Highlights from the SHP Webinar: A Conversation with Anne Biklé and David Montgomery on Soil Health

by Ann Armbrecht, SHP Director

“The key take away… is that the idea of regenerative farming is not only good for the planet, [it is] also good for the consumers who are eating what the farmers grow.” David Montgomery

“Soil life is where it’s at.” Anne Biklé

Introduction

Anne Biklé and David Montgomery’s books on soil and health connect the dots between the health of the soil, the chemistry of the crops grown in that soil, and the health of our bodies. I absolutely loved my conversation with them about their newest book, What Your Food Ate: How to Heal Our Land and Reclaim Our Health

Below are some key points from our discussion. These highlights don’t do justice to the depth of what they shared. I highly encourage you to watch the full interview here. And then go order their books!


(To see recordings of all previous SHP Webinars go here.)

Why Soil Health Matters: Relationships

Ann Armbrecht (Ann A): You begin chapter 6, Botanical Bodies, with a quotation by George Washington Carver, “Education is understanding relationships.” Can you begin by talking about those relationships and why they matter?

David replied, “What we do the land, we do to ourselves. The health of the land translates into the health of people…. And there’s a whole lot of relationships in between…. You have to understand [those relationships] in context to really be able to explain the why… So that’s why we broke it into those connections of looking at how farming practices affect soil health, how soil health affects crop health, how crop health affects livestock health, and how the latter two end up affecting human health. It really is all about relationships.”

Why You Are What Your Food Ate

Anne Biklé continued: “The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health laid open a lot of the new science on microbiomes. That book focuses on both microbiomes of the human body and microbiomes of the plant body and the soil. As a result of researching and writing that book, [I] started learning about the biology and the chemistry and all of these things that… mesh together to make things work. [And I came to understand] that it’s really important that those things [in the microbiome] are able to be happening. Then Dave wrote another book called Growing a Revolution. And this was visiting farmers around the world who were pioneering some of these regenerative techniques.

I like to put the two titles together and say, ‘We’re growing a revolution with the hidden half of nature to learn about why you are what your food ate.'”

Soil Health in Conventional vs. Regenerative Farms

David continued by describing their research comparing soil health and nutrient levels in specific crops.

Anne added these additional details about what they found:

“When we averaged everything across the farms, with phytochemicals, we found that 15% more carotenoids in crops grown on regenerative farms. Total phenolics about 20% more. Total phytosterols, about 22% more.

With vitamins, Vitamin K, Vitamin K and E, and a couple of B vitamins ranged from a high of 34% more vitamin K in the regenerative crops to the lowest difference was 14%. And then, in terms of minerals: calcium, phosphorus and copper, all stuck out as being more in the regenerative crops.

The regenerative crops had lower levels of vitamin B-6 and manganese.

Quality vs Quantity

Ann A: Can you talk about how agricultural policy or how our framing and thinking about farming has prevented us from seeing what seems so obvious that soil health leads to better quality plants?

David: Essentially, for the last 80 years or so… agronomic policy and agronomic research has prioritized growing high yields of things and that’s been done at the expense of other considerations.

That focus has been quite successful in terms of its primary goal of increasing yields. But in the new book we go into research dating back to the 1940s, looking at how the practices [that were] standardized in terms of large applications, nitrogen fertilizers, breeding crops to perform well in environments with an excess of nitrogen in the soil… essentially shortchanged the pathways and provisioning of things like mineral micronutrients and phytochemical production in crops.

We were so focused on high yields and the idea of feeding the world that we kind of let slip the idea that we not only need to feed the world, but we need to nourish the world.

And phytochemicals were forgotten about or left off the list in terms of a lot of concern, in part because you know, they are not necessary for survival. But there’s a lot of evidence that relates to their beneficial effects maintaining health in people.

Sick of being sick.

Anne continues by discussing the specific relationships between soil and human health in more detail.

Why Do Farmers Continue to Degrade the Soil?

Ann A: What keeps some farmers from making changes even though they see the practices aren’t good for the soil? And why did some make the transition to regenerative practices?

David: The chemical fertilizers nitrogen and phosphorus in particular were big, big yield boosters in degraded soils, and they still are big yield boosters in degraded soils. One of the problems with the over application and reliance on them is that the over reliance on soluble forms of nitrogen fertilizer tends to short circuit the kinds of partnerships that plants like crops form with mycorrhizal fungi in the soil... But it also can stimulate the bacterial decomposition of soil organic matter, which is essentially the food that helps feed the soil microbiome. And so the over reliance on nitrogen fertilizers can boost yield in the short run, but it degrades soil, native soil fertility, in the long run. And of course, what that means is that farmers get hooked on the more you use, the more you need.

A lot of farmers are now interested in ways to cut and reduce reliance on expensive inputs. When I was writing Growing a Revolution, I visited some of these regenerative farmers who had been pioneering methods for doing that.

How to Build Soil Health?

Specific regenerative farming practices and their impact on soil health.

Agricultural Crutches

Anne continued, “The conventional agricultural system [has] its own recipe [that] works really well if you’ve got soils that are depauperate in soil life, low in soil organic matter, and plants that are sitting there stranded, without a microbiome, nobody to talk to or communicate with.

If that were me, I would need crutches, I would need some kind of virtual glasses. I would need a lot of help, a lot of inputs to get around and live my life. As we all know, you can get a plant to grow with a lot of fertilizer. That is what we’re doing with modern agriculture.

So how do you break out of this? If things are going well and you’re making a profit, why change your system, right? The conventional practices are more or less working from the standpoint of the bottom line. They might not be working for human health or the planet, but it’s working for your checking account.

So you know, that keeps going on. But a crisis hits. Oh, like say maybe a war in which fertilizer is made by a certain country that is now withholding it. All of a sudden fertilizer prices are, late last year, they were maybe doubled. Now the price of nitrogen fertilizer today is like three times, four times higher. Or we can’t even get it at all. This is what Brazil is facing…

This is a huge motivator for change. It’s like when you get a medical or health diagnosis. Either you ignore it or you decide, “Oh, I think I’m going to change. I think it’s time to change right now.”

How to Change?

Anne continues in this clip to describe the process of rebuilding the soil.

Organic and Beyond

How certifications can lock farmers into certain practices and what it takes to go beyond those limitations.

Hope for the Future of Soil Health

And finally, in conclusion, David and Anne discuss why they are optimistic about the future of regenerative farming and where they believe we are in the process.