How to Grow (or Buy) Healthy Food – Chapter 5

The [Grow] Network is pleased to publish Colin Austin’s 10 part series, How to Grow (or Buy) Healthy Food. This article is Chapter 5 of 10. You can read the other chapters here:

Chapter 1 – Diet and Health, a Personal Experience
Chapter 2 – Statistics and the Diet Controversy
Chapter 3 – Eat Right, Not Less
Chapter 4 – Finding a Diet by Self-Experimentation
Chapter 5 – Essential Nutrients for Good Health
Chapter 6 – The What and Where of Minerals
Chapter 7 – The Rhizosphere
Chapter 8 – Transferring Nutrients and Biology to Growing Beds
Chapter 9 – From Garden to Kitchen
Chapter 10 – Community Action

Chapter 5 – Essential Nutrients for Good Health
colin-and-xiulan I have talked about how important diet is to health, what makes a healthy diet, and how Xiulan (my wife) and I are looking for food that will regenerate our bodies and also help manage our internal control system or hormones.

We need energy to power our bodies, but that is simple – plants, algae, and plankton use sunlight to break up carbon dioxide and water to form carbohydrates. There is an abundant supply of carbon dioxide, last time I looked the sea was full of water, and the amount of energy from the sun is simply huge. A few square kilometers in outback Australia could power the world. If we wanted to, we have the technology to produce carbohydrates synthetically without bothering with plants – but plants can do it cheaper, and people prefer to eat a tomato rather than a pill.

Energy food is abundant; there is so much that the food companies have to spend billions of dollars in advertising to get us to buy it. But we also need food that builds our bodies. This food comes from soil containing the needed minerals and nutrients and the biology to make these available to the plants.

What’s to Come in Chapter 5
We are now almost ready to start to work out how to get the essential nutrients into the plants. But before I get in to the heavy stuff I want to talk about the method of approach. To get nutrients into the plants it is no good thinking about just adding a few nutrients – life is just not that simple. Instead we have to look at the total chain from the minerals in the soil – how insoluble rocks are broken down by the soil biology (such as fungi) into soluble but still relatively simple compounds which the plants can absorb and then convert these to hormones which control our bodies.

We obviously need the skills of the reductionist scientist at each stage, but we also need the skills of the engineer in getting things done in a state of ignorance.


Consider iron – a funny element with an affinity for oxygen – things made from iron go rusty. We use iron in our bodies to transport oxygen from our lungs to all parts of the body and brain. Without iron we would be dead in seconds. But before you race out and buy a bag of nails for lunch, there is a snag. There is plenty of iron – West Australia is full of it – but we can’t digest it. It is actually iron oxide which is a very stable chemical – so stable that it has been there for billions of years without dissolving or being used up. It is so inert that even plants cannot use it directly. They need soil biology to dissolve these inert materials and make them available to the plants which we in turn can eat. In return the plants provide the biology with sugars they make by using the sun’s energy.

Iron is just one essential element and using techniques like gas chromatography and mass spectrometry we can readily identify the essential elements in our bodies. But like iron, they are not in our bodies as simple elements but complex chemicals which are made by the soil biology, plants, and in some cases our own bodies. We do understand some of these complex chemicals and we can synthesize some vitamins. Others – like the hormones which play a crucial role in controlling our bodies – are highly complex and we are only just beginning to learn what they are and how they work.

We have identified over 10,000 chemicals produced by plants. When we have no idea what they do – we generally refer to them as phytochemicals. If we think that they play an important role in our bodies – we call them phytonutrients. We have evolved over millions of years with plants and – in a natural state – we get all the phytonutrients we need without even thinking about them or understanding their roles in our health.

Factory Farming

factory-farmingModern food production, however, has moved so far away from the natural process and become so obsessed with energy and profit, that our modern diet is often lacking these essential phytonutrients, leading to major health problems often referred to as the metabolic syndrome which leads to diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, etc. We eat junk food, our bodies are not satisfied, we feel hungry, and we eat more junk food.

In this chapter we look at how we can set up a chemical chain, starting by adding the essential elements to the soil – creating an environment in which soil biology can flourish to make these essential elements available to the plants – which in turn can produce their phytonutrients – so that we can eat a healthy diet. It is not difficult to set up this nutrient chain by adding minerals to the soil, farming the soil biology, and producing plants which will make us healthy. Any dedicated gardener or commercial grower can do it.

I am going to illustrate the basic principles by talking about the system I am using in my garden plot. It is more complex than modern factory farming – it requires thought and a paradigm shift away from the current modern industrial food production routine.

Power in Numbers

But first, allow me to side track a bit and discuss the importance of community.

The probability that the processed food industry is going to adopt these principles and provide us with food rich in phytonutrients is as likely as the tobacco companies admitting that their product is killing people and simply stopping production. It simply won’t happen on its own.

However, I believe that people can have access to healthy food by taking part in community action, particularly in the internet age. Fifteen years ago I started to promote wicking beds – the idea has been picked up and transferred from web site to web site, blog to blog, and through Facebook and other social networking sites – with the result that wicking beds are now widely used around the globe. Maybe we can do the same thing with healthy food and phytonutrients.

I have a personal interest – my wife Xiulan was healthy when she was eating a traditional Chinese diet rich in fresh vegetables. After coming to Australia and swapping her traditional diet for a conventional western diet, she developed diabetes and came very close to having her food amputated. I blame the food.

If I can help initiate community action so that other people can avoid this trauma, I will feel that this has been a satisfactory achievement at the end of my life.

Follow the Principles – Not the Details

I am going to describe the system I use. This is not intended to be an instruction manual (that may come later) but rather an illustration of the principles of growing healthy food. I have a couple of personality characteristics (that’s a euphemism for “failings”) which have influenced my system.

I have to tell a little story against myself. I used to lecture at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and I often had evening lectures. Driving home one night, I heard Bill Mollison being interviewed about the system of permaculture he was introducing. I got so excited about what he was saying about the dangers of monoculture that I had to pull off the road to listen – and right then and there I decided that this was the life for me.

I took the road to self-sufficiency and paid homage to the principle of poverty. I actually already approved of poverty in practice – as long as it applied to other people – not to me. Soon after I was born, Hitler declared war. He tried to force England into submission by starvation; and I grew up knowing about poverty and food shortages. Not fun.

Later in life, when I was a university student, I was still poor and I had an ancient military motor bike that must have been over the Sahara desert several times during the war. It cost me ten pounds – and I was done. I had this ambition of doing a journey without having to stop and get my tool kit out for roadside repairs. I never made it. These days, I really appreciate having a car that starts right up when I turn the key. Yes, I am a bit tight (I call it “financially prudent”). I recycle everything and I am probably a bit fanatical about recycling.

So, in my early adulthood, I felt that I needed to find some activity which would provide at least a little money. And right about that time I discovered computers (punch cards, if you can believe be – this was way before Bill Gates). I could see how they were going to revolutionize my profession of engineering, and so I taught myself computer programming and started to write engineering software. It was like grabbing a tiger by the tail, and my company ended up being the most successful exporter of technical software from Australia.

My self-sufficiency did not last long – if I had to write a CV, it would state that I failed at being a bum. Luckily I don’t have a CV, as I classify myself as unemployable. But those concepts of sustainability have stuck with me so that now, many years later, I live on an eco-village where we have to manage all of our water – drinking, gardening, and waste (rainbow water). I am a bit fanatical about this too, but I understand that the systems I am going to describe may not be appropriate for many people. However the basic principles could be applied in any commercial system, if the demand existed.

In addition to being a failed bum, I am messy. Xiulan calls me “Messy Man.” When she wants me to dig a hole, or whatever else, she does not call for “Colin,” no it’s “Messy Man.” When I was younger my nickname was “Shambles.” Yes, it is true, I really am a messy, shambolic, disorganized sort of person. But I can be organized – when I was Chairman of Moldflow, I traveled around the world twice each year giving one day lectures and flying to the next town each night, ready for the next lecture the following day, and I never missed a plane in twenty years.

I used to do my washing before I went to bed and hang it up on whatever I could find in the hotel room. The next morning I would put my semi-wet washing into a polythene bag and carry it with me to the next city. At the next hotel, I would whip open my suitcase and hang my semi-wet washing on any rail, picture, or chair that I could find. This became known as “Colin’s exploding suitcase.”

But when it comes to growing food, I am hoping to convince you that being messy is not all that bad. I have two gardening friends – Peter and Joe. I go to their gardens and everything is always so neat and tidy. Plants nicely spaced on a 154.2mm grid – not a weed or a bit of rubbish in sight. I get back home feeling thoroughly demoralized. The system I use is messy – but again, you do not have to follow me on this.

Reductionist Science and Holistic Thinking

But I do understand science and how it works. Science has two great weaknesses – don’t get me wrong, I am totally committed to the scientific process – but there are two great traps.

In my previous life my job was developing software to solve the complex simultaneous equations of heat transfer and fluid flow. Something which is actually impossible to do correctly, but is possible using approximate numerical methods to come up with solutions which work well enough to be practical. I used to meet people who would introduce themselves as, for example, a “theoretical rheologist”. I knew I was in for a hard time, as they would tell me everything that was wrong with my solutions – and of course they were absolutely right. But I had a solution which worked well enough in practice, and they had nothing but theories. The reason I was able to come up with a solution had nothing to do with intelligence, but rather my way of thinking. I looked at the problem as a whole – what people now call holistic or system thinking – and I was prepared to be pragmatic rather than seeking perfection.

The other weakness is that scientists are just as prone to prejudice as ordinary people, except that they are very clever at putting forward powerful arguments which appear totally convincing. Look at what happens in the world of diet. There is a paradigm in dietary theory that the way to lose weight is to restrict calories. Sounds perfectly reasonable and they even go to great lengths to conduct statistical analysis to prove that this is true. The snag here is that the statistics they put forward to prove their case do exactly the opposite – but they use their intelligence to think up claims that still support their case.

fad-diets-dont-workEat less, get slim – wrong. Eat healthy, get slim – right. People may lose weight on a calorie-restricted diet, but chances are that after the trial is finished the victims are so ravenous that they pig out and put on more weight than ever. If the dietary scientists had stopped being so focused on their specialty, they may have seen the error.

I know China and America reasonably well. I have even learned a little Chinese, but I struggle with American. China has had a history of things going bad, and starvation has been a continuous theme in Chinese history over the centuries. So the Chinese have become inveterate savers – however poor they might be, they save some money for when things turn really bad. By contrast, life for the American middle class has – until very recently – been one of such comfort that it has been envied worldwide. The American middle class were the world’s largest borrowers. Now, it seems that America has been hijacked by economic extremists, so that the middle class has now been converted to the new poor.

Had the dietitian thought about this, they would have seen that our bodies work in a similar way. Deprive our bodies of food and they will lose weight – fact – but this situation puts the body in a state of alarm, generating cravings so that as soon as food is available the body converts the food to sugars to be stored in our fat cells to ward off the next bad times (just like the Chinese savers).

I learned this by my “self-experiments.” I went on a strict vegan diet and lost weight, but I felt miserable and always had craving for something to eat. I did not give in and scoff down the five bars of chocolate that I so desperately craved. I read that extreme vegans can suffer from vitamin B12 deficiencies. Normal plants don’t make B12 but upon further reading I found a plant – Ashitaba – that contained vitamin B12. I bought some seeds. And then someone told me that vegemite (yeast extract) contains B12. I started to feel better, but I still felt hungry, not satisfied. Then I found a product called malt extract. I started putting a spoonful into my drinks and almost immediately my cravings stopped. I actually felt bloated and no longer had any desire to binge eat. Now, this is not science – this is just what worked for me in my own self-experimentation. You have to do your own trials for yourself.

So what’s the point I’m trying to make? Stop focusing on one particular bit of the food chain, and look at the entire chain from the soil up – how we grow the plants, how we cook them and eat them, and how we feel after we’ve finished eating.

Coming Up in Chapter 6
I will look at the minerals that we need for our bodily health – not just the minerals we need to make the plants healthy.

Chapter 1 – Diet and Health, a Personal Experience
Chapter 2 – Statistics and the Diet Controversy
Chapter 3 – Eat Right, Not Less
Chapter 4 – Finding a Diet by Self-Experimentation
Chapter 5 – Essential Nutrients for Good Health
Chapter 6 – The What and Where of Minerals
Chapter 7 – The Rhizosphere
Chapter 8 – Transferring Nutrients and Biology to Growing Beds
Chapter 9 – From Garden to Kitchen
Chapter 10 – Community Action

© 28 July 2015 Colin Austin – Creative Commons – This document may be reproduced but the source should be acknowledged. Information may be used for private use but commercial use requires a license.

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This post was written by Colin Austin


  • d. henry Lee says:

    Good article. The bottom line: use some common sense. When I grew up, we had a large garden with plenty of vegetables that we ate in the summer and stored some for the winter. There were no fast food places and getting to drink a soda was maybe once per week. We weren’t allowed to eat sweets except occasionally. What a great time that was.

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