Berkeleyside Magazine

Farmacology: Farm-to-body lessons

Dr. Daphne Miller is author of The Jungle Effect and the new Farmacology: What can innovative family farming teach us about health and healing? She is an associate clinical professor of family medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, a practicing family physician, and a contributing writer for several magazines and newspapers. She writes about the connections between biomedicine, food, farming and the natural world. She lives and gardens in Berkeley.

We caught up with her to chat about her new book.

What inspired you to write ‘Farmacology’?
I had been writing about food and nutrition for over a decade before it dawned on me that I needed to learn more about the places where our food is grown. Of course I’d advise my patients to look for labels like “organic,” “pasture-raised” or “non GMO” as markers of healthy farms and food. But beyond the labeling, it was all pretty much a mystery.

So recently I began to take time away from my medical practice to visit sustainable farms and see what went on there. As I journeyed across the country, milking cows, gathering eggs, weeding, laying irrigation pipe and hawking produce at farmstands, I discovered that good medicine and good farming had much in common. In fact, I began to see family farmers as healers whose jobs were more complicated than mine, since they were responsible for the health of an entire ecosystem — soil, soil creatures, animals, plants, water, air, people — while I was expected to care for just one member of that ecosystem.

You say that ‘Farmacology’ offers farm-to-body lessons. What do you mean by this?
The more I learned about the science of farming, the more I recognized its connections to medicine. For example, did you know that our gut physiology actually mirrors what happens in the soil? The intricate nutrient exchange between soil, microbe and plant is like the dance that takes place in our intestine, involving the mucosal lining, resident microbes and food (plants and animals). The biochemical makeup of soil also roughly matches ours, with a similar nitrogen-to-carbon ratio and the same range for normal pH (6.0 to 7.5). In fact, the carbon, nitrogen and every other mineral and vitamin building block in our body is derived from soil (via our food). In other words, we are not simply nourished by the soil, we are of the soil!

So, starting from that premise, it stands to reason that we should care for our bodies in the same way that a mindful farmer cares for the soil. And, of course, we should treat our farms and soil as if they are an extension of our body…

One of the first lessons in your book is about the similarities of rejuvenating soil and bodies. Can you explain?
Yes I learned that a holistic, regenerative approach seems to work best for soil and for our own bodies.

This became clear to me while I was doing an internship with Erick Haakenson, a biodynamic vegetable farmer in Washington State. He told me that when he first tried to bring his depleted soil back to life he sent soil samples to a lab and replaced missing minerals according to the lab reports — this “test and replace” method is standard practice in agriculture. But after a couple of years, several tons of additives, and many thousands of dollars, he was still not satisfied with the health of his soil or the quality of his produce and he wondered if the soil additives were getting to the plant. He also began to consider the unintended consequences of spreading foreign additives: for example, were they “locking up” existing soil nutrients — ones that were essential for healthy plant growth. He decided to look for an alternative, holistic, and cheaper way to improve his soil and boost the health of his farm.

He read books written by the pioneers in the organic agriculture, people like Sir Albert Howard and F.H. King, and realized that to really nurture his farm, he needed to nourish the Farm’s vital force: the billions of soil organisms that lie just below the soil’s surface. These micro creatures, which farmers refer to as “unpaid workers”, amend and aerate the soil. They also harvest nutrients from the soil and pass them along in perfectly packaged doses to the plant roots.

To support these earth creatures, the farmer Erick stopped using farm additives and began to imitate nature’s full-cycle way of farming. This included recycling organic matter back into the soil, conserving water, rotating crops, growing cover crops and resting the soil, using local seeds, avoiding all pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and grazing animals on the land so that their manure would be the main fertilizer. Several seasons after changing his practices, the farm began to thrive and the soil test results were better than ever.

So how did this influence the way you work as a doctor?
Hearing Erick’s story, I realized that it is not uncommon for doctors, myself included, to use “test and replace” strategies to solve our patients’ health problems. When we feel something is off, we immediately order a lab and then prescribe vitamins, minerals, and medications to correct any number that lies outside the norm. Our tendency is to think of the human body as a test tube and add things into this complicated system with the belief that the pill or potion will find its proper home.

Of course, supplements and drugs sometimes have a role in making us healthier, but their overuse and misuse can create the same unintended reactions as additives in soil. (Excess calcium can “lock up” zinc and iron in humans and excess phosphorus does the same in soil.) Given our close connections to soil, I began to wonder: Could this ecological approach to rejuvenation offer me a new way to rejuvenate my patients?

And what did you discover happens to our health when we connect to healthy farms?
Eating from an eco farm and treating your body like an eco farm may help rejuvenate and rebalance in a way that testing and supplements cannot.

Researchers are just beginning to uncover all the amazing health connections between healthy bodies and healthy farms. For example, scientists in Washington State like John Reganold are now comparing plants grown using biodynamic farming techniques to plants grown in conventional or even certified “organic” soil. What they are finding is that fruits and veggies from the Biodynamic soil pack a bigger nutritional punch. This is because the Biodynamic soil is more bioactive and biodiverse. It hosts all those “unpaid workers” who are able to harvest organic matter and pass it on to us!

But nutrients are not the only positive health link between our bodies and the farm. Microbiologists around the world are discovering that soil microbes (or DNA from microbes) are silently hitchhiking on our food and transferring health information to the resident microbes in our gut. If the soil is healthy then, in turn, this information can help build our immunity and support our metabolism. Of course, treating our bodies or the soil with lots of antibiotics or chemicals can have the opposite effect, promoting antibiotic resistance, inflammation, and even chronic disease.

Your book puts forth a convincing argument for why ecological farming is good for our health and why factory farming can be just as harmful as factory medicine. But don’t you feel that there is a role for technology and innovation in farming and medicine?

Actually I have found that biotechnology is not at all antithetical to taking an ecological approach. Scientific innovation can play an important role in both health and farming as long as it preserves and complements the natural system. I love Aldo Leopold’s quote: “if the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

In each story in Farmacology, the farmer is an “intelligent tinkerer.” Take Cody Holmes the rancher, for example. He has constructed a paddock system using the latest in fencing technology, but he did this in order to imitate nature’s grazing pattern. Along these same lines, the vintner at Scribe Winery judiciously uses pheromone traps and other inventions in order to maintain a balance between pests and beneficial insects in his vineyard. In almost every instance where these farmers rely on technology, it is not to disrupt nature’s design but rather to preserve or restore what nature has given them.

And now you are an “intelligent tinkerer”?
Yes, when it comes to our health, I have found that the best interventions are also those that support our body’s natural patterns. I give examples of this in every chapter of this book: an asthma and allergy researcher who is interested in innovative immunotherapies but only in so far as they support (and do not override) the immune systems of her young patients, a microbiologist and a cancer researcher who are working on therapies that maintain a healthy ecological balance, whether between microbe and gut or between tumor cells and surrounding tissue. I also talk about a famous stress expert who is interested in how to preserve a healthy stress response. To this end, he is open to using pharmaceuticals along with lifestyle changes and a supportive environment.

So it’s a revolutionary way of thinking about our health. What are some terms that you use to describe this new way of thinking?
Well, I would love your readers’ suggestions. I have referred to myself as a “medical ecologist” or and “eco-doc” or an “integrated patient manager”— this is borrowing from the farming term “integrated pest management.” But perhaps I should call myself a “Farmacologist.” What do you think?