How is human health connected to the health of our soil? Farmacology author and physician Daphne Miller explores the wisdom of farming and how it relates to you.
In your first book, The Jungle Effect, you examined diets from all over the world. How did that exploration change your own diet?
I have a much more expansive idea of what it means to eat healthy. So many of us are seeking the “right” way to eat and what I’ve discovered is that there are many ways to eat well . . . as long as you’re not eating the standard American diet. Some diets (like the Icelandic one) are somewhat higher in animal products while others (like the Tarahumaran diet) are mainly vegetable and grain based – but they all produce healthy people.
I also discovered that traditional recipes make sense not only because they taste great, but because they offer healthy combinations of ingredients and are the most ecological way to cook. Think about it . . . these are recipes that have survived generation to generation because they use in-season, locally available ingredients that are tasty and keep people feeling happy and fit.
What is Farmacology?
Farmacology is an invented word that combines Farming and Pharmacology. It is meant to capture the idea that a farm, at its best, can be the source of powerful medicine. The book Farmacology is an exploration into the many ways that our health is connected to the health of the farm. What I discover is that this connection happens on two levels: the art and science of farming offers us valuable farm-to-body health lessons and that the farm itself gives us a whole array of healing foods.
What was the inspiration for this book?
As a doctor, I am always trying to practice in a more ecological way and to think of my patients as part of a complex ecosystem rather than as a series of organs with their own specific malfunctions and diagnoses. I have discovered that good farmers take this holistic approach since they are always fretting about the interaction between all the players in their ecosystem: soil, air, microbes, animals, humans, plants.
The more I learned about the science of farming, the more I recognized its connections to medicine. For example, did you know that our gut physiology actually mirrors what happens in the soil? The intricate nutrient exchange between soil, microbe and plant is like the dance that takes place in our intestine, involving the mucosal lining, resident microbes and food (plants and animals). The biochemical makeup of soil also roughly matches ours, with a similar nitrogen-to-carbon ratio and the same range for normal pH (6.0 to 7.5).
Finally I realized that carbon, nitrogen and every other mineral and vitamin building block in our body is derived from soil (via our food). In other words, we are not simply nourished by the soil; we are of the soil!
What is the link between rejuvenating our soil and rejuvenating ourselves?
The link is that a holistic, regenerative approach seems to work best for soil and for our own bodies.
This became clear to me while I was doing an internship with a biodynamic vegetable farmer in Washington State. He told me that when he first tried to bring his depleted soil back to life he sent soil samples to a lab and replaced missing minerals according to the lab reports – this “test and replace” method is standard practice in agriculture.
But after a couple of years, several tons of additives, and many thousands of dollars, he was still not satisfied with the health of his soil or the quality of his produce and he wondered if the soil additives were getting to the plant. He also began to consider the unintended consequences of spreading foreign additives: for example, were they “locking up” existing soil nutrients – ones that were essential for healthy plant growth. He decided to look for an alternative, holistic, and cheaper way to improve his soil and boost the health of his farm.
After reading books written by the pioneers in the organic agriculture, he realized that to really nurture his farm, he needed to nourish the Farm’s vital force: the billions of soil organisms that lie just below the soil’s surface. These creatures amend and aerate the soil and they harvest nutrients from the soil and pass them along in perfectly packaged doses to the plant roots.
To support these earth creatures, the farmer stopped using farm additives and began to imitate nature’s full-cycle way of farming. This included recycling organic matter back into the soil, conserving water, rotating crops and resting the soil, avoiding all pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and grazing animals on the land so that their manure would be the main fertilizer. Several seasons after changing his practices, the farm began to thrive and the soil test results were better than ever.
Hearing this story, I realized that it is not uncommon for doctors (including me) to use “test and replace” strategies to solve our patients’ health problems. When we feel something is off, one of the first steps is to order a lab and then prescribe vitamins, minerals, and medications to correct any number that lies outside the norm. Our tendency is to think of the human body as a test tube and add things into this complicated system with the belief that the pill or potion will find its proper home.
Of course, supplements and drugs sometimes have a role in making us healthier, but their overuse and misuse can create the same unintended reactions as additives in soil. (Excess calcium can “lock up” zinc and iron in humans and excess phosphorus does the same in soil.) Given our close connections to soil, I began to wonder: Could this ecological approach to rejuvenation offer me a new way to rejuvenate my patients?
What I’ve discovered is that eating from an eco-farm and treating your body like an eco-farm may help you rejuvenate and rebalance in a way that testing and supplements cannot.
Researchers are just beginning to uncover all the amazing health connections between our bodies and the farm. For example, they are finding that plants grown in microbially rich soil (as opposed to simply “organic” soil) pack a bigger nutrient punch. They have also found that soil microbes (or DNA from microbes) are silently hitchhiking on our food and transferring health information to the resident microbes in our gut. If the soil is healthy then, in turn, this information can help build our immunity and support our metabolism. Of course, treating our bodies or the soil with lots of antibiotics or chemicals can have the opposite effect, promoting antibiotic resistance, inflammation, and even chronic disease.
Can you give us another example of a farm-to-body lesson?
The egg farm that I visited in Arkansas offers great farm-to-body lessons on stress management. This farm has two different farming systems: one that is an intensive, high-density laying system and another where the hens are raised on pasture.
As I spent time comparing these two ways of producing eggs, I began to learn interesting differences between good stress and bad. The hens on the pastured system are certainly experiencing stress in the form of thunderstorms, hawks, foxes and so on. But they are thriving while the hens who are shoved 15,000 in an indoor house tend to develop chronic health problems.
There are three main reasons that the pastured hens enjoy better health: 1) their stressors are fleeting and episodic as opposed to low-grade and chronic, 2) they have some choice in how they spend their day and are free to perform innate hen activities such as dust bathing, roosting, foraging and so on, and 3) they are able to build cohesive social networks.
What I learned from stress researchers such as Bruce McEwan at Rockefeller University in New York is that we would have a lot more job satisfaction, greater productivity, fewer ulcers, and need less Prozac if we could set up our lives based on these three principles. In the chapter, I give some helpful guidelines for how to achieve this.
As an aside, I discovered that the eggs produced in the pastured environment have greater nutrient value than eggs produced in the high-density environment. In fact, there are nutrients in those pastured eggs, such as vitamin D and vitamin A and Omega 3 fats, that might specifically help protect us from illnesses related to stress.
Many of us live in the city, far away from farms. What are some ways that we can reconnect to healthy farms?
Of course, one obvious way is to buy food that is in season, and locally grown by sustainable farms. To root out these foods, I encourage you to shop with your taste buds and your nose, not with your eyes. We tend to go for the most perfect looking produce even though these uniform, unblemished specimens are usually the least tasty and nutritious (and grown in the least healthy soil).
Choose produce that smells good and has a full flavor even if it’s a little wonky and bruised. Also, when it comes to taste and nutrition, a Red Garnet peach will beat your standard supermarket peach any day and a prickly seeded spinach will trump the usual rubbery commercial spinach . . . so choose lesser known varieties of fruits and veggies when they are available.
But don’t stop here. Here are five other ways to reconnect to the farm:
1. Eat dirt and bugs.
Well, not literally . . . but I encourage you to not be too compulsive about scrubbing your farm-fresh produce that is grown in healthy soil. Who knows what beneficial bacteria and minerals might be coming along for the ride? By the way, eating fermented farm-fresh vegetables is a great way to get a mega-dose of soil bacteria.
Preparing your meals from scratch is a great way to get in touch with the products of a healthy farm and to take charge of your health. I’m a big believer in having 4-5 simple recipes that use lots of vegetables and just riffing on them according to what is in season. One of my favorites is kebabs because everything tastes good if you put it on a skewer, marinate it in some garlic and olive oil and stick it under the broiler.
3. Give back to the farm.
If you compost your waste or contribute it to a central composting system then it will be returned to the soil where it will, once again, nourish the plants. Conserving your daily use of water so that it can be diverted to agriculture is also a great way to give back to the farm. Remember, we are all part of one big ecosystem and our health is directly connected to the health of the soil.
4. Protect the soil like you protect your body . . . and vice versa.
Avoid cosmetics, personal care products cleaning detergents, paints, pesticides and sani-wipes that contain chemicals such as triclosans, VOCs, parabens, PBAs, PVCs, and lye. Look for natural alternatives. (Grapeseed extract, for example, is a powerful plant-based antiseptic, vinegar makes the best cleaner, shea or cocoa butter are awesome moisturizers, and baking soda is an excellent shampoo.) Use antibiotics, steroids and other medications judiciously. If misused these drugs can be directly harmful to our bodies and when they get into our ground water, they contaminate our soil and our food.
5. Bring the farm to you.
Be active in greening your community. Help bring gardens to front yards, schools, senior centers, community centers, religious gathering places and even the workplace. Research shows that growing fresh vegetables inspires a community to eat more veggies and also has a number of other surprising health benefits including lowering crime rates, increasing community cohesiveness, lowering alcohol use and depression rates, helping seniors stay healthy, and helping students succeed in school.
About Daphne Miller
Daphne Miller MD is a Harvard-trained family doctor who writes about the connections between biomedicine and the natural world. Her first book, The Jungle Effect, chronicles her nutrition adventures as she travels to traditional communities around the globe. In Farmacology she sets out to on a cross-country trip to learn health lessons from sustainable family farmers. In addition to writing and teaching, Miller still practices medicine at WholeFamilyMD in San Francisco, California.More: Agriculture, Farm to Fork, Food and Community, Food and Health, Growing Food, Sustainable Farming