Terry Fowler

We are the Soil: Farmacology, by Daphne Miller

Many of us who farm or garden are aware of the intimate connection between healthy soil, healthy food, and healthy humans. The genius of this book lies in how Dr. Daphne Miller really digs into this connection, so to speak.

From one side Dr. Miller gives clinical examples of the many ways in which healthy bodies are related to healthy food and soil. Diet as well as work habits can reduce stress levels, not diet in general but very specific aspects of one’s diet. It’s not just a question of organic versus conventionally grown foods, it’s the dramatic differences between Rudolph Steiner’s biodynamic farming and industrial organic farming, with the latter having substantial nutritional shortcomings.

Miller shows – no, celebrates – how exceptionally intelligent farmers, many of them young, are experimenting with improving the quality of their soils in very explicit and direct ways. She draws insightful parallels between integrated pest management (IPM) and the way our immune system works. It may not be rocket science, but it’s a pretty sophisticated science practised by these farmers she interviews.

And she is balanced. She makes a strong case for the benefits of raw milk, but she is far from dogmatic about it. She has a low opinion of vitamin supplements, whose usefulness to us, she feels, is limited because they contain simplified, concentrated extracts. But she notes some exceptions, such as helping severely malnourished persons or those who have had gastric bypass surgery or who suffer from chronic kidney problems.

However, the bottom line for Miller is that vitamin and mineral supplements are ineffective in achieving a truly healthy human body and probably interfere with that goal. It turned out that this is also true of soil. Visiting a biodynamic farm, she saw how the practices of Erick Haakenson, the farmer, confirmed this principle. At first, he had his fields meticulously tested for deficiencies and then he would replace the missing elements one by one. It didn’t work particularly well because those elements were not supplied to plants in usable form.

Just as in the case of supplements in humans, adding individual nutrients by themselves produced toxicity and vitamin deficiency in the soil. However, the guts of Haakenson’s cows and chickens produced microbiota that delivered nutrients in a way that was easily accessible to plants in the form of urine, pellets, and patties, where they were packaged inside larger carbon-containing molecules.

Haakenson’s cows were the perfect vehicle for producing healthy soil. A visit to their pasture showed how eagerly they sidled into the midst of a wonderfully diverse mixture of grasses and other plants. This eagerness was the result of their mothers’ diet, the many delicious flavours of which they’d grown used to in the womb.

It works the same way with humans. Mothers-to-be who eat large amounts of vegetables engender a taste for vegetables in their children. Not only that, but once the baby is born, if the mother’s milk tastes of bitter or savoury vegetables, such as carrots or kale – even garlic – the child will be more likely to enjoy eating these vegetables growing up. “Children who are given a greater variety of vegetables end up eating more vegetables as adults,” similar to cows who bloom with good health when they are treated to a variety of herbs, grains, and weeds.

And one study showed “children are more than twice as likely to be avid vegetable eaters if most of their meals are prepared at home and if their caregivers shop at farmers’ stands or farmers’ markets rather than at a supermarket.”

Other connections made by Miller:
Gardening is strongly related to healthy eating, to physical fitness, and to neighbourhood vitality.
Farmers’ markets stimulate small businesses in the area.
Integrated pest management keeps unwanted bugs and weeds off balance by constantly changing strategies; similarly, cancer in mice is kept in check by constantly changing doses of medicine.
Just as every plot of soil is slightly different, every patient is different, and treatments of both soil and patient are vastly more effective when this simple fact is taken into account.

These last two points feed into Miller’s main message, which is that “the nutrient exchange between soil, microbe, and plant is curiously similar to what takes place in our own intestines. …Like our own biosystems, [soil] depends on bacteria and fungi to supply it with the fats, amino acids, and carbohydrates that make up its structure. …Carbon, nitrogen, and every mineral and vitamin that is a building block in our own bodies is derived from the soil.” We are the soil, in other words.

Miller got so fascinated by it all that when she stood by one farmer crumbling some superb earth in his hand, she started to salivate.

Her message to her profession: get over your focus on predictability, linearity, and reductionism. Ecofarmers provide us with many lessons about healing the human body.

One of her most trenchant points for me was about cancer. Learn to keep it in check, she writes, just like farmers who use IPM. Don’t get hung up on magic bullets or once-and-for-all cures; cancer is a pest – a dangerous one, to be sure – but not a predator. My Ayurvedic doctor, who has helped me in many ways with my prostate cancer, told me, “Live with your enemy.” (Or what you have decided is your enemy.) If a young, conventionally trained physician from California and an 83-year-old Indian with degrees in both Ayurvedic and Western medicine agree on this principle, it must be worth a second look.

Source: Daphne Miller, Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing, William Morrow, 2013, pages 7, 22, 30-38, 68-72, 84-86, 149-56, 180-1