WHAg Window – giving a view from our perspective…..
Every month, sometimes every week there is a new report on “health” and the need for new initiatives. Most get it wrong and when they do get something right, it seems to be by accident.
A recent one from the “think-tank”, Demos, is no exception. It’s called “Turning the Tables” and has a sub-heading “Marking healthier choices easier for consumers”. It contains some valid recommendations about making unhealthy choices more difficult to access but its thinking “tanks” badly because it hasn’t got a clue what a positive healthy choice might be,
This is a common theme. “Unhealthy” equals fat, salt, sugar, red meat and processed meat; ergo, “healthy” is simply the opposite and anything we can do to reduce foods and diets containing these things is good – irrespective of context, overall food and diet composition, and certainly, of food integrity and quality.
All of which leads directly to recommendations that the food manufacturing industry should be given support to reformulate food processing to produce “innovative” processed food and preservatives, lab-grown meat and meat substitutes using patents and other intellectual property right based technologies such as genome editing and synthetic biology.
In fairness, there are some reasonable recommendations and the report also contains interesting information about consumer buying dynamics.
But there is nothing about positive health management, nothing about production systems, and nothing about environment, farming and food interactions, what might be called the ecology of health.
Microbiome health: an ecological approach
However, in happy contrast, another recent report highlights a whole body of research work, observation and thinking which does this and, for us at least, improves our understanding of how that new “buzzword” – the microbiome – can be viewed from a Whole Health Agriculture perspective.
Writing in “The Conversation”, Jake M Robinson, a landscape researcher at the University of Sheffield, explains that “biodiversity loss could be making us sick”. Here are some of the key points he makes:
– Most of us know that we are losing biodiversity at a massive rate. But we may not realise that microbial diversity is a large part of that biodiversity loss. “And these microbes – bacteria, viruses and fungi, among others – are essential for maintaining healthy ecosystems. Because humans are a part of these ecosystems, our health also suffers when they vanish, or when barriers reduce our exposure to them.”
– Many people now realise that our bodies “harbour distinct microbiomes – vast networks of microbes”. “The human gut alone harbours up to 100 trillion microbes, which outnumbers our own human cells. Our microbes provide services that are integral to our survival, such as processing food and providing chemicals that support brain function.”
– However, there is less recognition that “Contact with a diverse range of microbes in our environment is also essential for bolstering our immune system. Microbes found in environments closer to the ones we evolved in, such as woodlands and grasslands, are called “old friend” microbes by some microbiologists. That’s because they play a major role in “educating” our immune systems.
– Part of our immune system is fast-acting and non-specific, which means it attacks all substances in the absence of proper regulation. Old friend microbes from our environment help provide this regulatory role. They can also stimulate chemicals that help to control inflammation and prevent our bodies from attacking our own cells, or innocuous substances like pollen and dust.”
– Exposure to a diverse range of microbes allows our bodies to mount an effective defensive response against pathogens. Another part of our immune system produces tiny armies of “memory cells” that maintain a record of all the pathogens our bodies encounter. This enables a rapid and effective immune response to similar pathogens in the future.
– Just as microbes have important roles in ecosystems, by helping plants grow and recycling soil nutrients, they also provide our bodies with nutrients and health-sustaining chemicals that promote good physical and mental health. This strengthens our resilience when facing diseases and other stressful times in our lives.”
Lessons for farming and land use
Robinson’s primary focus is on increasing biodiversity in urban settings to restore microbial activity aimed at improving the health of residents. He sees restoring natural habitats, growing diverse native plants, and providing access to safe, green spaces as key strategies.
These are just as relevant to farms – and of course many organic and health focussed farms are doing these things. The WHAg hypothesis is that there is a direct connection between the quality of diversity on farms and the food produced and the health of all those – people and livestock – who eat that food.
The concept of diverse microbial communities and “old friends” in the ecosystem being linked to those in human and animal bodies seems to fit into this hypothesis. It might be one explanation as to why health in all aspects of long established, whole farm systems appears to increase over time. Investigating this will be a key part of our research work in the next few years.
For now, we can’t see that the reductionist, technological approach to health of “think-tanks”, celebrity foundations and (probably) high profile “food strategy” task forces, which ignore the ecology of health, have much to commend them.
Here are some links, additional to those in the text above, for those interested.
- The “old friends” hypothesis
- Biodiversity hypothesis states that contact with natural environments enriches the human microbiome, promotes immune balance and protects from allergy and inflammatory disorders
- Microbes as engines of ecosystem function
- The work of Graham Rook
- Ecosystem and human health in an urban context