Carrots and spinach are generally agreed to be good for you. And my mind hasn’t changed on that. But after reading What Your Food Ate, by husband-wife science duo David Montgomery and Anne Biklé, I’ve found myself paying a lot more attention to their source, the soil they came from, because, as Biklé and Montgomery show, human health and soil health are deeply intertwined.
In the early twentieth century, Sir Albert Howard, a British soil scientist, became convinced that traditional farmers in India utilizing compost generated not only healthier but also more healthful crops. His book The Soil and Health went on to influence writers like Wendell Berry. Howard’s contemporary Lady Eve Balfour came to the similar conclusion that it was the life of the soil – the microscopic fungi and bacteria – that helped make healthy and nutritious plants. According to Montgomery and Biklé, she concluded that “healthy soil was a recipe for healthy people” and “even went so far as to call for hospitals to retain soil scientists on staff.” Balfour and Howard were rejected by the scientific consensus of their day, not because of a lack of evidence for their position, but because it didn’t fit with the model of progress that posited chemically-based agriculture as the way of the future.
We are now facing the consequences of that progress. An emphasis on crop yields at any cost has depleted our soils and left our food far less nutritious than it was in the time of Howard and Balfour. Studies now show up to “40 percent declines in the mineral content of fruits and vegetables over the previous half-century.” Broccoli alone has seen its calcium “decreased by about two-thirds from 1950 to 2003.” The consequences of these reductions are legion and Biklé and Montgomery spend much of the book tracing those results and their remedies.
Their solution is a form of agriculture that centers on soil health rather than a pure increase in yields: more compost and less tillage. The authors visit a variety of farmers, from no-till vegetable growers to pasture-based ranchers, to show how building soil life increases the nutrition of food. Food that is rich in micronutrients and phytochemicals also tastes better; flavor, if we learn to interpret it rightly, can be a good guide to health.
Montgomery and Biklé end their book with an almost religious fervor. “Soil not only feeds us today but will feed our children’s children, and this calls for some reverence,” they write. A humble care for the soil gets to the heart of who we are as human beings. It is no accident that both in English and in Hebrew our substance is defined in terms of the soil – the human from the humus, the adam (human) from the adamah (agricultural soil). Our lives have always been intertwined with the life of the soil. What Your Food Ate is a brilliant and engaging call to be humus-beings once more and to live with care for the least of our creaturely neighbors, the living soil upon which our wholeness depends.