and make amends by making this an entertaining newsletter called ‘Real and Phantom Eureka moments’.

Real and phantom Eureka moments

Colin Austin © Collective Commons 30 Aug 2015

EurekaI think it was Oscar Wilde who said the problem with predictions it that the future has not happened yet. The other quote I like is that there are three types of people - those that make things happen - those that watch things happening and - those that wonder what has just happened.

My attempt to upgrade from Windows 8.1 to 10 makes me think I have fallen into the group that wonders what is happening. Windows 8 was without doubt the worst operating system that MS ever produced so I was anxious to upgrade. But when I try and install W10 I get error messages that MS don’t seem to know about but on the customer support page I see is a widespread problem.

But I have just had one of those Eureka moments which seems to me one of the most important findings on diet and health. But let me start by giving a bit of background on previous Eureka moments that have changed my life.

In the attic at RMIT

Forty years ago I had my first introduction to computers. I was a humble lecturer at the Institute of Technology in Melbourne and had a research project on computer simulation. Computers were then driven by punch cards and batch processing. It took for ever to debug a program but then I found out that as a staff member could stay back late to work in real time on a terminal up in the attic.

This was absolutely a Eureka moment for me - I could see that real time simulation would change manufacturing; I mortgaged by house to buy the second microcomputer to come into Australia and started serious programming. I was right - it exploded and my spare bedroom company grew to become the most successful exporter of technical software in Australia and my software is now used by virtually every major manufacturing company.

Two phantom Eureka moments

Bu then I had two phantom Eureka moments. The first was when I was driving home from the RMIT and heard Bill Mollison (of permaculture fame) being interviewed on the radio. His argument was simple and dramatic, monoculture was unsustainable and we needed to develop agriculture to be part of a sustainable ecosystem.

That sure got my attention and was followed by another Eureka moment when Melbourne experience massive dust storms.

Masses of our best top soil was swept out over the ocean, even NZ got some of our best top soil. When I started to research I found the rate of loss of top soil was more than concerning, we would soon have destroyed it all and the world would have no way of feeding itself - this looked pretty dramatic to me.

Getting passionate

dust stormI decided finding a way of regenerating top soil was the way I wanted to spend the next phase of my life so I sold my software company which gave me the resources to conduct serious research into how to make top soil.

This may have been a stupid thing to do as the company was later bought by one of the American techno giants for over $300 million many times what I got but that’s the way modern technology works –- but at least I had enough money to play with my passion for soil.

Off theme but important for our country

Large companies, even in the technology business, are relatively poor at developing new technologies. Innovation tends to come out of the blue from smaller more nimble companies.

We may think that major innovations like the smart phone were developed by the big guys - wrong. These large companies have any army of people looking for small companies with an innovative technology they can mass market. There real skill is in the large scale commercialisation of technology.

It is a pity our leaders haven’t realised that the coal is dying and our future lies in the commercialisation of technology. They seem to have so little understanding of how the technology industry works in the modern global society.

Australia has a great track record in innovation, often helped by the Government programs such as the Industrial Research and Development Grants but all too often the technology is snapped up by overseas companies who make a bundle from our innovations (and Government support). Our future prosperity is bound up with our success in the commercialisation of our innovations.

Currently we are just handing our best innovations to overseas giants for a pittance for them to make a fortune from. But that’s another story so back to regenerating soil.

Regenerating soil

rhizoshereWhere to start? Well nature has been making soil for a few billion years so let us see what we can learn by taking a trip from the equator to the poles.


The equatorial zone

Despite the fact that equatorial soil gives the impression of being rich they are really very poor. The apparent luxuriant is caused by the continuous humidity which enables plants to feed of the dead vegetation in real time as it decomposes. Any nutrients which are not immediately recycled are simple swept away by the heavy rain.

The monsoonal belt

Moving away from the equator we enter the dry winters and monsoonal rains. Soil does develop in the warm winters but there is significant loss of soil in the heavy rains.

Too much rain is not good.

The desert regions

Moving poleward we enter the desert regions with no reliable rainfall. At first sight there does not seem to be much soil at all, just bare sand but anyone who has been to the desert after the rare rain will be impressed by the mass of vegetation which appears virtually overnight and disappears in a few weeks.

Water is essential for soil formation but life can survive for years of drought.

You don’t need to be an expert in thermodynamics to drive a car

The lesson here it that seeds, soils biology (and even the desert frog which wraps itself in its own waterproof bag) can survive for years in dry conditions. As I learned regenerating soil is dominated by soil biology - which is incredibly complex. We have only discovered a small proportion of the species and it will be a long time before we have a true understanding.

We don’t need to understand everything - we just need to know how to care for the soil biology so it can do its job. After all we have no idea how to create life from scratch but we have still created hundreds of billions of people over time by following our natural instincts (or lust).

The rich Savanah belt

savanah beltNow we enter the Savanah zones which spread around the world in both hemispheres. Often there is rich soil - tens of metres deep. This is where much of the world’s food is produced and man has to work pretty hard to destroy this rich top soil - yet it happens as in the great dust bowl in the US.

We can also see that even in the rich Savanah lands that some areas have much better soil than others. This coincides with regions where the base rocks are volcanic and rich in a broad spectrum of minerals.

The Tundra

As we get nearer the poles there is still vegetation but typically a monoculture of specialist plants which can survive the extreme conditions but the dead plants turn into peat rather than soil.

How soil is created

Soil formation requires the right amount of water and a broad spectrum mineral base - nothing surprising here.

Modern science has an extremely good understanding of the mineral needed to make soil, the chemistry is a done deal - but there is more to soil that just chemistry - the physical form or structure - of the soil is equally essential.

So let’s study how soil is formed particularly learning from the Savanah regions.

soil creationTo my mind one of the most important symbiotic relations in the world is that between plants and soil biology.

The plants, by photosynthesis, produce an abundant supply of carbohydrates which they feed to the soil biology as either exudates or simply by the decay of dead vegetation. In return the soil biology creates enzymes which dissolve the rock making nutrients available to the plants; they also provide the glue which creates the aggregates which makes the texture of a good soil.

Soil is created by biology

Soil biology is complex –

we need to learn how to ‘farm’ soil biology

Anyone who studies soil biology appreciates how little we really understand this complex subject. On the other hand we don’t need to understand every intricate detail. I contrast creating soil by using biology with baking a cake.

A good cook can make a delicious cake by following the recipe but may not understand the chemistry. The same with soil, we now have the recipe to create a healthy soil as yet we may not understand the mechanics of how the soil biology is generating the soil but by creating the conditions for the biology to flourish we can produce a healthy soil.

Soil needs a better PR agent

So why are will still destroying soil on such a massive scale? It is partly because soil has never captured the public imagination like a new i-Phone with an updated version of Angry Birds but the core reason is simply that modern chemical farming is more productive - as measured by the quantity of food produced - than soils produced by this natural process.

You don’t need soil to produce good looking plants - just take a bit of sand to hold up the plants and add chemicals and plants will grow.

I sometimes think that my passion for soil came from a false Eureka moment - you simply don’t need soil to produce food - but the story is not over yet.

This is where the catch comes - the food may be full of energy but lacks the critical trace minerals, vitamins and phytonutrients which are needed to rebuild our bodies.

Empty calories

empty caloriesOur bodies are intelligent and sense the lack of nutrients so we still feel hungry and eat more of this high energy low nutrient food. Hormones circulating in our blood tell our brains whether we are hungry or satisfied - our brains then tell us to eat more or stop eating. This message is so strong it is almost irresistible - certainly over time. That is why fad diets fail.

We have to eat the food that makes us feel satisfied.
fad diets I appreciate that I may sound like a cracked record and my efforts at educating the public about this may have hardly dented the surface but there is a whole army of highly qualified doctors and dieticians preaching this message so why has the impact been so small.

The reality is that throughout the world people are getting fatter and less healthy.

But there is progress – consumption of organic food is expanding while the fast food industry is declining - it is all happening - even if slowly.

A real Eureka moment

fat or slimI may have misjudged the Eureka moment on soil but recently I had a real Eureka moment.

I have often pondered why some people get fat while others remain slim. Whether we put on weight or not is largely determined by hormones in our blood and I just thought that this was our genetics. Recently I learned that variation in our genetics has a relatively small effect and our gut bacteria has a much larger effect on our hormones. We can’t do much to change our DNA but we can do a lot to change our gut bacteria.
hungryFor example modern food is so easily digested that it is all digested before it reaches our lower gut which then send out hunger signals so we eat more. Simply by eating food which is slower to digest - such as fibre - our lower gut is fed and stops sending out ‘eat more’ hormone messages.

A simple small change in diet.

Changing our gut bacteria

I understand that many people don’t like to think about our gut bacteria - even though the number of cells is some ten times our own cells - it all sound just to yukky.

But the concept that we could control being overweight by managing our gut bacteria seems to me a major Eureka moment.

I have been told (without scientific back up) that our gut bacteria comes from the food we eat which in turn comes from the soil bacteria. If this is true then it signals the way of correcting the global health catastrophe from excess fat - the metabolic syndrome.

If that is true it would be a major Eureka moment - it has certainly got my attention and hopefully my research will lead to new information I can share in my newsletters.

Why is it so difficult to change diet?

Part of the answer to this question comes from Xiulan. She is a qualified surgeon and fully understands - at the intellectual level - that she should eat more healthy food, but she only does this under sufferance.

Let me tell you a recent story, I gave her some organically grown Kale - flash steamed - probably one of the healthiest foods. She barely touched it and filled up on dumplings which she loves.

If there is going to be a major change in eating habits the food must taste and look good. This is where Lina, our Chinese daughter comes into my experiments. Lina is an excellent cook and has now joined us in Australia. One of her projects is how to cook healthy food so it really tastes and looks good.

Real Chinese cooking

Let me make a few comments about Chinese cooking.

We are all familiar with the typical Chinese take away which is far from healthy (or genuine Chinese). This ‘take away’ foods we have become familiar with are not Chinese at all, their roots go back to the gold fields where the Chinese (ever ones to spot a business opportunity) found they could make a living by serving what is probably the worlds second take away food.

The first was apparently John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), who had a bit of a gambling problem but found he could continue his habit - uninterrupted by having to stop to eat - by putting a bit of meat between two slices of bread.
chinese foodOn my last trip to China Lina took us on a tour trying the food in various regions. There is no one single food we can call Chinese - every state or even town or village has its own speciality. But all these classic Chinese dishes - all very different - have one thing in common - how to make basically a very simply meal (largely rice and vegetables in the South and noodles and vegetables in the North) - taste and look good.

Lina’s project - now she is in Australia - is to experiment using the principles of traditional Chinese cooking to make a largely plant based diet as tasty and attractive as modern processed food.
veg wrapShe already has one success - a simple wrap which looked on the outside like a ‘manufactured food’ but was filled with a vegetable mix flavoured with Chinese sausage.

OK Chinese sausage may be a bit fatty but healthy food is no use if people don’t eat it and nip down to the golden arches.

Access to healthy food

fresh vegiesThe second part of the riddle is simply giving people access to healthy vegetables. My approach has been to make it as easy as possible for people to grow their own food.

Wicking beds - which are now universal - may appear to have been a resounding success but as far as I can see have been adopted by people who are already gardening and as such have access to home grown food anyway.
wicking basketI came up with the idea of wicking baskets so that non-gardeners could have easy (and cheap) access to healthy food.

To date my attempt with the wicking basket has not reached my target of non-gardeners.

May be that’s because non-gardeners are just not seeing my web and newsletters, it maybe that the system of basket swapping is too complex or it could be that people want to spend their money on more mobile phones rather than healthy food - I just do not know.

But I feel this is so important I am testing a new Mark 11 version of the wicking basket. At this moment I am surrounded by experiments with this Mark 11 version - which hopefully will enable any non -gardener to just add water and grow healthy plants.

I am hoping this will also be cheaper - even cheap enough to be disposable, which seems the current fashion. Experience has taught me not to start talking about a new technology until it is properly tested. This is happening right now and hopefully will be the topic for future newsletters.

Call for comments

In the meantime please welcome Lina and her cooking to Australia and if you have any ideas or views on the wicking basket system for non-gardeners please let me know - your input is appreciated.

Just email me

For more details goto - a detailed analysis of how diet affects health

how to grow (or buy) healthy food  (.pdf)