Sunday, January 3, 2016

Winter Reading: Organic and Biodynamic Books, Part 4 - The Hidden Half of Nature

"Life in the soil is the underground yin to the above ground yang."

David R. Montgomery falls into the category of a national treasure in the "Explainer" genre. A genius geologist who won a MacArthur award in 2008, he has a way of helping us see the effects of the natural world - and impending crises - in an accurate and accessible way. His book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations is one of the most eye-opening reads you'll find. (Civilizations live and die based on the health of their soils; watch his insightful video on this topic here.)

So I was excited to hear he has a new book out, one co-written with his wife Anne Biklé, an environmental planner focused on public health. The topic is the life of soil and microbes. When I started to read it, I didn't know that this would relate to organic farming, but I was pleased with the way it all ties together in the end and is grounded in a historical context.

Who isn't interested in microbes today? Michael Pollan's writing about them in the New Yorker, gut bacteria diet articles are everywhere. The American Museum of Natural History has a new exhibit The Secret World Inside You on gut microbes and you can't walk into a book store without seeing a copy of Dr. Perlmutter's book Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain-for Life, now endorsed by no less than the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, one of the country's leading authorities on aging.

If you saw the film Symphony of the Soil (and if you haven't, you should), you may recall the wonderful segment with Elaine Ingham where she describes the interface between plant roots and the soil. "It's like Times Square on New Year's Eve all the time," she says.

Authors David Montgomery and Anne Bikle´
This is the subject of Montgomery and Biklé's book: the buzzing, throbbing world of the soil. It's a masterful work of Explaining.

The two intersperse chapters about their personal stories - Anne's avid gardening hobby is the genesis - with chapters that cover all the good old science history one needs to know to understand the punchline that gets delivered. Anne gets cancer and the two start to research the parallels between diet, health, the gut micro biome and the living microbe ecosystem in the soil.

But the book goes much further than this when it shifts into helping readers understand just why organic farming matters. It isn't a focus on the effects of releasing toxic chemicals into ecosystems. It's a matter of microbial health - and thus, as they explain - all health.

The barren lot the authors started with - until they
began adding organic matter and Biklé transformed
it into a thriving vegetable garden.
Plants grown with fake fertilizer and a chemical addiction can't defend themselves as well as their organic counterparts, as the authors document in numerous studies.

What surprised me was how far back in agricultural history, experts began worrying about the nutritional effects of chemical agriculture practices.

For instance, nematodes create life as an essential part of the soil ecosystem. You may be as outraged as most of the organic farmers in Napa to know that wineries - like Screaming Eagle - kill every nematode when they fumigate land to create a new vineyard. Fumigation kills everything in the soil.

Anne Biklé began gardening on a large
scale, growing most of the family's summer food
Study after study shows that sterilized soil "succumb to pathogens while plants grown in unsterilized soil do just fine," the authors write. "Sterilizing soil destroys its disease suppression," they say, which leads to the use of toxic chemicals applied to suppress diseases - but with less success and more side effects.

Plant roots offer free food to microbes in exchange for many ecosystem services, the authors write, asking readers to, "Imagine a plant's root system as a castle in an underground landscape harboring microbial bandits and a community of microbial bodyguards that displace, deter, or take out microbial enemies."

A historical expert that the book introduced me to is Lorenz Hiltner, who was one of the first modern scientists to hypothesize that microbes benefited plant health. He experimented with adding microbial amendments to
Lorenz Hiltner in his lab in Bavaria
improve plant health. Unfortunately his work grew less attention with the onset of World War I. After the war the agrochemical industry became the dominant voice.

"Until very recently the field of soil ecology was much like ancient astronomy, when our view was limited to the stars we could see with the naked eye," Montgomery and Biklé write, later adding, "The bottom line is that interactions between soil life - especially bacteria and mycorrhizae fungi are far more intricate than previously imagined.

"In fact, the entire plant micro biome operates much like an ecological pharmacy for its host [plant]...

"Our deepening understanding of this connection between plants and soil life is akin to evolution in thinking from Newtonian mechanics to quantum physics...a deeper story of the complex variability that underlies it all...Science is still in its infancy..."

But the most exciting part of the book to me was connecting the dots between microbes to the harm that chemical farming does.

An agronomist from the University of Missouri, William Albrecht, also figures in the book's coverage of the harms of chemically farmed foods. President of the Soil Science Society, Albrecht "believed organic matter fueled the microbial populations" that led to healthy soils.

Organic soils have minerals that chemically farmed soils lost over time. "Albrecht asserted that, over time, renewing only N (nitrogen), P (potassium) and K [the three best known fertilizers], but not trace minerals would lead to less nutritious food. In other words, intensive chemical fertilization could lead to  high yields of mineral-poor crops...deficiencies in essential minerals meant malnutrition, as surely as insufficient calories did."

Enjoy this rare, vintage video clip of Albrecht on soil health:

In the post World War II era, Albrecht's ground breaking study of Navy sailors' dental records revealed regional soil fertility patterns that confirmed his hypothesis about soil and chemical farming. At that time, when most people ate locally grown foods, Midwest sailors (from a region that then had fertile soils) had fewer cavities and missing teeth than those from the Southeast, where soils were degraded.

Today we know that soil health is critical for nutrition
In the current generation of research, a recent University of Illinois study proposed even worse news: "nitrogen fertilization stimulate microbes to rapidly degrade soil organic matter, thereby depleting it as a reservoir for nutrients."

The authors tell us that in 1928, Selman Waksman, "documented that the addition of inorganic nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium more than tripled the pace of microbial breakdown of soil organic matter." Should we think of the NPK triple threat as Darth Vader?

But wait - there's more. "Once soil organic matter is degraded, fertilizer becomes essential to maintain yields." Fertilizer is the gateway drug. "Excessive use of agrochemicals feeds the bad actors and starves the good ones," the authors tell us. The latest research on glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, hurts soil not through acute toxicity, but by disrupting microbial communities.
There's much more to this story - like all the personal gardening bits, the part where Anne gets cancer and the chapter on the latest research on the gut micro biome's part in America's epidemic of chronic diseases. You'll find yourself learning a lot and in a pretty enlightening way.

As Dan Barber, chef at Stone Barns and the author of the Third Plate, wrote of the book "Sure to become a game-changing guide to the future of good food and healthy landscapes."

I also liked the Wall Street Journal book review. Writing for the New York Times, Sonia Shah, who writes quite a bit about infectious diseases (not the micro biome) gets it wrong when she calls the authors "romantic" and dismisses the micro biome findings as related only to diseases of the stomach. She obviously has not been keeping up with Perlmutter, the Buck Center and the Alzheimer folks and others who see a direct link from the gut to the brain and a wide variety of auto immune disorders.

A better review is the one in the UK's Guardian which fills in a lot of aspects of their personal story which I have (purposely) omitted here (so as to focus on the organic spine of their story). You can find the Guardian review here.

The book also got a great writeup in Nature which calls it, "a beautifully synthesized scientific memoir. Personal experiences - revitalizing degraded soil and surviving a major health scare - become ways into swathes of cutting edge research in microbiology..."

My only ding - and it's a very minor one - is that the book talks about the renowned English organic farming expert Albert Howard, without showing how much of his work was derived from generations of Indian peasant farmers. Will they - and all the other peasant farmers around the world who know more than a thing or two about farming from first hand experience over generations - ever get the recognition they deserve? Vandana Shiva shouldn't be their only defender.

But that's, as I said, a tiny note on what is otherwise a masterpiece of Explaining - why you should eat, drink and support organic farming and what it means to your personal - as well as planetary - health. This is a book for anyone interested in gardening, too, so you can consider gifting it to someone you know with a backyard garden. Or anyone interested in the micro biome, too. Or anyone who might get cancer. Or a chronic disease.

As someone who used to be the editor in chief of and worked with the leading genetics scientists of the day, including the man who discovered the colon cancer gene, I can really appreciate how much work the authors here have done to make complex topics simple enough to understand.

To hear a one hour audio program with the authors, don't miss this hour podcast. Montgomery is at his best, showing why he's the Great Explainer. Biklé weighs in, too; together it's a bliss out experience for learning first hand from scientists who are talking about how their life experiences led them to explore and explain must-know knowledge, making it easy for others to absorb.

The web site for their book is You can also follow them on FB at and on Twitter at

2016: My Wish List of New Year's Resolutions for the Wine Industry

I've decided to put together my list of resolutions for the wine industry to improve and grow our organic sector in 2016.

Can we double the number of organic vineyards in the U.S. in one year? We could easily achieve this if a few things happened. Like the list below, for instance.

And if you think this is too hard, look at these statistics from Europe where organic grape production  (both table grapes and wine grapes) is up, up, up:

In France alone, organic vineyards grew 66% from 2007 to 2011. In 2012, organic grapes in France grew 15 percent. The FIBL stats include both table and wine grapes.

Today 9 percent of France's wine grape vineyards are certified organic.

The report says, "In a global context, Europe is by far the largest player when it comes to organic vineyards. European organic vineyards constitute 89 percent of the the global area under organic vines of 260,000 hectares (3.7 percent of all vineyards). "

Converting hectares to acres, 260,000 hectares is 642,473 acres. In comparison, the U.S. has only about 15,000+ acres of organic vineyards. That is out of 465,000 acres of wine grape vineyards in the California. Nationwide, the figure is closer to 600,000+.  That means about 2.5% of (bearing) wine grape vineyards. (Most of the organic vineyards in the U.S. are in California.)

Based on this data, looking at the list of organic grape growers in Europe and the EU, the U.S. would rank just 6th, just above Greece.

So here are a few things we need to do to grow a market for organically grown wine in the U.S.:

1. Label ingredients in wine and support laws that do this. If you want us to think of wine as food - and we know you do because you market it that way - let the government pass laws for the wine industry to tell us what's in our wine so we can choose according to what we want. Ideally, you would have to label pesticides that are used in growing the grapes as well, or any pesticide residues. Studies in France have shown the pesticide residues in wine to be significant, which embarrassed a number of prestigious wineries.

In addition, we need to change the wine labeling laws in the U.S. to make our organic wine standards equivalent or closer to the European standard. As it stands now, only wines with no added sulfites can be called "organic wine" in the U.S. - a standard that is unfair and has created confusion and negative impressions in the U.S. for hundreds of organic vintners who make wine with the addition of sulfites. The European standard permits limited use of sulfites (and is close to the "Made with Organic Grapes" standard in the U.S.)

This law primarily functions today as a protection for the Frey and LaRocca families, who are the main beneficiaries of this confusing labeling standard. It's time for no added sulfite wine producers to get an additional type of certification and not to conflate organic with no added sulfites. Consumers who want no added sulfite products can understand that this is not synonymous with the use of organic grapes. Organic grapes are generally cultivated with the use of sulphur in the fields, making the issue even more ironic.

This labeling law is widely acknowledged by many experts around the world to be the number one reason why the U.S. lags behind in organic wine production.

2. Become certified. If all the "practicing organic" folks out there would make a commitment to get certified, we could perhaps double organic vineyard acreage that's on the books. And the U.S. wouldn't be the lamest country among world peers when it comes to the percentage of organically grown wine grapes. If you're not "practicing organic," learn more about organic wine grape growing from peers in your region or talk to a knowledgeable U.C. expert (like Glenn McGourty, the ag advisor in Mendocino and Lake Counties). We are also blessed in the U.S. with world class vineyard consultants who have vast experience in organic viticulture. (If you need specific references, email me.) You could also attend EcoFarm in January (held in Monterey) or go to one of the organic vineyard owner tours offered in Sonoma and Napa (and elsewhere). CCOF also puts on workshops around the state. Or just call a certifier and talk to them about educational resources. 

3. Please don't say certification "is too expensive." And don't let a sales person in a wine store ever say that again - it's the lamest excuse on the planet. Certification is dirt cheap. See the (my) article in Wines & Vines for details. When 95-97% of the wine industry uses Roundup, they're not getting certified because certification is too expensive; they're not getting certified because they have chosen not to farm organically. (And some of that decision making is due to market forces - i.e. consumers haven't said this is what they want.)

4. If you are a winery and you are asked if you are organic, don't say, "we're certified sustainable," as a response. Also please do not call yourself a steward of the land, unless you are organic. There is no comparison about the farming practices involved in organic versus sustainable. Under "certified CCSW sustainable," you can use all the Roundup you want along with carcinogens, neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors and other toxic substances. How is that being a "steward of the land"? So, if someone asks you if you're organic, just say no, we're not - instead of pretending that the wine industry created "more inclusive standards" that have no real restrictions on pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.

If you're a consumer, and a winery gives you this answer, ask them if they wouldn't mind sharing their pesticide use report. As Lincoln said, "You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time." Wineries that are "certified sustainable" should be embarrassed - and they may be when people find out what CCSW really means. Sustainability is a great program for migrating an industry with a terrible track record of toxic chemical use towards better farming - and better energy and natural resource conservation practices (that improve the financial and ecological bottom line) - but let's not overreach in talking about how green you are.

5. Wineries: start planting the right grapes for California's climate. You won't be getting all that water to irrigate pretty soon, so why not make more grapes that do best in our Mediterranean climate, instead of pretending we're in Bordeaux or Burgundy where it rains in the summer? How about helping consumers understand that Syrah is every bit as wonderful as a Cabernet - and takes much less water. Let's see more Rhone blends and other grapes that have done well in the south of France and Spain  and across the Mediterranean for millennia. Campovida's biodynamically grown Dark Horse Grenache makes my heart sing.

And let's hear it for some of those native Italian grapes grown in hot regions...we like them as imports - so give us some here. (Why is hardly anyone growing Nero D'Avola - except for John Chiaritto in the hot interior of Mendocino - whose vintage bottles of Nero D'Avola I treasure.)

And consumers - branch out. Cabernet and Chardonnay are the most widely grown varietals because of your choices. Try something new this year. You may be pleasantly surprised.

6. Get supermarkets to stock organically grown wine and put shelf stickers in front of these bottles so we can find them. The biggest chains - like Safeway here in California - often do not carry a single bottle of organically grown wine - not even the widely distributed Bonterra. The "in" foodie market Monterey Market in North Berkeley does not carry organically grown wine either. (The Asian family that runs the market does not see any need for change on its wine shelves).

Consumers: ask for change. Ask stores to please create sections for organically grown wines AND ask stores to double shelve them in the varietal sections, so we can find them no matter where they are. Or ask stores to try putting the organically grown wines in the organic produce section - so people could make the connection. See if that boosts sales. Stores: experiment with what works best to increase sales of organically grown wines to your organically inclined consumers. (Whole Foods - are you listening?)

7. Restauranteurs - support our organically grown wines as much as you support organically grown foods. Or more. If you're telling consumers that you're a farm to table outfit supporting locals and yet your wine list is all Italian imports, what does that say about your values? (I'm thinking of Charlie Hallowell and Pizzaiola here as a prime example, but there are hundreds of others like this.) And if you're not offering any organically grown wines, why not add some this year, train your staff, and feature organic selections on a card on the dining tables sometime to let your customers know how cool these wines (and you) are.

8. Consumers: put up a fuss. If a restaurant doesn't have organically grown selections on the wine list, ask why not? And could you suggest a few?

If you think your voice, doesn't count, see this survey finding from a study of U.S. restaurants on buying European organic wines. One third of restaurants did not serve organic wines; of those, 41 percent said there was no interest on the part of consumers. It may be that these restaurants, like most, do not serve any organic produce either - who knows.

The same probably goes for wine stores as well. Wine clerks: please don't tell consumers a wine is "practicing organic" - unless the wine store happens to have the vineyard pesticide use report in hand. There should be a law against this. (Actually there is but there is zero enforcement.) Using the word "organic" to market an uncertified product is a federal crime.

9. Vintners: if your wine grapes (vineyard) are certified organic, please label the back of the bottle "Ingredients: Organic Grapes." Many wineries seem timid about doing this, because they fear the negative consequences of being organic for some portion of wine consumers. (Who these people are is a mystery to me, but it's enough to put off many a vintner. There is a feeling that being organic is incompatible with being a Republican, for instance, and in the higher echelons of wine Republicans appear to be abundant. Political orientation should not be a reason to obfuscate labeling of agricultural products. Republican babies born next to toxic fields suffer the same number of birth defects and health issues as babies born to Democratic or nonvoting families).

Labeling the ingredients as organic is very, very inexpensive, since the grower was the one who paid the certification fees. The vintner does not pay a certification fee. It just has to get a label approved by the TTB.

Consumers would like to know what is organic. Please tell us. We don't care how tiny the type on the back of the bottle is. This can also apply to single vineyard designate wines - your winery doesn't need to have grown the grapes to get that label on the bottle.

So a single vineyard designate wine from Temperance Hill (made by at least 10 wineries in Oregon) could be labeled "Ingredients: Organic Grapes" on the back of the label. Now, this may make consumers ask why your other wines are not from organic grapes, and that would be a good question - a question most wineries don't want to be asked.

10. Learn about organic vineyard practices on a tour. Take a tour with someone who knows their stuff and let them tell you how they farm. (Use our trip planning services if you want to know where the best tours are.) Being organic isn't that complicated. It's a lot of common sense stuff.   And it requires a learning curve - which, if you have the right help, is fun. Organic is certainly a lot better than "pray and spray." Farming well with organic practices involves becoming more aware of the complex interactions that nature thrives on and in understanding that, makes a grower a real "steward of the land." It also means better health for vineyard owners and workers and neighbors. As well as for Mother Earth, climate changes, microbes, biodiversity, bees, birds and more...

11. Make a commitment in 2016 to visit wineries with organically grown wines and to drink more organically grown wines. Whether it's table wine or fine wine you're interested in, there are hundreds from the U.S. to choose from. If you need advice, use our trip planning and wine buying services, but whatever it takes to get going, start on the path. We also will help you put together a tasting at your next party.

On the road, you'll meet a lot of wonderful wineries, who've chosen a better way of farming, and you will probably drink most of the greatest brands in table wine (Cooper Hill, Cooper Mountain, Bonterra, McFadden, Maysara, Montinore Estate) and fine wine in the U.S. (Tablas Creek, Ridge, Amapola Creek, Laurel Glen, Ehlers, Maysara, Qupé, Beckmen and more) . Whether you love Pinot Noir, Cabernet or Rhone blends, there are great organically grown wines out there for you to try this year. Cheers!