Elaine Ingham
The Agricultural Iconoclast

Dateline: 14 March 2017

Professor Elaine Ingham
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(click the link for more about Elaine Ingham)

Back in the 1992, Elaine Ingham saved the planet from a biological catastrophe. Her testimony before the New Zealand Royal Commission on Genetic Modification effectively stopped the imminent release of a powerfully-destructive, genetically modified bacteria into the environment. According to Ingham, the GMO bacteria would have utterly devastated all terrestrial plant life—spreading, infecting, and killing at the rate of 11 miles a year. 

Ingham had overseen independent laboratory experiments on this GMO in her capacity as assistant professor at Oregon State University. This Elaine was no quack scientist. She had the professional bona fides. She had the gravitas. She was a serious and well respected microbiologist. 

After saving the planet, Elaine Ingham did not return to America and get a ticker tape parade, befitting someone who just saved the planet. There was no visit to The White House. No celebrity accolades. No picture on the cover of Time magazine. Instead, Elaine encountered hostility from her employer, and was soon out of a job in academia.

It turns out there are powerful corporate interests who had stood to make a lot of money from their engineered killer bacteria. They were not happy with Elaine Ingham. And it so happens that these same powerful interests also fund a great deal of the “research” that takes place in our institutions of higher learning. Hmmmmm.

Beyond Just 
Saving The Planet

Elaine Ingham had stepped out of bounds. She had challenged the establishment. And she paid a price for it. But she didn’t stop there. 

Today, fifteen years after stopping that wicked little GMO, the exiled Professor Elaine is spearheading an agricultural revolution. Or, more precisely, I think we could say it is a counterrevolution. It is an epic effort to wrest the control of worldwide agricultural productivity from the behemoth Big Ag corporations, and put it back into the hands of individual farmers (and gardeners). 

How, you might wonder, is Elaine Ingham doing this? Well, she’s doing it with information. She’s doing it by telling the truth. She’s doing it by teaching people things that have not been known before. Elaine is, simply put, an info-warrior. And she’s not alone in her iconoclastic effort… there are untold billions of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, and micro arthropods on her side.

Soil Biology
According To Elaine

I have listened to numerous YouTube interviews and presentations by Elaine Ingham. What she teaches about life in the soil is amazing. And the ramifications about what she teaches are, as I’ve already noted, revolutionary. Here, very briefly, is what I understand from her teachings…

First, there is the difference between soil and dirt…. Soil is teeming with a dynamic community of microscopic biological life forms. Dirt is not.

Next, there is the matter of aerobic microbiology vs anaerobic biology. The micro-life that populates a soil containing lots of air are aerobic and these microbes are good. Aerobic biology are good because they work together to help plants (which is the incredibly amazing part that I’ll explain momentarily). 

Anaerobic organisms dominate in soils that lack oxygen (soil compaction or loss of soil structure from continual tillage lead to anaerobic soils) Anaerobic biology will make plants sick, or kill them. The simple takeaway on this is that air in the soil is a very desirable thing.

There are, however, some plants that will grow in an anaerobic soil. They’re known as weeds. I’ve always thought that weeds were just plants out of place. But it turns out that weeds are plants that were designed to grow in an anaerobic soil. 

If, for example, you have a patch of bare ground in a field, where nothing is growing, you can bet the soil is anaerobic. Weeds will eventually grow there. They are the pioneers of natural plant succession. Left alone, and given time, such a spot of land will progress to larger and more aerobic plant cover.

Now, the common understanding with regard to plants (not weeds, but crop plants of all kinds) is that they send down roots and the roots find the food they need. If your soil lacks fertilization, you add fertilizer. And the roots will take it up. That’s how agriculture works. 

Well, Elaine Ingham says that isn't how it is supposed to work. That isn’t how Mother Nature (as she puts it) designed plant biology and plant nutrition to work. Here’s what Elaine teaches. (and remember, Elaine has the research bona fides to know what she’s talking about)…

In a healthy soil ecosystem, full of good structure, with oxygen and an abundance of aerobic soil life, the growing plants know what they need for nutrition and they get it by releasing different formulations of root exudates. The exudates are mixtures of sugar, protein and carbohydrates. Elaine calls these exudates “cakes and cookies.” 

The cake-and-cookie root exudates attract a particular aerobic bacteria (of which there are thousands of different species in any given plot of soil) to to the root zone where they feed on the exudate and multiply. Then, along comes good nematodes and protozoa that will eat the bacteria. Then, the nematodes and protozoa release the specific nutrition the root needs. The  nutrition is released in plant-available form.

This dynamic exchange of different cake-and-cookie root exudates to soil bacteria, and the subsequent release of bioavailable nutrition to the plant from the soil biology is how healthy plants grow. Furthermore, if you have the right balance of good aerobic biology in your soil, it will consume any bad biology that comes along. So you don’t just have growing plants, you have healthy growing plants—plants that insects and other pathogens are not attracted to.

So, in a healthy soil, it isn’t fertilizer that feeds plants, it’s the micro-biology in the soil, around the plant roots, that symbiotically feed the plants. And here is the revolutionary bottom line…

Elaine Ingham says that if you have a healthy soil, the biology in the soil will supply all the nutrition that plants need, without any fertilizer inputs. Elaine says that every soil on the planet has the capacity to supply all the fertility needs of plants from the sand, silt, clay, and organic matter in the soil. Everything.

Which is to say, if you have a healthy soil, artificial fertilizers are totally unnecessary. In fact, Elaine says that artificial fertilizers destroy healthy soil biology. 

Furthermore, Elaine says that properly managed soil life will eliminate the need for herbicides and insecticides. Weeds don't grow that much in an aerobic soil, and insects are not attracted to healthy plants.

In other words, agriculture doesn’t need the fertilizer and other expensive inputs that BigAg makes BigBucks from selling. 

Besides that, the Professor says that soil pH is not the big deal that it has been made out to be. She says that in a healthy soil the roots and the biology around the roots will adjust the pH so that it is just right for the plant’s needs. 

What’s more, Elaine Ingham asserts that plant roots have the capacity to go so deep in the soil that they can get all the moisture they ever need there without irrigation. The problem is that roots are often restricted from going to their potential depths by hardpan compaction and improper soil biology.

Thus it is that, as far as Elaine Ingham is concerned, the solution to sustainable agriculture is not more expensive BigAg inputs, and not the creation of new, human-engineered organisms. The solution is, instead, found in promoting healthy soil biology. 

Could it be that husbanding and caring for the soil, instead of manipulating the soil, is all that agriculture needs to thrive, to feed the world, and to provide a good living for farmers? Could it really be that simple?   

As a Christian, I am inclined to think Elaine Ingham is correct. I think that behind Mother Nature is a Father God who designed the natural systems of this world to be incredibly bountiful. And that if we properly care for the soil within natural boundaries, it will reward us with great abundance. So, yes, I think it could really be that simple.

Compost For Biology

Elaine Ingam is a big proponent of compost, but not just any compost, and not so much for the organic matter it provides the soil. Instead, Elaine sees compost as a way to grow wholesome aerobic soil biology with which to inoculate soil. And one of the best ways to get this inoculant into the soil is with aerobic compost tea, which is applied as a foliar spray or a soil drench.

Professor Ingam is particular about how the compost should be made, and how the compost tea should be made. Her teachings about compost and soil biology inoculation are based on microscopic examination of the soil biology and the compost biology. 

Every Grower 
Can Be A Microbiologist

Professor Ingham says that anyone with a $350 microscope and the proper training can examine the biology in their soil and quickly assess the biological health of the soil. Armed with this knowledge, they can then compost-tea-inoculate their soil with the proper organisms to bring about optimal soil health conditions. Compost can likewise be examined and assessed for its biological health before being used.

Elaine Ingham offers several teaching courses for people to learn about soil biology, soil health, how to use the microscope, and how to make inoculant compost tea. 

Unfortunately, the teaching is very expensive. But I’m sure it is the equivalent of taking a college course. Probably better. And once you have the knowledge, you could teach others, or even be a soil consultant in your community. If I were a younger man, interested in sustainable agriculture, I would learn everything I could from Elaine Ingham. 

As it is, I’m learning what I can from Elaine without spending a lot on her teaching classes. I'm watching those YouTube videos, and I’ll be buying one of her books to see what I can absorb from that approach. 


I have written this blog post to introduce you to the teachings of Elaine Ingham. Her web site is HERE. The story (and controversy) about how she saved the planet is HERE


  1. Thank you for this thoughtful and well written post. I am a proponent of family agriculture and the benefits it brings to all of us, especially the quality of the food.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Matt.

      Quality of the food is my primary concern with my garden.

      I listened to a speech by Jeff Lowenfels (author of "Teaming With Microbes") and he believes that the synthetic chemicals he once used so much on his garden contributed to his wife getting cancer.

  2. Elizabeth L. Johnson said, I will be looking into her material myself. Would you agree this has a lot to do with a subject in your book on re-mineralization? Interesting that I just received the Survival Gardener's ebooklet download about composting tea! Thanks, Herrick for this excellent subject. I've been doing no-till for going on 4 yrs. now and really enjoy not picking so many weeds.

  3. Hi Elizabeth,

    I'm not sure how remineralization integrates with the soil biology. I make the point on page 115 (sidebar) that soil biology is critically important. Elaine Ingam seems to say that no soil amendments of any kind are needed in a healthy soil. But I think that is in an ideal situation. She is adamant that nonorganic amendments destroy the soil biology, but what about natural minerals? I guess I'm still persuaded of what I wrote in that sidebar: "...mineralization alone is not the total answer to creating an ideal soil. Mineral-balanced soil AND a healthy soil food web is whats needed."