#202 What your Food Ate – Or why you should never eat industrially farmed food ever again- with Anne Biklé and David Montgomery
How does soil health intimately and profoundly impact human health? What’s the link between the soil microbiome and the human gut microbiome? How can we begin to restore our health, and the health of the living earth in concert with each other?
These are the questions posed by the outstanding book What your Food Ate: How to heal our land and reclaim our health and the co-authors, Anne Biklé and David Montgomery are this week’s guests as we delve deeply into the nature of soil, the functions of fungi, the populations of bacteria we depend on that inhabit our guts, and how we might affect total systemic change in the food and farming system. So a little light listening for your day.
In detail, Anne Biklé is a biologist, avid gardener. She is among the planet’s leading experts on the microbial life of soil and its crucial importance to human wellbeing and survival. She is married to David Montgomery, who is a professor of Geomorphology at the University of Washington. David has studied everything from the ways that landslides and glaciers influence the height of mountain ranges, to the way that soils have shaped human civilizations both now and in the past.
All of this has led him to write a number of books, including Dirt: The Erosion of Civilisations which explores how our historic – and contemporary – farming practices have critically undermined the living soil on which we depend. Following this, David and Anne co-wrote, The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health and the book we’re going to be exploring in depth today: What your Food Ate: how to heal our land and reclaim the our Health. David also plays in the band, Big Dirt, which is, and I quote directly from their Facebook page: Americana Alternative. Whatever that means. Roots folk-rock with something to say and fun to listen.
I read What your Food Ate earlier this year and if you’ve listened to the podcast for any length of time, you’ll have heard me mention it more than once. It’s the most readable exploration I’ve come across of how our food is grown, and how it could – and should be grown – it’s really easy to read, but it’s full of the kind of mind-blowing data that we need if we’re going to change our habits. You’ll hear more in the podcast, but truly, the detail they gathered on the difference in content between food grown in the modern agri-business farm and that grown on a regenerative farm with no chemical inputs and no or minimal ploughing, one that strives to build the soil health and so build the health of everything else… it’s both terrifying and inspiring. If you want something to persuade you that you need to change the places you buy your food, this is it. So, here we go. People of the Podcast, please welcome Anne Biklé and David Montgomery.
Manda: Hey people, welcome to Accidental Gods. To the podcast where we believe that another world is still possible and that if we all work together, there is time to create the future that we would be proud to leave to the generations that come after us. I’m Manda Scott, your host in this journey into possibility, aiming to lay the ground for the tipping points that will carry us into a new system. Ilya Prigogine said that when a system is far from equilibrium, small islands of coherence in the sea of chaos can bring it to a whole new order. And that’s what we need now. And with that in mind, I need to remember to tell you that we have an online gathering coming up. It’s on the last Sunday of October; the 29th. It’s called Dreaming Your Death Awake. And it does what it says on the tin. I inhabit a reality where we can only truly live if we have learned how to embrace our death. And we can only die with full awareness if we’ve learned how to live. So this gathering explores the first part of that, really delving into what it feels like to be fully aware of and fully in love with our own deaths. How we can live each moment with death as our advisor. The gathering is four hours long. It starts at 5 p.m. UK time, so hopefully it’s open to the most number of people around the world. You will find details in the show notes. I’ve put a link and they’re also on the website at accidentalgods.life; go to the gatherings tab.
With that out of the way, I would like to introduce you to the two people who are this week’s guests. Anne Biklé is a biologist and an avid gardener. She is also amongst the planet’s leading experts on the microbial life of soil and its crucial importance to human well-being and survival. She is married to David Montgomery, who is a professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington. David has studied everything from the ways that landslides and glaciers influence the height of mountain ranges, to the way that soils have shaped human civilisations, both present and past. And this last led him to write a number of books, including Dirt: The Erosion of Civilisations, which explores how our historic and contemporary farming practices have critically undermined the living soil on which we depend. And then following that book, David and Anne together co-wrote The Hidden Half of Nature, The Microbial Roots of Life and Health, and then went on to write the book that we’re going to be exploring today. It’s called What Your Food Ate: How to Heal Our Land and Reclaim Our Health.
And before I say anything about that, I promised also to tell you that David is in a band called Big Dirt, which is, and I quote directly from their Facebook page: Americana alternative, whatever that means. Roots, folk rock with something to say and fun to listen. You know I know nothing about music; I’m sure it’s grand and lovely and wonderful, and you should go and listen to it. I have put a link in the show notes. The book. However, I know a lot about. It’s one of those with pretty much every page turned over top and bottom and lots of fluorescent highlighter all over it in a way that leaves Faith eyes clenching, because that’s book vandalism. But I devoured this book at the beginning of the year, and if you’ve listened to the podcast for any length of time, you will have heard me mention it more than once. It’s the most readable explanation I’ve come across of the interplay between soil and the plants that we grow and the animals that eat those plants. And then the food that we make from the plants and the animals. This is a crucial cycle. The three things that we need to survive are shelter, water and food.
And we could argue at length about the other two. But food, we are messing that up really, really badly. And yet there are glimmers of hope. And what I really took from this book was a detailed understanding of how different the food is when it’s grown in what we might call commercial agribusiness industrial farming, compared to organic farming, compared to what I would call regenerative farming, which is no till or minimal till and no inputs. They are so different. The outputs might look the same; a bottle of milk looks like another bottle of milk, but the actual content, one of them has omega six omega three ratios that might well actually do you harm. And the other has the ratios that we evolved to thrive on. So this is one of those conversations that I have been wanting to have for months. There was so much to talk about. We tried to fit as much as we could into our hour, and I hope it’s useful. But definitely you will want to read the book when you’ve listened to this. It’s mind blowing, but it’s also completely inspiring. So here we go.
People of the podcast, please welcome Anne Biklé and David Montgomery, authors of What Your Food Ate. David and Anne, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. I am so grateful for you guys making time in what sounds like the schedule from Hell, but that’s because you’re both really, really smart academics with lots of good things to say. How are you and where are you on the morning with you?
Anne: Well, we are sitting here in Seattle. It is just a little bit before 10 a.m. and so we are both sipping on our cups of tea and doing quite well, thank you.
David: Yeah, thanks for having us on. It’s a pleasure to talk to you.
Manda: Fantastic. Yeah, Thank you. Okay. I suddenly want to go down the rabbit hole of what kind of tea and is it really very good for you? But we’ll not go there just yet, we can get to that in the end. Because you guys have co-authored what your Food ate and the subtitle is How to Heal Our Land and Reclaim Our Health, which sounds to me that it should be right on the top of pretty much everybody’s cascade of what’s really important once they’ve dealt with small matters like paying the bills and managing to stay alive. Both of which are not necessarily a given these days. We are recording this on the day that the UK’s Prime Minister has decided to ditch all of the UK’s climate targets. So, you know, the whole the whole concept of paying the bills and staying alive has just dropped another notch on somebody’s sense of scale. So we’ll let that go. This book is a geek’s wonder, but it’s also incredibly readable. I was delighted to discover 56 pages of references on your website. I think the idea that you put them on the website, and I’m guessing that means you can update them when you need to, is is truly wonderful. But it means that the book to me read more Like a novel. Not that it was fictional, but that the lyrics flowed through and it made a really interesting story. So I would like to start from the ground up, probably with David, but frankly, whoever wants to answer. So you’ve written a bunch of other books and we started with Dirt: The Erosion of Civilisations, you went to The Hidden Half of Nature, and then you went on to Growing a Revolution. And you guys seem to me to really understand what our relatively recent evolutionary history and our relatively recent evolutionary mode of feeding ourselves is doing to the Land. So David, could you just take us on a really rapid tour through humanity and our relationship to the soil beneath our feet?
David: Yeah, sure. It’s been a fun journey working on those books and the people who ask whether we’re crazy to work together as a husband and wife team on writing some of them, you know, there’s only one answer to that. It’s like, Yeah, perhaps, but it’s working so far. Anne is a biologist and I’m a geologist, so that combination of backgrounds and disciplines gives us a perspective not only on the way things are working today, in terms of the processes going on in our bodies and the soils around the earth and with the climate and so on. But it also gives us a historical perspective. To look at the long term trajectory of just what we’ve been doing on this planet. How we’ve been doing it, how we’ve been making our living and feeding ourselves and treating the land. And that’s really how we kind of got started in thinking about soils, because in a little bit of intellectual trivia, I guess; the one class that Anne and I took together in graduate school was actually a soils class. So it’s kind of funny that 30 years later we’re actually writing about and thinking about soils because that wasn’t the focus of either of our graduate work. But if we think about soils that way and we trace the quick summary of how we moved through thinking about those books, the Dirt book got us started on it. I’ve worked as a geologist on erosion problems, thinking about how erosion shapes natural landscapes, the shapes of of landforms that we live on and see and enjoy, and that we work as farmers. And I was very interested in how the way people treated land affected the way the soil was able to then support societies. And the short summary of that book, looking into the last 10,000 years of agricultural history, is that societies that don’t take care of the soil don’t last. We tend to take the soil for granted and yet it is a resource that we can exhaust and deplete and degrade in ways that will affect our descendants. But it plays out over short time scales, which makes it kind of hard to address sometimes.
Manda: Are there any societies that do take care of the soils properly?
David: Yeah, there have been a few examples through history. It depends on what time scale you want to look at in terms of how you define properly and sustainable and so forth. There’s very few that have taken good care of their land over really long periods of time, say many centuries to thousands of years. Unless you look at some places that are on big river floodplains, where nature fixes the damage that people do through farming, through the deposition of a fresh layer of silt each time it floods, which can can refresh the mineral soil and replace soil that was lost to erosion. But on shorter time scales, there have been societies that have been very interested in practices that help to sustain fertility. A lot of traditional farming practices in regions all around the world, have done things like incorporated legumes into planting to put nitrogen into the soil, to use cover crops to protect the crops from erosion and to rotate crops to try and foster productivity and help defeat pests and pathogens. And those are all really good ideas that spring from traditional farming practices and indigenous farming practices, literally all around the world.
David: And I highlighted, I think, three societies in the Dirt book that had actually built soils that were better than the native soils of their region. And probably the best example of that are the native Amazonians who built up what’s known as the terra preta de Indio, the black earth soils of the Indians, in Portuguese, if I’m translating correctly, which I wouldn’t trust. And these are places where there’s incredibly rich, fertile black soil around the most dense native human populations in the Amazon. When the natural soils in that area are really organic matter poor, not very productive, all the biologic activity is in the canopy, not below the ground, in a way. And so there are places where people have built those kinds of fertile soils and there’s now been examples that archaeologists have discovered in West Africa and in Scandinavia. Very similar processes of people building and improving fertile soils as a consequence of how they live on the land. So one of our challenges today is to take some of the wisdom that we can harness from those traditional practices and those historical examples, and translate it into, okay, well how would we do that at large scale to sort of feed the world? Rather than a village or two in the corner of some environment. So there are positive examples to look at. But when you look at the grand sweep of human history, there’s a lot more negative examples and we’re frankly in great danger of repeating some of the worst of those examples at a global scale now. So this is what puts this issue at the top of Anne and my agenda, in terms of what we’re thinking about and trying to write about today. I love your comment that we should all be thinking about this issue, because it’s all too easy to not really care about the soil. It’s not very sexy. It doesn’t have very good PR and yet it’s so vitally important.
Manda: Yeah. And we walk on it, unless we’re walking on concrete. We walk on and it feels like it’s always there. It’s hard to imagine that we are destroying it in real time. Can you, before we move on to the biology of soil in depth, can you describe the worst of the civilisations that have already been? And what were the actions that they undertook to destroy the soil and what was the result?
David: If you want to look around the world today for good examples of societies that destroyed their soil in the past, a couple of places to focus initially are Syria and Libya. These are not places that we look at today as being incredibly prosperous and agricultural powerhouses. Yet if you look back in the Roman era, 2000 years ago, there’s tax records of fairly decent harvests of wheat in particular, off of the land in the area around Aleppo, which is a disaster zone now in Syria. And also in Libya, the second largest city of the Roman era was Timgad, out in what’s now the Libyan desert, where they were growing enough to feed a thriving local populace in places where the soil is literally gone now off the hillsides. So there’s some bad examples. If you lose the soil, you lose the ability to raise a large amount of food. Now I’m not arguing that we’re going to lose the soil globally. We’re not going to run out of dirt. But as our population keeps rising, if we continually degrade the ability of the world’s soils to feed ourselves, we’re working at cross purposes that will ripple through society as food shortages, unrest and geopolitical instability. So it’s a huge issue.
Manda: Okay, so we may not run out of actual physical stuff to walk on, but we may well run out of something in which we can grow food that’s actually going to help us to be human and alive. So moving to Anne, can we begin to look into the biology of what healthy soil is and how it works? Let’s pretend we’re in the Amazon and we’ve got some of this amazing black soil that they’ve created. We could perhaps look at how they create it in a minute, but what’s in the soil? I read, I think in Nature last week, something like 75% of species living on the planet are under the soil. Which means when we’re looking at the sixth mass extinction and worrying about 95% species extinction, that basically means everything on the surface and there might be a few things left underneath. Either that or we’ve got the numbers wrong. But that’s a separate question. Let’s have a look at what healthy soil is and how it functions.
Anne: Sure. That’s an interesting note you just said about the article that you read recently, because I’ve been I’ve been working on a piece recently and it’s all coming back to me, what I used to say when we were in the middle of writing the Hidden Half of Nature. And that is that microbiomes, you know, whether in the soil or the body, they are probably the greatest unknown conservation project out there. Which is kind of the the tagline on what Dave was talking about, when he said that it’s really hard to get people to focus on soil. It’s underneath us. You mentioned that we walk on it. So then you try to get people focussed on little tiny organisms that we can’t even see, that live in this stuff that we walk on and grow our food in. And that’s a high bar to get over and to get people to. But once somebody does get there and they start to take a peek at what is happening in the soil and what makes for healthy soil, it becomes quite fascinating, quite significant. And the pieces start to fall into place. I would say probably one of the hallmarks for healthy soil, what we know about the soil microbiome, and this is where the technical terms of science get in the way a little bit, because when you look at the plant microbiome and you look at the soil microbiome, it is really difficult to say where one ends and where the other begins.
Anne: And that’s particularly true for the root system of a plant. And we know that one of the most life dense biodiverse places on this planet is; you mentioned the Amazon soils, and I’ve already not answered your question on that, but I will say that what we know about a healthy soil is it’s more life dense, more biodiverse than some of these classic above ground ecosystems that we think about. The Amazon being one of them. And what runs this underground world, and you sort of went there, it reminded me when you were kind of introing this, is food. Food for all of these microorganisms that comprise really most of the life in the soil. And most of that life, Manda, is around the roots of the plants. Unless you’re in a super dense forest, it’s not going to be 20ft or 20m away from the plant. It’s tucked in right next to and even inside of roots. That’s where all of this life in the soil is really congregating.
Anne: And why is that? Well, these plants that have been evolving a long time have gotten quite smart. They’re feeding all of these microbes with exudates, with food. Think about it like a microbial buffet. And the plants with their wonderful chemistry can gin up just about anything. And this is how they are recruiting and retaining the microbes that help them do innumerable things to that root system, is through feeding them Exudates. Now, these microbes are part of an ecosystem underground, and they associate with larger organisms: worms, beetles, things like that that we can see. And those organisms thrive on carbon. Carbon has been added to these terra preta soils. Carbon is kind of the lifeblood of soils and it makes up about half of organic matter. So you get an organic matter rich soil, it’s feeding all these larger organisms and creatures and that is part of the functional ecosystem that the microbes are in, that congregate around the roots. And the other thing to sort of wrap on this point that you’ve asked about, is that we think evolution, you know, often in school it’s taught as a head on challenge and confrontation. Like an elk being pitted against a grizzly bear. Lions out on the Serengeti hunting. But symbiosis, the mutually beneficial interactions between life forms, these are just as much of a driving force in evolution as this head on challenge kind of notion. It’s just that symbiosis gets about two sentences in your standard biology textbook and all the rest goes on to the head on confrontation. But when you really think about it, if you’re a little tiny one celled organism, you’re not going to accomplish much on your own.
Anne: You’re a little tiny one celled organism. The only way to really thrive and be living your best life out there, is if you are in some kind of a symbiotic relationship. Because if you can rely on some other organism to do things for you, like give you food and shelter, which is what the microbiomes are doing around the roots of the plant or in the human gut, your chances of thriving in your life are much, much higher. So that’s the other kind of point about life in the soil. The ecosystems are vast, they’re complex. But all this life is actually knit together out of necessity and a lot of that turns on nutrition. We thought a lot about this, and in part it’s why we came up with the title for the latest book: What Your Food Ate. Yeah, yeah, I get that we’re eating our food too, but it’s important to think, gosh, what did the plants eat? And of course, animals are a little a little easier for us to think about what they eat. But plants, wow. They’re eating a lot of microbial, a lot of nutrients and compounds that are modulated by the microbiome. So you want a fully robust, life dense area around the roots of the plants, so that the plants are able to pull in all of these things they need.
Manda: Thank you. Yeah, there was a meme going around somewhere at the start of the year that said: if it’s a plant, eat it. If it ate a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, forget it.
Anne: Love it!
Manda: Which up to a point kind of works, but it doesn’t if you’re eating plants that were eating crap, basically. You know, eating plants that were effectively eating the plant equivalent of McDonald’s. So can we, I don’t mind who answers this, dive a little bit, partly because I live in a small holding and regenerative farming is my thing. So the people on the podcast are quite used to us getting geeky about this. That plants are little miracle workers who use the energy of sunlight to convert the carbon dioxide in the air into carbohydrates that they exude from their roots, out into soil. I listened to something with David Johnson from New Mexico a while back, where it seemed to me that he was basically taking New Mexico desert and by inoculating it with bacteria and fungi from his amazing Johnson-Su BioReactor, inoculating basically grit with bacteria and fungi, and then planting plants into it and getting soil as a result. Or what we would call soil. We can look at the difference between dirt and soil and Gabe Brown at some other point, but I think this is one of the occasions where we have two cultures separated by common language. I don’t think they mean the same in the States as they mean in the UK. We can go into that. Can we have a little look at what it is that the bacteria and the fungi specifically need from the plant and what the plant needs from them? So we can get an idea of why the extraordinary small celled life in the soil is so important. Does that make sense as a question? And I don’t mind who answers it.
Anne: Yeah. What are plants producing with their monopoly on sunshine? Carbohydrates are certainly one of those things. And the other thing that plants are able to produce is, think about it kind of as a full, complete diet: It’s carbohydrates, it’s proteins and it’s fats and it’s phytochemicals. And so these major groups of compounds are flowing out of the plant roots, feeding all of these microbes. This makes common sense when you stop and think about it; the concentration of all of those exudates, all of these plant made compounds, are highest right at the location where they’re leaving the root system. There’s not an abundance of these exudates in the furthest reaches away from the root system, they are right around the roots. So this is what is drawing all of these microbes. Because there’s not a lot of other things to eat in the soil, unless you are some kind of predator driven thing and you’ve got a really healthy soil and there’s a lot of other life forms out there for you to eat up. A little tiny one celled organism is feasting at this smorgasbord, this plant made smorgasbord around the root system. So that is what the plant is doing for the microbial end of soil life.
Anne: So what’s the microbial end of soil life then doing for these plants? This is part of this grand symbiosis that’s happening. Plants being stuck in place, their roots only go so far. They rely on mycorrhizal fungi in particular to go and gather these things at more distant locations in the soil and bring them back. There’s tons of research out there on fungi being able to retrieve and gather phosphorus from locations beyond the reach of a plant root. And mycorrhizal fungi themselves are a little bit root-like, they’ve got these long structures that are part of their body called hyphae. And they’re really kind of like a biological highway. So the fungi load their highway up with phosphorus, even with other things like zinc, with probably all kinds of things that we don’t even yet have a complete understanding about. And they get on the highway and they travel back to the plant and the plant says, Thank you very much. I really needed that zinc and that phosphorus and oh, this other compound that the human beings don’t know about yet. And in exchange, I’m going to be feeding you more exudates. So this is very much a marriage of necessity. The microbes are bringing to the plants what they need and the plants are giving to the microbes what they need. And this is all around,at a really big picture level, around nutrition and nutrients. That each of those respective life forms, the botanical world and the microbial world, need for their own particular health. Plants have different health needs than microbes, but what is just fascinating and intricate about the symbiosis between these two great groups of life, is they’re getting what they need for their particular metabolism, their particular defence system and so on, from their partner. So that’s kind of in a nutshell how these exchanges work and why it’s absolutely necessary that microbes have plants and plants have microbes.
Manda: And that when we disrupt this, as you said, there’s so many things we don’t know, we don’t know what it is we’re disrupting. So let me just get things straight in my head. We have fungal hyphae that can stretch for miles, as I understand it. I remember Elaine Ingham saying that fungi are miners, as in the sort of miners that mine coal. They can go down and gather all kinds of elements. I remember someone saying that vegans nowadays stuff themselves full of cobalt because they need more cobalt, but if we were growing proper vegetables, the cobalt would be in the vegetables and we wouldn’t need to be taking it as an added extra. Presumably it’s the fungi that are beavering off and bringing cobalt back and offering it up to the plant. You know, here you go, have some cobalt, you need cobalt. Presumably tiny amounts, to act as a catalyst in some kind of enzymatic system. And in return, you give me some more carbohydrate, I’ll grow a little bit longer, and I’ll go and beaver off and find you something else. Is that a fair assessment Maybe, David, of how this exchange works?
David: Yeah. And when you think about it, the fungi in particular in the case you’re bringing up, are providing things that are really micronutrients for the most part to the plants. Things like that cobalt, things like the zinc that Anne mentioned, iron, copper which we need for maintaining our immune system. We don’t need a lot of copper, but we can’t eat pennies. Where are we going to get it? We’re going to get it from our food and from our vegetables. And plants have developed the symbiotic relationships that Anne was mentioning that we can trace right back to the origin of land plants some 450 million years ago. These are very ancient relationships. They’ve obviously changed and evolved since then, but they’re deeply embedded in the very fabric of ecology. And when you think about the plants being stuck in place, as Anne mentioned, and how abundant or shall we say not very abundant things like zinc or cobalt are in most rocks, they’re not very common elements. So the odds of there being enough to support a plant within reach of its roots, particularly as it’s starting to germinate and starting to grow are pretty low. So the strategy of recruiting, for the cost of a little bit of sugar that you can produce from sunlight, the cost of then recruiting some allies in the soil to go out and be the miners and the truckers that find those special things you need and bring them back to the mothership, you know, it’s actually a really good strategy for thriving not only the plant life, but the microbial life below ground, too.
David: I mean, fungi in particular have one real disadvantage relative to plants: they can’t photosynthesise. So you have fungi that will either specialise in consuming, decaying organic matter, the saprophytic fungi. Or you have fungi that partner, like the mycorrhizal fungi, who are in effect being fed by the plants and providing a service in return. So you go out to the 30 000 foot level on this, and there’s these grand partnerships between the botanical world and the fungal world, to promote the health and growth of both. It’s not so much the major elements the plants are getting out of the partnership, although they can be. But the micronutrients are really a key. That’s a key to crop health and it translates all the way through to human health as we talk about in What Your Food Ate.
David: But the plants, it turns out, have different pathways for triggering their Exudate production. And when they get a whole lot of nitrogen and a whole lot of phosphorus and a whole lot of potassium, but particularly the nitrogen in a readily soluble, easy to suck up through the roots, using them as straws rather than two way superhighways. The plants get lazy and they cut back on their Exudate production, and that disrupts all those symbiotic relationships that Anne was talking about. So our conventional farming practices that we’ve gravitated towards over the last hundred years, lots of tillage and lots of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, have really undermined those partnerships that are really at the very foundation of how health flows from the land into us.
Manda: Brilliant. That was the best Segway I’ve ever heard because that’s exactly where I wanted to go next. Thank you. Okay, so we have 10,000 years of human agriculture. And years ago I wrote a series of books about the Boudiccan era, and it apparently turns out that the South of Britain was one of the most productive areas for agriculture in the whole of what became the Roman Empire. Until the Romans arrived and broke up a system that was doing really well. But until then, that area was producing as much corn as anywhere else in the Roman Empire. And it wasn’t matched from then until after the end of the Second World War, which is when we began the process of turning oil into food, essentially. So we had 2000 years of crap agriculture because the Romans broke up a social system that was working (whole other podcast). However, this process of turning oil into food. Let’s go into that, because it strikes me this is not only really important for understanding the human gut biome and human health. I was at a real food and farming conference this weekend and they had examples of wheat. And they had current industrial wheat, which was about a foot high. They had the Y Q, which is yield quality, which is 16 different species of ancient wheat that they’re growing, which was 2.5ft high and very different.
Manda: And they had the old Welsh one that was four foot high because you needed the straws to be thatch. But the modern wheat can’t engage in interactions with the soil microbiome anymore. It doesn’t have the capacity to do that. It’s been bred such that if you don’t feed it the npk that we’re so used to throwing onto the soil, it just dies. So it’s also illegal to share non genetically produced grain in the UK and Europe. So you kind of have to share it secretly under the counter, because otherwise you’re in trouble. So. Question. Let’s have a look at the NPKs, but particularly I want to have a look at why? Why was it NPK? They’re macronutrients. Is it the case that we put on what we could measure and we ignored what we couldn’t measure, because I’d really like to look into then what is it that we’re not seeing yet? Obviously the unknown unknowns, but there must be tendrils of what we’re not seeing. So let’s just do the macro picture and then let’s get into the macro.
David: Well if you want the really deep dive into the history of how intensive fertilisation came to dominate modern conventional agriculture, I recommend the Dirt book. Because I go way into the history of 19th century changes in agriculture that kind of led up to it. But the short answer is that over the long run, a lot of tillage, a lot of ploughing will degrade soil organic matter, which is a good source of nutrition for those soil microbes that partner with plants as well.
Manda: And can you tell us how it degrades the soil organic matter? Just briefly, what is it that it does that is so bad?
David: Yeah sure. What tillage does in terms of disrupting the soil is it opens the soil up, it basically oxygenates it and it produces a bacterial growth. The bacteria go crazy, they’re like, Hey, great. And they basically consume more of the native soil organic matter for their purposes. And that can actually result in a little burst of fertility because that kickstarts some of those microbial processes that can help grow crops this year. But if you do it year after year after year after year, such that you degrade the soil organic matter, you end up undermining the soil ecosystem and you can compromise the productivity of the soil in the long run. And by the 19th century, in the Westernised world, in Britain, Western Europe in particular, and across much of the United States, there had been centuries of tillage on land that had degraded it to the point where if you added a bunch of nitrogen or phosphorus, you could really boost productivity. And why? Because those two elements in particular are known to be very limiting on plant growth. You’re not going to get robust plant growth if you don’t have enough nitrogen or enough phosphorus. Now, a healthy, fertile soil with a lot of organic matter, will have a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus locked up in that organic matter that the microbes can unlock and trade to the plants. So if you have an organic matter rich soil, if you add more nitrogen to it, you’re not going to get much in the way of fertility.
David: But if you take an already degraded soil and you add a bunch of nitrogen and phosphorus, the limiting elements for plant growth, you can get a boost in yield. And that’s where in the 19th century, farmers in in Britain and in the US were like, you know, thrilled to be able to actually have a source of nitrogen and phosphorus rich materials. Particularly phosphorus in the 19th century. It was in the early 20th century that the Haber-bosch process really unlocked the nitrogen key. But the ability to add those two key elements for plant growth meant that farmers could really boost their yields. Now, what was not known at the time, is that all these microbial partnerships that Anne was talking about, the symbiotic relationships between the plants and the fungi in particular, but also soil bacteria, are disrupted by not only tillage but also by the overapplication, shall we say, of readily soluble nitrogen fertilisers in particular. Those are the ones that are made out of natural gas through the Haber-bosch process today. But if we look at why that is, that really wasn’t understood until after the Second World War, when microbial ecology really sort of took off as a science, and people recognised that many crops have multiple gene pathways for producing exudates or not. And if they get a whole lot of nitrogen, if they get all the nitrogen they need, they tend not to invest in Exudates.
David: Now why would that be? Well, think about it. If nitrogen is a basic limiting factor for plant growth and you’re not having enough in the soil, well you sort of want more. So if you don’t have much, you put out exudates to recruit those microbes to then go get you more nitrogen. And along with it comes the copper and the zinc and the selenium and all the micronutrients that you could need as well. So when plants are pampered, in effect, by having readily available nitrogen, they shut off their exudate faucet. Why? Because well, why spend energy to get something you’re getting for free? And so if your whole evolutionary pressures have led to a genetic system that was wired that way, we inadvertently undermined it by breeding crops to perform really well under really high nitrogen loads. Because that really undermined their relationships with soil life, in ways that particularly undermined their provisioning for micronutrients, which you don’t necessarily need to grow big plants or to have high yields, but that are central to crop health and plant defence. And so it’s no mystery to me as to why global sales of pesticides went through the roof after global sales of synthetic fertilisers. We disarmed the natural defensive systems of our crops and so then we needed to step in with another technological fix, to solve the biological problem we made with our previous technological fix.
Manda: Grand. And and it didn’t hurt that the companies doing this had just come out of the Second World War and they were able to turn the technology that made explosives into making fertilisers and the technology that made nerve gases into making pesticides and whoopee! We can sell these things and continue to get very rich.
David: Yeah, there’s a very, very interesting story there. And it’s one in which all these sort of forces came into play to create the illusion of progress. Well, the reality of higher yields on degraded fields, but the problems that came out of that, that were unanticipated at the time, have actually come back to really haunt us today. And so what Anne and I like to say is that while we were focussed through much of the 20th century on maximising crop yields, so we could feed the world, what we need to do today is to kind of take stock of what we’ve learned since then; what it’s done to our land and our public health in general, and focus now more on how can we move beyond simply aspiring to feed the world, and into the realm of really trying to better nourish the world.
David: And that gives you a whole different perspective on how to think about farming practices. Because it takes us right back to those symbiotic relationships; how we treat the land, how we foster the provisioning of the mineral micronutrients in our crops. The production of the phytochemicals that Anne mentioned earlier, the plant-made chemicals they make for their own purposes, but that end up having very beneficial health effects in our bodies when we get them. Our farming practices have undermined their production as well. So if we focus on those aspects and not so much that we need to grow quantities of food to feed everybody; well we need to produce enough calories for people to survive, that’s the bottom line right there. But we can shoot higher. We can aspire to not only keep people alive, but we can aspire to an agriculture that helps people thrive. And when we do that, we’re talking about the connections between soil health, crop health, animal health and human health. And that’s exactly what we tried to lay out in terms of the scientific connections in What Your Food Ate.
Manda: Yes. And you did it beautifully, because you managed to compare industrial farming, standard current practice farming, with organic farming, and then both with regenerative farming, in huge detail in terms of the nutrient qualities of what the products were. So let’s dive into that. Anne, let’s have a look at the human gut biome. Because we’ve got the soil has its own biome and then everything that eats has its own gut biome. And it seems to me this is an emerging field of science. There’s probably a lot more we don’t know than we actually do know, but we know enough to know that this is crucial to human well-being and to what David was saying about creating a food and farming system that allows the soil and people to thrive. So tell us a little bit about how that works.
Anne: Yeah. Despite the human gut and soil being utterly different ecosystems, there’s some underlying patterns and themes that cut across I would say, most microbiomes. And one of those has to do with living your life as a microbe. Microbes that are members of microbiomes, you have to think about them as words in a language, or words in a sentence. To them, context is everything. And what I mean by context, is in part what nutrients are available. Because depending on the nutrients, I might do this or that. Or, what metabolites are available here in this human gut for me to interact with? Oh, it’s those type of metabolites. Well, that’s my cue and I respond with option A or option B. So in other words, microbiomes are highly responsive to what they’re given. The human gut is a closed system; it’s not quite as porous and open as the soil. So it’s really, I think, important to keep in mind that in the closed system of our gut, our microbes cannot just get up and walk out of our body and go get something else to eat somewhere else.
Manda: Right. We can’t send the fungal miners off to get what we want. It has to come in.
Anne: Right. There’s no fungal miners off to go get anything. You’re stuck in the gut. So they are responding to everything that is in the human diet. And what is known, You know, again, this is like 20, 30,000 foot level; unequivocally what is known about the human microbiome, the most is known about bacteria. There’s fungi and viruses that are part of our microbiome, but those are very hard to study and the most is known about bacteria. And what we know about the bacteria in our gut is this: they thrive on whole plant foods. And the reason for that is that they are able to break down the fibre and the phytochemicals which are embedded in that fibre to not only get their own energy needs met, but they also produce constellation/a vast array/unfathomable, those are the kinds of adjectives to put on the array of microbial metabolites that come out of the bodies of bacteria, that are sitting down there in our gut. And when I say our gut, where all of these microbes are, I mean the colon specifically. This isn’t in the upper end of the digestive tract, it’s at the bottom, literally, part of our bodies. And we lack the genes that make the enzymes to break down phytochemicals and fibres, so we are utterly dependent. And this goes back to my point earlier about symbiosis running the show when it comes to microbiomes in their host. And these microbial metabolites are doing everything in our bodies in one way or another. They’re either playing a small part or a very large part, and they affect nearly every aspect of human physiology. The most basic is food digestion; they’re making these enzymes to break the stuff down. These metabolites can go leave our gut and affect our cognition, they can affect our cardiovascular system. I don’t think that there’s one part of the human body that’s left untouched by a microbial metabolite. So this is why diet is hugely important. And with regard to phytochemicals, this is why it’s so important that the plants that we do eat in the human diet have a diversity and an abundance of phytochemicals.
Anne: And here I’m not saying a plant diet exclusively, because there are many things that we get from animal foods that you’re never going to find in the green body of a plant. You know, the fatty acids that are found in meat and dairy, you know, there are a whole constellation of other health benefits that come from the healthy fats and animal foods. But it is to say, you know, every day probably on your plate, you want to have a big pile of veg. You need to feed that colonic, that cauldron down there in your bottom, every single day. These microbes are hungry and they need nourishment and when they don’t get enough plant foods, they actually start consuming the mucus that lines our gut. And eating a little bit of mucus, you know, is fine. That’s not a problem because our cells produce a lot of it. But when that’s all they have to eat, they eat too much of it and you get no end of other problems that that arise from that. So that’s kind of the long and short of the human microbiome. In the gut at least.
Manda: That was a brilliant edited highlights because I know we could talk about that alone for several hours on end. Can we move to David then in the time we have left. One of the things that really struck me in your book, let’s take milk as an example. That milk that comes from cows that are fed in an industrial system, a 20th-21st century system, has particular qualities. Milk that comes from grass fed cows, from a regenerative system which is trying to promote soil health, has completely different qualities. It seemed to me reading your book that actually they’re two different products. It’s just that they look white and they come out of cows and everybody thinks cow juice is cow juice. But they weren’t. They’re actually totally different things. So can you tell us about the two different types of cow juice and why one is good and one really isn’t?
David: Yeah, this this is one of the really fascinating things that we learned writing What Your Food Ate that I don’t think either Anne or I had much of a hint about ahead of time. But in tracing those connections from how we treat the soil, to the health of our crops and health of our livestock, we got into that question of, okay, well what do cows in particular eat? And it turns out that there’s two areas that seem to have very consistent differences in the peer review scientific literature, between cows that ate different diets. So the modern industrial diet of essentially corn and soy derived feed rations and feedlots, you know, after they’re weaned and leave the wherever they were raised and end up in the commercial system. And then the other diet of the 100% grass fed diet of cows who are eating what they evolved to eat. And while you might think, oh, well, they’re all eating plants, so what’s the big deal? It turns out they’re eating very different parts of very different kinds of plants. So that results in differences in their fatty acid profile, their fat profile, and also in the number of phytochemicals that they have. The things that Anne was just talking about that provide some of the feedstock for those microbial alchemists in our colon, that are making very health promoting compounds when they then in turn process it.
David: So what are those differences? Particularly when you look at the omega three and omega six fat profiles in meat and dairy, they’re profoundly different based on whether or not the animals were eating corn derived, seed derived feeds in feedlots, or grazing on living plants. Now, why would that be? Because it turns out that omega three fats are very integral to the process of photosynthesis. So the green parts of plants, you know, leaves, the things cows would graze on, grass and leaves and things in a field, are rich in omega three fats. And it turns out that seeds, things like corn and soybeans and things that cattle feed rations in feedlots are derived from, are rich in omega six fats. Those are both essential fats and what that means is that our bodies can’t make them from other things. We can’t make them from scratch. We need to get them in our diet. And the same is true for cows. So the kind of fat profile that the cow is taking in through its diet, whether it’s a lot of omega sixes in a feedlot or a lot of omega threes in a pasture, translate through to the character of the omega 6 to 3 ratio in their meat and in their dairy.
David: And it turns out that when you dive into the immunological literature, omega six fats are very intimately involved in triggering inflammation. Omega three fats are very intimately involved in quelling or terminating inflammation. And we can talk for another hour or two about all the details of that, but it turns out that means that when we are consuming 100% grass fed meat and dairy, we’re actually eating a product that has a very different effect in our bodies than when we’re eating something that has a very different omega six to omega three ratio. Now, how important that is in the grand scheme of one’s individual health, Well, that’s obviously quite variable. Because your genes are going to matter, whether you get any exercise is going to matter, what else you eat is going to matter. But there are real differences in both the phytochemical abundance and the fat profiles in meat and dairy raised in the modern industrial system, versus a more regenerative and pasture based system. So one of the big lifestyle changes for Anne and I, based on writing What Your Food Ate and educating ourselves on this issue, is that we’ve moved to pretty much, if I have a choice, I’m going to insist on eating 100% grass fed meat and dairy for the times that I do eat that.
David: And that brings up a real big issue in terms of the debates that we have nationally and internationally about what should we be eating? Should we eat a plant based diet versus one that includes animal products? And the perspective on that I would offer is that, well, what you choose to eat is really an individual choice and I’m not going to second guess that for anybody. But we should be asking the question of how were those plants raised? How were those animals raised that are producing the meat and dairy? Because if you go to an all plant based diet that is based on plants that were raised with degradational farming practices, that are ruining the soil and resulting in a hollow nutritional profile and what comes out of it. Is that really better than having a modest amount perhaps of very responsibly raised meat and dairy in one’s diet, that provides very different inputs? I think we should be asking the question how our food is raised, as much as what it is that we’re eating.
Manda: Brilliant. Thank you. So Anne’s had to go. We were on a very tight timetable, but David’s hanging on for another few minutes, for which I’m hugely grateful. Because this is getting to our theory of change now. So we have established that soil health, plant health, animal health and human health are all integral, and that modern industrial practices are damaging all of these to the point of creating if you read anything Robert Lustig’s Metabolical or anything like that, he reckons that 93% of the American public has metabolic disease, has actual mitochondrial dysfunction as a result of an industrial diet. And even if it’s half that, it’s still too bad. And we haven’t begun to get into the parts of your book where you were detailing the tests done on children and the residues of pesticides that are found in people. That’s a whole other topic, but that is also damaging in itself. So in an ideal world, we would be consuming what we evolved to consume, which doesn’t have industrial methods anywhere close to it. And there is a lot of work done elsewhere to demonstrate that small scale mixed farms could easily feed the world. We don’t have a problem of quantity of food production. What we have is a problem of quality and being price gouged by multinational companies that just want to make a profit. Let’s take that as read. This is axiomatic of this podcast, we don’t need to question that. What I want to ask you is you’ve written this book, it seems to have got a lot of traction. Are you getting any traction at a policy level? Or is it the case that the multinationals just own policy such that it’s going to be very hard to overturn?
David: That’s a really interesting question, and I would love to have a crystal ball to tell you how it’s all going to turn out in about 20 or 30 years. Which is the timescale that I think that we could conceivably try to shift the global ship of agriculture to a much more responsible and regenerative direction. Frankly, you know, oddly enough, I’ve actually seen more movement in the corporate world than the policy world, towards embracing regenerative principles and practices. Now, there’s still a lot of argument about whether some of that is greenwashing or not, but I’ve had some interesting inquiries from some fairly very large corporations. These are not the ones that are selling fertilisers and selling pesticides. These are, you know, other large corporations involved in the global food system. There’s a whole layer upon layer of very large players in that system. But there’s some very large corporations that are very interested in supply chain continuity, as sort of a potential disruptor to their business model. And they’re looking at regenerative practices as a way to make the tips of their supply network: the farmers; actually more stable and profitable as the goal. And one of the things I’ve learned in looking into regenerative practices is that once farmers regenerate the fertility of their soil and thereby cut down on their use of fertilisers and pesticides and diesel, they’re actually more profitable. So there’s sort of a crass profit motive that can actually help drive positive change in this circumstance, and one of the things that’s turned me into a bit of an optimist on this issue is that when you get economic and environmental interests lining up in the same direction, you know, that could be a catalyst for some fairly profound change fairly rapidly.
David: Now I’ve been most disappointed both nationally and internationally on the policy level in terms of adoptions. Where I’ve seen the most movement of that, is actually if you look at the state level in the US. There’s a lot of states, I think it’s over 25 now, so maybe even more than half the US states, and I won’t tell you whether the blue or the red ones, because it’s actually a bit of a mix, that have adopted soil health policies. Which at least, you know, getting a legislature in this country to actually do anything, let alone something positive, is a real achievement. And there’s been a whole flurry of legislation at the state level that have basically developed soil health policies and plans. Now many of them don’t really have teeth. They’re aspirational, but it’s a movement in the right direction of recognising the problem. But in terms of national policy? I mean, there’s been some movement in the US, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, what used to be called the Soil Conservation Service, has a big soil health program. But when you look at the funding they receive relative to conventional research through the US Department of Agriculture, there’s still roundoff error in terms of the national effort.
David: There’s a lot of effort to try and change the farm bill in the US and there’s some good language that may end up in it this time around. It may take a few iterations of changing that bill, but you know, at the policy level, if we could disincentivize conventional practices through the subsidies that we now employ across the agricultural spectrum, that would help. If we modified crop insurance policies. And what if we actually tried to reward farmers for taking better care of their land and encourage regenerative practices? We could basically greatly accelerate a transition to a more climate stable, climate friendly style of agriculture that could help us move towards a more sustainable economy.
David: I choose to be an optimist on this issue. I would love to see more progress on a policy level. I’d love to see more politicians talking about our need to reinvest in the stability and profitability of small farms. But you know the reality is we also need large farms. So I’m not as concerned with the word industrial in agriculture as I am with what that industry is actually doing. Because I think you could have large scale regenerative agriculture, which by some means would be industrial. The largest farm I’ve been on that I would call regenerative was a 20 000 acre farm in South Dakota. A huge operation. You could see horizon to horizon all mechanically managed, but they had so transformed their soil from what their conventional neighbours have, that it was it was really quite impressive. And they did it through a combination of no till cover crops and diversifying their rotation. So it kind of looked operationally like a typical North American large farm, but when you looked below the ground it was totally different. And they were growing different things. They were growing a diversity of plants. And if we want farmers to grow a greater diversity of plants, which they need to, to really be regenerative, we need to eat a more diverse diet. Because if a farmer can’t sell what they’re growing, they’re not going to keep doing it. And so the point I keep going back to in my perspective and in these books, is that if we’re going to really move towards a sustainable system of farming, we need to get society serious about sustaining farms, and sustaining sustainable farms. Because if you can’t sustain the farm, whatever practices you’re using, it’s not going to be sustainable. And right now, we have most of our policies, almost all of our subsidies and incentives backwards in terms of promoting conventional practices and disincentivizing regenerative ones. We need to flip that around.
Manda: And they’re incentivising the growing of the six core carbohydrate sources and not incentivising a huge diversity of different things. Because if we’re meant to be eating 40 or 50 different plant types a week to keep our gut biome healthy, they have to be there. I would struggle to name 40 or 50 different plant types, never mind find them to eat, so they’ve got to be out there.
David: Yeah, there’s a very interesting study a couple of years back where somebody looked at, Oh well, okay, if you take the US government’s recommended dietary intake of was it 4 or 5 servings of fruits and vegetables, I forget what the labels are. But you know, generally, you know, what is the American public eating? Well, nowhere near that, which shouldn’t be a surprise, I think we all kind of know that. But then the next question was, well, are American farmers growing enough such that if every American ate the recommended amount, could they find it? And we don’t grow anywhere near enough! And that’s a national scale policy failure. Because if on the one hand, the part of our government that is entrusted with promoting our health is saying we really should be doing this; and on the other hand, the part of our government that’s encouraging farmers to adopt particular practices is encouraging to do a completely different thing. That’s dysfunction at a at a really high level.
Manda: Yeah. We could spend another hour looking into the dysfunction. I know you have to go. I just have a tiny question, because this was a very good place to end: we need to eat more diverse, we need to support our local CSAs (community supported agriculture). You need to basically eat food that you have an idea where it was grown and it was grown near to you. Final question, though. Because I’m really interested in this idea that we need big farms. I live in a world where we’re nearing the end of the carbon pulse, and I listen to Simon Michaux (he’s been on the podcast several times) and we’re also at the end of the material supply chain Pulse. And my worldview, I guess, is shaped by the fact that we’re going to have to be much less reliant on power and that big farms need big power. Either that or they need an awful lot of people who are living quite like my ancestors, who were basically spending their lives picking stones out of fields when they weren’t weeding the thistles. And it wasn’t a lot of fun. So we need to kind of get this mix of modern technology and the people who really want to come back and work on the land. I met so many young people at the conference this weekend who are desperate to work on the land, but they can’t afford it. Because it’s £10,000 an acre and where are you going to get that? That’s a separate question. Do you envisage in this; first of all, do you think we’ve got 30 years to change around the farming before everything falls around our head? And if we do, are you seeing big farms with big energy inputs surviving and how?
David: That’s a great question. And again, I wish I had that crystal ball. Um, but the I think we do have 20 or 30 years and partly I think that because I don’t see how we can make the change faster than that. It’s going to take that long in the best scenario, and I like to imagine the best scenario. I don’t think that we have 200 years. I’m confident of that. I doubt that we have 100 years. And I’m pretty sure that we could take 20 or 30. That’s the sort of the geologist in me sort of thinking timescales like that. But basically what it means is we got to get down to it. We got to get on it. Because 20 or 30 years, you know, is not that long a period of time and there’s a lot of inertia to the system. It’s going to take a lot of change and a lot of places and a lot of levels to generate the kind of systemic change that I think we both would like to see.
David: In terms of the small versus large farm issue, I imagine a world with a mix of farms. And I think it was in What Your Food ate, but it might have been in Growing a Revolution, we talked a bit about three different sort of styles of farms that could be encouraged to go regenerative with different kinds of policies. And at the one level, there’s what we could call urban farms. Farms in cities. You know, Paris, for example, grew most of its vegetables in the city in the 19th century. They used horse manure as fertiliser and grew it in big pots in certain places. But the reality is, they grew a lot of food in the city. And if we look at where the people are today, it’s increasingly in cities. And if we look at what’s missing from our diets in the urban environments today, it’s increasingly fresh fruits and vegetables. The vegetables in particular would be very well suited for growing in urban environments, whether in lots or allotments, I think it may be called in England. Here it’s like pea patches and things. Small patches where people could grow some of their food. You could grow a lot of food in the city. And if we had a system for composting our restaurant and household wastes, our organic matter waste, back into compost that could fertilise stuff. You know, the distance to transport that in the same city, would be potentially very efficient.
David: If you then think about sort of ringing major urban centres with farms that would be also producing vegetables for the most part, you could imagine supporting small scale farms of the 1 to 10 acre kind of size. And some of the farms we visited and wrote about in What Your Food Ate were only a couple acres, and they were producing a phenomenal amount of food using regenerative practices. So you could imagine those kind of farms being the way to get the the enthused young people who I see today as well, wanting to go into agriculture. Figure out ways to help them get the financing to go into it, because it’s a lot of capital to start a farm from scratch if you’re not, you know, a trust fundee.
David: And then the third style of farms are sort of large farms that would be in more rural areas that could be sort of bigger. And how big is too big? I don’t know. But when think about how we’re going to grow grains or how we’re going to do meat and dairy, you know, it’s probably not talking a couple of acre farms. You know, we’re talking things that will probably be bigger than that, particularly for the grains. We would need different policies and incentives, but I really believe that we could farm regeneratively at all three of those scales. We would just have to do it in ways that prioritise building the health of the soil over just producing as much as we can this year. And eventually once the soil is restored, we’ll be able to, I think, match or exceed conventional yields. Because all the evidence of the farm visits that I’ve had in the last ten years suggests that that’s true.
David: The regenerative farmers who I’ve met who have restored fertility to their originally worn out farms, they’re out producing their conventional neighbours on a per hectare basis. So the idea that we need modern conventional agriculture to feed the world, I don’t buy that anymore. I think that’s propaganda. But it’s propaganda that’s sort of left over from the 20th century that sort of ignores all the science that Anne was talking about earlier. We need to reframe how we think about the soil to be able to rationalise policies that will help farmers farm differently, but in ways that will turn out better for them over the long run and far better for society over the long run. And arguably better for our individual health, if we shift towards eating more regeneratively grown products. Now with a big disclaimer about health; individual health is wildly complicated, wildly lots of variables and What Your Food Ate is only one piece of that. But it’s a piece that’s been pretty much overlooked, I think, for the last 100 years. And that’s the point Anne and I are trying to make in this book, is that we should be thinking about that both individually and collectively in terms of what we want the shape of the future to be.
Manda: Yeah, definitely. And you make the point really, really well in the book. David, thank you. We’ve run away over time. Very last, very short question. What are you going to write next? Because you guys, I’m guessing, your research keeps going on. Where are we heading? What can we look forward to?
David: Yeah, well, I’m thinking actually about trying to write a short book that synthesises the four that we’ve written already. Just for those of you who may want to, like, read sort of the executive summary rather than the full meal deal. Hopefully we encourage you to go back and get the full meal deal, because Anne and I pride ourselves in trying to do well referenced and supported arguments, as opposed to politically motivated ones. And Anne is actually thinking about working on a book that’s more about the relationship of phytochemicals and the botanical world and human health. Which also sort of builds off of what your food. So we’ll see where we go with all that. But it’s been a fun ride so far and we very much appreciate people like yourself helping to draw our attention to the books. And of course, the readers, without which writers would not be able to do what we do.
Manda: Absolutely. And I am in awe, frankly, of your capacity to be a married couple and to write so coherently and so fluently and still stay married. It’s astonishing and extraordinary and very lovely. Thank you.
David: Yeah, well, thank you. I won’t say that it’s frictionless, but but I will say that Anne has a lot of good ideas.
Manda: There you go. And I’m guessing you have a lot of good ideas, too. Genuinely. Honestly, I think a short book that summarises them all would be lovely, but I genuinely believe people’s lives would be transformed by reading the narrative arc that you have in What Your Food Ate and your previous books. So David and Anne in absentia, thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast. This has been revolutionary in a good way.
David: Certainly happy to talk to you and enjoyed the conversation.
Manda: Well, there we go. That’s it for another week. Huge thanks to Anne and to David for their time. For the astonishing depth and breadth of their understanding and for their capacity to express it so clearly. These are highly, highly complex concepts, but they manage to distil them into something that those of us without multiple degrees can understand. And definitely people, you do want to go and read the book. I have put a link in the show notes. It’s beautifully written and it goes into the history of how organic farming formed, of how our diets have been deteriorating for quite a while and how various people along the way have noticed and tried to create food policy that will actually bring us back up to par. And now in the modern world, it’s up to each of us. If you take one thing away from this, please take the absolute need to be part of the tipping point. We aren’t going to get the huge agribusinesses to change just out of the goodness of their hearts. But if you can make a commitment to source an increasing amount of the food that you eat from local community agriculture enterprises, from the people nearest to you who are growing their food in the best way possible, then you are being part of the solution. Also, you are eating stuff that is good for you. That is what you were designed to eat. There’s a double thing here. There’s the carrot of yay helping farmers and there’s the stick of if we all continue to eat the industrial rubbish, we are killing ourselves. So many of the diseases of modernity are down to what we’re eating.
Manda: And it’s not just that we’re poisoning ourselves with all of the absolutely grim residues from the many things that are thrown at the crops, though that is also the case. It’s that the things are missing that we would be able to get from proper food grown in proper soils. And I know money is an issue. It’s not cheap to produce proper food. It’s certainly not as cheap as it is to produce stuff that’s covered in subsidies from people who want us to continue to swallow the white carbs that keep everybody else very rich. Food deserts are a thing and they’re not accidental. So do what is within your means. But if it is within your means, changing your diet is one of the fastest ways we can begin to change the system. So go for it. Systemic change is what we’re here for. And personally, I think it’s really urgent.
Manda: So there we are. We will be back next week with another conversation. In the meantime, thanks to Caro C for the music at the head and foot. To Caro and to Alan for the sound production. To Anne Thomas for the transcripts. To Faith for the website, for all of the background tech and for the conversations that keep us going. And as ever, an enormous thanks to you for listening. If you know of anybody else who wants to understand the interaction between living soils and living plants and living people, then please do send them this link. And that’s it for now. See you next week. Thank you and goodbye.
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