The following is an interview with Cascadian authors Dave Montgomery and Anne Biklé about their book What Your Food Ate: How to Heal Our Land and Reclaim Our Health. This book discusses how the health of the soil affects the health of our bodies. Listen to the full interview on the Earthkeepers Podcast.
Forrest: Let’s talk about your new book, What Your Food Ate: How to Heal Our Land and Reclaim Our Health. How would you sum up the essential purpose of the book? And who is it you’re trying to reach?
Dave: The central purpose of the book is exploring the relationships between how we treat the land and how the land can treat us. There are various steps along the way: how the way farming practices affect the health of the soil; how the health of the soil affects the health of crops and plants; how the health of crops–and what gets into crops and plants–affects the health of livestock and animals; and then how all that rolls up to influence human health.
So, we’re trying to look at all the little steps and connections along the way. We know that a lot of things affect our health. There’s our genes, whether we get any exercise, what we choose to eat. But for this book, we wanted to explore how the way we raise our food can affect our health. In other words, how what our food ate impacts our health.
We’re trying to reach average people. Most people really ought to know more about how their food is raised and what they’re getting delivered in their diet. I view our role as, in effect, scientific translators–trying to take stuff out of the journals and communicate it more broadly to people who ought to have access to the information that gets tucked away in these technical specialty publications. More people should have the benefit of knowing this information so that when they make choices about what they eat, they can be doing that in a more informed manner.
Forrest: I came away from the book with the sense that I’m learning how much I don’t know–how much I don’t have access to these crucial details about where my food is coming from and how it’s produced. It left me with a bit of restlessness, as well. But I think it’s a good thing because it makes me want to learn more as a consumer.
Anne: This might sound odd, Forrest, but I’m actually pleased that you’re realizing how much you don’t know about this topic because one of our objectives is that people become equipped with knowledge and information so that they can decide what they want to do.
So, it’s always thrilling for me to hear that somebody is learning something and that somebody is thinking about acting on the information and the stories that are in the book. This book is for people who are interested in learning new things, expanding their horizons, and examining how their life on this planet is impacting themselves and other people. Then they can consider what they might do to go in a direction that will improve and enhance their life, as well as the lives of others.
Forrest: I think the danger of writing a book based in science is that you could alienate people—make them feel that they know so little that they wonder, why try and read this book? But that is not what this book does. Your word translate is a good one because both of you intrigue us along the way, making us want to know more as you explain these interesting studies—these elements of research that expose mysteries of the soil. It’s a democratic approach in the sense that it welcomes everyone to learn more and to want to know more.
So, practically speaking, what are the essential changes that you’re calling for in the book or maybe hoping that the book will inspire?
Dave: Well, I think a key change that we’re really interested in is the way we think about the soil—the way we think about the land, our connection to it, and how the way that we treat the land ripples back up into the way that the land treats us. So, there are two aspects. First, we would like to see more regenerative farming practices that actually enhance the health and fertility of the world’s soils as the foundation for farming. I think we’re basically looking for a new philosophical foundation for farming that promotes the life in the soil and the benefits that can flow from that. Second, we’re hoping to encourage people to think more about not just what they eat but where their food came from, how it was raised—quite literally what their food ate.
Forrest: For me, I think the most important takeaway has to do with the nature of food and what happens to food when it’s grown, how that ultimately benefits or detracts from our health. What is it that a change in the way we grow our food might address in terms of people’s health?
Dave: In our review of the literature and some of the testing that we did, too, it seems that how we treat the soil affects soil life in ways that, in turn, affect how many important compounds—like micronutrients, phytochemicals, and fats—are actually getting into our food supply. Looking at the medical literature, there’s lots of evidence to suggest that we want more of those things, rather than less, in our food. It can be difficult to connect how if you change your diet in a specific way and need a certain thing grown off a certain farm, how that will affect your health in a particular way. I mean, that’s asking a lot to be able to make those kinds of connections. But in the general sense of what would make for a healthier diet, it sure seems like whole foods grown in healthy fertile soils offer more of the compounds that we don’t just need to be alive but that will help us thrive—that will actually support our health.
A key message of the book is that there have been changes in the composition and mix of fats, the amount of micronutrients, and the amount of phytochemicals in our diet as a consequence of adopting conventional farming practices. But the good news is that there’s every reason to think that a lot of that can be reversed. We can re-increase the amount of those things in our diet or change the balance of them, in the case of fats, through adopting different agricultural practices–practices that actually work for farmers and turn out to be better for the soil, better for the land, and better for the climate. There are a lot of reasons to argue for a different style of farming practices that can still produce comparable yields in an economically competitive manner.
Forrest: Your book expanded my view of what constitutes healthy food. What amazed me was the essentially different nature of the things that are grown in ways that rely on regenerative techniques or rely on building the soil even as you’re growing the plants. Describe for us some of the new ways of farming that you advocate for in your book.
Dave: The key pillars of conventional agriculture today are a lot of tillage, using synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and other agrochemicals, and growing one or two crops, primarily. Those methods were adopted as a means of boosting yields in the mid 20th century. Coupled with crop breeding for the green revolution, they helped increase crop yields. But in focusing on growing calories as our one metric, yield above all else, we overlooked how those practices undermine the connections between life and the soil, between fungi in the soil and bacteria in the soil. The plants formed partnerships with them for some 450 million years and these partnerships actually bolster their health and help them make phytochemicals and acquire mineral micronutrients and vitamins.
Now, more regenerative practices and techniques would be those that actually cultivate the beneficial life in the soil and re-build organic matter that the conventional practices degrade over time. Those practices involve minimizing disturbance, both chemical and physical. So, using less tillage or no-till practices—not plowing or applying it very sparingly. Also, minimizing the use of synthetic fertilizers and agrochemicals, if not eliminating them all together. And growing a diversity of crops, whether in the cover crops planted in between a cash crop or growing a diversity of cash crops. These practices cultivate beneficial life in the soil that partners with plants to enhance the health and viability of both.
Forrest: I notice that you both tend to use relationship language for the soil, for plants and animals, which I just find so fascinating—using relationship and community and partnership. It’s respectful—it’s respectful of the other parts of the community. You sort of grant them being-hood by acknowledging that they’re capable of partnership and collaboration. I find that inspiring and challenging. It challenges me to become more aware of my interconnection, of my relationship that extends all the way down to mycorrhizal beings and these tiny things in the soil. It really opens up a realm of mystery in a very good way and, again, makes me want to learn more.
I want to pick up on this idea that once we see ourselves as part of the community, it gives us different choices to make; it makes us ask, well what is my place? What is my responsibility? What is my part in all of this? I will say that reading this book, I came away with a mixed feeling at the end because I kept getting stuck on the question, “who am I and what could I possibly do to impact this sort of massive entrenched system of industrial agriculture that rules so much of the world?” And maybe that’s my question for you: how can I, or any of us as individuals, hope to promote change when the dysfunction of our food growing industry seems to be mostly in the hands of corporations, governments, and systems that are seemingly beyond our control and influence?
Anne: We get asked this a lot, Forrest, and it’s a really tough question. And it’s a really good question because, ultimately, that’s going to be the route to solutions and to getting people—from your average consumer, to a farmer, to an elected official—getting this collection of humanity to see that better stewardship for the soil is the way that we get better health for ourselves, better outcomes for the planet. If we can support elected officials who are on the same page as we are with respect to this, then they can be the change makers within their own community of elected officials.
A lot of that starts hyperlocal. I’m thinking of schools and how a lot of this change starts with educating kids early on. I think about just how far recycling has come. When it comes to education today, we need to get kids involved, get them asking questions like, where’s my food coming from? How do we grow it? And, oh, there’s this thing called soil life. We’re currently working with somebody who has the idea to do a children’s book about the microbial world in our body and in the soil. They have a young child who is incredibly interested in his body and what goes on in there. So, we’re talking with him about the tiny doctors and the tiny farmers that are in our bodies and that are in the soil.
I think there’s a mind shift that can happen between the young and the old, between the unelected and the elected, and that this is at the hyperlocal level of a family or an organization, maybe like yours, that is supporting farms and farmers who are interested in soil health. Because the bottom line is that we’re looking for agricultural practices that, as a consequence of those very practices, leave the soil and the soil community better off at the end of a harvest season, not worse off. If you replicate that year after year, we are turning agriculture into an asset to the planet and to humanity rather than a liability.
Forrest: Dave, what would you say to people who are asking the question, what can I really do?
Dave: I would say, there are three different levels for this question. The first is to ask, what are you eating and where are you getting it? How is it being grown and how much do you know about it? When you consider this, you can support farming practices that you think are most appropriate. That could be buying food from a farmer at a farmer’s market where you can talk with them and ask, “what are your actual practices?” That’s the most information you can have, you know. In the grocery stores, there are various regenerative farming labels that are being proposed and being rolled out. Those will have some connection to practices that actually build and maintain soil health. There’s the organic label, too. Many organic farms treat the soil very well. Not all of them. Some of them till too much. But all you have is the label at the store that’s probably better than a conventional label in terms of how the soil is being treated. So, at the individual level, you can vote with your food dollars. Support the kind of farming that you would like to see spread.
At another level are the ways these kinds of changes can be supported in agriculture, in farming communities. Farmers can learn about regenerative practices and how they can be more economical for farms. Then they can experiment to try and adopt them on a corner of a farm to actually see how that pans out. I’ve yet to meet a farmer who wanted to degrade their land. I’ve met a lot of farmers who are either indifferent or would like to improve the health of their soil, but haven’t met anybody who wants to degrade it, even though that’s what conventional agriculture has been doing for 100 years.
Then at the third level, there’s public policy and working through elected representatives. If you want to have an impact, contact your legislative representatives, whether at the state or at the federal level, and encourage them to support farmers who are engaging in or adopting regenerative farming practices. There’s political pressure that can be brought to bear to educate and encourage our elected representatives to try and reshape our agricultural subsidies, our agricultural incentives, our agricultural policies in ways that promote regenerative farming and benefit farmers who adopt those practices.
When you really think about what shapes the world, even though there are billions of us, it’s the way we live our lives and the individual actions we take in our lives that collectively add up to the human footprint on the planet. And the one thing that we confidently can influence is our own individual footprint. If enough of us make changes, the world actually changes for the better or worse.
Forrest: I love that you’re bringing it down to the level of individual responsibility—or maybe I want to call it opportunity, because there are things we can do and I think it takes courage and creativity to think about what we might do with our particular resources, strengths, and ideas. For example, the children’s curriculum that focuses on the life of the soil, that’s really unique and creative. But I think there are so many other great ideas out there, if we free ourselves to have them.
One story that comes to mind is a couple of women in South Africa who started this thing called the Good Food Clubs. They started it because they realized that they didn’t know how to support regenerative farming because they had no idea where their food came from. So, they made it their task to gather some friends and figure that out. They began to create these co-ops where they were buying food from farmers who specifically were committed to regenerative practices and supporting them in that way. Along the way, they developed relationships with these farmers—learning about them, their lives, and the pressures on them to use various farming techniques. It was such a fascinating and inspiring example of what creative thinking and courage can lead to, if you believe, if you really believe that you can make a difference where you are.
Anne: That makes me think of Wangari Mathai, a woman in Kenya who noticed the impacts on soil of deforestation and farming. And she thought, what can I do, I’m just one person? Well, she went on to start a tree planting project that has been hugely successful. Eventually, she received the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her efforts. So, this is what one person can do—a lot, a lot with other people.
Forrest: Your writing calls us to new standards, new practices, and new ways of thinking, but it also shows us that there are plenty of people who are already modeling new ways forward, given that more and more people are understanding the value of regenerative agriculture. Is your book a reflection of movement in the right direction or does it feel more like you’re trying to spark a movement that doesn’t yet have momentum?
Dave: It’s a little bit of both. Fifteen years ago when I wrote the book titled Dirt that got Anne and me thinking along these lines, there were very few people talking about soil health and about changing farming practices. Now you go to farming conferences and everybody there’s talking about it. You’ve got a whole new generation of younger farmers who have actually come in to do these regenerative practices and aren’t steeped in the old ways. When I first started seeing some of the early adopters of regenerative practices, it took them decades to figure out what to do and how to change their farm and improve their soil. And now you’ve got farmers who are, out of the gate, adopting those practices and making great strides in improving and enhancing the health of the soil on their farms around the world.
So, we’re not calling for changes that nobody knows how to do. But I think what we’re calling for is wider adoption of changes that pioneering farmers around the world have figured out how to tweak. They could really use our support, whether intellectual, monetary, or legislative. There are a lot of upsides to adopting a less environmentally destructive style of agriculture that has the ability to feed the world in ways that provide more of the compounds that actually bolster human health. That’s what we’re really arguing for—a reframing of our global agricultural enterprise to prioritize not just feeding the world but rebuilding healthy fertile soils and better nourishing the world.
Forrest: I love that in the book you really make farmers into heroes. You have so many great stories about farmers who are discovering new things and finding out that doing these new things is not a sacrifice—that it’s actually making them more money to support their families and making their farms, ultimately, healthier. I find so much inspiration in the stories of the farmers. And the farmers don’t get a lot of attention. I realized that, as I was reading, I wanted to know more of these stories. As you said, Dave, I want to support them, I want to figure out what I can do to support work on the cutting edge, which is really where they’re living.
I wonder if when we talk about these stories of farmers or other people who are doing creative things that you cite, are you hopeful about the future? Are we moving in the right direction?
Anne: I am hopeful. I think when you see things that are happening and you talk with farmers and they say things like, “five years ago, 10 years ago, I couldn’t find hardly any life in my soil. And then I started to think more about organic matter and the things that are really important for feeding soil life.” When I hear farmers talking about things like that, I get excited because they get it—and once they get it, they take that knowledge and transfer it into practices that influence the land and the kinds of foods that end up on our dinner table.
So, I am hopeful. I know those types of farmers are out there and I know there are a lot of younger farmers coming into agriculture and it makes me really hopeful. All of these younger people see the landscape differently than a farmer who is closer to the end of their career. The younger farmers are thinking things like, “we can do this, I can do this, I know how to do this.” Forrest, I like how you talk about the opportunity and the courage to be doing things differently. That’s why I am more hopeful than pessimistic about things, in terms of the soil health.
Forrest: I agree about younger farmers; I’m making the same observation. I think one other difference about younger farmers, and this is worldwide, is that they also feel like their farming is more than farming. They have a sense of purpose, they have a sense of social responsibility. They understand the plight of the earth and they understand that they are an important part of helping us get to a better place. That sense of social mission is setting them apart, as well.
Dave, what about you? Are you hopeful?
Dave: You know, I tend to take a fairly long view. We still have a long way to go to make a more regenerative, soil-friendly style of agriculture the conventional agriculture of the future. But I think we’re on track to get there. It may take us a few decades, but I think we’re moving in the right direction in terms of growing interest and growing support.
When we look at the term regenerative, there’s still a lot to be done to operationalize it, to define it, and assess it. There’s going to be lots of arguments over that in the next few years. But I think we’re starting to see the big global agricultural ship starting to turn a little bit towards more soil-friendly practices for some fairly simple reasons. The price of fertilizer has gone through the roof in the last year and it’s illustrated how non-resilient a global agriculture that depends on a whole lot of nitrogen to grow very few crops can be. So, moving to more soil-friendly practices that don’t need as much fertilizer, as well as diversifying our crops and diversifying our diet, that would be a recipe for resilience.
There are a lot of factors that will help push agriculture in a more regenerative direction. There are many other benefits besides the economic ones to be harvested, as well, in terms of the health of the land and the health of our population.
Anne: If we were to sum up the book, it comes down to this: If our farming practices enhance and conserve and protect the community of life in the soil, chances are it’s going to be really good for human health, as well. If it’s good for the land, it’s good for us.
Cover photo credit: Syd Wachs