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Soil, Public Health and the Microbiome

The Center for a Livable Future and the Department of Environmental Health Sciences Grand Rounds bring you the 16th Annual Edward & Nancy Dodge Lecture

November 13, 2015

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Biology, Not Chemistry, Will Save Our Soil

Get into a conversation with a dairy farmer, and sooner or later you’ll find yourself talking about lactations and abattoirs. Patrick Holden, who owns an 80-cow dairy farm in Wales, likes to brag a little about his cows: how long-lived they are, how healthy they are, how good their milk is.

Holden is the founder and chief executive of the UK’s Sustainable Food Trust (SFT), the aim of which is to transform our food system into something more healthy, fair, and resilient. Well-known in the UK for his work on organic standards and in soil, he is also a CBE, or Commander of the British Empire—not quite knighted, but close—and he sometimes advises Prince Charles on biologically sustainable agriculture practices for his own Duchy Farm in England. Holden delivered a talk on “Soil, Food and Health” recently at the Bloomberg School as the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future’s 16th annual Edward and Nancy Dodge Lecture.

The address focused on the need for agriculture to shift its focus from chemistry to biology. Mainstream agriculture, Holden said, has created a catastrophe in the making with regard to soil. This “soil abuse” is a result of using petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides, and other unsustainable practices in order to increase crop yields. While the short-term effect of these methods may be increased crop yields, the long-term effects are contributing to what he calls the irreversible breakdown of the planet’s natural systems. “That breakdown will be okay in a Gaian sense,” he said, “but not from a human standpoint.”  

Holden and the SFT advocate for a better kind of husbandry of soil, one that builds its fertility through biology. Cultivating healthy soil and environment with methods such as crop rotation and holistic grazing will create a dynamic equilibrium that creates a positive state of health for humans, animals, and the planet. Just as humans have gut biomes, he says, plants have a similar symbiotic community of fungi and bacteria in their root hairs. “It’s extraordinary biology,” said Holden.

One of the shortcomings of the conservation movement, he said, is that instead of going after agriculture and trying to prevent soil abuse and other abuses, the movement’s strategy has been to protect parts of nature by creating parks and reserves. This, he says, ignores the fact that our food systems are at odds with nature. Or perhaps the idea of taking on Big Ag is too daunting. Either way, he said, “It’s a grim picture.”

But Holden said he thinks we’re on the cusp of a massive change, a perfect storm being enacted by the under-30 generation. These millennials will force us to redesign our food system by using their buying power to encourage corporations to practice the law of return, recycle nutrients, and align our diets.

As for Charles, Prince of Wales, Holden said that he’s been an environmental champion since the 1970s, learning about biologically sustainable agriculture with a curiosity that must have come from his own intuition. The Prince delivered his “Future of Food” lecture in May, 2011, putting forth ideas about food system reform that Holden referred to as “courageous.” “He’s a remarkable man,” said Holden, “a visionary, an artist.”

Holden closed his talk by advising those in the food movement to refrain from seeing themselves as morally right or superior. “If we demonize all these companies,” he said, “It’s difficult for them to make the moves they need to make.” Corporations do what they have to do, given the systems and policies in place. Instead of demonizing the corporations, he said, it would be better to change the policies that incentivize harmful agricultural practices.

In addition to authoring standards for organics and advocating for soil-healthy practices, Holden is also a Patron of the UK Biodynamic Association. Biodynamics is the practice of using biology and homeopathy to restore soil vitality, and taking into account the movement of the moon and planets to grow in optimal conditions. His son, Sam Holden, produces the esteemed Hafod Welsh Organic Cheddar, from Ayrshire cows on the family’s Bwlchwernen Fawr, Wales’s longest-running certified organic dairy farm.


—Christine Grillo

The Edward and Nancy Dodge Lecture is supported through the R. Edward Dodge, Jr. and Nancy L. Dodge Family Foundation Endowment, established through the generosity of Dr. Edward Dodge, MPH ’67, and his late wife Nancy to provide core funding for the Center for a Livable Future.