The Albrecht Hypothesis: Investigating the Connection between Soil and Health

William A. Albrecht.

By Anneliese Abbott

Is there a connection between soil fertility and human health?

In the 1940s, this was one of the hottest topics in the soil conservation movement. Researchers had just discovered that vitamins played a critical role in animal and human nutrition, and from the 1920s to 1950s they found that a score of mineral elements — especially trace elements like manganese, boron, copper, zinc, iron, and molybdenum — were essential for plant, animal and human health.

The discovery of certain trace elements cleared up centuries-old confusion about what caused the geographic distribution of some mysterious animal and human diseases. The most famous discovery was that iodine deficiencies in certain soils caused endemic goiter and cretinism. The solution was simple — add a little bit of iodine to salt for both animals and humans, and the goiters and other iodine deficiency symptoms disappeared. Similarly, soil deficiencies of selenium and cobalt were linked to several animal diseases, which could be treated with supplements.

Quite logically, the link between soil deficiencies of these three elements and diseases in both humans and animals made many people wonder what role soil fertility might play in human nutrition. “Even if you prescribe the right sort of food, how are you going to know that your carrots, or meat or greens come from a soil that has packed them full of minerals?” an Ohio conservation educator named Ollie Fink asked in 1941.

It was an important question. If infertile soils produced mineral-deficient plants and the animals eating those plants suffered from mineral deficiencies, then wouldn’t the humans eating those deficient plants and animals also suffer from ill health? Were fruits and vegetables always healthy, or only if they were grown on fertile soils?

These were the questions that many people were asking in the 1940s. And they turned to one main source for information on the connection between soil and health — William A. Albrecht.

Albrecht and Nutritional Geography

William A. Albrecht (1888-1974) earned his PhD in soil science from the University of Illinois in 1919, joined the staff at the University of Missouri sometime between 1914 and 1916, served as chair of the Department of Soil Science from 1938 to 1959, and continued working at as a professor emeritus until the 1960s. Albrecht was a man of diverse interests, studying a variety of topics such as inoculating legumes with microbes to enhance nitrogen fixation, cation exchange on clay particles and the importance of calcium in plant nutrition.

Albrecht’s interest in the connection between soil fertility and nutrition seems to have started in the 1930s, when he became aware of a “nutritional geography” hypothesis that suggested a causal link between infertile soils and unhealthy people in certain regions of the United States. During World War II, the US Navy studied the dental health of over 70,000 recruits and found that young men from the Midwest had lower rates of tooth decay than those from the Northeast. Other studies found that the healthiest young men drafted during World War II came from the Northwest and Midwest.

When Albrecht looked at the maps of the data from the Naval Dental Survey, he immediately jumped to the conclusion that differences in the underlying soils were responsible for these variations in health. The following summary of the “Albrecht Hypothesis” is drawn mainly from volumes 1, 2, and 8 of the Albrecht Papers, especially volume 2, which is a reprint of Albrecht’s 1958 book Soil Fertility and Human Health.

The best soils in the world, Albrecht argued, were those formed under grass. Grass, with its associated legumes, was the perfect food for cows — important producers of high-quality animal protein for the American diet. In much of the midwestern United States — especially the Great Plains — prairie grass was the predominant vegetation before European contact. These lush, fertile prairies had supported enormous populations of buffalo, wild bovines with similar nutritional requirements to domestic cattle.

In contrast, the soils of the East Coast were so leached and infertile that they couldn’t grow “proteinaceous” grass, only “carbonaceous” trees. No thundering herds of buffalo greeted the first Europeans to land on the East Coast; the land was so barren that when they found a few turkeys, “they were so thankful that we have had to be thankful for them every year since.”

The difference between the soils of these two regions, Albrecht explained, was largely due to rainfall. In the semiarid Great Plains, soils were under “construction” and were rich in fertility, especially calcium. These calcareous soils naturally grew protein-rich grass, perfect for fattening bison. In contrast, the soils in the humid regions of the East were under “destruction,” where rainfall had leached out so much of the original fertility that only “carbonaceous” trees could grow. Albrecht even argued that no “human life form” or cow could survive on leached eastern soils — completely disregarding the large number of Native Americans who had lived in his “carbonaceous” regions before European contact, or the ruminants like deer, elk and moose that had browsed the forests.

Some of the assertions that Albrecht made about ecology and plant physiology were inaccurate, even for the time. For example, he thought that a plant first formed “the woody structure that makes up its bulk” and then, “if soil conditions are right, the plant will store up a supply of the raw materials of protein, vitamine, and mineral compounds.” Most plant scientists, even in the 1940s, would have realized that plants grow protein-rich, tender leaves and stems first and form hard, woody stems later. Despite these misconceptions, however, his hypothesis that soil fertility affected animal health was still worth putting to the test.

Biological Assays

Albrecht decided that the best way to test his hypothesis was by conducting animal feeding studies, or “biological assays of soil fertility,” as he called them. His first experiment, conducted from 1939-1941, involved feeding two groups of lambs lespedeza hay from limed and unlimed soils.

To Albrecht’s elation, there was a huge difference between treatments in the first season — the lambs on the limed soils gained nearly 50 percent more weight than those fed hay from the unlimed soils. Unfortunately, however, these results did not really mean anything because much of the hay had been ruined by rain and Albrecht had brought in outside hay, not grown under controlled conditions, to supplement the feed. In the second season, when the lambs were actually only fed hay from the correct soils, those on the limed soils gained an average of 16 percent more weight, though Albrecht didn’t statistically analyze the data or check to make sure that the vegetational composition of the two fields was the same.

One of Albrecht’s favorite feeding studies was done by his graduate student Eugene McLean around 1942. McLean fed fertilized and unfertilized lespedeza hay grown on five geographically distinct Missouri soils to rabbits to see if their growth was affected. The results seemed exciting: Rabbits fed hay from some unfertilized soils were much larger than those fed hay grown on other unfertilized soils. Also, the rabbits fed on fertilized hay were bigger than those fed unfertilized hay grown on the same soil type.

Albrecht frequently cited this study as proof that some soils were better at growing animals than others and could result in drastically different body types. But contemporary critics pointed out that the data were not statistically analyzed, that the number of experimental animals (8 per treatment) was rather small, and that no one analyzed the mineral content of the soils or hays. The biggest flaw in the experiment was that the hay from the poorer fields contained little lespedeza and was mostly grass and weeds — much less nutritious for rabbits.

All the study really showed was that some fields were better for growing lespedeza than others, that fertilization could improve lespedeza growth, and that rabbits grew larger when fed lespedeza than when fed grassy and weedy hay. It didn’t convincingly demonstrate that there was any nutritional difference in the lespedeza itself. But it did inspire other researchers to conduct better-designed experiments on the soil-nutrition relationship.

USDA Research

The possibility of a connection between soil and health was such a hot topic that, in 1939, the USDA established an entire Plant, Soil, and Nutrition Laboratory on the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. This state-of-the-art building, completed in 1941, contained a well-equipped laboratory, a greenhouse, and field facilities for conducting experiments with plants and animals. Research at this laboratory was a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort, combining the expertise of specialists in soil science, plant science, animal science, and nutrition. Its stated goal was “to improve the health and performance of human beings and farm animals by showing how they may be provided with nutritionally superior food and feed.”

One of the first hypotheses to be tested at the Plant, Soil, and Nutrition Laboratory was whether the mineral constituents of the soil significantly altered the nutritional composition of crops. Several researchers, including Firman Bear at Rutgers University, had found that crops grown in different regions of the United States often had varying mineral concentrations. If these differences were due to the amounts of mineral elements in the soils, then it seemed logical that fertilization with deficient elements could increase their concentration in plants.

But what the researchers quickly found was that the relationship between soil and plant nutrient composition was extremely complicated. The mineral composition of crops grown on the Ithaca soils did not change significantly even with extremely large fertilizer applications. And contrary to the findings of Albrecht, the researchers at Cornell found that lambs fed fertilized and unfertilized forages showed no difference in growth.

One of the early topics investigated at the USDA laboratory was how soil fertility and type might affect the vitamin C content of tomatoes. As the researchers explained in the 1948 USDA bulletin Factors Affecting the Nutritive Value of Foods: Studies at the U.S. Plant, Soil, and Nutrition Laboratory, they discovered that tomatoes grown in Wyoming, California, and Wisconsin had significantly different vitamin C concentrations than those grown in New York. But when they brought in soil samples from these other states and grew tomatoes in pots on the Cornell campus, they all had the same vitamin C content. After testing several other variables, they discovered that the amount of sunlight reaching developing tomato fruits was actually the most important factor affecting vitamin C levels; soil had no effect on this particular nutrient.

By the mid-1950s, the USDA researchers had come to an unexpected conclusion: fertilization could increase crop yields, or make it possible to grow a wider variety of crops (such as legumes), but it did not consistently affect the mineral or vitamin content of crop plants. Other factors, such as climate (soil type, rainfall, sunlight, temperature, etc.), type of plant, and variety of crop had much more influence over the nutritional quality of foods. Since climate cannot really be modified in a given location, the focus of the laboratory shifted toward breeding more nutritious varieties of crops, a project still in progress today.

The MSU Cow Study

One of the best-designed biological assays of soil fertility, as Albrecht would have called it, was an interdisciplinary study conducted at Michigan State University from 1945 to 1955 to test the effect of fertilization on dairy cow health. This study was conducted on a 210-acre “badly depleted farm” that the researchers determined had never been fertilized or even manured except for a few fields near the barn. It was a golden opportunity to see if fertilizer really could increase the nutritional quality of crops.

To make the most of this unique opportunity, the MSU researchers decided to raise two herds of dairy cows, one given feed grown on fertilized soil and one given feed from the unfertilized soil. Since the unfertilized soil couldn’t grow alfalfa or clover, the cows in both herds were fed an identical diet of corn, winter wheat, oats, soybeans, and grass hay, carefully balanced by animal nutritionists. This would make sure that any differences in cow health were due to actual differences in crop mineral composition, not because they were eating different kinds of plants.

After ten years and three or four generations of dairy cows, the results of this study were presented at a 1955 MSU symposium and published in a book titled Nutrition of Plants, Animals, Man. To the surprise of almost everyone involved, the plant scientists discovered that there was no significant difference in the protein or mineral content of the soybeans, corn, and brome hay grown on the fertilized and unfertilized soils. Only fertilized timothy plants had significantly higher levels of protein and minerals than unfertilized ones.

The animal scientists discovered that the cows in both herds were equally healthy. The only significant difference was that the Jersey cows on the unfertilized ration produced significantly more milk than those on the fertilized feed for the first couple years, but the differences evened out after the hay on the fertilized land was cut earlier to compensate for its more rapid growth.

The nutritionists analyzed milk samples from both herds and found no significant difference in total solids, butterfat, total nitrogen, lactose, ash, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, carotene, vitamin A, amino acids, or B vitamins. There was also no significant difference in the health of lab rats fed on the milk from the two herds.

Though it may not have been what anyone expected, the results of this study were pretty clear. Fertilization had made no difference—either positive or negative—on the nutritional quality of the feed grown on the experimental soils. It increased yields and productivity, but it did not necessarily make the plants themselves any more nutritious.

It’s Complicated…

Was Albrecht wrong? Does soil fertility actually have no effect on human or animal health? As with most controversial issues, the reality turned out to be a lot more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no” answer. Soil health and fertility certainly has a major impact on plant growth, and thus on the amount and quality of vegetation available for animals and humans to eat. Healthy plants grown on healthy soils often show increased resistance to pests and diseases. Soils that can grow higher yields of healthy plants can support a larger number of healthier animals. For these reasons alone, improving soil health is a desirable outcome.

Unfortunately, one reason that little research has been done on the connection between soil and nutrition since the 1950s was that some people took Albrecht’s ideas too far and claimed that it might be possible to eat a properly balanced diet containing lots of “protective foods” like vegetables and milk and still suffer from deficiency disease if those vegetables and milk were produced on depleted soils. There never was any evidence to support this claim, but it provided plenty of material for agronomists to discredit organic and eco-farmers who claimed that fertilization practices were a major cause of degenerative diseases in the United States.

By the way, I do still recommend that people read the Albrecht Papers. They are fascinating documents from a historical perspective, and Albrecht was an entertaining writer with a memorable way of phrasing important concepts. Just remember that he was a fallible human like the rest of us, he sometimes made mistakes, and he was stepping somewhat outside of his area of expertise when he made claims about animal and human health. None of that should detract from the significant contributions he made to the soil science of his day, or to the eco-agriculture movement of the 1970s and beyond.

Anneliese Abbott is a graduate student in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She holds a B.S. in plant and soil science from The Ohio State University and is the author of Malabar Farm: Louis Bromfield, Friends of the Land, and the Rise of Sustainable Agriculture. She can be contacted at”

The Solution is a Metabolic Approach

This excerpt is brought to you by Book of the Week – offering you a glimpse between the pages and an exclusive discount of a new book each week. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week is The Metabolic Approach to Cancer, by Dr. Nasha Winters and Jess Higgins Kelley.

Comprehending the complexities of the individual’s biological terrain is akin to a gardener understanding the ideal conditions for growing vegetables. A successful gardener knows it takes more than a piece of land and a packet of seeds to grow a bountiful harvest. It requires a knowledge of soil biochemistry, the planting requirements of all the various types of seeds, proper balance of nutrients, fertilizing agents, and the right amount of water and sunlight. It also requires insight into how pests, insects, weeds, molds, and fungi can impact the soil or plants. The ten terrain elements we’ve identified are like systems within that garden. Regulating a healthy human biological terrain is similar to raising a healthy, thriving garden. When the body is fed a diet that provides adequate amounts of macro- and micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals; is exposed to a variety of microbes; and has adequate amounts of exercise, sleep, fresh water, sunlight, love, and attention; then the body, like a healthy garden, will flourish. Conversely, if it is fed antinutrients and chemicals, receives insufficient sunshine, and endures too much stress, it will wither. 

So the key is this: Since cancer consists of cells gone awry in response to toxic diets and environments, we must optimize the body’s healing mechanisms instead of waging war on them. We need to treat the terrain, not the tumor. We must build the body up instead of attacking it. Our strategy works: The only side effect of the metabolic approach is feeling better. Much better. In fact, for over a decade Dr. Nasha has seen hundreds of stage IV cancer patients who have lived far beyond their “expiration date” because they have followed this model. As we will explain, each terrain element is optimized using the oldest form of medicine: food. It sounds simple, yet in the modern world of medicine, it’s about as radical and “unfounded” as it can be. 

The Terrain TenTM 

The core of our approach is dedicated to the science of using therapeutic nutri- tion to positively impact metabolism, creating an inhospitable environment for cancer while simultaneously removing dietary and lifestyle factors that provoke it. What is astonishing to realize—yet for the most part ignored—is that dietary agents have been shown to impact each of the ten hallmarks of cancer.1 From decreasing the spread (metastasis) of cancer cells to promoting cancer cell death (apoptosis) and inhibiting growth factors—believe it or not, the right food is cancer’s fiercest enemy. In 2015 cancer specialist Dr. Keith Block, along with an international task force of 180 scientists, published a capstone paper titled “Designing a Broad-Spectrum Integrative Approach for Cancer Prevention and Treatment.” The article identified dozens of non- toxic phytonutrients that affect the ten hallmarks of cancer and the pathways known to be significant for the genesis and spread of cancer.

Each terrain element is optimized using the oldest form of medicine: food.

What this means is that eating well is not just a good idea, but that the specific phytonutrients we discuss throughout this book exert proven medicinal action against cancer. And while there are many cancer diets out there, we debunk several—vegetarian, vegan, acid-alkaline, and the Budwig Diet, to name a few—within this book. Certainly the intentions behind these diets are commendable, but each is fundamentally flawed, and we will explain how. While certain foods can act as powerful anticancer agents, other foods can be cancer’s strongest ally. This book teaches you the difference between the two. By incorporating the ten terrain elements we’ve developed alongside the deep nutrition and nontoxic lifestyle approaches we recommend in this book, your ability to prevent or survive cancer will increase exponentially. The ten terrain elements (we call them the Terrain Ten) we have identified are the physiological and emotional human elements that require balance and optimization in order to halt and prevent the cancer process. 

The ten make up the complete ecosystem that is an individual’s terrain, and each one cross-pollinates the others. All systems are connected, and as throwing 

The Terrain TenTM 

  • Genetic, epigenetic, and nutrigenomic modifications 
  • Blood sugar balance 
  • Toxic burden management 
  • Repopulating and balancing the microbiome 
  • Immune system maximization 
  • Modulating inflammation and oxidative stress 
  • Enhancing blood circulation while inhibiting angiogenesis and metastasis 
  • Establishing hormone balance 
  • Recalibrating stress levels and biorhythms 
  • Enhancing mental and emotional well-being 

A rock in a still lake creates ripples over the entire surface, disrupting one terrain element negatively affects all the others. For example, high stress levels lead to hormonal and blood sugar imbalances. In turn, high blood sugar levels suppress the immune system. The point is that cancer can capitalize on imbalances found within any of the ten terrain elements. Our therapeutic model therefore addresses the whole person, not just the tumor. A tumor is merely a side effect that occurs when a person’s terrain is out of balance, when too many big rocks are thrown into a still pond. As we’ve said before, cancer doesn’t just show up one day at random, it doesn’t just “happen” to you, and it is not bad luck. Just as the weed in the garden alerts the gardener to mineral or other deficiencies in the soil, cancer is a messenger telling you that some element within you—emotional, spiritual, or physical—is not in harmony. 

Within each terrain chapter, we illustrate how elements of modern living and the American food pyramid, overconsumption of sugar, GMO foods, modern agriculture practices, processed soy, grains and gluten, pesticides, antibiotics, low-fat diets, vegan diets, processed foods, nutrient deficiencies, sedentary lifestyles, stress, and more directly contribute to imbalances in the terrain and contribute to the cancer process. There are so many insults to our terrain every day, and our objective is to educate you on how to avoid or at least minimize them. You can eat “perfectly,” but if you don’t clean up your external environment you won’t get very far in changing your internal terrain. Even the most intelligent, well-read people don’t consider the impact our day-to-day exposures to the toxins in our food, air, water, products, stressors, relationships, and attitudes have on our terrain. We aim to bring awareness to this, and we also want to acknowledge that at times what you read might feel overwhelming. It is for all of us. But knowledge is power, and you have a lot more power and control over this disease than you may realize: 95 percent of it is related to the diet and lifestyle factors we identify in this book! 

About the Authors:

Dr. Nasha Winters, ND, FABNO, L.Ac, Dipl.OM, has been working in the health care industry for 25 years and is a nationally board certified naturopathic doctor, licensed acupuncturist, practitioner of oriental medicine, and is a fellow of the American Board of Naturopathic Oncology. Initially motivated by a terminal cancer diagnosis 25 years ago, she now lectures all over the world and trains physicians in the application of mistletoe therapy, consults with researchers on projects involving immune modulation via mistletoe, hyperthermia, and the ketogenic diet. She lives in Durango, CO.

Jess Higgins Kelley, MNT, is a consultant, educator and writer. She is the founder and CEO of Remission Nutrition, a global oncology nutrition consulting enterprise that supports clients in the prevention and management of cancer. After teaching for almost ten years, Jess also created and founded the Oncology Nutrition Institute which trains professionals in the latest advances in complimentary oncology nutrition. With an undergraduate degree in journalism, Jess has written health and nutrition pieces for newspapers, magazines and is also the co-author of Bioregulatory Medicine: An Innovative Holistic Approach to Self-Healing (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018).

Learn from Nasha in person this December!

Join Nasha and other incredible speakers at our annual Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference and Tradeshow! Learn more about the upcoming conference and tradeshow and see our line-up of experts on eco-agriculture here.

Titles of Similar Interest:

Tractor Time Episode 61: Indigenous Systems of Agriculture (w/ Kelsey Ducheneaux-Scott)

On this episode we welcome fourth generation South Dakota rancher Kelsey Ducheneaux-Scott. Kelsey is the director of programs for the Intertribal Agriculture Council, which seeks to build and restore indigenous foodways in Native American communities. She’s also a co-owner of DX Beef, a direct-to-consumer grassfed beef operation on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation. That’s where she grew up and that’s where she ranches today with her family.

She’s passionate about soil health, land stewardship, education and bringing nutritious food to her community. She received a bachelor’s in Rangeland Management from South Dakota State University, a master’s of agriculture in Integrated Resource Management from Colorado State University, and she’s currently closing in on a doctorate in education at Northcentral University.

Even though she’s still only in her 20s, she’s emerged as an important voice within the regenerative agriculture.

For more information about Kelsey, visit

Is Organic Healthier? Settling a Long-time Agricultural Debate Over Nutrition

Sir Albert Howard was the father of the modern organic farming movement in the West.


Is organic food healthier than conventional food?

Aside from the debate over whether or not organic agriculture can feed the world, this is probably one of the most controversial topics related to organic farming. It’s been pretty well documented that good organic farming methods can improve and maintain soil health. There is a lot of evidence that plants grown on healthy soil will also be healthy and will have increased resistance to pests and diseases. But are organically produced foods healthier than conventional produce?

Many people today purchase organic fruits and vegetables because they almost always have lower levels of pesticide residues than their conventional counterparts. While there’s debate over whether or not the pesticide residues in conventional produce are partially responsible for the chronic ill health of many Americans, most people agree that eating organic produce does reduce pesticide exposure. A lot of people eat organic food mostly for what’s not in it.

Before most people were worried about pesticides, however, organic proponents claimed that organic food was healthier because it was grown on healthy soil. Sir Albert Howard, often considered the father of the organic farming movement, blamed the general ill health in England in the 1940s partially on poor farming practices that depleted soil fertility. This view was shared by others in the early British organic movement and has been held by many organic farmers ever since.

With seventy years more research on the possible connection between farming methods and human health, it would be reasonable to assume that we can now definitively state that Howard was either right or wrong in saying that people who ate organically grown vegetables would be healthier than those who did not. But it’s not that simple. The difficulty is that Howard and his successors never looked just at farming methods. They had a holistic perspective in which soil fertility, diet and nutrition were inseparable.

To understand why it’s always been hard to determine what effect farming methods have had on human health, we need to look back at the sources on which Howard and others drew when they claimed that organic food was superior — like the work of Sir Robert McCarrison.

McCarrison’s Vitamin Research

Sir Robert McCarrison (1878-1960) was a British physician who spent most of his career in India, studying a variety of medical problems. One of his earliest studies was on goiter, which he determined was caused by a combination of iodine deficiency and an infectious agent in the drinking water. He proved this by drinking water from the polluted spring and producing goiters in 10 out of 36 volunteers — including himself.

By 1914, the discovery of vitamins and their connection to deficiency diseases was one of the hottest topics in medical science, and McCarrison started doing his own experiments with pigeons, guinea pigs and monkeys. In one of his studies, he found that monkeys fed autoclaved rice and other foods died rapidly, while those fed a non-autoclaved diet of whole wheat bread, milk, groundnuts, onion, butter, and plantains remained healthy. While doing such research on monkeys would certainly be frowned upon today, it demonstrated that a diet of sterilized food could not sustain life.

McCarrison conducted similar experiments on vitamin B deficiency in pigeons and vitamin C deficiency in guinea pigs. He compiled the results from all these feeding studies in a 1921 book called Studies in Deficiency Disease. He felt that, while the diets he had fed his experimental animals were obviously extreme, milder forms of vitamin deficiency might be responsible for many common ailments plaguing the British population — problems like dysentery, dyspepsia, colitis, ulcers and possibly celiac disease.

In support of this theory, McCarrison cited several examples of how therapy with vitamin-containing “protective foods” seemed to cure baffling ailments in some of his patients. One man, whom McCarrison described as a “martyr to dyspepsia,” had been eating an over-cooked diet deficient in fruits and vegetables. McCarrison noticed that this diet was “very similar to that of my monkeys” and helped the man transition to eating milk, eggs, cheese, fish, fresh meat, fresh fruit, green vegetables, and whole wheat bread. Within two and a half months, the man’s health was greatly improved.

Another way that McCarrison used these experimental results to help people was in the prevention of beriberi in the Pagan Jail in Burma. The prisoners in this jail were eating a diet dangerously deficient in vitamin B (mostly white rice). McCarrison advised the jail to replace half of the rice with whole wheat flour and to add “an abundance of root and green leafy vegetables.” The change was dramatic: beriberi ceased to be a problem, even in the winter; the prisoners liked the new diet better; and their health greatly improved.

McCarrison’s most famous nutritional study of all was done at the Nutrition Research Laboratories that he established at Coonoor, a town in the beautiful Nilgris or Blue Mountains in southern India. Here he maintained a population of over a thousand lab rats, which he used for studies to determine the effects that different diets might have on health.

McCarrison fed rats seven different diets, corresponding to those eaten by seven people groups in India: the Sikhs, Pathans, Mahrattas, Goorkhas, Bengalis, Kanarese and Madrassi. He found marked differences in the health of rats fed these different diets, with those given the Sikh diet the healthiest and those on the Madrassi diet the sickest. This was consistent with the health of the people groups themselves, leading McCarrison to conclude that the real differences between their physical fitness and health were nutritional, not racial.

The healthiest rats were those eating the Sikh diet, which consisted of whole wheat chapattis (unleavened bread) with fresh butter, sprouted Bengel gram (a legume), raw vegetables, milk, and meat once a week. The sickest rats were fed the Madrassi diet, which McCarrison said in his 1961 book Nutrition and Health “was made up of washed polished rice, dhal (legume), fresh vegetables, condiments, vegetable oil, coffee with sugar and a little milk, a little buttermilk, ghee (sparingly), coconut, betel-nut and water.”

Perhaps more shocking and pertinent to McCarrison’s British and American readers was his finding that rats fed a diet “eaten by many Western people of the poorer classes” were in just as bad of shape as those on the Madrassi diet. This bad diet was comprised of white bread, vegetables cooked in water to which sodium bicarbonate had been added, margarine, canned meat, sweetened tea and water.

From these experiments, McCarrison felt like he had plenty of experimental evidence to recommend what was a good diet for humans, and the typical British or American diet was not it! “All things needful for adequate nourishment of the body and for physical efficiency are present in whole cereal grains, milk, milk products, legumes, root and leafy vegetables and fruits, with egg or meat occasionally,” he concluded. In addition to his rat studies, he cited the superb health of the Indian people groups who ate such diets.

Research on deficiency diseases continued after McCarrison retired from the Nutrition Research Laboratories in 1935. Subsequent researchers discovered that some of the worst malnutrition in India occurred in “children’s hostels and boarding schools,”  which were “museums for the study of malnutrition and deficiency disease.” When the researchers gave the supervisors of these boarding schools nutritional advice, the health of the children dramatically improved.

McCarrison Meets Howard

After McCarrison retired, he returned to England, where he soon became connected to a movement of physicians and nutritionists who were concerned about the general ill health of the British populace. Most nutritionists of the time agreed that a deficient, overly-processed diet caused many non-infectious diseases which could be prevented by eliminating white flour and sugar and increasing consumption of vitamin-rich “protective foods”: milk, green leafy and orange vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and organ meats (especially liver and cod liver oil).

In 1939, a group of 600 family physicians, farmers, clergy, and schoolteachers, mostly from Cheshire County, England, met together in the Crewe Theatre. This meeting, sponsored by the Cheshire Medical Committee, was convened for the specific purpose of addressing the impact that poor nutrition might be having on chronic ill health.

There were two keynote speakers at this meeting. The first was Sir Robert McCarrison, who spoke about his rat studies in India and the effect that diet had on health. Consistent with the work of other contemporary researchers like Weston Price, the Cheshire Medical Committee and McCarrison concluded that a wide range of diets were capable of sustaining good human health — provided “that the food is, for the most part, fresh from its source, little altered by preparation and complete.”

So far, this was in accord with the views of other nutritionists of the time. But the Cheshire Medical Committee decided to go one step further and point out that these native diets, in addition to being fresh and unprocessed, were all produced without the aid of chemical fertilizers. That was where the second keynote speaker came in. Another British scientist who had spent his career in India, Sir Albert Howard, spoke about how the composting method that he had developed at the Indore Research Station improved soil and plant health.

Howard was a dynamic speaker; the audience was “spellbound” as he described how he had developed his composting method. As Lionel Picton observed in his 1949 book Nutrition and the Soil: Thoughts on Feeding, “That night, in the minds of the audience, the images of chemical agriculture and pest control, to whose shrines three generations of farmers have been assiduously directed, lay shattered to fragments.”

It was not enough to eat a healthy diet; it must be grown on healthy soil; and chemical fertilizers could not maintain soil health and might actually be detrimental to it. At least, that was what the Cheshire Medical Committee concluded after hearing Howard’s passionate speech. They would still focus on improving people’s diets, but in order to really get rid of deficiency diseases, they also needed to transition British agriculture to organic methods. As Howard wrote in his 1940 book An Agricultural Testament, “If bad farming is a factor in the production of poor physique and health, we must set about improving our agriculture without delay.”

Weighing the Evidence

Not surprisingly, Howard’s contention that chemical fertilizers produced food that was somehow nutritionally deficient was very controversial, stimulating a huge amount of research. Scientists quickly discovered that organically grown produce did not have significantly higher levels of measurable nutrients, like vitamins or minerals. From a reductionist perspective, there really was no difference between organic and conventional produce — just like, in a laboratory analysis, there was no difference between mineral nutrients from organic or chemical fertilizers.

Howard himself admitted that there wasn’t much reductionist scientific evidence for his claim that food grown on healthy soils was healthier. Instead, he and other early organic leaders relied on case studies for evidence. One of the most frequently cited examples was the exceptionally good health of the Hunzas, a people group in northern India. The Hunzas ate a similar diet to the Sikhs in McCarrison’s experiments and were reputed to be exceptionally healthy, plagued by none of the degenerative diseases of modern civilization. To grow this nutritious diet, they composted organic wastes and irrigated their fields with mineral-rich water from melting glaciers.

The problem with this particular case study was that Sir Albert Howard had never personally visited the Hunzas. He got all his information about them from a book by G. T. Wrench called The Wheel of Health. But Wrench had never seen the Hunzas, either; in fact, none of the organic leaders who cited this particular case study had ever met a real live Hunza or visited their village to see these farming methods firsthand.

The Hunzas aside, Sir Albert Howard and the Cheshire Medical Committee had plenty of other case studies to support their theories. They gave many examples of boarding schools where the health of children dramatically improved when they started growing their own fresh vegetables using organic methods. The headmaster from St. Martin’s School in Sidmouth wrote to Howard that his boys ate an “abundance of fruit and vegetables” grown with manure and compost and were exceptionally healthy compared to boys at other schools.

Then there was the bacon factory in Cheshire, where the manager decided to transform “waste land” around the buildings “into a model vegetable garden by means of compost made partly from the wastes of the factory.” In the factory cafeteria, employees were served potatoes and other vegetables grown on this land, as well as being given only whole wheat bread. “Already the health, efficiency, and well-being of the labor force has markedly improved,” Howard wrote in his 1945 book Farming and Gardening for Health or Disease.

Every other example that Howard, Picton and others gave to prove the superiority of organic produce was on these same lines. A hospital, school, institution or individual suffered from chronic ill health. Usually they ate a typical diet of white bread, sugar, some meat, and little milk or vegetables. The change came when they began growing fresh, organic vegetables, which were undoubtedly of superior quality to the limited quantity of wilted produce previously obtained from the market. Concurrent with increased consumption of vegetables, the diet was usually altered to include 100 percent whole wheat bread and increased quantities of whole milk, often raw milk. Invariably, the health, alertness, and attentiveness of those eating the new diet improved.

There were enough of these case studies to seem to show that a diet rich in fresh vegetables, whole grains, and milk was healthy — exactly what nutritionists had been saying for 20 years. Intriguingly, modern studies on the connection between organic food consumption and human health show similar results—many people who consistently consume organic foods have a lower incidence of degenerative diseases, but these same people also eat an overall healthy diet with a lot of “protective foods.” Trying to separate the effects of organic food and a healthy, minimally processed diet is still difficult, if not impossible.

Maybe part of the difficulty in determining whether organic food is healthier is that many modern people have a different definition of “organic” than the Cheshire Medical Committee did. To many consumers today, the primary danger in conventional produce is pesticides; hence, they assume that organic food, which does have significantly lower pesticide residues than conventional food, is automatically healthy.

But the Cheshire Medical Committee was just as worried about what had been taken out of conventional processed foods as what chemicals might have been added to them. Sir Albert Howard would likely have been shocked to see modern stores selling certified organic white sugar, white flour, and processed foods made from those ingredients. White flour and sugar were the antithesis of the “fresh produce from fertile soil” that Howard promoted.

All of the early organic leaders emphasized that agricultural production practices were only the first step in a holistic system that connected consumers to the soil as directly as possible, bypassing the modern food processing system that had caused the health problems the Cheshire Medical Committee was trying to combat. And in every case study that seems to show that organic food is healthier, it has always been part of a balanced, minimally processed diet.

Anneliese Abbott is a graduate student in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She holds a B.S. in plant and soil science from The Ohio State University and is the author of Malabar Farm: Louis Bromfield, Friends of the Land, and the Rise of Sustainable Agriculture. She can be contacted at”

Around the Barnyard

This excerpt is brought to you by Book of the Week – offering you a glimpse between the pages and an exclusive discount of a new book each week. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week is Farming in the Presence of Nature, by Athena Tainio.

If you have livestock, you have an abundant supply of materials for another compost recipe. All that is needed, in addition to barn waste, is some patience and perhaps a good microbial inoculant containing cellulose-digesters.

My horses provide me with plenty of manure, and with an average C:N ratio of 25–30:1, horse manure makes an ideal compost material. However, it is important to remember that the more bedding material you use, the more attention you will need to pay to your C:N ratio. Occasionally I’ll need to throw on some grass clippings for added nitrogen if there is too much bedding material, but my barn floor is furnished with rubber stall mats and my horses don’t often choose to sleep inside, so I use little if any bedding material. Other livestock manures generally have higher nitrogen contents, so additional carbon from bedding materials helps to balance that ratio.

Every few months an inoculant containing cellulose digester microbes is sprayed over the ever-growing pile. Microbes and worms continually digest the waste so that the size of the pile never becomes too unmanageable. Then about once a year, the newest top layers are pushed back to reveal a cache of sweet smelling compost with an amazing moisture holding capacity. According to Washington State University, only a 5 percent increase in a soil’s organic material quadruples its water holding capacity (Whatcom County Extention n.d.), an invaluable benefit of composting in our semiarid eastern Washington climate.

It is important to use only manure that is thoroughly composted and aged to ensure against possible pathogen or weed seed contamination. As mentioned earlier, do not use manure from carnivorous animals (dogs and cats), or animals on routine antibiotics or other medications that may be toxic to humans or microbes.

Two added bonuses that come with my manure compost are the huge colonies of red worms and beneficial fungi that take up residence there. A worm bin is a great way to compost kitchen scraps, and the manure pile is a good free source of red worms. The worms make short work of the kitchen scraps, and their castings make an excellent soil amendment for potted plants or spreading around bedding plants and perennials.

Compost Tea

Classic passive (anaerobic) compost tea is made much like the manure tea my mother used to brew in her barrel. Composted materials, often held in a cloth or mesh bag, are soaked in water for a number of days until the desired strength is achieved. No mechanical aeration is applied, and the resulting tea contains anaerobic microbes.

Although passive compost tea has probably been in existence for almost as long as compost, it wasn’t until the 1970s that modernday active aerobic brewing methods were developed. Today, there is a plethora of active compost tea brewing systems available, which bubble oxygen into the solution to create an aerobic tea. Since aerobic microbes work faster than anaerobic ones, this process takes less time than the passive method.

Proponents of compost tea use it as a liquid soil-applied amendment and as a foliar spray, and claim the wide variety of beneficial bacteria and fungi in the tea combat and help prevent plant disease, along with the many other benefits that microbes provide. But like compost, any compost tea is only as good as its base ingredients, and consequently, results can be inconsistent, sometimes giving compost tea negative reviews.

Some scientists are concerned about what else can grow in compost tea, such as E. coli and Salmonella. Passive brewing systems, or even inadequate oxygen infusion in an active system can create anaerobic conditions ideal for salmonella and E. coli to grow. For this reason, some experts recommend, in the case of food crops, only using compost tea on soil and not as a foliar spray.

The opposing argument is that an oxygen-rich environment is not friendly to E. coli and Salmonella, and the beneficial microbes grown in a properly managed, oxygenated, active compost tea system should overcome any pathogens that might occur.

In a healthy natural soil environment, the various microbe species do coexist in balanced ratios, which shift as conditions and the needs of the biological community change, including the changing needs of the plants. But when brewing “microbe soup” in an artificial environment, keeping stable and consistent ratios between all the species can be difficult. Each has specific nutritional and incubational needs that may or may not suit others. More aggressive microbes can overpower weaker ones. Because of these unknown variables, the finished product can be inconsistent and lacking some desired components.

But with all of that said, there are plenty of farmers, gardeners and soil scientists who are believers in the virtues of compost tea, and use it enthusiastically and with good success. Some brewers augment their tea by adding a bit of commercial inoculant containing a broad spectrum of microbes near the end of the brewing cycle. This helps ensure each batch has the best chance for a consistently well-balanced population. Others choose to save time and effort by circumventing the whole process, and directly applying a microbial soil inoculant and a foliar spray program of microbes and nutrients, with equal or better results.

If you go this route, make sure to use quality products that have been tested by an independent laboratory for pathogens and CFU (Colony Forming Units) to be sure of what you are getting. A CFU report gives the microbial population density per gram of material. Deciding between using compost tea or ready-made biological products boils down to personal preference and what works best for your program and budget. The important thing is to protect your plants and build your soil with a healthy and balanced biological community.

Field Stubble Digestion

Corn stalks, cereal grain, seed grass stubble, or any other plant debris left after harvest can be composted right in the field. Till or disc so that the stalks are well chopped, then spray-apply a product containing cellulose-digesting fungi and bacteria. Check your soil’s carbon-nitrogen ratio (the ideal range is 20:1 – 30:1) and adjust if needed to support and speed up the soil microbes. By the following spring much of the plant debris should be digested, and any remaining debris will easily shatter, returning valuable nutrients to the soil to support microbes and plants.

About the Author:

Athena “Teena” Tainio is the president and CEO of Spokane-based Tainio Biologicals, a company that specializes in natural soil enhancing additives. She assumed leadership when her husband, company founder Bruce Tainio, died in 2009. Today, Tainio products are used throughout the United States, Canada, Central America, Australia and New Zealand. Athena continues to help Tainio lead the way in the soil health and agriculture industries. 

Titles of Similar Interest:

Conscious Eating: What Our bodies Are Trying to Tell Us

This excerpt is brought to you by Book of the Week – offering you a glimpse between the pages and an exclusive discount of a new book each week. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week is Nourishment by Fred Provenza. This excerpt is reprinted with permission from the author.

Our bodies translate biochemical and physiological interactions among cells and primary and secondary compounds into sensations through molecules of emotion. Palatability mediated by metabolic feedbacks is a continuum from dislike (mix of foods deficient relative to needs) to like (mix of foods adequate to meet needs) to dislike (mix of foods excessive relative to needs). A body craves what it needs and the greater the need, the greater the craving. As Farley Mowat wrote in People of the Deer, “I was greedy for it.” However, a body becomes averse to an excess of what it doesn’t need, and the greater the excess, the greater the aversion: “The thought of tepid lard nauseates me now.”

Hunger is my experience of the needs of cells and organ systems for primary and secondary compounds. Satiety and malaise are my experiences of the benefits and costs, respectively, of mixing primary and secondary compounds in various combinations in the meals I eat. Ingesting appropriate blends of primary and secondary compounds results in benefits, experienced as satiety and a liking for the flavors of the foods. Ingesting excess primary or secondary compounds imposes physiological costs, experienced as malaise and a dislike for the flavors of the foods. These responses change as cells and organ systems in my body gently guide my choices to meet their collective needs.

Eating Mindfully

If we are attentive, we can become aware of the relationship between the palate and feedback from the body. That’s the point made by Mireille Guiliano in French Women Don’t Get Fat and by Charles Eisenstein in The Yoga of Eating. They discuss the importance of simply becoming aware of the signals that emanate from the body through to the palate.

As one example, Eisenstein reviews evidence for the importance of fat in our bodies and the lack of scientific evidence that fat and cholesterol cause atherosclerosis. As he then writes, from the point of view of the yoga of eating (the wisdom body), all of that is a moot point. The body—not nutrition scientists and medical doctors—is the final authority in our food choices.

Eisenstein describes an experience eating coconut oil. “I’d read that contrary to conventional views,” he writes, “coconut oil is very healthful for its plethora of medium-chain fatty acids. I purchased some high-quality coconut oil to try it out, and sure enough, my body responded gratefully— at first. Yet before long, eating moderate quantities every day, the very thought of the stuff disgusted me. My body was telling me I’d had enough. I’ve experienced the same repugnance when I’ve eaten large quantities of other fats, too, particularly nuts.”

Eisenstein’s experience is consistent with studies that show that eating mindfully—consuming food in response to physical cues of hunger and fullness—is as effective as adhering to nutrition-based guidelines in reducing blood sugar levels and weight in adults with type 2 diabetes. In one study of the effectiveness of these two interventions—which were titled Smart Choices and Mindful Meditation—participants lost the same amount of weight.

The Smart Choices treatment group followed an established diabetes self-management education program with a strong emphasis on nutrition information. The Mindful Meditation group was trained in mindful meditation and a mindful approach to food selection and eating. Both interventions, which involved weekly group meetings, also recommended physical activity.

The Smart Choices program focused on factors that lead to complications with diabetes, including heart disease, kidney and nerve damage, eye problems and stroke, the importance of blood sugar control, and appropriate food choices when blood sugar levels spike. Every session had a discussion on topics such as calorie-intake goals, percent of fats and carbohydrates in an ideal diet, and portion control. Sessions included a fifteen- to twenty-minute walk to further emphasize the recommendation for physical activity. The program also focused on problem-solving regarding choosing healthy foods in high-risk situations, such as the holidays.

In contrast, trainers in the mindfulness program encouraged participants to cultivate inner wisdom, or mindful awareness of eating, and outer wisdom, which is personal knowledge of optimal nutrition choices for people with diabetes. The training encouraged people to be aware, stay in the moment, and live and eat in response to hunger instead of habits and unconscious eating. Each session included guided meditation oriented toward people’s experiences and emotions associated with food. Participants received CDs to help with home meditation practice. They were encouraged to tune out the many environmental cues that cause us to overeat and tune into our normal physiological signals to eat. Being mindful means stopping long enough to become aware of these physiological cues. The mindful intervention also included information about the relationships among calories consumed, carbohydrate and fat intake, weight regulation, and high blood sugar. Overall, the participants in both programs lowered their long-term blood sugar levels significantly and lost an average of 3.5 to 6 pounds after three months.  

Being mindful of their body’s nutritional wisdom may be why French women aren’t obese, despite all the energy-rich appetizers, main courses, and delectable dessert pastries they eat. They know when to stop eating. They pay attention to internal cues, such as whether they feel full, and they are also mindful of external cues, such as portion sizes, proximity to food, and social settings, which can lead us to overeat. We are mostly unaware of our eating habits.

We can cultivate mindfulness by eating a variety of wholesome food and being aware of the sensations, including the changes in liking for the flavors of those foods, we experience during a meal. I find the wholesome foods I eat taste much better and I am more aware of feedback from my body regarding my needs when I eat less food and when I eat many foods in moderation. My food choices range from the meat of wild and domesticated animals and full-fat dairy products to vegetables, fruits, nuts, and small amounts of foods made from some refined carbohydrates. The feedback from my body is also clearer when I avoid fortified, enriched, and processed foods and nutrient supplements. I also believe that enriching, fortifying, and processing foods, along with winning “expert” endorsement for supplements, are stealthy ways food and supplement companies encourage overconsumption to benefit their bottom line.

My point isn’t to recommend that you follow my choices of what to eat and not eat. The point is I’ve taken the time to figure out what works for me. That may or may not be what works for you. Research studies and clinical practice have both shown that the best way to improve your ability to stick to a diet and lose weight is to review a broad spectrum of diet options designed to best match your food preferences, lifestyle, and disease-risk profile.

About the Author:

Fred Provenza is professor emeritus of Behavioral Ecology in the Department of Wildland Resources at Utah State University, where he directed an award-winning research group that pioneered an understanding of how learning influences foraging behavior and how behavior links soils and plants with herbivores and humans. Provenza is one of the founders of BEHAVE, an international network of scientists and land managers committed to integrating behavioral principles with local knowledge to enhance environmental, economic, and cultural values of rural and urban communities. He is the author of Nourishment.

Learn from Fred in person this December!

Join Fred and other incredible speakers at our annual Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference and Tradeshow! Learn more about the upcoming conference and tradeshow and see our line-up of experts on eco-agriculture here.

Titles of Similar Interest:

Dual-Purpose Dairy Farms Diversify with Beef Genetics

Wagon Creek Creamery is a 50-head seasonal dairy near Helena, Oklahoma; the cows are milked once a day during the growing season, and the milk is made into yogurt, butter and cheese. During the winter, the cows graze standing forage as part of an intensive rotational grazing system.

By Candace Krebs

Wagon Creek Creamery has always seemed just a little bit ahead of its time. Originally settled by Ron Crain’s family during the famous Oklahoma Land Run of 1893, he and his wife Barbara in more recent years transformed it from “worn out wheat ground” into a 50-head grass-only dairy managed with a cell-based rotational grazing system. They also set up a creamery on their farm and started making and selling “labneh,” or yogurt cheese, a lower fat version of soft-style cream cheese, before pivoting to a slightly creamier version to capitalize on the Greek yogurt craze.

Now the Crains are pioneering another genius offering: pastured veal, which is already selling well at farmers markets.

“It’s very simple, but it’s turning out the best thing we do, dollar-for-dollar, so we’ll probably do more of that,” Ron Crain says.

As his wife Barbara puts it, “the cow does all the work.” The beef-cross calves are left on the first calf heifers for around five months, and then processed at a local custom plant, resulting in young tender meat.


The Crains are not alone in making use of beef genetics to diversify their dairy operation. In a movement across the industry known of as “beef-on-dairy,” dairies of all sizes are using artificial insemination and sexed semen to concentrate on getting female replacements from the top two-thirds of their herds, while breeding the bottom third to beef bulls.

Clay Fredericks grew up on a 100-head dairy in New York State and currently runs the beef-on-dairy program for United Producers Inc., a producer-owned livestock marketing company that operates 30 auctions across the Central U.S. He said in an interview that many dairies are looking to diversify by using beef genetics on their lower-end cows. Popular breed choices include Angus, Simmental-Angus and Sim-Flex.

One 80-cow dairy in his area started up a custom meat company featuring Wagyu-cross calves.

“Customers can order from them directly, but they also have a couple of local restaurants lined up to use the beef as a Friday night special type of thing,” Fredericks said.

Many small dairies are adding beef to their operations as a way to accommodate the younger generation returning to the business, he adds.

“They are looking at, what can I do on the beef side to diversify things?” he said.

UPI’s program buys calves from dairies at a pre-contracted price and sells them to feeders looking for unique attributes such as grass-fed.

Size and location can pose constraints, but overall, Fredericks says, “there are lots of opportunities right now.”


For a dairy as small as Wagon Creek, it makes sense financially to buy semen straws rather than keep a bull around, Ron Crain explains, and this also presents opportunities to experiment with different genetics.

In addition to dairy products, the Crains started direct-marketing grass-fed beef early on, after Ron asked himself why he was selling older cows at the auction for very little value. In recent years, that same thinking led to ventures like California’s Mindful Meats, which buys old dairy cows from surrounding farms and adds value to the beef through a pastured organic brand.

Founder Claire Herminjard said having an additional marketing outlet enables smaller dairy operations — her partner farms are usually around 200 cows or less — to diversify their revenue streams.

“We were the first beef company in the U.S. to proactively and transparently work with organic dairies to up-cycle retired milking cows into beef and to focus on promoting beef from mature cows,” she said. Eating older animals is already popular in Europe, but beyond that, it’s also the traditional way beef has been consumed throughout the world for centuries.

“Basically the United States has pushed cheap food in order to create abundance, so there’s enough to feed our population, and there’s nothing wrong with that goal, or that intention, but it’s created a problem on farms, because you have to produce a lot of something to create enough value to earn a living,” she notes. “That has put farms in the position of get big or get out. And that’s not a new thing. It’s been happening for a long time.”

Diversification and premium markets, she adds, are the bread-and-butter of small family farms.

Although Mindful Meats suffered a downturn during the pandemic, due to many high-end food service customers temporarily shutting down, the model has exciting long-term potential and is generating interest from others around the country.

“We’ve been approached by a fair number of folks who are trying to do something similar with a handful dairies in their own area, and I think it’s great,” she says.

Last year when the pandemic hit, the Crains were fortunate to have an online store already set up, and their beef sales were brisk, helping to keep revenues equal with the previous year and their operating budget intact.

That outcome is now a factor influencing their long-term planning. With the couple both in their early 60s, they are undergoing a thorough business analysis in conjunction with their estate planning and thinking about how they want to position the business going forward.

“I still like dairying,” Ron said on a recent afternoon while taking a coffee break before preparing for the once-a-day milking. “But it looks to us like the future is in grass-fed beef. In Oklahoma, I think that’s a better direction moving forward.”

For a direct marketing operation doing more shipping than ever before, beef products have proven easier to handle than dairy products.

Availability of labor is another factor. So far none of the Crains’ children have chosen to remain involved with the farm on a daily basis (their youngest is still at home but they joke that the other three have been “lost to the coasts.”)

“We hope that eventually there will be a person who comes along with an interest in what we’re doing,” Ron said. “The beef, the eggs, we could probably interest somebody in that.”

Dairying, he believes, is a tougher sell.

“One of the problems with a dairy is you have to own a lot of equipment,” he says, listing off the tanks, processors and specialized packaging machines they rely on to make butter, yogurt and cheese.

“We would prefer to be working with the animals, in a simpler context, and hopefully make more money while we’re at it,” he says.


Nothing is more of a driving factor for Crain than his obsession with grass management.

He’s been a dedicated grass farmer since he got the call from his dad 25 years ago urging him to come back home from Japan, where he was teaching English as a second language, and take over the family farm.

Now, after more than two decades, Crain’s enthusiasm for intensive grazing management and its ability to rehabilitate marginal land in a semi-arid climate is as strong as ever.

These days he moves his cows three, four and sometimes five times, modeling his approach on Johann Zietsman’s ultra high-density grazing management. Zietsman is a scientist and livestock producer from South Africa and author of the book Man, Cattle and Veld, in which he explains the art and science of mob-style, or nonselective, grazing.

“It’s a style of grazing that is fascinating, because of what it’s doing,” Crain says. “It’s fertilizing the ground, but it’s helping plant diversity too, and when you do that, you have more spears of grass and more leaf mass as a result and just basically a better plant.”

Seeing the forage gains that result from harnessing the natural benefits of photosynthesis motivated him to bring new genetics into his herd.

“A dairy animal is built to milk,” he notes. “The idea is that all of her energy is going to the udder. That’s why dairy cows are bony angular things; they don’t have the physical resources a beef animal has. We’ve designed them that way, but we also left behind some of the fertility and functionality in the name of milk production.”

On the other hand, the key to optimal grazing is what Zietsman refers to as “inherent body condition,” or the ability of a ruminant animal to maintain body condition on grass.

“The South Poll is an animal that can do that,” Crain says.


Red-haired cattle, such as the South Poll, are also more heat tolerant, which fits a warming climate.

Crain is now artificially inseminating all of his cows with South Poll semen.

“I love the calves. They are no more than 60 pounds at birth, but man, they grow like weeds after they hit the ground. They are hardy and great keepers,” he said.

The semen is $10 a straw, compared with around $20 for dairy semen.

“We primarily plan to use the males for meat, but eventually I could actually sell bulls. There is a need for them; if you’re a breeder they go fast,” he says. 

He’s keeping the females as replacement heifers and would like to try milking a few, although he expects them to produce less milk for a shorter duration than his dairy cows. But his main focus is on finding genetics that fit his grass program best.

“I’ve looked at a French breed or two I thought I might be interested in,” he adds. “You can order Tuli semen from right here in the U.S., and that’s something I’ve been considering.”

He believes cattle producers in general will be forced to look for ways to minimize feed costs in the years to come. The cow to do that, in his view, is moderate framed, docile and can make it through the winter on standing forage, thereby eliminating the need to buy high priced hay.

“The question is, do you want to be committed to machines (tractors, balers, etc.), or to keeping animals that are easy keepers?” he says.

Neither of the Crains had business backgrounds when they took over the farm. In recent months, however, Barbara has immersed herself in online businesses classes and taken pointers from one of their sons who works as a financial analyst in the Seattle area.

“Farmers aren’t marketers typically, and figuring out return-on-investment is foreign to us,” she says. “A lot of our enterprises overlap and so it gets very complicated sorting all of that out. Even my son said he can understand why I’m pulling my hair out; the business analysis is not the same as it is for someone who’s just making a widget.”

Still, the Crains are trying to get a better handle on what’s working — and what isn’t.

Of dairying, Ron says, “the movement is toward big, and robots, and I’m not interested in doing any of that.”

Over the last several years, the state has lost hundreds of small dairies, part of a nationwide trend. As the Crains gradually build up the beef portion of the herd, they expect to milk fewer cows.

While Ron is sad about the financial strain imperiling small dairies, he also notes that adapting and evolving is a constant for small farms.

“If you want to be a small farmer, you have to learn to market, whether you like it not. You have to be able to market something — meat, milk, breeding cattle. We’re even looking at the idea of putting in a pond to grow fresh water prawns,” he says. “If you’re a small farmer, you’re going to have to jump off and try some different enterprises.”

Resilience Ag Marketing, Thriving Amidst Uncertainty

By Jorge Abrego
Acres U.S.A. Advertising Director

Most marketers are great at creating plans. We study and know every feature of our buyer personas. We know how to create communication strategies that will appear at each step that a prospect takes in their journey. We know how to plan within predictable circumstances.

But what happens when something outside our control changes our plans? Are we as confident in our abilities to adapt and adjust our strategies so we can overcome those challenges?

These are questions all companies are facing this year as the trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic becomes less predictable. Some are excelling at meeting the moment while others are struggling. But one thing has become certain — marketers can’t just sit tight and wait for things to get better.

man on computer in field

Resilience Marketing

The key to being able to adapt is having resilience built into your marketing strategy. Resilience helps you rise to the occasion and learn so that your company can grow stronger and thrive in the future. Fundamentally, Resilience Marketing is about building community with your customers and the communities they serve, and lasting partnerships vital to helping all farmers, especially those most in need and historically underserved, to thrive.

Resilience marketing is agile and responds authentically and effectively to fast-changing circumstances. Brands that offer support, words of hope, and resources during the uncertain swings of the pandemic can ensure their organization stays top-of-mind while reinforcing relationships with audiences.

The idea behind resilience is the ability to bounce back from challenges stronger. It’s more than surviving; it’s about using your experiences to develop skills and tools to thrive. Researchers have found that people can be taught resilience. We aren’t born with it; we can continually learn and refine our resilience.

But what does this mean for ag marketers? Here, we’ll discuss three keys to building resilience into your marketing. These lessons offer a framework to follow as you face challenges to your strategies.

1. Flex and adapt

There will always be challenges to executing your strategy. And there may be times, like this year, where so many circumstances outside of your control completely upend or even nullify your original plans. How your team responds is crucial for flexibility and adaptability.

Rather than focusing on what you can’t change, reframe the conversation about what you can do or change. You’ll likely be impacted, but what can you do to ensure the impact won’t inflict serious, long-term harm to your team and company? Talk about the actions you can take so you experience a smaller impact.

  • Do you need to rethink your product offerings or positioning in the market?
  • How can you help customers by reducing prices, extending payments, offering discounts or moving to shorter contract terms?
  • Should you explore new or different buyers? Channels? Tactics?
  • What skills and features do you have that no one else can offer right now?

These conversations will help you create an action plan to meet challenges on your own terms. Make them a natural element of your team’s MO, being flexible and adaptable is a learned skill that you develop and get better at as you go.

man working on computer on farm

2. Failures as learning opportunities

As your marketing team tries new things to learn what works, you’re going to experience some failures. The challenge is to not kick yourself or your teammates while you’re down. Instead of dwelling on the misstep, focus on what you can take away from those experiences and how you can use that knowledge moving forward.

  • Should you shift your focus to other channels?
  • Might this be an opportunity to expand your target markets?
  • Should you move to different tactical approaches?
  • Do you need to focus on different buyers who still have a budget to spend?

This is an opportunity for your team to practice the ideas behind positive social orientation. Find a way to take positive lessons from these situations as the best successes come as a result of experiencing failure.

woman on computer in field

3. Anticipate and prepare

The future isn’t set yet, which means you still have time to change things. Consider what your team can do now to anticipate and prepare for potential challenges.

  • Doing a SWOT analysis or best-case/worst-case exercise can help refine plans.
  • Think about which teams or functions should collaborate as you prepare.
  • Determine which customers you should speak with so you can learn what’s on their mind and address their concerns.
  • What actions can you take now to ensure you’re ready for future demand?
  • How can you ensure your communications strategy is helping you build trust with your audiences?

Something will challenge our best-laid plans. The key to being a resilient marketer is to focus on what you can control in the present. By building resilience into your strategy, your team will be ready to face whatever obstacles come and come out stronger than you were before.

Jorge Abrego is the Advertising Director for Acres U.S.A. and has 26 years of advertising agency and B2B media experience in the agriculture, energy and technology sectors. Connect with Jorge and Acres U.S.A. advertising here.


This excerpt is brought to you by Book of the Week – offering you a glimpse between the pages and an exclusive discount of a new book each week. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week is The Myths of Safe Pesticides, by André Leu.

There is a critical need for all regulatory decisions to be made on the basis of credible scientific evidence, largely based on peer-reviewed studies published in credible journals. The interpretation of scientific data is not always clear-cut because of many variables, especially where there are gaps in the data. Publishing these in journals so that they are available for all the relevant stakeholders to read and analyze allows for a wider and more critical debate over the data and for more rigorous processes in reaching conclusions.

One of the most important aspects of this scientific process is that studies should clearly document the materials and methods used in research experiments. Many of the studies showing the adverse effects of pesticides and problems with current regulatory methodologies get criticized through academic and political debates. The accepted way to resolve the credibility of research is to accurately repeat the experiment by using the material and methods described in the published paper to see if they consistently produce the same results. This will in most cases confirm if the research conclusions are correct. One of the methods used at times by the pesticide industry and regulators to rebut studies is to state that industry studies fail to report the same adverse outcomes. These industry studies are largely unpublished and are usually based on different criteria than the peer-reviewed studies they are meant to refute. Setting up research using different criteria will most likely result in different outcomes. When the outcomes of these “similar” studies do not confirm the results of the study with adverse health outcomes, the pesticide industry and regulators use them to discredit the potentially profit-damaging study and dismiss its results.

A good analogy would be if an organization performed a few studies on a select number of elderly people who smoke tobacco and then announced that “studies” show no evidence that smoking reduces a person’s life span, as these people have lived long lives while smoking every day. Tobacco proponents could then use these biased studies as “evidence” that the hundreds of other studies linking smoking tobacco to numerous health issues should be ignored because the results are “not proven.”

An example was given by Dan Fagin in a comment article that he wrote in Nature in 2012, a few months after of the publication of the comprehensive meta review on endocrine disruption by Vandenberg et al. He mentions two separate studies that were conducted on the plasticizer bisphenol A (BPA) to assess if it is an endocrine disrupter. One study was conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the other by a private firm that was contracted by industry. Neither study found evidence of endocrine disruption by BPA, despite numerous other studies finding this. Vandenberg et al., for example, reported that “In 2006, vom Saal and Welshons . . . examined the low-dose BPA literature, identifying more than 100 studies published as of July 2005 that reported significant effects of BPA below the established LOAEL, of which 40 studies reported adverse effects below the 50µg/kg·d safe dose set by the EPA and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).”

Substantially more studies have been published since 2005 showing the endocrine-disrupting effects of BPA. Because regulatory authorities take a reactionary approach rather than a precautionary approach, one study confirming the status quo tends to take precedence over the many studies that challenge it.

According to Fagin, largely because of these two studies, neither the U.S. FDA nor the U.S. EPA will alter their risk assessments for BPA despite more than a hundred published, peer-reviewed scientific studies showing adverse health effects. “The FDA still says that BPA has no adverse effects at levels below 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day—a level that vom Saal contends should actually be two million times lower, at 25 nanograms.”

The vom Saal quoted by Fagin is Dr. Frederick vom Saal, PhD, a neurobiologist and professor at the University of MissouriColumbia. He is a leading and pioneering scientist in the field of endocrine disrupters and has been since the 1970s. He was one of the coauthors of the Vandenberg et al. meta review. Vom Saal stated that both of the studies conducted by the industry and the FDA used criteria that were not suitable for finding the effects of endocrine disruption. Parts of the design of the two experiments were regarded by vom Saal and other expert researchers in the field of endocrine disruption as insensitive to low-dose effects, and consequently they would not be found in the results.

Vandenberg et al. give many examples of the way the differences in the design of experiments will result in outcomes that will not confirm the earlier studies. “In fact, the NTP [National Toxicology Program] low-dose panel itself suggested that factors such as strain differences, diet, caging and housing conditions, and seasonal variation can affect the ability to detect low dose effects in controlled studies.”

A review of the studies that were used to refute the toxic effects of low doses of atrazine found many flaws in the design of the experiments. “Hayes’ work also clearly addressed the so called irreproducibility of these findings by analyzing the studies that were unable to find effects of the pesticide; he noted that the negative studies had multiple experimental flaws, including contamination of the controls with atrazine, overcrowding (and therefore underdosing) of experimental animals, and other problems with animal husbandry that led to mortality rates above 80%.”

These examples highlight the need to accurately replicate the material and methods used in the original studies to test whether their results are credible rather than designing similar studies using variations of the materials and methods. In reality these “similar” studies are new studies because they are using a different set of criteria. They are not replicating the original study, and therefore it should not be expected that they get the same results as the original study.

Similarly, just because one study does not find an adverse health outcome like cancer or endocrine disruption, it does not necessarily invalidate a study that does. It usually means that the studies are using different criteria and methodologies. Glyphosate is a good example: several animal feeding studies did not find any evidence of cancer, but there is a study linking glyphosate to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. There are several studies linking it and its formulations to gene mutations, cell-cycle disregulation, and chromosomal aberrations. These types of genetic damage can be precursors to cancer. A study of human breast cancer cells found that glyphosate caused a rapid multiplication of the cancer cells. Instead of dismissing the studies, regulatory authorities need to investigate the criteria and methodologies used in these studies in order to fully understand why the cancer growths and pre-cancer events occurred.

The strategy of using studies that do not find adverse health problems to cast doubt on the credibility of a study that has is a tactic used by some industries and regulators. Big tobacco, the lead industry, and the asbestos industry did this for decades before public pressure working in partnership with concerned scientists finally forced the governments and regulatory authorities to implement some of the necessary changes. This inaction has resulted in and continues to cause millions of people to suffer from painful and needless illnesses and early deaths. Most recently this technique was used to sow the seeds of doubt about the science of human-created greenhouse gases as the major cause of climate change as well as junk food composed of empty calories as a cause of the global obesity epidemic.

The pesticide industry has a long history of muddying the waters with false comparisons like this and has been very successful at convincing most people to believe the myths that their food is safe.

About the Author:

André Leu is the author of The Myths of Safe Pesticides and Poisoning Our Children. He previously served as president of IFOAM — Organics International and is currently the international director of Regeneration International. André has over 40 years of experience in all areas of organic agriculture, from growing, pest-control, weed management, marketing and post-harvest transport to grower organizations, developing new crops and education – not only in his home country Australia, but across Asia, Europe, the Americas and Africa. He has written and published extensively in magazines, newspapers, journals, conference proceedings and newsletters in print and online on many areas of organic agriculture including climate change, the environment and the health benefits of organic agronomy. André and his wife, Julia, run an organic tropical fruit orchard in Daintree, Queensland, Australia.

Want more?

Find everything by this author here!

Learn from André Leu in Person!

Join André and other incredible speakers at our annual Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference and Tradeshow! Learn more about the upcoming conference and tradeshow and see our line-up of experts on eco-agriculture here.

Interview: Famed Cookbook Author Mark Bittman Looks at the Past, Present and Future of Farming

Interview by Ben Trollinger

For 30-plus years, Mark Bittman has been, hands-down, the most influential food writer in America. He worked as a star food columnist at the New York Times. He’s written 16 best-selling books and cookbooks, including How to Cook Everything, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian and The Minimalist Cooks at Home.

Mark Bittman
Mark Bittman

His latest book is Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal. It isn’t a cookbook. You won’t find any recipes in it. Instead, it’s an ambitious and clear-eyed survey of the past, present and future of agriculture.

From the advent of farming over 10,000 years ago to the rise of industrial agriculture and hyper-processed junk food, Bittman somehow manages to synthesize thousands of years of history into a thoughtful and convincing argument for radical change within our modern food system.

And although it isn’t a cookbook, we wouldn’t say the book is a departure from his past work — it’s the culmination and the crowning achievement to a life dedicated to teaching people how to cook, and eat, ethically, healthfully and with pleasure.

Book cover image of Animal, Vegetable, Junk by Mark Bittman

Acres U.S.A. There’s this popular narrative that agriculture really went off the rails in the post-war era, with the widespread use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. But, really, agriculture has been creating problems, essentially, from day one. In the book, you cite the historian, Jared Diamond, who called agriculture “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” Was agriculture fatally flawed from the beginning?

Mark Bittman. It kinda depends on your perspective, because, let’s say — we don’t how many people were on Earth when people started doing agriculture, which is about 10,000 years ago, but let’s say there were 50 million. I mean, it could be 5 million; it could be 100 million. It’s somewhere in that range. There’s now seven, going on ten, billion. Very few of those lives, between then and now, would have been possible. Those incremental lives would not have been possible without agriculture. If there are hunter-gatherers, everybody’s a hunter-gatherer, there’s a really small number of people that could live on the Earth.

So, if you value seven billion lives — and I think most of us do — if you value the right of “we seven billion,” because chances are we would’ve not gotten to be alive—then it’s not such a bad thing. It’s just that, at every turning point—and it did cause difficulties from the beginning. It wasn’t good—it may not have been a good decision for that generation or for the next 20 generations, or whatever, but it was a good decision for us because we get to be here. But the thing is that, at many turning points between and now, better decisions could’ve been made, and they weren’t. Maybe worse decisions could’ve been made also, but the decisions that got made, got made.

And, certainly, things have gotten progressively worse after World War II. They got progressively worse after World War I. They got progressively worse after the Civil War. There’s been this cascading worsening of the effects of agriculture, and we’re now sitting at a place where we have the ability to do things better. And the question is: Are we gonna do things better, or are we gonna keep reinforcing the bad decisions that have been made?

Acres U.S.A. In the book, you cite geologist and author David Montgomery, who’s a friend of this show and who’s been on this show, and you cite him when you’re talking about the role of soil health in sustaining civilizations. Some civilizations throughout history appear to have had more of a knack for it than others. Talk about some of the triumphs and failures of agriculture throughout history. I think you offer a really beautiful synthesis of the history of early agriculture that I think is really important for us to understand.

Bittman. David’s probably better at this than I am. I’m not saying I’m not answering your question; I’m just saying there are better experts than me.

But [when] you look at Sumer, which was one of the first civilizations in Mesopotamia, and they were thriving — their population was increasing, their wealth was increasing, they had art, they had math, they had all kinds of science, interesting things, commerce — and they kept expanding and expanding, and they stopped paying attention to soil health. And when they stopped paying attention to soil health, the canals filled with silt, the irrigation systems were inadequate, the soil itself stopped yielding.

One of the things about agriculture is — I’ll come back to this, but one of the things about agriculture is that it provides more food, at least initially. By providing more food, it supports population growth. And farmers, as you know, like to have children because they’re free labor. This is not necessarily the case, but historically it had been the case.

But, with more food came more people. With more people came more people to work the land. With more people to work the land came more food and so on. But you and your listeners know this better than I do: the land can only produce so much before it needs to rest or be fed or whatever. You can’t just keep withdrawing capital from your soil.

If your population’s growing and your territory’s not expanding and you’re not fallowing or otherwise allowing your soil to replenish, your yields go down, and suddenly you’re screwed. You have more people with less production and unhealthy soil to boot, so your civilization literally collapses, and that has happened repeatedly. So, the most successful civilization — I think it’s fair to say the most successful, consistent civilization in history was probably Egypt or maybe China, and both really mastered sustainable agriculture for literally thousands of years, for different reasons.

China is kinda hard because there have been different dynasties and it geographically has been amorphous, but Egypt was this pretty well-defined place that, for 3,000 years, managed to not only sustain itself but thrive enough so that it could waste money — technically, it’s a waste money to do public works projects, like build huge tombs for one guy. The pyramids are really cool and we’re glad they’re there, but I hate to think that people were worked to death or starved as a result of building those pyramids.

But there was this guy who David probably came across early in his career. He and I have only talked once, so I don’t know him well, but there was this guy named — I can remember his first name. I think it might’ve been Walter. But, anyway, his last name was Loudermilk, and Loudermilk always talked about — and he was like in the ’30s.

And he always talked about “agricultural suicide.” And by “agricultural suicide,” he meant that process that I just talked about, of increasing the population and expecting your soil to just yield more and more and more. And it’s an impossibility. It defies the laws of physics to expect your soil to just permanently yield more. And we’re up against that a little bit now. It’s not one of our major—yield is not one of our major problems in U.S. industrial agriculture, but depletion of soil is one of our major problems. And again, you and your listeners know this way better than I do, but if you go to corn and soybean states and you look at that soil, that is really awful-looking soil. That is like dead soil that exists for one purpose and that purpose is to grow corn or soybeans. And it can be chemically doused year after year after year to keep it up.

I don’t know how long that can go on, ’cause every year there’s more topsoil depletion, and every year there are fewer natural nutrients in that soil. But, so far, yield is not really our major problem. I do think that soil health, in general, and soil depletion are big problems here.

Acres U.S.A. You write in the book—and this is a quote: “Agriculture has had a dark side: It’s sparked disputes over land ownership, water use and the extraction of resources; it’s driven exploitation and injustice, slavery and war. It’s even, paradoxically enough, created disease and famine.” There’s a lot to talk about there, but slavery in particular has been intertwined with agriculture for thousands of years. Why are those two things so closely linked throughout our history? I think this, in particular, is a really informative lens for looking at sort of how agriculture has developed into what it is today.

Bittman. If you argue that the two most successful — from an accumulation-of-wealth point of view — civilizations in history have been Rome and the United States. Both of their wealth was founded on slavery. That’s kind of an interesting thing. Slavery in the modern era really tracked the westward movement of sugar. That was really a kind of parallel development, that, as sugar moved west, slavery moved west: from the Far East, to the Middle East, through the Mediterranean, through the Atlantic, through the Caribbean, and North and South America. Sugar is very, very land intensive, so it uses up land quickly. Cane is very nutrient demanding and it’s labor intensive, and it’s labor no one wants to do. No one voluntarily does sugar labor — almost no one. So, if you wanted to produce sugar — and the world became addicted to sugar really, really fast — then you wanted to have slaves if you could. And that development was really, really parallel.

Sugar and slaves came to the New World together. Sugar wasn’t the only thing and slavery wasn’t the only thing. There were these kind of nefarious triangles between the so-called “mother country,” countries in West Africa, and countries in the Caribbean and in North and South America, but sugar, rum, molasses, tools, slaves, weaponry, manufactured goods in general, that sort of triangle lasted for, what, 300 years? Even more.

I’m not actually in the habit of sitting here, just citing sources, but there’s a book called The Half Has Never Been Told, which is a story by a guy named Edward Baptist — just such an amazing book — about the foundation of wealth in North America, and it’s not just Mississippi, which was once the richest state in the country and is now the poorest, and that’s not a coincidence.

The wealth of this country was built on the backs of enslaved people, and even on the backs of non-enslaved, but underpaid and nearly enslaved, Asians and indigenous people and so on, who were brought to this country to build its wealth. But slavery was really the foundation of wealth in the United States, and that’s all about agriculture. That is 95 percent about agriculture.

Acres U.S.A. Another issue that you mentioned in the book is famine, and the Irish Potato Famine is maybe the most famous one in the West, but it’s hardly unique. As you say in the book, “hunger is not a symptom of underproduction but of inequality of abusive power and wealth.” What do you famines tell us about some of the structural failures of agriculture?

Bittman. The thing is that the Irish Potato Famine was the first modern famine and that’s why it’s most famous. In this sense, what we mean by modern is that it’s not really a shortage of food; it’s a lack of political will — or, in fact, it’s starvation as a political tool or as a weapon of war.

So, the British did not engineer that famine, but they did not engineer the end of it, either, which was in their power to do. And so when there were famines in pre-modern history, the government’s job was to make sure that surplus was distributed to the poor. Whether the government did its job or not was questionable, but no one would have debated otherwise.

Successful governments built surplus and distributed it to poor people and helped poor people when they were starving as a result of famines. The rate of famine increased dramatically with more successful agriculture, because famine was being used as a tool — at first, mostly by the British. It’s not that they initiated the famines, but they took advantage of them.

And so it wasn’t only Ireland, but India and then later — of course, Stalin used famine to try to eliminate huge numbers of peasants. Mao used famine for the same kind of reason. The great famines were not — in a way, the British are left off the hook, because the famines with the most impressive numbers, if you’re going to measure their horribleness by net deaths—no one even knows how many tens of millions of people died in the Soviet Union and in China as a result of famines that were pretty much engineered by Stalin and Mao. Or, again, the famines may have started as the result of unintended consequences of something else, or as the result of environmental disasters, but the governments then subsequently used them to eliminate perceived enemies.

So, it’s funny, Amartya Sen, the philosopher, said that all famines are now political, by which he meant they’re not agricultural any longer. There’s more than enough food to feed everyone in the world right now, this minute, and at every given minute. There’s enough food and then some to feed everyone in the world. If your brother or sister somewhere else in the world is starving, and you have the option to feed that person, you also have the moral necessity to feed that person. And if you don’t, that’s a political decision. That’s not an agricultural decision.

Acres U.S.A. So, what are the political decisions that lead to one billion people in the world being underfed?

Bittman. The biggest political decision is to allow a world in which some people can eat ten times a day if they want to, and other people have to worry about whether they can eat one time every ten days, and that’s a decision about income equality. That’s a decision about the global north having spent 500 years stealing resources, money, people, etc., from the global soul, without adequately reimbursing them, and continuing to ignore the responsibility that we have to the people in the world that we have effectively impoverished.

I feel oddly quote-y today and I don’t quite know why, but I’m pretty sure it was Franz Fanon who said: When you go to Europe and you see the incredible beauty that is there in Western Europe — and it’s undeniable: the art, the architecture, the parks, the natural beauty that’s been preserved and son on — what you’re seeing is the result of the transfer of wealth from the colonies back to the north. Imagine the British Museum without the stuff that the Brits stole from other countries. There wouldn’t be anything there to look at.

I don’t know how you turn this ship around. I think fairness is a real question for all of us to answer: What do we owe the people who are really responsible for our national wealth? What do we owe the people who gave their riches so that we could be wealthy? And that includes indigenous North and South Americans. That includes, obviously, Africans who were brought here as slaves. That includes all of the colonies of Western Europe that were exploited for the benefit of the global north. A lot of it is about agriculture — not all of it, for sure, but a lot of it has been about agriculture.

Acres U.S.A. I want to transition a little bit and talk about the origins of monoculture farming. I’d love to hear you talk about what drove the transition from small-holding, biodiverse farms to massive, single-crop operations? Really how did that evolve into what it is today?

Bittman. I mean, there’s an argument that it started 500 years ago, 700 years ago with the closing of the commons, the consolidation of power by the nobility, especially in Western Europe, the development of cash crops and of an economy that was dependent on surplus and on growing more than you needed of a given crop, regardless of what the crop was. So, if you could’ve made a decision, would we’d rather grow a variety of crops and make sure that everybody eats well, or would we rather grow a much smaller variety of crops and make sure that some number of people can profit from the surplus of those crops?

Well, the second choice was, in retrospect, the choice that was made. That’s the choice that’s still being made. If you ask the question — and I like to ask this question — what is food for? Or what is agriculture for? And the logical answer is it’s to feed as many people well as we possibly can. You might add while minimizing the impact on the environment, minimizing the impact on other species, treating labor well. You might add all of those things, but the primary answer—what’s the point of agriculture? What’s the point of food? The point of food is to feed as many people as well as we can. That’s not what’s happened. What’s happened is the point of agriculture, the point of food, has been to make money for people who own the land and the means of production around agriculture.

So that, again, arguably started even before the plague in Western Europe, but let’s say in the 1200s, 1300s, 1400s that really started. But if we look to the 1900s and the post-Civil War Era in the United States — and monoculture and industrial agriculture were not invented in the United States, but really this system was perfected (and there’s air quotes around that “perfected”) in the United States in the last 100, 150 years, and then been exported to the rest of the world.

If we look at that, that’s really where monoculture came about or was perfected, and it was driven first by killing indigenous Americans and throwing them off their land, but then consolidating that land and redistributing it for free (or nearly free) to white European males, who would then go settle that land. But big, big swaths — unmanageably big parcels of land that almost had to be or begged to be grown one crop at a time.

It was originally wheat and then later corn and soybeans. Obviously, there are many more crops, but the primary crops of the United States at this point are corn and soybeans. And then that was further accelerated by the development of the tractor, the development of hybridized seeds, and you might even see it, say, especially in the development — it’s not especially because the tractor is just as important, but chemical fertilizer and chemical pesticides. Those are all almost precisely concurrent inventions of the late 19th, early 20th century. And we would’ve seen monoculture take over even sooner, but wars sort of got in the way.

But the Dust Bowl was a symptom of this process really accelerating. The Dust Bowl is almost another good example of a political famine, although it didn’t really result in a full-blown famine, and, arguably, with the defeat of Hoover and the election of 1932, you saw the government actually starting to do its job. Roosevelt did help and Congress did pass legislation that helped to repair the Dust Bowl and helped some people recover. It wasn’t enough, it wasn’t soon enough and so on, but we didn’t see millions of people die as a result of the Dust Bowl either, and that could’ve happened.

Acres U.S.A. What would you say have been the environmental and social consequences of monoculture farming?

Bittman. That’s the last question you get to ask, actually, because the answer to that is that’s it. That’s where we’re at. Sometimes people say if you could wave a magic wand and change one thing, which of the — I’m sorry to bring it up, because it’s such a stupid question, but it would be to end monoculture, because monoculture is the root of everything that’s going wrong in agriculture right now.

Acres U.S.A. And I think that’s the sort of idea of the question. Maybe people don’t understand why it’s a bad idea.

Bittman. Farmers ought to understand why it’s a bad idea.

Acres U.S.A. I guess another way of asking it is: Why is biodiversity important within an ecosystem?

Bittman. Well, but the thing is that monoculture is bigger than just discouraging biodiversity. It’s not just encouraging; it’s making necessary chemical fertilizer, chemical killers (which we call pesticides), and I think it’s obvious, but everybody should take a moment to remember that the suffix “-cide” means “kill,” so homicide, suicide, fratricide, pesticide.

Pesticides were developed in parallel with chemical warfare — again in the late 19th, early 20th centuries, and their job is to kill. It’s really impossible to create a poison that you’re going to spread on the land or in the air and expect it to only kill the critters or fungi or whatever, herbs that you want it to kill. It’s gonna kill more broadly than that.

Pesticides have their impact on us. Rachel Carson wrote about this, what, 75 years ago? 70 years ago? The poisoning of the environment. Loss of topsoil. Depletion of resources. Climate change. Just the production of chemical fertilizer alone is two percent of the total of greenhouse gases. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s just that one thing.

If you integrate all of the functions of monoculture, of industrial agriculture, because they’re pretty much synonymous, you have the second leading — arguably first, but we can concede second — cause of greenhouse gas production in the world, it’s industrial agriculture. So there’s that.

And now we haven’t even talked—we’ve talked for half an hour and we haven’t even mentioned sort of arguably the biggest consequence of industrial agriculture today, which is a public health crisis that directly results in the death of more than a million people in the United States alone every year. The biggest killer in the United States is chronic disease — way, way bigger than COVID, even at COVID’s worst. And the biggest driver of chronic disease is bad diet. And the reason we have bad diet is monoculture.

So, if you’re saying, what are the consequences of monoculture, you have to throw one of the biggest public health crises ever into that mix. So it’s a lot.

Acres U.S.A. Well, yeah, let’s transition to that, because I think it’s clear our health is really compromised, in no small part by the hyper-processed foods that you’re mentioning—junk food. Kind of define what we mean by “ultra-processed” or “hyper-processed,” and how do they come to sort of sit at the center of our diets? You mentioned monoculture, but I’m also interested in why we like them so damn much. Why do we keep picking them up? There are biological reasons for that that you describe in the book.

Bittman. We are hardwired to eat salt. We’re hardwired to seek sweet foods. We’re hardwired to look for fatty foods. As foragers, those are all desirable traits. We will evolve out of those traits if we live long enough. I don’t mean “we” as individuals. I mean “we” as a species. But that’s not happening fast enough. We don’t need to eat — if you’re a hunter-gather, you’re a forager, you come across a bush of berries, you are going to eat those berries until you get sick, until you can’t eat another one, because you’re hardwired to do that and you don’t know where your food is coming from tomorrow. The food engineers use our tendency to eat as much salt as we can, as much sugar as we can, as many fats as we can — fats are great ’cause they’re super high calories, and we used to have a problem getting as many calories as we wanted. 

The triumph of agriculture is to give us all the calories we could possibly want. The tragedy of agriculture is that it gives food marketers the incentive to get us to eat more calories than we need, more calories than are good for us and in forms that are actively bad for us. Food is engineered to get us to eat as much of it as we can. The foods that are made to do that are largely made as the result of monoculture — corn and soybeans being are leading crops. They are also our leading ingredients — corn and soybeans and sugar, much of which is made from corn in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. It’s not that high-fructose corn syrup itself is any worse than sugar; it’s just that it increased the supply and therefore increased our consumption.

All of this combines to cause the chronic disease that’s making us ill. I want to be clear that it’s not — it’s that it’s making us ill; it’s not that it’s making us obese. Obesity is a symptom, but you can be sick from overeating or from eating the wrong kinds of calories without being obese and you can be obese without being sick. The problem is not that America is fat. The problem is that America is fat because we have a bad diet and we’re also sick because we have a bad diet. It’s not that obesity is the problem. Obesity is the symptom, a symptom.

Acres U.S.A. A lot of people have this ongoing discussion about how to change eating habits, looking at it as kind of a behavioral engineering problems. The Blue Zones sort of model talks a lot about that, that it’s about a series of nudges that lead you to make the right choice, as opposed to you relying on willpower, let’s say.

Bittman. Here’s how we know that’s wrong. 60 percent of the calories in the United States today are in the form of ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods make us sick. If you look up the definition of “food” in the dictionary, it’ll say a substance that provides nourishment, but that doesn’t tell us much. But if you look up “nourishment,” it says nourishment is something that makes you grow healthy. So 60 percent of the calories in our diet don’t make us grow healthy; in fact, they make us grow sicker. And so they’re closer in dictionary definition to “poison” than they are to “food.” Someone’s eating that 60 percent, either all of us are eating precisely 60 percent or some of us are eating less than 60 percent and some of us are eating more than 60 percent, which, of course, is what’s true.

It could be that 60 percent of us are eating 100 percent of those calories, but it’s not that. It’s spread out. In fact, the sort of notion that it’s poor people that are eating junk food? It’s really not. If 60 percent of the calories are junk food, then way more than the 10 or 20 percent of the population that qualifies as poor are eating some portion of our diet in the form of ultra-processed foods that are bad for us.

So, it’s not just about behavior change, because that 60 percent is out there. And if we all decided to eat well en masse tomorrow, there’s only 40 percent enough well calories for us to eat. We would go hungry, in fact. This is such that the calories that are made available to us, the majority of them are making us sick. So it’s not just a matter of willpower. Of course, for those of us with more time and more money and better education and a lot of “willpower” can make the decision to eat better and we can afford to do that and we can pursue that as one of our avocations or even one of our vocations.

It’s our job to eat well. We do that. But not everybody can do that. In fact, there aren’t enough calories even if everybody did have the ability to do that. There aren’t enough available calories comprising good, real, close-to-natural food. So that’s an agricultural question. Agricultural is political. It’s decided by policy. And what’s available in the market today is decided by policy (or lack of policy). Willpower can change that, but, actually, we’re better off exercising that willpower—not in change our diet but in changing the political system or in changing the policy.

Acres U.S.A. Listening to you just now and reading your book, I was reminded of a Homer Simpson quote about alcohol that might also apply to agriculture — “It’s the cause of and the solution to all our problems.” And it seems pretty clear we’re not gonna willingly return to a hunger-gatherer existence. So, the question becomes: How do we take this broken thing we call farming, and create something that bolsters health in us and our communities and in our landscapes?

Bittman. Right. So, how do we do that? I don’t know, but we need to move in that direction. In the course of — I’ve learned a lot since I finished — I finished writing Animal, Vegetable, Junk more than a year ago, and I’ve learned a lot since then. I’ve learned a lot in the dozens of podcasts and interviews that I’ve done (like this one) since then. And someone really smart said to me: “You build a road by starting to walk on it.”

We can’t see the end of the road towards a better food system or a better society, but we can see the first steps. And I think it’s important to take the first steps and to see where they lead us, and then to say, “Okay, what are the next steps?” I have my pet first steps that I can easily outline, but I wouldn’t even say that they’re necessarily the right first steps, but they’re definitely part of the conversation. If I had my druthers, they’re the first steps I would take. But I’d listen to arguments that there are other first steps. The important thing is we have to do something. We have to move towards a better food system, or we’re never gonna get there. We don’t need to see the end in order to start, and we need to start.

Acres U.S.A. You write that the global food system must become sustainable and equitable for all. Where do you see that happening, and why is the U.S. likely to become a late adopter of these better practices? You mentioned a city in Brazil as being one particular example of something that you’re encouraged by.

Bittman. Brazil had a very active pro-food workers’ movement and even pro-food government for a while, and guaranteed adequate nutrition to every citizen, established restaurants with a sliding scale where 100,000/day were fed with good food that they could afford. Did a land-reform program that gave away as much land as the country had given away in its entire previous history, over the course of just a few years. Established organic farms, subsidized organic farms, subsidized family farming, subsidized the use of that food in school systems and elsewhere. It did great work.

Then the government changed and all of that stuff started to fall apart. I think what that shows is that if there’s a popular movement that supports better food, we’d better be a part of that popular movement and we’d better make sure that our representatives are behind that popular movement. When they’re not, it’s really hard to make change.

So, right now, the most interesting thing, I think, in food is happening in Andhra Pradesh, which is a state in India. India has big states. It’s like 60 million people, most farmers. And what is happening there is the farmers are mostly in small villages (1,000 people or less) and people are going from village to village, teaching their fellow farmers how to farm without pesticides, using natural fertilizer, natural methods of increasing yield of poly cropping, the opposite of monoculture and so on, and the government is supporting that. So the number of farms in this program now is probably close to a million. It was in excess of 600,000 when I finished writing the book. It’s growing really fast. And the predictions are that almost every farmer in the state—and, again, we’re talking tens of millions of people—will be farming naturally (for wont of a better word), without chemical fertilizer, without chemical pesticides, by 2030.

Again, if the government stopped supporting it—you’d need a popular movement to make sure that still happens, but that’s an example of the kinds of things that can move agriculture forward.

Acres U.S.A. Corporate agriculture is becoming increasingly mechanized and technology obsessed. People like Bill Gates have this vision for farming without farmers. And yet peasant farmers are still producing most of the world’s food. I think it’s like 70 percent or something like that. What will (or should) the future of farming look like? Do you envision like a peasant-farmer future, or do you envision some sort of hybrid of that and GMOs, CRISPR technology? What do you see?

Bittman. Well, I think there’s no reason to ignore good technology. There isn’t a farmer in the world who doesn’t want a small tractor, at least. We have to measure the impact of the tools that are used in farming, and decide which ones are more harmful than they’re worth? GMOs, up until now, have been more harmful than they’re worth. The tractor, up until now, has been more harmful than it’s worth, but we can certainly envision a better tractor that is more beneficial than it is harmful. So, of course we integrate technology into farming. I think the future is—again, I’m not claiming to know. I think that I know what would be good to do in the next two years. I don’t claim to know what things are gonna look like in 50 years. No one can predict anything like that. Anyone who says they can is lying.

But I think there’ll be more farms. I’d like to think that we’d restore dignity to farming. I’d like to think that no one owns more than 500 acres or whatever kind of limit we want to put on land use. I’d like to think that land is restored to the people who were shut out of the great land giveaways of the 19th and 20th centuries. I might’ve said this already, but I’d really like to see dignity restored to farming.

There are a lot of people who would like to and would farm and would do it well, given the opportunity, but there is very little opportunity for someone with no money and especially someone saddled with student debt, which so many young people are now. There’s very little opportunity for people to even buy five acres in most of this country and start farming, let alone 50 acres, which is probably a more realistic and viable number, or 500 acres, on which you can build a really beautiful, multi-functioning, several-family, several-generation kind of farm. So few of those exist as even models that it’s hard to point people to them and to say, “Look what a great job this group of farms is doing.” There aren’t even enough of them for us to all visit really.

Acres U.S.A. Maybe there’s no ideal farm, but you do cite one farm in the book that you think is a particularly strong example of what you’re talking about. It’s Full Belly Farms. What did you see when you visited there?

Bittman.  Full Belly is a 500-acre farm. They’re on their third generation. They were hippies or whatever. They were ’60s people. They’re on their third generation of farmers. It’s a couple of families. They do every single thing right. They tick every single box. They prioritize soil health. They prioritize biodiversity. Needless to say, they don’t use chemical fertilizer, chemical pesticides. They try—I’m not sure whether they’re successful at this point or not—to be completely close-looped, not bring in any compost but make all of their own soil amendments. They do bring in fuel, of course, so they’re not closed in that sense. They’re not a horse-driven farm or an entirely solar-driven farm. They do rely on solar power. They have many full-time employees who receive decent wages and benefits.

As I said, they tick every box. The problem is they’re almost unique. There might be a dozen farms like that in the country. Although, if there are, I don’t know them. And to make a difference, we’d need to see thousands of farms [like that]. They make a difference in their community. Don’t get me wrong.

To look at national impact, we should be looking at: How do we create 500, 1,000, 5,000, 10,000 farms like Fully Belly? That’s one answer to your question about how do we change the future of farming is creating what are considered medium-size farms—say, 50 to 500 acres—run by one or more families, one or more generations, that do most things right and supply food to their communities. Most of this country, the populated parts especially, are well-ordered and have enough resources, have enough soil, to provide at least 50 percent of their own food, even the Northeast, which is, climate-wise, probably the most disadvantaged populated part of the country. I’m not counting Montana, but not that many people live in Montana, so it’s not that big an issue.

How do we get those kinds of farms that can support their regions? The long-term answer is land reform. That’s not a short-term answer, because I don’t think it’s happening any time soon, but it’s a discussion worth having, and it’s gonna have to happen at some point.

Acres U.S.A. There are so many books that are out and available on how broken our food system is, so I’ve read a lot of those books, and I’m familiar with a lot of the terrain. I will assert that I think this book stands out for me as being a particularly strong presentation of sort of the history of agriculture and food, and it’s really impressive in that sense.

But, for you, you’re familiar with that same shelf of books on our broken food system. What compelled you to want to sort of add to the literature there? What were you bringing to the conversation that you thought was essential?

Bittman.  Well, thanks for saying that, Ben, first of all. If there are three sections of this book, roughly — past, present and future — the present is the part that’s about our broken food system, and it’s the shortest part of the book because I felt like that had been said adequately by many people. Most of us know this story.

Although, I will point out that, in the course of this conversation, you often chose to focus on the present, because it still needs to be said. The question of what’s wrong with monoculture is very much a present question.

To talk about what’s wrong with our food system sorta sounds like, oh, there’s a lot of fast food and we’re kinda getting fat and da-da-da-da-da. And that’s all true. But if you tie the present to agriculture, you’re making a link that isn’t often made in today’s media. And if you’re saying the problem is not willpower or personal behavior, making changes in our lives, the whole sorta Michelle Obama kinda mantra, but the problem is: What are we giving people to eat? What are we supplying? That is a bit of a different analysis of the present, and my analysis is rooted in the past.

I think that the very first thing you and I talked about was how did we get here, and we didn’t start again your choice, ’cause you figured this out, ’cause you get it — we didn’t start in 1950. We started in 1250 or whenever it was we started. How we moved forward is a big part of the story of Animal, Vegetable, Junk, the decisions that were made, and I think it’s important to say, “Here’s what’s happened in history. Here’s where it got us. How do we move forward?” And seeing how decisions were made or decisions were allowed to be made by us not exercising our collective power, has led us to a place where we are really destroying ourselves.

It doesn’t mean that we knew everything 200 years ago and we should’ve made a different decision. We might’ve made different decisions, but we — and it’s not us, obviously — didn’t make different decisions. But we also didn’t have the information then that we have now. Now we have all the information that’s in this book and in the whole shelf of books you’re talking about, and in 1,000 other books that explain this in different ways, from different perspectives, and that cover the gamut from climate change to income inequality to race and gender discrimination—on and on and on down the line.

We see these things in a better light than we’ve ever seen them before. How do we make decisions moving forward? And the last third of Animal, Vegetable, Junk, or the last whatever several chapters, is about how we move forward. And that I think also distinguishes the book, or I’d like to think that distinguishes the book.