Soil and Health Discussion
“What Your Food Ate is a capstone piece that looks at why the WAY that we farm is important, not only for the health and longevity of human societies, but how that actually affects our own individual health.” – David Montgomery in the Real Organic book club.”
Read our What Your Food Ate discussion transcript with David Montgomery in this week’s letter:
What Your Food Ate is a book about nutrition and soil.
The exploration of soil and health is important. We don’t want to be sick. We don’t want to feel bad. What we eat is fundamental to how we feel; how we thrive. Many of us don’t see that.
How our food is grown is invisible to us.
When I asked Michael Pollan if the food system is getting better or worse since he wrote Omnivore’s Dilemma, he said that the popular understanding and concern for the food system has gotten much better over the last ten years, but the actual food system itself has gotten worse.
It is the best of times and the worst of times.
What Your Food Ate is another melody in the symphony of our popular culture.
The book addresses the most basic of questions:
Does it matter to our health how our food is grown?
We have come to believe that agriculture matters to climate, to the pollution of our air and water, to animal welfare, to worker welfare, and to building economically healthy communities. But this most basic food question, first raised in the 1930s and 40s, has not gotten the public discussion it deserves.
Does healthy, microbial-rich soil provide food that leads us to greater health?
This conversation began in the 40s when chemical agriculture really took off. The chemical agriculture of that era now seems innocent in comparison to the Industrial Ag of our time.
We have had considerable discussion on the issue of pesticides in our food. This is the legacy of Rachel Carson and her groundbreaking book, Silent Spring. Most of us are pretty clear that we don’t want to eat poisons, regardless of how safe the chemical companies insist it is.
But there is also the legacy of Albert Howard, Gabrielle Howard, Louise Howard, Eve Balfour, and Lord Northbourne. They focused on the nutritional differences between food grown in healthy, microbial-rich soil and that grown in impoverished soil fertilized by chemicals. Their observations are the foundation of the organic movement, so named by Northbourne and elaborated by the Howards and Balfour. Much of the Howards’ work was done in India, where they made “the peasants and the pests” their teachers.
What Your Food Ate addresses those questions and more.
Since that time there has been a great deal of research done on soil, nutrition, and health.
But no one has pulled all that research together to try to see the lessons that we have gleaned from our scientific studies. What Your Food Ate is such a book, drawing on a thousand scientific references. It is trying to see the forest, not just the trees.
The Book Club session with David was lively. It started with his observations on living soil, and then included his thoughts about organic and regenerative.
We created the Book Club to share some of the amazing authors working in our sphere with our Real Friends. For those of you who can support us as Real Friends, the links to all the Book Club sessions are still available. But for all of you, an excerpt of the important conversation with David Montgomery is below. David covered a lot of ground.
What Your Food Ate Book Club Discussion Excerpt
“Agriculture policy IS health policy”
David Montgomery: We really look at What Your Food Ate as kind of a capstone piece that looks at why the WAY that we farm is important, not only for the health and longevity of human societies but, how that actually affects our own individual health. And then how does that impact population health?
It probably won’t be much of a surprise to anybody on this call that essentially the bottom line is that what’s good for the land is good for us too. But we tried to trace the science that connects those dots from soil health, to crop health, to livestock health, to human health. And there’s an awful lot of dots to connect there, and there’s an awful lot of contingency and variability that affects all that.
But, there’s a clear thread that runs through it that really suggests to us that, yes, we can argue effectively that the health of the land, soil health, in effect actually influences human health. And not just at a multi-century population scale idea of keeping the soil on the land where I started back in writing the book Dirt. But much more personally in terms of what goes on in our own bodies, and how the compounds in the food that we raise can be suffused with the micronutrients and phytochemicals that actually help support human health—even though they do not have caloric value and traditionally aren’t considered nutrients. And how modern farming with the conventional trilogy of over-tillage, overuse of agrichemicals, and the underuse of diversity has really undercut what’s in the food that we’re all getting.
How much does that integrate up and affect our individual or population health? Well, that’s pretty complicated, but the connections seem to be there, and the connections seem to be real, even if it’s difficult to predict specific outcomes, like if you ate three peaches from some wonderful orchard that we know about. What will that actually do to your health? You can’t answer questions like that.
But I think we can make the case that agricultural policy IS health policy at a national scale. And that what we do to raise our food actually matters for what the food can do for us in terms of maintaining our health over the long run. So that’s kind of the short version of the book and the basic message of it.
Albert Howard and other important characters in organic
Dave Chapman: A couple of years ago Will Brinton said to me that he felt that the science of the last 60 years had strongly supported the observations of Albert Howard back in the 1940s. And it’s fascinating to see that as we learn more and more, we get more and more sophisticated descriptions or understandings of what Howard was just observing with his naked eye. How do you feel about that?
David Montgomery: You know, I agree with Will on that. That’s one of the themes that runs through the book and why we deal with some of the historical characters like Howard. But also McCarrison, and Eve Balfour, and others in his time who are really seeing connections between healthy land, healthy animals, and healthy people. But what they really lacked at the time was a mechanistic understanding of how the connections actually worked. They had ideas, some of which were insightful, and some of which were kind of wrong. But at the gross level, the level of observed connections and seeing what matters, they were pretty ahead of their time.
One of the things we do in the book is to break the pieces of those connections down, and write about the studies that have come up, not just very recently, but starting in the 40s. There’s a lot of good science that was done that looked at how nitrogen fertilizers impacted the nutritional value of food back in the 40s and 50s. But growing quantity was the goal at that time, not necessarily growing quality.
And I think that Howard and his peers got short-changed by history, in part because of that thing that scientists are so good at doing. And that is criticizing things that they don’t understand the mechanisms behind.
And so the pioneers had insightful observations, they connected the dots right, but they couldn’t really explain what lay between the dots. How the connections actually worked.
And a lot of science, as Will was arguing to you, has filled in those dots over the last 80 years. And it’s pretty amazing when you think about it through this framework, how much of what we’ve learned about the soil microbiome, and the effects of agrichemicals and tillage on crops and crop health, and what’s actually IN our crops, has actually lined up pretty well with their insights, with the insights of the original organic pioneers. They were definitely on the right track in terms of arguing that soil health is really something that underpins the health of the things that then grow on the land and derive their sustenance, albeit indirectly, from the soil.
Feed the world or nourish the world?
Dave Chapman: I just got sent an article that was about the head of Syngenta. And he was saying, “We can’t afford to have organic farming. We’re all going to starve!” And he was portraying Ukraine as the final nail in organic’s coffin. And that we have to abandon all this foolish talk of nutrient density, and we have to focus on producing calories, and lots of them, as cheaply as possible. What’s your response to that?
David Montgomery: (Laughing) You know, that could be a recipe for feeding the world, but maybe not necessarily nourishing the world. I think we can aim higher than that. And I think the real lesson of what’s going on in Ukraine in terms of the world’s food supply is twofold; We shouldn’t be so dependent on nitrogen fertilizers, and we shouldn’t be so dependent on grains. That’s a recipe for diversifying our farming practices, and for diversifying our diets, actually. You know that we’re the only top carnivore that exists off of seeds. It’s kind of odd when you think about it that way. Or maybe I should say, top omnivore. So I think that gentleman is taking the wrong lessons from the current geopolitical situation.
If we want to actually look at a resilient style of farming that can both feed the world AND nourish the world, we have to reexamine the basic premises of modern conventional agriculture…
…and that boils down to tillage and the overuse of agrichemicals and the diversity of what we’re growing and eating.
And the Ukraine example I think plays right into that. The current situation is also a good example of why we need to get off of fossil fuels. We are completely dependent on them for running the economy of Europe and keeping Europe warm in the winter at this point. But we’re also dependent on fossil fuels for our agricultural system and nitrogen fertilizers are a BIG piece of that.
Among the things I have been very interested in since I wrote Dirt are the studies that looked at the comparisons of organic yields and conventional yields. And just how biased some of the reporting has been on that, in the sense that the conventional thing that you hear in the media is that there is a 10% to 15% to 20% yield penalty on organic.
But what you don’t get until you actually dig into those studies that underlie some of those comparisons is that when the comparisons are done with crop varieties that are bred for yield in organic systems and grown on healthy fertile soils in organic systems, they can match or outcompete comparable conventional farms.
And so there are some real apples and oranges comparisons that have gone on and been solidified in conventional “wisdom” around that issue.
The thing I like to bring up is what if we actually invested in building healthy fertile soils? There are studies we cite in What Your Food Ate that argue that the yield penalty could be reduced to just a couple of percent, or even eliminated altogether. And then look at how much food we actually waste in cities, like 20% to 40%, depending on where you’re at. That’s bigger than even the worst-case assessments of the organic versus conventional “yield penalty.”
So the idea that we would all starve if we went organic is fiction. It depends on assumptions that are not necessarily true. And you can make a strong case for a resilient agriculture being one that is founded on soil health, and well done organic practices have long advocated for that, as you know and as Howard was advocating a hundred years ago.
Dave Chapman: Thank you. I loved that. You mentioned that it’s amazing how the small and the large tie together here, like fractals, and that it turns out that really growing nutritious food is also growing food in a way that benefits us as human beings and as citizens of the planet in so many other ways than just nourishment. Could you speak about that?
The global benefits of a farm’s healthy soil
David Montgomery: One of the take-home lessons for me, both from Growing a Revolution and from What Your Food Ate was how advantageous it is across the board to actually rebuild healthy soils, in terms of taking carbon out of the atmosphere and parking it in the ground.
There are lots of benefits to be had there, and lots of controversy over just how MUCH carbon could be taken agriculturally from the atmosphere and parked in the ground for just how long. But there are some pretty good studies that have demonstrated that there is an effect there.
And the single best way to reduce nitrate pollution in, say, the Gulf of Mexico, is to use less soluble nitrogen for agriculture in the Mississippi River Basin. That is the simplest way to do it because that is the root cause of the problem.
Phosphorus in the Great Lakes is similar, with a different geography and a different chemical. Going to more regenerative, soil health building practices that rely far less, if at all, on soluble synthetic fertilizers, that’s the way to reduce those sources of pollution, as well as keeping nitrates out of the drinking water supply in our rural communities in the Midwest.
And I also think that restoring profitability to small farms is the key to unlocking the economic potential of rural areas across North America once again. It’s kind of sad to give book talks across the Midwest and drive through town after town with a vacant downtown. The population density of rural America has been going down. Smaller, more profitable farms is something a more regenerative style of farming can help foster.
So there are all kinds of ancillary benefits to just improving the health of the soil.
The one we focus on in the new book is what it could mean for human health, but there are all these other benefits in terms of reduced pollution, increased carbon sequestration, and greater resilience in terms of moisture holding capacity on agricultural soils that have a higher carbon content.
When we talk about building soil health, we’re really talking about building soil carbon and soil life. These are the two components of soil health. To do that, we have to think about the soil differently, and we have to farm differently than we do conventionally.
What really is organic matter?
Dave Chapman: Could you describe the ways in which soil carbon and soil life are different? Are they completely one hand in a glove or is there a difference?
David Montgomery: I think of them as a little different, because I think of soil life as the actual living organisms. And once they die, they become soil carbon. So the difference is: Are they alive, or are they in the process of being recycled? One of the interesting things we uncovered, that Anne and I hadn’t known when we went into researching the book, was that there have been a bunch of studies in the last decade that have looked at how a lot of soil organic matter, soil carbon, is the remains of dead microbes. And so that soil life BECOMES the soil organic matter.
I used to think organic matter was mostly just the remains of things like leaves and grasses, and roots and plants. But it turns out that those plants are pushing out exudates into the soil, dripping out carbohydrates, fats, and proteins out of their roots to feed life around the root zone.
Stuff that Anne and I wrote about in What Your Food Ate, but also a lot in The Hidden Half Of Nature. And how that life in the soil produces things that help the health of the crops, and helps crops get things like the mineral elements, like nitrogen and phosphorus, out of soil organic matter or mineral particles, thereby obviating the need for so many agrochemicals in an agricultural setting.
But that soil life, once it dies, then IT becomes soil organic matter that MORE soil life can feast on to actually keep the process going, and as more plants add more of their ”shed” parts, or their “dead” parts. It’s this whole bustling world of life that’s just taking the elements that have been brought into the biological domain, taken from the geological domain by plant roots and fungi, integrated into biology, and then this wheel just keeps spinning, turning them over. So I’ve used soil life and soil organic matter as two pieces of that cycle. Very intimately related, but not quite the same thing, by virtue of one being alive and one being formerly alive.
Dave Chapman: Yes, that’s great. On any one of these, we could go for a long time, and I would like to, but I have two more quick questions. One is were you surprised by anything you learned when you both were researching this book?
The flavor and nutrition connection
David Montgomery: Oh yeah. In the new one in particular, when Anne was looking into the connections between the flavor of foods and the healthfulness of foods. And one of the things that she uncovered as part of her research on this were studies that actually looked at how our bodies have taste receptors, not just in our mouth, but throughout a lot of our organs. Like our livers and kidneys, if I remember right, have taste receptors for things like fats and phytochemicals. Or bitter taste receptors, in particular, turn out to be instrumental in communicating and T-ing up our immune system.
I think you could ask quite fairly why would we have taste receptors throughout our body when the food goes in our mouth, and that’s where we taste it? Well, we’re not TASTING with our other organs, but those receptors are being informed about what’s in our food. And there’s a hypothesis that Fred Provenza’s been very big on writing about, thinking about, and greatly influencing our thinking about in terms of animal husbandry and how livestock choose their diet out in the wild, how they choose what to eat. It’s called the Flavor Feedback hypothesis. And that’s looking at how the flavors that appeal to an animal, like us, are those that reflect the content of things that are health-promoting in that food.
There was a study on tomatoes, in particular. We have all, I am sure, had those horrible flavorless tomatoes that one can find in grocery stores. The question that has long sort of bugged me: Is that a less nutritious tomato? Is that a worse tomato in terms of human health? I can’t tell you how many times we have been asked that in the last twenty years. And Anne found a paper, I think it was in Science, so fairly credible stuff, that looked at a study, I think it was Florida State or the University of Florida, I forget which, where they fed people a range of different tomatoes and asked, “Which ones do you like? What ones are most flavorful?”
And then they analyzed the chemistry of the ones from the least flavorful to the most flavorful.
What they found was that the ones that appealed most to the human palate were those that had higher levels of, if I’m thinking right, omega-3 fats, carotenoids, a class of phytochemicals, and also particular amino acids.
And they were essential amino acids, meaning that they were the kind of amino acids we can ONLY get from our food. Our bodies can’t make them ourselves. So these are all things that are health-promoting compounds that were the things that characterized the most flavorful, delicious tomatoes. That suggests that there is a feedback that helped people pick a diet in the pre-agricultural world when we were picking our diet from nature around us.
How did we know what to eat? Well, it turns out our bodies have evolved mechanisms where what’s in our food gets communicated throughout our body to our various organs, and that gives feedback in terms of how we feel after we eat and how satiated we are. Whether we want to eat more? Whether we’re satisfied? And it can help guide us to the foods that we like that are more healthy.
Now, of course, that has been perverted in the modern food processing world, because sugar, salt, and fat were all pretty rare in the ancestral human diet. So our bodies are hardwired to LOVE that when we get it. You know, I’m top of the list. Sugar, salt, and fat, I love it. But it’s pretty abundant now. And so when that guy from Syngenta is arguing we just need to grow quantity, if he is basically just arguing quantities of carbohydrates, simple sugars, made palatable by salt and fat, that’s not really a recipe for health, but it sure is a recipe for getting people to eat it. Because that appeals to our taste buds.
But what I was really fascinated about, back to your original question, in learning and researching this new book, was how our bodies, when we are consuming whole natural foods, our bodies have this internal radar, if you will, for guiding us to the healthier stuff. We’ve just kind of disarmed and disoriented that in the modern grocery store.
Dave Chapman: I’ll have to get that article about tomatoes and tape it to the wall.
David Montgomery: And if anyone is interested, the source materials for What Your Food Ate run to 56 pages of references. There are literally a thousand references. It is all on the website.
Tillage, Regenerative Agriculture and Big Ag
Dave Chapman: I have one last question. This one is maybe provocative. You go through the book and you show many, many studies comparing organic to conventional and showing, time and time again, that the organic production is genuinely more nutritious, not that it’s guaranteed to have a certain health outcome, but that overall, it certainly does have a positive health outcome. A friend pointed out to me that all of that organic agriculture involved tillage. It ALL did. The organic no-till is JUST just now being played with. And you know some of the people who are playing with it and I do too. And the conclusion of your final chapter was, “and thus, we should support regenerative agriculture.” And I thought “Wait a minute, shouldn’t we be supporting organic?”
We’re going to have a symposium this winter asking the question: “Is organic regenerative? Is regenerative organic?” And I know that what you mean by Regenerative might be different from what Syngenta means by Regenerative, because they claim to be a Regenerative company also. And they ALL do, all of Big Food, Big Ag is waving the Regenerative flag, regardless of what any of us think about it. And I’m just curious what you think about that? You mention Real Organic in the book. Do you think that that research demonstrates something? And that the research for what we are calling Regenerative hasn’t yet happened?
David Montgomery: No, if you read our book, what we’re arguing for are practices that build soil health. And so when you look at a definition for Regenerative agriculture as an agriculture that builds soil health, that’s what we’re talking about. Syngenta can say whatever they want about what they are doing, but…
…if their practices aren’t building soil health, they’re not doing regenerative agriculture.
So you mentioned tillage. You know one of the big topics in the Dirt book was that looking at past societies, none of which had agrochemicals in their arsenal, destroyed their land through tillage. There’s absolutely no question that tillage is bad for the soil. Now the question you SHOULD be asking is how MUCH tillage?
Because if you have healthy fertile soil, you can get away with a little tillage. You can probably get away with even a fair bit of it if you’re doing other things in terms of composting and mulching and practices that build and maintain soil health.
On the other hand, if you’re NOT doing those things, and you’re routinely doing a lot of tillage, you’re going to degrade your land really fast. And I’ve been on “organic” farms that have degraded their land. No Question. But I don’t consider those to be using good organic practices. Right? So it’s not so much, in my view, regenerative versus organic as two things that need to be set up as flags to rally around. The flag we all should be rallying around is building soil health.
There are some big problems with many of the comparisons of organic and conventional produce that I think actually make organic look not as good as it actually is, particularly the great variability in practices across both ends of the spectrum. And there are other structural things in those comparisons in terms of growing crops that were bred for success in conventional systems and then trying to grow them organically and going, “Oh there’s not much in the way of yield” or “There’s not much in the way of differences.”
But the things that actually come out as very consistent in the studies that we’ve reviewed on the differences between organic and conventional as a background to talking about soil health, was that there are always differences in phytochemicals, and those are rooted in interactions with soil life. There are often differences in mineral micronutrients. Those are things rooted in interactions with soil life. There are rarely big differences with the macronutrients, and that’s in part because a tomato is a tomato. It’s the basic chemistry of what makes a tomato.
And there are big differences in the livestock world in terms of the fatty acid composition. But those are all things that soil health influences.
And so when Anne and I talk about Regenerative farming, we’re not so much talking about any particular company’s definition of what Regenerative farming is.
And it’s kind of like the whole purpose of the Real Organic Project is to try to highlight how the term “Organic” has sort of lost its way in terms of the USDA’s program. That’s a good example of what I think you may be concerned about, but the term “Organic” has just as much baggage as the term “Regenerative” in that regard today. That’s why you guys started the Real Organic Project. So what we’re arguing for with the term Regenerative is an umbrella term for building soil health and fertility. Rebuilding that as a consequence of agriculture. And there are lots of different ways to do that. You know, Biodynamic farming is a really good example of practices that I may sort of roll my eyes at some of the philosophy that goes with it, but when you look at what people actually do on biodynamic farms, it’s about building soil health and fertility. It’s like, this is regenerative! And if you look at well done Organic farms, probably most of the Real Organic Project farms, I would call those all Regenerative if they are building soil health.
But there are also some conventional-ish farmers, or like the two no-till vegetable farms we write about in the book. Neither one of them is certified Organic as I recall. And they’re both incredible in terms of their soil. And it’s exactly what we want to be doing. And I’ve even been on some big ranches and farms where farmers who come out of the conventional farming world have virtually weaned themselves off of agrichemicals by adopting these more regenerative agricultural practices. And they will NEVER go Organic because it’s not their tribe. I mean you talk to them about it and you realize, Oh no, this is just NOT going to happen. And yet, what have they done? They’ve basically become organic farmers. (laughter). Why? Because it built the health and fertility of their land.
So I’m trying to take the big picture view that by 2050 we need to make farming practices that build the health and fertility of the land as a consequence of intensive farming the new conventional farming.
And frankly, I don’t really care what you call it as long as it’s building soil health.
And I think Regenerative is a very good term for that. But the worry about the term being co-opted is a real one. That’s a very real and legitimate concern.
–End of Excerpt–
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