June 16, 2022
During the pandemic lockdown, many people were dabbling in urban farming or growing houseplants. University of Washington geomorphologist David Montgomery was exploring a deeper topic: How do practices that rebuild soil health affect the quality of the food that comes from that soil?
His new book, “What Your Food Ate,” released June 21 from W.W. Norton & Company and co-authored by Anne Biklé, explores this question. It ties together many previous threads in Montgomery’s work on how practices that preserve the soil are better in the long run. The book also questions the exclusive focus on organic certification for the use of pesticides, versus farming practices that build healthier crops and livestock from below.
UW News asked Montgomery, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences and a winner of the MacArthur “Genius” Award, about the book and his continuing journey to chart a new way to view humanity’s relationship with the land.
Your recent books could be seen as following a pattern: From environmental degradation, to rebuilding soil health, to showing how soil quality affects food and ultimately human health. Was this progression planned, or did it just happen?
DM: There is definitely a progression that played out through our soil-themed books. While it wasn’t planned, it leads the reader through our process of learning and discovery. The first book, published in 2012, is about the problem of soil loss and degradation, and how throughout history societies that did not take care of their land didn’t last. The second book covers insights into how cultivating beneficial microbial communities — microbiomes — around the roots of plants can restore soil health, and explored parallels with the human microbiome, especially in the gut. The third book, published in 2018, showed how farmers adopting regenerative practices can bring soil back to life, thereby greatly reducing their use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, while maintaining high yields and increasing soil organic matter.
The new book, “What Your Food Ate,” is a standalone capstone that connects the dots between how soil health influences crop health, livestock health and, ultimately, human health. You can read these books in any order. Though unplanned, there is a natural progression through the subjects as each book raised new connections and questions that led to the next.
Your last two books build on partnerships with farmers who use regenerative farming practices. Can you describe how those partnerships began, and how they influence your work?
Meeting and learning from farmers who had successfully used regenerative practices to rebuild the fertility of their land in a wide range of settings — from huge farms in the Dakotas to small subsistence farms in equatorial Africa and Central America — had a huge influence on my thinking and writing. I began meeting them at farming conferences where I had been invited to talk about “Dirt.” I think I was something of a novelty, a geologist writing about the history of farming and about the long-term degradation of land under plow-based agriculture.
But my message of soil conservation as the foundation for sustainable (and profitable) farming resonated, and invitations to address farming groups grew. And in sitting in on sessions at conferences I normally wouldn’t have attended I met and listened to some of the pioneers of regenerative farming.
Their successes in restoring fertility to degraded land paralleled what Anne, my co-author and wife, had done to our yard in making an urban garden. Hearing these pioneers’ stories launched me into visiting regenerative farmers and telling their stories to make the larger point about the need to restore soils in general. This has all contributed to a style of weaving science, history and personal stories into broader narratives that make for an entertaining read on an important subject.
What inspired the new book?
After researching and writing several previous books about the importance of healthy soil as a foundation for human civilizations and sustainable farming, Anne and I were curious about how soil health affects human health. We were aware of the early ideas of some of the pioneers of the organic agriculture movement, like Lady Eve Balfour, who wrote about connections between soil and the health of crops, livestock and people.
A lot of science has been done since then and we thought it was timely to review what’s been learned — and translate it for the general public. As we’ve written about before, there are a lot of reasons to advocate for restoring soil health on our agricultural lands: reduced use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, more-profitable farms, and greater carbon sequestration in the soil, to name a few. But we were also curious about what restoring soil health might mean for human health in terms of providing more mineral micronutrients and phytochemicals, as well as the types and balance of fats in the human diet. So we dug into those connections to craft a new synthesis for nonscientists.
You published a recent study that explores similar questions. Is this the first time you’ve conducted a research study in tandem with writing a book?
In researching this book we found very few studies that tested the role of soil health on the nutritional profile of crops. So we conducted a small study, based on paired conventional and regenerative farms around the country, and found that, on average, regenerative practices that build soil health enhance the micronutrient and phytochemical levels in crops. We also looked at how differences in the diet of grain-fed, feedlot cattle versus grass-fed, free-range cattle translated into differences in the fat profile of meat and dairy products.
But no, this wasn’t the first time I’ve conducted a research study while writing a book. When I was writing “Dirt” I compiled all the data I could find on rates of soil erosion under conventional and no-till farming practices to evaluate the potential for sustainable farming, and to assess the role of soil erosion on the fate of past societies. That study ended up being published in an academic journal at the same time the book came out.
This is the second book you’ve co-authored with your spouse, biologist and environmental planner Anne Biklé. What’s it like co-authoring a book with your spouse?
I won’t say that the process is frictionless, but Anne is a terrific writer and brings a different perspective and expertise to our research and writing. She is very focused on making a good story out of what could end up as a dry recitation of research results. And her perspective as a biologist complements my background in geology.
Put simply, working with Anne ups my game.
What do you hope people take away from this book?
That what’s good for the land is good for us too; that agricultural policy is health policy. We all know that what we eat matters to our health, but so does how we grow the crops and feed the animals that become our diet.
For more information, contact Montgomery at [email protected]