Working with Nature

Natural Defense: Enlisting Bugs and Germs to Protect Our Food and Health
By Emily Monosson
Island Press, 2017, 200 pages

Human conflict, while nothing new, appears to dominate the news these days. From Facebook quibbles to reports of terrorism, conflict and competition stand out. Cooperation seems to be the exception. When trying to explain away human behavior, many people point to predator-prey dynamics to configure and justify our own bloodthirstiness. We reduce Darwin’s monumental body of work to a mere catchphrase: “survival of the fittest.” What may never occur to the average day-trader (or sport hunter, for that matter) is that we view animal behavior through the lens of our own propensity for violence and strife, but nature often utilizes the reverse – cooperation and symbiosis.

book cover, Natural Defense, Enlisting Bugs and Germs to Protect Our Food and Health

Emily Monosson’s Natural Defense: Enlisting Bugs and Germs to Protect Our Food and Health proposes an alternative worldview. Instead of preparing to wage war each time we encounter a pathogen or pest, we might want to take more time to see the bigger picture. That usually means searching for the existence of interrelationships amongst living beings. “In nature, bacteria, fungi, viruses, and single-celled protozoa coexist in complex communities,” Monosson writes. “Conflict over territory and resources is natural, but so too is (sic) communication, cooperation, and organization. While some of the chemicals we call antibiotics may be used to defend territory, or food, others may serve as means of communication. In our quest to eradicate pathogens, we have paid little attention to how these societies of microbes might regulate themselves.”

The post-WWII antibiotic era, miracle that it undoubtedly has been for untold millions of people, has had terrible side-effects. One of the worst has to be the way bacteria can adapt very quickly to the antibiotics meant to wipe them out. Millions of patients die every year from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections, and those numbers are projected to rise. Taking more of an ecological approach would allow us to see microbes as parts of communities. That, in turn, would likely slow the cavalier prescription of wide-spectrum antibiotics – which kill the good guys along with the bad guys, and lead to potentially fatal disruptions of the human microbiome, primarily in the gut. The prevailing attitude, Monosson argues, focuses “on the micro while neglecting the biome.”

Monosson likens the issue to ecosystem restoration. “Once an ecosystem or community has been altered,” she writes, “restoration is a tricky business. We see this in forests, coastal regions, wetlands, and now in our own guts.” In other words, prevention – whether of habitat destruction or infection – by way of a more ecological model, is far more effective than cure.

Many academic and industrial researchers are, of course, busy trying to solve problems that regularly arise from previous short-lived solutions. Take, for example, toxic pesticides, which reduce agricultural pests in the short-term, but lose their utility over time and can be harmful to both human health and the environment. gmos are often seen as a panacea for those consequences. But not only have gmos proven to be highly controversial, they also frequently fail to live up to their original promise of eliminating the need for pesticides. In fact, Monsanto’s infamous Round-up Ready corn actually presumes and encourages herbicide use.

Monosson discusses the gmo issue at length, citing arguments on both sides. More interesting is her examination of other pest-control programs, such as the olfactory disruption of insect reproduction, and the rejection of the ubiquitous monoculture – an insect’s all-you-can-eat buffet – in favor of intercropping. Again, more ecological approaches seem wise.

Reading this compact, compelling book is mostly an uplifting experience – Monosson does, after all, spotlight solutions – but the environmental and public health problems for which they are designed can be formidable.

Increasing numbers of scientific studies (as well as plenty of anecdotal evidence) indicate that many species, from microbes to mammals, favor some measure of inter- and intra-specific cooperation in their quest to live well and reproduce successfully. With a willingness to stand back and look at the world in a different way, perhaps we will enter a new age of working with nature as we continue to improve human well-being.

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