“You are what you eat eats.” In six words, Michael Pollan nailed a profound truth about health and nutrition. We eat plants. We eat meat from animals that eat plants. Healthy plants are key to our own health. What makes for a healthy plant? In, The Third Plate, Dan Brown explains how the best tasting and the healthiest food comes from the richest, biologically dynamic soil. Here’s my quick takeaway from Part I, Soil:
In 1942, a time when people’s food still came from close to home, Dr. William Albrecht, a scientist at the University of Missouri, studied the state's military draft rejection rates. Albrecht created a map of recruit rejections for ill health. The highest rejection rates came from the state’s diluted soils of the southeast while the mineral-rich soils of northwest Missouri produced much healthier men.
Albrecht understood that soil microbes “dined at the first table,” and that soil lacking minerals could not grow healthy plants. He warned that the nation’s declining soil fertility would lead to a health crisis.
Fast forward sixty years. Not long after chef/author Dan Brown sets up Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a restaurant connected to its own farm, his farm manager tests the Brix of two carrots. Brix measures the percentage of sugar in plant matter. One carrot comes from rich soil that had been a dairy pasture for decades. The other carrot is from an organic farm in Mexico. While the sugar percentage, not surprisingly, correlates to taste, it also indicates mineralization in the soil and the biological activity to make those minerals available to plants. The carrot from the former dairy pasture measured 16.9 Brix, meaning 16.9% sugar, an amazingly high number. Brown explains that a good, sweet carrot might have a Brix of 12. He describes the 16.9 carrot as “astonishingly delicious.”
The organic carrot from Mexico? Zero, as in a reading of 0.0 Brix. It’s organic, but in the industrial sense—raised in a monoculture where the farmers are adding inputs (though organic ones) instead of building the soil.
Several studies over the years point to the same loss in vegetable nutrition that Albrecht predicted and that Dan Brown’s farm manager measured between carrots.
Albrecht noticed in the 1930’s that cattle could get a balanced diet by grazing pastures grown on well-mineralized soils. However, when cattle were confined to a barn and fed grain, their bodies tried to compensate for the lack of micronutrients by overeating. They got fat, but not necessarily healthy.
John Ikerd, a professor emeritus also from the University of Missouri, connects Albrecht’s findings to the contemporary American diet based on cheap, processed grains, and the obesity epidemic: “The lack of a few essential nutrients in our diets might leave us feeling hungry even though we have consumed far more calories than is consistent with good health.”
So what can you do? Buy local vegetables when you can. (I know, this is Wisconsin, that’s not easy for much of the year). Buy them from a farmer you trust. Our mouths may tell us as much about our food as any laboratory test. Really tasty, fresh vegetables are likely to be more nutritious.
What’s this mean for me? I need to stay focused on building soil fertility with diverse cover crops and less tillage that destroys soil life. I need to grow even more of my own feed for the pigs. Healthy soil=healthy pastures and crops=healthy pigs. Soil building is my obligation to the land, to the animals on the land, and to you, the consumer.
Former Marine Infantry Officer. Iraq Vet. Interested in Regenerative Agriculture at any scale.
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