“By gaining a firmer grasp on the nature of the Western diet — trying to understand it not only physiologically but also historically and ecologically — we can begin to develop a different way of thinking about food that might point a path out of our predicament.”-Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food
“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you
don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not
doing well.“ — Thich Nhat Hanh
One morning about two and a half years ago, while shoveling pig manure into a wheelbarrow in a remote German village (Standorf: population 10), I realized I was the happiest I had been in longer than I could remember. I had quit a consulting job two weeks prior and after a year of churning out deliverables and communicating in non-commital jargon, I was finally doing work I could see the effects of. My trip started from a google search for “farm volunteering internationally,” which led me to the WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) website. WWOOF matches volunteers to organic farms around the world that need their skills and that will feed and house them in exchange for daily work. After a few e-mails back and forth, I was heading for Frankfurt and from there, deep into Swabia, Germany.
The month I spent on the farm was brief but memorable for so many reasons: I learned how to smoke a beehive and collect honey, I fed and cleaned up after 20 hogs each morning, I spent long afternoons seeding and weeding with other volunteers while American rock n’ roll blasted over the field from a tiny speaker, and sometimes I chased stray goats through the hills or chaperoned emotionally sensitive geese. More importantly, it was my introduction to how food systems impact personal and societal health, and it was the start of a longer adventure. After leaving the farm, I studied permaculture, learned to forage for herbs and useful weeds, took academic courses on crop and soil science, and came to the following conclusions:
1. The lens with which we view nature determines what we will get from it
Because it deals directly with life, agriculture is a fiercely divided field where peoples’ deepest beliefs emerge. One of the most significant philosophical differences I saw between agriculturists regarded whether they believed nature was scarce or abundant. In both modern media and on the German farm where I volunteered, nature was always seen as scarce (“How will we feed the population? Farming is not profitable! Desertification is destroying land!”). On the farm, there was an atmosphere of strictness, scarcity, and military discipline. We meticulously removed every weed, hacked away at hardpan soil, and counted every crop and dollar it earned. On my last day, the farm owner, Sabine, sighed and mentioned that family farms were dying in Germany, because they were just too hard to maintain.
In contrast, when I came back to the US, I began studying food production approaches- including permaculture, biodynamic farming, and foraging- based on the sustainability and abundance of nature. “What if I told you,” a foraging lecturer at Yale began, “that the weeds in your backyard- such as stinging nettle- are far more nutritious than the kale you buy in your grocery store? Or that the weeds you try to remove from your garden are helping to pull nutrients up from deeper in the soil? Or that a mild hallucinogen exists by the side of the road in the form of Mugwort?” The approaches I went on to embrace and study did not enforce a rigid division between crop vs. weed, desirable vs. not; they accepted how nature works and found ways to align human needs with it. I’m in favor of this approach for many reasons, but mainly because it represents a more promising life philosophy: if you look for abundance and try to align with circumstances, you’ll always outperform someone who feels that opportunities are scarce.
2. Our relationship with food is as important as our access to it
In her book Farmacology, Daphne Miller, MD argues that urban farming improves public health outcomes in ways that access to healthy food alone cannot. She writes, “ One…study followed five thousand young adults living in four major cities (Birmingham, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Oakland) for fifteen years and tried to understand how proximity to markets and fast food affected their diet. Controlling for factors such as age, ethnicity, marital status, and income level, the results showed that a supermarket within a kilometer of the home does not improve diet quality nor boost vegetable intake. Even more unexpected, higher-income folks who live closer to a supermarket are likely to eat fewer vegetables (Miller, Farmacology).” Miller makes the shocking point that while proximity to healthy food appears not to alleviate the issue of food deserts, urban farming has been shown to connect communities, help grow small businesses, and improve a large variety of health outcomes.
One takeaway from Miller’s book is that access to food does not change habits and health, but a relationship with food does. When people connect with those making their food, know where it comes from, or have a role in making it themselves, they make healthier choices. This is something desperately missing in most parts of America: while we excel in nutritional science, dieting, and counting calories, we’re notoriously disconnected from the sources of our food and the ritual joy of meals.
3. Our current measures of successful food production are destructive
When I studied crop science, most of the crop and soil metrics we discussed (e.g. pH, leaf area index, row spacing) were manipulated with the goal of optimizing yield, which is how farmers are paid. This seems to make sense until you read an article such as this one, highlighting that nutrient levels have been dropping shockingly since the start of the century to the degree that an orange today gives us 1/8 of the vitamin A our grandparents would have obtained from one. In light of the fact that human bodies run off of vitamins and nutrients and not volume or weight of food, what if we optimized for those variables instead of just trying to produce the greatest quantity of food possible? Would we have healthier citizens rather than depleted soils and huge piles of wasted food in grocery stores?
If this seems like an unimportant distinction, consider a parallel example from the field of medicine. Thomas Cowan, MD argues that since tumor shrinkage, rather than survival or quality of life, is used as the target variable for successful cancer drugs, “systematic evaluation of oncology approvals by the EMA in 2009–13 shows that most drugs entered the market without evidence of benefit on survival or quality of life…The toxicity to the patient based on the use of the drug might mean that the patient actually dies sooner and experiences a worse quality of life than if no treatment at all had been given (Cowan, Cancer and the New Biology of Water).” Similarly, when we maximize for yield, we stress farmers and fields to constantly produce crops that have diminishing nutritional returns for human health.
4. Treat your body as you would treat your land, and vice versa
In many ways, agriculture is a great laboratory for human health: crop health has many parallels to human health but is easier to study, since the soil (analogous to the gut in humans) is openly exposed. And yet, just a few minutes considering how we treat crops versus humans shows some interesting discrepancies. For example, when crops are struggling, farmers look in the soil first to see if there is an infestation or set of conditions preventing the crop from reaching its genetic potential; in humans, we tell them they are sick or recommend a medication for them. From the other direction, in conventional agriculture, we apply stronger and stronger herbicides and pesticides to crop monocultures (e.g. fields of a single crop) to maintain production, despite the fact that this is similar to feeding a human being only one type of food and then giving them antibiotics or medications to hide the fact that they are getting sick from gut imbalance. If we look for the best discoveries and metaphors from both human and crop health, we could create a truly healthy system for both. After all, any crimes we commit against food inevitably come back to bite us when we sit down to eat.
Cowan, Thomas. Cancer and the New Biology of Water: Why the War on Cancer Has Failed and What That Means for More Effective Prevention and Treatment. Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2019.
“Dirt Poor: Have Fruits and Vegetables Become Less Nutritious?” Scientific American, Scientific American, 27 Apr. 2011, www.scientificamerican.com/article/soil-depletion-and-nutrition-loss/.
Miller, Daphne. Farmacology: Total Health from the Ground Up. William Morrow, an Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2016.
Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: an Eater’s Manifesto. Penguin Books, 2009.