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Farm to Body: How Human Health is Reflected in the Soil

The first in a series of four lessons gleaned from the 34th Annual EcoFarm Conference at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove

Photo: Trav Williams/Broken Banjo

January 25, 2014 – After long days of non-stop activity, filled with expert panels and lectures, a huge seed swap, several mixers and tastings, a sweaty-wet dance party, and many organic meals shared with friends new and old, the Eco-Farm Conference is now dormant again until it re-awakens next January. Having said my goodbyes and packed up the truck, I’m lingering by the fire in the Social Hall, one of the inspiring buildings here designed by Arts and Crafts architect Julia Morgan around 1913. With its 40-or-so-feet tall wood beam ceiling, there is plenty of space to think.

This years’ conference was packed with brain food. One particularly inspiring theme that emerged is how human health is linked to soil health. There is now solid evidence that healthy soils create healthy food, which in turn builds healthy communities, and that depleted soils lead to depleted bodies. It boils down to choice: our choice as a society, our choice as individuals.

Dr. Daphne Miller began my day with a revelatory wake-up call. A San Francisco-based family physician, and author of the new best seller Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farms Can Teach Us About Health and Healing, she spoke about the uncanny resemblance of the territory of our land and our bodies from a microbial perspective.

Dr. Daphne Miller

Just like healthy land, a healthy human body is an ecosystem. We are each unto ourselves a “microbiome,” an ecological community of microorganisms. This is not pathology. By design, on a good day the human body contains over 10 times more microbial cells than human cells. In a balanced ecosystem—farm or human—there is higher immunity to pathogens. A healthy farm and a healthy body can stand up to threats.

Continuing the analogy: It is de rigueur in conventional farming to blast the land with pesticides, right? This is based on the same principle in which conventional medicine blasts cancer cells with chemotherapy and radiation.

“We kill cancer like it is a garden pest,” said Miller.  For conventional farmers and doctors, poison is the antidote. Organic farmers and integrative and holistic doctors, however, take a regenerative approach, in which compost and raspberries may be the prescription for health. She showed the faces of the people who are leading this perceptual shift: scientists, eco-farmers, and urban gardeners.

With a title like Farmacology, Miller clearly has a knack for word play. Right after her talk, I bought her book. When she signed it, she wrote inside the cover, “Body = Soil.”

Maria Rodale
Maria Rodale

Miller’s talk dovetailed neatly with the closing plenary session just a half hour later by Maria Rodale, the scion of the Rodale family, famous for introducing organic agriculture to Americans in the 1940s. Today she is Chairman and CEO of Rodale Inc., the world’s largest independent publisher of health, wellness, and environmental books and magazines. She is also the author of several books, most recently Organic Manifesto: How Organic Farming Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World, and Keep Us Safe.

During her talk, entitled Healing the Planet One Farm, One Heart at a Time, Rodale discussed the key findings of 30 years of rigorous scientific Farming System Trials. These are side-by-side comparisons of organic and chemical agriculture, conducted by Rodale Institute, where she is Co-chair. Among other results, the trials provide quantitative data that:

  • organic yields match conventional
  • organic methods use 45% less energy than conventional
  • organic outperforms conventional during years of drought
  • organic farms are as profitable as conventional

It is maddening that good information does not necessarily prevail with speed, but Rodale opined to the packed room to maintain an open heart and seek common ground. Conventional farmers, she said, believe they are doing the right thing. They believe that feeding the world rests on their shoulders—and their chemicals. It’s what they’ve been told by a critical mass of powerful stakeholders, from the government to the chemical companies. For that matter, she said, “Even the folks at Dow Chemical love their children.”

Now dog and I will head out to the beach, which is about 300 yards from the Social Hall. A dog’s health might be reflected in his organic kibble, but he also needs a good run. 

Read lesson #2: The Inspiration to Save and Share Seed

About the author

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Jillian Laurel Steinberger designs softscape landscapes with natural and upcycled materials. She loves combining edible plants with California natives to boost pollination and create sublime and wondrous beauty. She works for Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping, in business in Santa Cruz for 25 years, and has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Bay Area News Group papers, BUST, Bitch, Edible East Bay, and other publications. Feel free to contact her at jillian at terranovalandscaping.com.