The Big Idea

04.18.13

Big Idea: Farming Treats Cancer?

You know labels like ‘organic,’ ‘free range,’ or ‘non GMO,’ but what exactly do they mean? Physician Daphne Miller, who teaches family medicine at UC San Francisco, sought to learn more about where our food is grown in Farmacology, and finds that innovative farming can teach us new lessons about our health—a vineyard’s pest management strategy, for instance, offers a new take on cancer care.

What is your big idea?

We are more connected to the farm than we think.

Recently I began to take time away from my medical practice to visit sustainable farms and see what went on there. As I journeyed across the country, milking cows, gathering eggs, weeding brassicas, laying irrigation pipe and hawking produce at farm stands, I discovered that good medicine and good farming had much in common. In fact, I began to see family farmers as healers whose jobs were more complicated than mine, since they were responsible for the health of an entire eco-system (soil, soil creatures, animals, plants, water, air, people, and so on) while I was expected to care for just one member of that eco-system (people).

The more I learned about the science of farming, the more I recognized its connections to medicine. For example, did you know that our gut physiology actually mirrors what happens in the soil? The intricate nutrient exchange between soil, microbe and plant is like the dance that takes place in our intestine, involving the mucosal lining, resident microbes and food (plants and animals). The biochemical makeup of soil also roughly matches ours, with a similar nitrogen-to-carbon ratio and the same range for normal pH (6.0 to 7.5). Finally I realized that carbon, nitrogen and every other mineral and vitamin building block in our body is derived from soil (via our food). In other words, we are not simply nourished by the soil, we are of the soil!

In the introduction to Farmacology, you mention that it offers “farm to body” lessons. What do you mean by this?

Each chapter in Farmacology takes place on a different kind of farm in a different part of the country and offers new lessons on health and healing. A vegetable farmer teaches me about the links between rejuvenating depleted soil and rejuvenating ourselves; a cow/calf farmer shows me how his grazing methods can be applied to raising resilient kids; a laying hen farmer gives me insight into stress management; a vineyard’s pest management strategy offers a new take on cancer care; an urban farm in the Bronx lays out a novel approach to boosting community health, and an aromatic herb farmer helps unlock the secret to sustainable beauty. Throughout I seek out the perspective of noted scientists and weave their insights into the story. The result is a whole new approach to health and healing combined with practical advice for how to treat disease and maintain wellness.

Can you share one of these farm-to-body lessons with us?

In 1989, Erick Haakenson, owner/farmer of Jubilee Farms, bought 12 over-farmed, depleted acres in Washington State in order to start growing vegetables. Erick intended to produce food with (in his words) “nutritional punch,” so he started sending soil samples to a lab and replacing missing minerals according to the lab reports. This is standard practice in agriculture.

farmacology-book-cover
‘Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing’ by Daphne Miller. 304 pp. William Morrow. $28. ()
A laying hen farmer gives me insight into stress management; a vineyard’s pest management strategy offers a new take on cancer care.

But after a couple of years, several tons of additives, and many thousands of dollars, Erick was still not satisfied with the health of his soil or the quality of his produce. Plus the test-and-replace method was giving him some serious misgivings. He wondered whether the minerals were taken from developing countries where they needed these minerals more than he did. He also questioned the safety of his approach, given that the manufacturer recommended that he wear a mask when spreading his additives. Finally he was not sure if the applications were even getting to the plant and he began to consider the unintended consequences of spreading foreign additives: for example, were they “locking up” existing soil nutrients—ones that were essential for healthy plant growth. He decided to look for an alternative, holistic, and cheaper way to improve his soil and boost the health of his farm.

Hearing Erick’s experience, I realized is that it is not uncommon for us to use these same “test and replace” strategies to solve our health problems. When we feel something is off, the first thing we do is order a lab. And when a result comes back outside the norm, we reflexively dump in vitamins, minerals, and medications in an attempt to rebalance. We tend to think of ourselves as test tubes, adding things into our complicated systems with the belief that the pill or potion will find its proper home. But the truth is, like Erick’s soil, we too have the potential to “lock up” something or create unintended reactions with this reductionist approach. (Excess calcium causing zinc and iron deficiency offers just one simple illustration of this kind of interaction.)