Anne Biklé on The Nexus Between Soil and Human HealthJun 30, 2023 ● By Linda Sechrist
Anne Biklé and David R. Montgomery, a husband and wife team, collaborated to write What Your Food Ate: How to Heal Our Land and Reclaim Our Health. A biologist, environmental planner and gardener extraordinaire, Biklé earned degrees in biology and natural history from the University of California (UC) Santa Cruz and a master’s degree in landscape architecture from UC Berkeley. She uses her endless fascination with the natural world to explore the tangled relationships between people and their environments. She also helped Montgomery, a professor of Earth and space sciences at the University of Washington, research and write The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health, as well as Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. Exploring the connection between soil health and human health, the duo shows us how the roots of our good health begin on farms.
Why did you write this book?
It was a case of evolution, a progression of our research and thinking, as well as the culmination of a journey that we’ve been on, looking into how soils affect human societies. When you're a writer and you're constantly looking for connections and patterns, this is what can happen. When David was writing Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, he discovered that how we treated the land in the past shaped the way that the land was able to treat the descendants of people. In other words, if you don’t take care of your land, it doesn’t take care of you.
What effects do soil erosion and degradation have on our food supply?
In looking at the UN's “Status of the World’s Soil Resources from 2015,” the study concludes that 33 percent of the Earth’s soils are already degraded, and we're losing about 0.3 percent of our ability to feed ourselves—to grow food on this planet every year—due to soil erosion and soil degradation. That doesn't sound like a big number in any one year, but adding it up over the rest of this century, it comes to 30 percent of our ability to feed ourselves. Adding to this is the serious degradation of the world’s agricultural land from long-term farming practices, such as tilling or plowing, which is the villain in what is becoming a significant planetary problem that can be reversed with regenerative farming practices.
The plow is one of the more destructive implements that mankind has ever invented despite its ability to help feed us in the past. It contributes to soil degradation and erosion because it fundamentally alters the balance between how fast soils are being made and how fast they're being lost.
What are the benefits of regenerative farming practices?
Regenerative agriculture uses less fertilizer, less pesticide and less fossil fuel. It also increases the carbon content in the soil. Carbon-rich soil retains more water and contains more life, such as whole new worlds of microbial metabolites [the energy and nutrients needed to live and reproduce] that come from soil microbes.
Do farming practices influence the health of crops and human health?
Conventional farming practices use synthetic nitrogen, which degrades organic soil matter and alters the communities of life in the soil. In studies of organic versus conventional, we’ve found that there's almost always evidence that there are differences in micronutrients and phytochemicals, with organic crops having higher levels of both. Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals that we need in trace amounts for our health—for example, selenium, boron, zinc and iron—which we need just a little bit of, but that little bit has an oversized effect on our health.
Conventional crops almost always have higher levels of pesticides and heavy metals. There's a lot of controversy scientifically about how much is enough to affect human health. The companies that make pesticides assure us that the levels in food are perfectly safe. But there are now scientists who are starting to investigate chronic exposure to even small amounts over a whole lifetime. How much does that influence our health? We think there are reasons to keep asking those questions.
It is highly suggestive that the idea of a connection between soil health, crop health and animal health translates into what's in our food. If we're getting more vitamins, phytochemicals and mineral micronutrients, which are shown to support health, you can make the argument that these regeneratively grown foods are probably healthier for us to eat.
What influence do farming practices have on livestock and human health?
The nature of what ruminants eat greatly influences the nature of the fats that are in meat and dairy. Livestock grazing on leafy green plants are getting an omega-3-rich diet. Ruminants that eat predominantly seed- or seed oil-derived rations in a feed lot are getting a mainly omega-6-derived diet. Omega-6 fats help trigger inflammation. We want our bodies to be able to trigger inflammation when we need it, but we also want it to turn off when it's done. Inflammation is not a process that just stops, so we need omega-3 fats, which are central to the process of terminating or quelling inflammation.
Linda Sechrist has been a contributing writer to Natural Awakenings publications for 20 years.