Agroecology for Health and Nutrition: An Interview with Dr. Daphne Miller


Dr. Daphne Miller is bringing the worlds of medicine, nutrition and agroecology ever closer. An author, practicing physician and public speaker, Dr. Miller studied medical anthropology at Brown University before receiving her medical degree from Harvard Medical School. Her books include Farmacology: Total Health from the Ground Up and The Jungle Effect: The Healthiest Diets from Around the World, Why They Work and How to Make Them Work for You. Dr. Miller recently had the opportunity to take time from her busy schedule to talk to Food Tank about her experience at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) International Symposium on Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition, and why agroecology is important to healthy ecosystems and healthy bodies worldwide.

Food Tank (FT): You spoke this fall at the FAO International Symposium on Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition in Rome on Diverse Farming Systems and Diverse Diets, and participated in a panel discussion on health and nutrition security through agroecology. What were some of the debates that the panel covered? 

Dr. Daphne Miller (DM): Agroecology is both a farming science and a social movement. It focuses on how to nourish a community by supporting the biodiversity of local ecosystems and the innovations of local farmers. Advocates of this type of farming have long promoted its important role in ensuring food security, but what was so significant about this Rome meeting was that it took place at the Food and Animal Organization of the United Nations, an organization which (until now) has largely supported industrial agriculture as the best way to feed the world.

The purpose of the meeting was to explore the following question: “When it comes to simultaneously improving food production, environmental health and human health, does agroecology outperform industrial agriculture?”

Measures of food security have mostly focused on crop yields or kilocalories of food available to a given population. When these are used as the metric of success, agroecology does not necessarily show an impressive edge over industrial agriculture. But when net gains from soil conservation, water harvesting, community economics and human health are included in the equation, agroecology begins to look like a much more promising option.

FT: Can you please share a little more about what your diverse farming systems and diverse diets talk covered? 

DM: In my presentation, I focused on protective health factors that are lost when we move from an agroecological to an industrial model of agriculture. I also explored ways we can regain these protective factors. It is well documented that populations experience a sharp increase in many chronic diseases - including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, autoimmune diseases, cancer and depression - when they abandon a traditional lifestyle based on diversified farms in favor of a more industrial one. To understand this transition, most researchers have focused their attention on the evils of the industrialized diet and lifestyle, including sugar sweetened beverages, refined carbohydrates, cigarettes and alcohol, social disconnection, and inactivity. While these are all important contributors to modern chronic diseases, my talk addressed a related—but often overlooked—issue: “What are the protective factors that we leave behind when we disconnect from the biodiversity of local ecosystems and the innovations of local farmers?” In the talk I showed how seed diversity, microbial diversity, traditional technologies, connection to nature, and a communal lifestyle can all contribute to better health.

FT: What where some of the main themes you heard at the symposium?  Are the sustainable development, global health and nutrition communities tuned into the idea that healthy soils are related to healthy bodies? 

DM: As an odd-ball physician who is interested in farming, I am usually one of the few presenters at agronomy conferences who can make the link between food production systems and our personal health. But at this meeting I was surprised to discover that almost every presenter addressed issues of human wellness. Soil experts discussed how a diversity of microorganisms in the soil were needed to produce healthy soil, healthy food and healthy people. Others showed how indigenous seeds and local technologies (such as intercropping and composting) can meet all the nutrient needs of a population. For example, Pablo Tittonel, agronomist and professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, explained how in Southeast Asia, where Vitamin A deficiency is a source of many serious health problems, from blindness to life-threatening diarrhea, integrated systems of fish and plant production could offer more Vitamin A per hectare than Golden Rice, a commercial rice genetically engineered to be rich in pro-Vitamin A. Irene Cardoso, an agronomist from Brazil, presented a case study about a farm compound in the Zona de Mata in Brazil where a group of farmers had steadfastly farmed with chemicals and mono-crops until their water supply could only meet the needs of one family. Desperate, they changed to an agroecological system of food production and soon after had enough water for seven households. In the final, higher-level portion of the Symposium, ministers of agriculture from Costa Rica, France, Algeria, Brazil, Senegal and Japan all agreed that supporting agroecology has helped them simultaneously improve food production, soil health and human health.

FT: What are some of the most common recommendations that you make to your patients for living healthier lives? 

DM: Become part of a healthy farm cycle. Even if you are living on the 15th floor of a concrete high rise, here are eight ways you can reconnect to living soil:

1) Get a CSA box, shop at a farmer’s market or a grocery store that has contracts with local farms

2) Garden wherever you are. Even if it's a tiny plot (or window box) of herbs, it will positively influence your health and the health of the planet.

3) Support schools, hospitals, senior homes, private businesses and institutions that buy from local farms. For hospitals, check out whether they have signed the Health Care Without Harm sustainable procurement pledge.

4) Recycle your compostables back into the soil or participate in a local composting program. Here in San Francisco, our urban compost enriches urban gardens and farms in the surrounding area.

5) Support environmental education in schools as a way of securing the health of the next generation. For children and adults, being ecoliterate is a positive health indicator.

6) Make sure that all the personal and household products that you are using are safe for the soil. We are all interconnected, and when you spread something toxic on your lawn, your body, or your carpet, it will eventually end up in your food.

7) Save water.

8) Cook