May The Fork Be With You
The following is a reprint of an article I wrote that appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Health Science. It is reprinted with their permission. I have added pictures:
Albert Howard made a radical observation. When farmers returned all the agricultural wastes to their fields and grew cover crops to maintain the organic matter in the soil, the crops were healthier. As he observed even more carefully, he saw that the animals that ate those crops were also healthier. And in his final burst of clarity, he saw that the people eating those crops and those animals were also healthier.
Howard recorded these observations in books such as Soil And Health, which became the foundational thinking of the organic farming movement. These books were an amazing achievement coming from a man who was sent to India by the government to teach the Indians how to farm in the “modern” way. “Modern” meant replacing biological cycling of organic matter with one-way synthetic inputs of fertilizers, insecticides, and fungicides. This one-way street is now called “conventional” farming.
A soil scientist friend of mine has marveled at how almost all of Howard’s conclusions have been supported by the discoveries of science in the last 80 years. We now have a much better explanation of WHY organic farming works in the field, and why it provides us with much-improved health. The one great addition to Howard’s thinking is the realization that organic farming is also very important in providing climate health. As modern agriculture destroys our health and climate, real organic farming is looking better and better.
We don’t need to be biologists to understand the benefits of organic farming, but it helps. Recent discoveries in the human microbiome have shown strong similarities and connections with the soil microbiome. We have now learned that only 1% of the DNA found in our body is human. We barely understand the role of the other 99%, but we damage it at our peril.
“This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils,” Lowry said. “We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us.” – Christopher Lowry
In a single healthy person, we can now identify over 1000 different species of gut bacteria, plus well over 1000 other species in the mouth, on the skin and in the urogenital tract. And that isn’t counting the viruses, fungi, and parasites that make up our microbiome. We are learning that we are not an organism, but rather an ecosystem, part of larger ecosystems.
The techniques of the Agricultural Industrial Complex have proven to be powerful. We have learned how to produce high calories at a low cost. Except…perhaps the cost isn’t so low.
The unintended consequences of this system of food production are yet to be dealt with. First and most obviously, our release of huge reserves of carbon from the earth into the air from burning fossil fuels is proving to be catastrophic. Add to that the release of large amounts of carbon from the soil as a result of industrial agriculture, and we see a planet with rapidly expanding deserts and a climate that is swinging wildly. It is the carbon in the soil organic matter that is being lost. It is this same organic matter that transforms a dead sand into a living soil.
On a less obvious level, our health is compromised by our inadequate diets. Even if we avoid the perils of junk food, a diet chosen from the whole foods on the edges of the store is proving to be problematic. We now face epidemics of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). These include cancer, heart disease, allergies, obesity, and even mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. As we have defeated so many communicable diseases, we are instead faced with a tidal wave of NCDs. Part of this new epidemic is a result of our widespread use of antibiotics, but certainly some of it is due to our nutritional deficiencies. We have evolved to thrive on a diet rich in antioxidants and polyphenols. We are not getting that diet from industrial agriculture.
Conventional Agriculture is not conventional. We are part of a grand experiment on changing the way our food is grown. Unfortunately, we are the lab rats. For the first time in history, humans are eating food grown without the benefit of a healthy soil microbiome. The health consequences are likely to be very serious. Any volunteers to participate in this experiment? It is hard to avoid volunteering.
Our society is driven by cheap food, and perhaps we just can’t afford that. There are also social aspects of cheap food. As Micahel Pollan has said, “Food is not ‘cheap'. It’s dishonestly priced because it assumes undocumented workers being exploited, and it assumes animal abuse.” Our cheap food is part of an economic system with definite losers. There really is no such thing as a free lunch.
Industrial Ag has chosen yield over taste, and shelf life over nourishment. As a result, our basic foodstuffs have consistently dropped in nutritional density and diversity over the last 60 years. This fact was emphasized by years of published research by Dr. Don Davis, building on the research of the USDA. Basic foods like tomatoes, berries, apples, cauliflower, and chicken are much less nutritious now than they were for our grandparents. They are significantly lower in basic nutrients and micronutrients, not to mention the 40,000 known secondary plant compounds that we are learning are so critical to our health.
The result is a craving that we can’t quite identify, and can’t quite satisfy. We have an itch that we can't quite scratch. As our body seeks to nourish itself, we often looking for love in all the wrong places.
We are eating the cheapest food, as a percentage of annual income, in the history of the world. The World Bank has put average household expenditures on food at 6% for America. NPR lists it at 10%. In 1960 it was 17.5% Right now in France the World Bank puts it at 14%. It is wonderful that we now have so much more money to spend on other things!
But at the same time, the US has the highest healthcare costs in the world. Over the last 40 years, the cost of our food has steadily declined while the cost of our healthcare has steadily increased.
But surely that extra money spent has led to a longer, healthier life? No. In 2016, the US ranked 43rd in the world for life expectancy (with an average lifespan of 78.7 years), well below those countries like France and Japan where food costs more and healthcare costs less. We are expected to plummet to 64th in the lifespan race by 2040.
What is going wrong? Where did we take a wrong turn? Organic agriculture is the best hope for our country and the world. Organic farming is based on feeding the life in the soil rather than just giving the plant an IV of plant-available fertilizers. One problem with the IV solution is that it assumes that we KNOW what a plant really needs. We do not. The beauty of organic farming is that it relies on a partnership between the farmer and the billions of diverse microbes in the soil to provide the plants with real health. We don’t need to fully understand everything that is happening, although it is wonderful when we learn more. We can rely on hundreds of millions of years of coevolution for the plants and soil to find their way to true health. And we coevolved with that same system, so we are hardwired to get our best nutrition when the soil system is working well. As Albert Howard said, healthy soil equals healthy plants, equals healthy animals, equals healthy people. To which I would add: equals healthy climate.
As a grim conclusion to this article, I must note that organic agriculture is having its own struggles. As people have responded to their growing unease with the food they are offered in the store by turning to organic, some large corporate entities have decided that it is more profitable to change the meaning of organic than it is to change how they are producing the food. This has resulted in years of conflict as the organic community struggles to keep organic real. Most organic farmers in America are real organic, but some of what is sold on the store shelves as certified organic is, at best, “Sort Of Organic.”
The two great failures are CAFOs and hydros. CAFOs are Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, which is a long term for confinement factory farming for animals. These practices are prohibited in the organic standards, and yet they continue on a massive scale. The other significant fraud is the certification of soilless hydroponic fruits and vegetables. Right now many berries and tomatoes sold as organic in America are actually grown in pots of coconut husks with fertilizers fed to the plants much like an IV tube. Again, this is prohibited in the original law that created the National Organic Program, and again, it is being ignored by the USDA.
These failures have led to the creation of add-on labels for organic certification. One such label is the Real Organic Project, which works to unite real organic farmers with eaters who care. It is always best to grow your own. Failing that, it is best to Know Your Farmer. Failing that, seek out a label like Real Organic Project that you can trust. For more information, visit realorganicproject.org. To join in a more in-depth discussion and celebration, attend the Real Organic Project Symposium at Dartmouth College next April 3 and 4.
“The products all lie. There are images of farms and pastoral images on the packages that really are coming from feedlots. When the system gets this long and this opaque, it's very hard to know what kind of system you are supporting, and consumers are deeply confused.
“So I think we need to move toward a system where there will be a second bar code on every product (I know I’m crowding these labels). You could that label under a scanner in the supermarket and there would come an image of the farm where that chicken actually lived.
“This is no longer expensive at all. And you could press another button and see the diet. What did that chicken eat? What pharmaceuticals went into that chicken. And then you press another button and you see the slaughterhouse. And nothing would clean up those awful places faster than cameras broadcasting through the web to eaters on a 24/7 basis.
“We should be fighting for transparency.”
– Michael Pollan in a talk called “Deep Agriculture” at the Long Now Foundation in 2009.