In her new book, Farmacology, Dr. Daphne Miller set out to learn about human health by studying cutting-edge farming practices. A Berkeley-based family physician, Miller visited poultry farms, cattle ranches, urban gardens and more to answer the question: How can our food systems make us healthier? She spoke to San Francisco about what we all have in common with stressed out chickens.
SFMAG: Your book opens with a visit to the farm of the agricultural philosopher Wendell Berry. What does he have to teach us?
DM: Wendell Berry is a wonderful philosopher, but not just about food. He came to the same conclusion in his pastures that I had in my clinic—we need to treat our land with the same respect that we treat our bodies, and to treat our bodies the way a farmer would treat the land. Once I started to actually meet these farmers, I was like, Holy cow! They’re doctors!
SFMAG: It turns out you can learn a lot about being a parent from how to raise cattle, right?
DM: Most farmers lose a significant percentage of calves in the pre-weaning and weaning periods. But Cody Holmes, a rancher in Norwood, Missouri, a tiny town in the Ozarks, has an amazingly low mortality rate with his mob herding system. Bison style, you know, like Gangam Style. He had virtually no calf deaths.
SFMAG: Why do we think we know better how to raise calves than the calves’ mothers do?
DM: The truth is that what Cody does completely shows how wrong we are. There’s so many systems in industrial agriculture in which we use efficiency models that benefit the guy in the suit, rather than what truly works in a natural system. We’ve done the same thing in medicine.
SFMAG: What's an example of that?
DM: A perfect example is birth. Women give birth in the most bizarrely unnatural way now. Blue sterile sheet covering them, in a position from which they can’t get enough pressure to push the baby out. They’re slathered in antiseptic, with electrodes and IVs tying them to a bed. That’s exactly what we’ve done to farming. In an efficiency model, it works. In a health model, in a taste model, in a sustainability model, in a soil preservation model, a farm preservation model, a farm worker preservation model, it doesn’t work at all.
SFMAG: What about raw milk? Another writer we recently interviewed, Nathanael Johnson, sees the risks, but is favorable on the stuff. How does it fit into the models you write about?
DM: I see its upsides. The problem is that as a physician practicing the precautionary principle I can’t wholeheartedly be a proponent. The way that a lot of people get raw milk is not from a fresh, clean farm directly from the cattle, it’s something they are getting from the supermarket shelf that’s days old. But there’s definitely healing properties.
SFMAG: Maybe my favorite exploration in the book is about chickens and stress. It’s actually a pretty ingenious experiment that you stumbled across.
DM: The chapter is really about good and bad stress. I found a farm that raised the same chickens in two different ways. One operation was free range organic, which means that they have 15,000 hens to a henhouse who were allowed to move around and had a tiny scrap of paved outdoor space. That’s more or less what we voted for on the California ballot [in 2008]. Across the street, these same farmers had the hens pastured; 5,000 hens to a house with a quarter acre of land attached to it. They are getting a lot of their nourishment from scratching up worms. They have a big, wide door that gives them access to this beautiful green pasture. Those hens are at a spa.
SFMAG: So that second group of hens live stress free lives, don’t they?
DM: That’s what I first thought. But the farmer said, what do you mean? There’s bobcats, hawks, and thunderstorms. They have plenty of stress! So, later, I talked to Bruce McEwen. He’s the stress guru, who taught me the subtleties. What the outdoor chickens were facing are what he calls allostatic challenges. Getting their fight or flight turned on occasionally. These instincts are big and scary, but they’re sudden and within the natural repertoire of chickens. Versus these modern stresses of being in the 15,000-bird house, where the stress is never turned off. That’s the kind that kills you. The slow grind of sitting in a windowless office with a computer screen.
SFMAG: So how do we avoid the killer stress?
DM: One of the most important things is self-determination. For chickens it’s pecking in the soil, dust bathing, and chasing each other. For one of my patients it was to take control of his schedule to make more time for himself and his family. To be able to exercise during the workday and bring his lunch to work.
SFMAG: Last week at Stanford, there was a presentation of a computerized device that could grow a tomato plant with no human interaction. It’s like a little plastic cartridge with all the soil and seeds. You just watch for the warning lights. Does this strike you as a good or evil innovation?
DM: How fitting that you saw that at Stanford, the place that produced the "debunking organic" study. What you have there is a bunch of researchers who knew very little about agriculture who tried to compare growing systems based on a handful of antioxidants and a couple of specific pesticide residues. It’s the same as this little plant in an incubator. My guess is if you measured the plant for beta-carotene or something, it would do just fine and look like any other plant. But that’s not what our food is. It isn’t just seed grown in a test tube. The terroir of the surrounding environment makes a huge contribution to our health: the rain, the sun, the microbes in the soil, the surrounding plants, the way the soil was treated, and so on. There’s also that unmeasurable energy that we get from our food when a farmer or a community puts its best efforts into growing it.