What Your Food Ate, How to Heal Our Land And Reclaim Our Health (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, N. Y. 2022) is the startlingly portentous title of a new study by the married team of David Montgomery and Anne Biklé, a book that takes a remarkably thorough look at how and why humans interact with food and how that food interacts with other substances. Folk wisdom declares that the dirt you inadvertently consume serves to keep you healthier; this book reveals that there’s more truth in that than you might suspect.
Except that you don’t have to eat dirt to get those benefits – you just have to eat minimally processed food that has been allowed to grow in a healthy, natural environment. Trouble is, that food is becoming ever more difficult to find.
Montgomery, who is a professor of Geomorphology, and Biklé, a biologist, have covered these topics in their previous books, The Hidden Half of Nature, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, and Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back To Life, each of which has been reviewed on this site. But their new book not only weaves together a more complete overview of those topics, it also provides sound scientific study to support their conclusions, enough, I hope, to persuade those who might still be skeptical about the conclusions found herein.
The conclusions are simple. And profound. Our bodies have an innate nutritional wisdom. We figured out, through the trial-and-error that informs evolution, what kind of diet is needed to maintain health and fight disease. We began farming and penning animals ten thousand years ago and our bodies adapted to the dietary changes. Now, in this most modern of modern ages, we’re more likely to suffer from micronutrient malnutrition and resultant disease.
Mineral nutrients are critical to body development and general health, and we get them from rocks. Not directly, of course, and chapter two, “Rocks Become You,” digs into the dirt of this process, explaining what we need, where they’re found, how they get into our vegetables – it’s a fascinating process involving soil-dwelling bacteria and fungi – and how this process is thwarted by conventional agricultural practices.
It’s presented not as mere lecture but rather as a journey alongside those who pioneered the research into these topics. Chapter three, “Living Soil,” introduces us to Sir Robert McCarrison, who pioneered research into British dietary habits, and Sir Albert Howard, who studied the connection between soil health and healthy food – and both of them presented these study results in 1939! Lady Eve Balfour turned her research into the 1943 book The Living Soil, still in print, and, “confident that agricultural researchers would not invest the time, money, and effort in testing what they saw as yesterday’s practices,” continued her research on the 216-acre farm she helped found, the Haughley Research Farm, which was able to operated until financial problems in 1970 brought it to an end.
The book is in four parts: Soil, Plant, Animal, People. The journey is already implied. What we learn about rocks and soil is fascinating enough, but the trip into vegetation is astonishing. We’re introduced to phytochemicals, defined as “bioactive nutrient plant chemicals,” but really just the broad spectrum of micronutrients they manufacture. Which is necessary because “Land plant are stuck in place, and when they fire up their phytochemical factories, it stocks their green bodies with a pharmacy and an arsenal – time-tested botanical medicines and weapons essential to their health and defense.” And if you need some show-me evidence, phytochemicals give foods their colors.
We learn that a 2014 study by the British Journal of Nutrition “reported significantly higher concentrations of antioxidants in organic crops and significantly higher concentrations of pesticide residue and the toxic metal cadmium in conventionally grown crops.” Compared to responsibly grown organic produce, the way these numbers play out, “you’d have to consume about twice the conventional produce – pesticides and all – to get the same amount of phytochemicals.”
And we’re not the only ones consuming this stuff. Moving into the study of the animals, we’re confronted with what may be the mightiest poison visited upon the population: glyphosate, sold as Roundup by Monsanto, which has lost significant cancer-related lawsuits even as it buried its identity in the Bayer corporation. Healthy animals need healthy forage material, which isn’t much of an option when conventional ag is practiced. Montgomery and Biklé aren’t just quoting studies as they soberly assess this topic: they’re visiting farmers, looking at operations like that of research scientist-turned farmer Jonathan Lundgren’s Blue Dasher Farm in South Dakota, where he works 53 acres that include cows, sheep, and bees.
Lundgren’s story is particularly interesting in that he went to work after college at a USDA research lab. “In 2011 his research was going well, and the USDA honored him as one of its top scientists at a White House ceremony.” Three years later, when he spoke against pesticides and genetic modification of crops, his supervisors began to turn on him. And he learned that the kind of harassment he suffered was being shared by many students and fellow-workers who dared to criticize the chemical-heavy status quo.
What the animals we eat are given to eat has changed tremendously over recent decades, “leaving Americans to live with the consequences of this unrecognized experiment.” The contrast between meat from grass-fed and grain-fed cows is startling, particularly in the fat content make-up. Not surprisingly, grain-feed beef has much higher levels of the types of saturated fatty acids that push up your cholesterol levels. In addition, grass-fed beef has much higher levels of healthy ingredients like omega-3s and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
Again, these aren’t idle declarations. They’re backed by rigorous, proven study. You may feel a little numb – and probably not very hungry – by the time you reach the fourth section, “People,” but it’s here that all this information comes together, beginning with an inspiring acknowledgment of the sense of flavor we’ve cultivated as individuals and as a species. Which goes into a fascinating exploration of how taste and its partner, smell, work to tell us so many important things about our environment.
How do the ultra-processed foods we encounter at convenience stores and fast-food counters – and supermarkets, especially – get past those receptors? Take the protein isolates from peas and soybeans that go into phony meats. A pile of those isolates “tastes wretched and looks just as bad. This is where palatants and other substances come in: they take ultra-processed foods from edible to hyperappealing using the most favored tastes – sweet, salty, and umami.” Cheap food is flavor-enhanced and virtually nutrient-free. But it’s cheap.
The pursuit of a nutritious diet, then, is nothing more than getting back to the foods our bodies learned to favor before corporate farming destroyed the land and poisoned our plants in the reckless pursuit of profit. What Your Food Ate takes a less aggressive tone than that last sentence suggests, but I’m sure you’ll be thinking unkind thoughts by the end of it. Fortunately, there are farmers who are doing it right, and they’re probably at a farmer’s market near you. Buying more from them – and less from the supermarket – is our most effective tool for encouraging good farming practices. With the convenient side-effect that we get healthier as a result.
(B. A. Nilsson, 6/24/22)