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

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