Roots of Health Begin in the Soil

The roots of our health are in the very soil in which our food is grown. Unfortunately, the fast-paced, industrialized, tech-intensive life many of us lead has caused us to forget that very important fact.

In our headlong rush after convenience, easy availability, and endless “choice,” we’ve lost the understanding that our health is dependent in large measure on the quality of the food we eat. That, in turn, depends on the health of the soil, rain, and air. Michael Abelman, director of the Center for Urban Agriculture, and author of Beyond Organic, believes it is time we all started remembering this.

“Healthy soil is everybody’s business. Unless you are your own farmer, you should choose a farmer as carefully as you’d choose your doctor,” said Mr. Abelman, speaking at a conference sponsored by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians.

An organic farmer in California and British Columbia for more than 30 years, he believes the holistic health and organic foods movements are really one in the same. Both share a common view that the ability to heal is innate in all organisms, that health is in large measure relational, that nutrition is a cornerstone, and that the environment—even more than genetics—is a prime influence on wellness or illness.

Both sides of this movement have grown rapidly in the last decade. Hardly any major city in the US is now without a farmer’s market. Even WalMart has an organic foods brand. When Domino rolls out organic sugar, drug giant Abbott Labs launches an organic Similac baby formula, and Business Week magazine publishes a cover story on organics, you know something is afoot.

In the same time period, nearly all of the nation’s medical schools developed “CAM” coursework. The number of CME events related to holistic medicine has risen markedly. Naturopathic doctors have won licensure in 14 states, and holistic MDs/DOs have developed a board certification protocol.

There’s a reason for that, said Mr. Abelman. “People are really beginning to challenge the corporate control of the farm, the kitchen, and the dinner table. Folks in every community are starting to stand up and say that food, and the land on which it is grown, are sacred. The explosion of farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) projects is a great sign. It reflects peoples’ desperate longing to be a part of the real world.”

Farming and medicine have much more in common than people realize, said Mr. Abelman. “The most important agricultural skill … is observation. Biological systems never stay the same. Over the years I’ve learned to “read” my farms. A plant or an animal can be read, and the trick is in knowing how to appropriately use the observations. How to stimulate the life force of natural systems without over-riding those systems? How to respect the natural intelligence that these systems have to correct, heal and balance themselves?” This, he says, is the farmer’s real job, and it is much like a physician’s.

Both professions should have a healthy respect for the profound miracles of life itself. “Every time I plant a seed and see it emerge, it can slow me down to experience one of the great mysteries. This is why I farm, even though my back hurts, and it’s too hot or too cold or too wet. Something far more powerful than my rational mind is keeping me going, keeping me excited.”

Practicing “the patient art of agriculture,” as he puts it, is increasingly difficult “in a world moving at warp speed.” In their own way, small organic farmers face similar challenges as independent physicians struggling to provide compassionate and skillful medical care in a system that only allows 10-minute office visits.

Dale Hodges, of United Natural Foods, Inc., a major national distributor of natural and organic produce, believes our national hunger for seemingly inexpensive, highly processed foods, has precipitated both a health and an economic crisis.

“Cheap food is not really cheap,” Mr. Hodges said at the Healthy Harvest conference, a natural products industry trade show. “If you have type 2 diabetes, your insurance premiums can be as high as $15,000 per year, instead of $3,000 for non diabetic individuals. This disease is directly correlated with cheap fast foods.” He added that subsidized water to support industrialized agriculture, pollution in the form of pesticides and agricultural waste, and soil erosion all carry huge health and economic costs, though these are hidden from plain view.

Mr. Hodges believes that protecting, preserving and cultivating clean, toxin-free tilth—the soil in which crops are grown—is a public health issue, and one that the medical community needs to recognize.

Mr. Abelman believes that gradually, people are awakening to the real value of real foods grown in an ecologically sensible and sustainable way. In the end, the desire for high-quality, truly nourishing foods will propel environmental policy change more than anything else.

“I used to think it was all about eloquence, all about convincing people of the value of organic foods by explaining all the science. Now, I realize that if I can just grow the most delicious tomato, I can go a lot further. Pleasure is a much stronger and better motivator than guilt and fear. The environmental movement has failed in many ways because it tries to motivate people by fear and guilt and harangues. What we need to do is provide an invitation.”

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