Environment | Science | UW notepad
June 16, 2022
During the pandemic, many people have been doing urban farming or growing houseplants. geomorphologist at the University of Washington David Montgomery studied a deeper topic: how do methods of restoring soil health affect the quality of food obtained from this soil?
His new bookWhat did your food eatpublished June 21 by WW Norton & Company and co-authored by Ann Bickle explores this issue. It ties together many of the previous themes in Montgomery’s work on how soil conservation practices are better in the long run. The book also questions the exclusive focus on organic certification for pesticide use, rather than farming practices that grow healthier crops and livestock from the bottom up.
UW News asked Montgomery, UW Professor of Earth and Space Sciences and recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award, about the book and his ongoing journey to reimagine humanity’s relationship with the earth.
Your recent books can be seen as following a pattern, from environmental degradation to restoring soil health to demonstrating how soil quality affects food and ultimately human health. Was this progress planned, or did it happen by itself?
DM: There is definitely progress in our soil books. Although not planned, it guides the reader through our process of learning and discovery. The first book, published in 2012, is dedicated to soil loss and degradation problemand how, throughout history, societies that did not care for their land did not exist. The second book is about how growing beneficial microbial communities microbiomes around plant roots can restore soil health, and parallels with the human microbiome, especially in the gut, have been explored. The third book, published in 2018, showed how farmers adopting regenerative practices can bring soil back to lifethereby greatly reducing the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides while maintaining high yields and increasing soil organic matter.
A new book “What did your food eat, is a cornerstone in its own right that connects the dots between how soil health affects crop health, livestock health, and ultimately human health. You can read these books in any order. Although it was not planned, there is a natural progression in the subjects as each book raises new connections and questions that lead to the next.
Your last two books are based on partnerships with farmers who use regenerative farming methods. Can you describe how this partnership started and how it has affected your work?
Meeting and learning from farmers who have successfully used regenerative methods to restore the fertility of their lands in conditions ranging from huge farms in the Dakotas to small farms in Equatorial Africa and Central America have had a huge impact on my thinking and writing. I started meeting them at farmers’ conferences where I was invited to talk about “dirt”. I think I was something of a rookie geologist writing about the history of farming and long term land degradation under plow farming.
But my message about soil conservation as the foundation of sustainable (and profitable) farming resonated, and invitations to farmers’ groups increased. And while sitting in sessions at conferences that I don’t normally attend, I met and listened to some of the pioneers of regenerative agriculture.
Their success in restoring the fertility of the degraded land is similar to what Anna, my co-author and wife, did with our yard, laying out a city garden. After hearing the stories of these pioneers, I began visiting regenerative farmers and telling their stories to highlight the need for soil restoration in general. All of this has contributed to a style of weaving science, history, and personal stories into broader narratives that make reading on an important topic interesting.
What inspired the new book?
After researching and writing several previous books on the importance of healthy soil as a foundation for human civilization and sustainable farming, Ann and I became curious about how soil health affects human health. We were aware of the early ideas of some of the pioneers of the organic farming movement, such as Lady Eve Balfourwho wrote about the relationship between soil and the health of crops, livestock and people.
Since then, a lot of scientific work has been done, and we thought it was time to analyze what was learned and translate it for the general public. As we’ve written before, there are many reasons to advocate restoring soil health to our farmlands: reducing the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, more profitable farms, and more carbon sequestration in the soil, to name but a few. . But we were also curious about what restoring soil health could mean for human health in terms of providing more micronutrients and phytochemicals, and the types and balance of fats in a person’s diet. So we delved into these connections to develop a new synthesis for non-scientists.
You published a recent study that addresses similar questions. Is this the first time you’ve done research at the same time as writing a book?
While working on this book, we found very few studies that tested the role of soil health in the nutritional profile of crops. So we did a small study based on paired traditional and regenerative farms across the country and found that, on average, regenerative practices that improve soil health increase micronutrient and phytochemical levels in crops. We also looked at how differences in the diets of grain-fed feedlot versus grass-fed free-range cattle translated into differences in the fat profile of meat and dairy products.
But no, it wasn’t the first time I did research while writing this book. When I wrote The Dirt, I collected all the data I could find on the rate of soil erosion under conventional and no-till farming practices in order to assess the potential for sustainable farming and assess the role of soil erosion in the fate of past societies. . What study ended up being published in an academic journal at the same time as the book.
This is the second book you have co-authored with your wife, biologist and ecologist Anna Bicle. What is it like to co-author a book with your spouse?
I won’t say it’s a smooth process, but Ann is a terrific writer, bringing a different perspective and experience to our research and writing. She is very focused on making a good story out of what might end up being a dry summary of research findings. And her perspective as a biologist complements my background in geology.
Simply put, working with Ann improves my game.
What do you think people will take away from this book?
What is good for the earth is good for us; that agricultural policy is a health policy. We all know that what we eat matters to our health, but how we grow crops and feed the animals that make up our diet is just as important.
For more information contact Montgomery at [email protected]
Tags: College of the Environment • David Montgomery • Department of Earth and Space Sciences