Daphne Miller Unites Soil Microbes, Nutritious Food, and Human Health

Daphne Miller

Daphne Miller, MD, is the author of The Jungle Effect and Farmacology, and she spoke to a room of foodies, scientists, and the Davis community about how soil impacts our entire health ecology. A practicing physcian and Associate Clinical Professor at UC San Francisco, Miller argued that those working with the soil and our food products coming out of that soil "are at the frontline of human health," and are "responsible in an upstream way moreso than physicians."

Comparing images of intricate root networks and soil layers with the  layers of the intestinal wall in humans, Miller encouraged the audience to "think across rather than within" in order to conceive of how our "external ecosystem links to our internal ecosystem."

Miller explained that a PubMed search on "soil" and "health" reveals more about pathogens, pesticides, and heavy metals than on the positive links between soil health and bodily health. Her presentation then focused on three ways we might consider the positive relationships between soil and humans through, what she terms, "three health cycles." Her examples drew from her experience interning on sustainable farms.

The first, the "Nutrient Cycle," focused on the connection between the diversity of microbes and the nutrient value pulled out of the field and into foods. The "Immune Cycle" highlighted role of early exposure to soil microbes in protecting against autoimmune disorders. The "Community Health Cycle" explored the "upstream medicine" concept via community farms in urban areas.

Miller concluded that we need "a paradigm shift in how we think about growing food, and healthy soils," that requires us to abandon a liner model of progress and think more like a web of interconnectedness between soil, microbes, food, individuals, and their communities.

Tom Tomich (Director, Agricultural Sustainability Institute), Kate Scow (Professor of Soil Science and Soil Microbial Ecology), and Bruce German (Director, Foods for Health Institute, Professor of Food Science) followed Miller's presentation with a panel discussion of the challenges of transdisciplinary work addressing soil, food, and human health. The three respondents agreed that it is a vital issue and that UC Davis is a key site for this new kind of collaborative work.