Gary Paul Nabhan | Photo by Dennis Moroney

Gary Paul Nabhan

Gary Paul Nabhan is an internationally celebrated nature writer, food and farming activist, and proponent of conserving the links between biodiversity and cultural diversity. He has been been honored as a pioneer and creative force in the “local food movement” and seed saving community by Utne Reader, Mother Earth News, New York Times, Bioneers, and Time magazine.

As the W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Arizona Southwest Center, he works with students, faculty and non-profits to build a more just, nutritious, sustainable, and climate-resilient foodshed spanning the U.S./Mexico border. He was among the earliest researchers to promote the use of native foods in preventing diabetes, especially in his role as a co-founder and researcher with Native Seeds/SEARCH. Gary is also personally engaged as an orchard-keeper, wild foods forager, and pollinator habitat restorationist working from his small farm in Patagonia, Arizona near the Mexican border. He has helped forge “the radical center” for collaborative conservation among farmers, ranchers, indigenous peoples and environmentalists in the West. He played key roles in establishing the Ironwood Forest National Monument, community-based seed banks, land reserves for conserving wild crop relatives, and restored habitats for migratory pollinators throughout the West.

Agricultural historian Peter Hatch of Monticello has called Nabhan “the lyrical scholar of genetic diversity.” As an Arab-American essayist and poet, he is author or editor of twenty-four books, some of which have been translated into Arabic, Spanish, Italian, French, Croation, Korean, Chinese and Japanese. For his creative writing and its influence on community-based conservation, he has been honored with a MacArthur “genius” award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a Southwest Book Award, the John Burroughs Medal for nature writing, the Vavilov Medal, and several honorary degrees and lifetime achievement awards.

He works most of the year as a research scientist at Tumamoc Hill and the Southwest Center of the University of Arizona, but he is also engaged with several food justice and farming alliances, including Sabores Sin Fronteras, Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance, Wild Farm Alliance, Renewing America’s Food Traditions, and the Borderlands Habitat Restoration Initiative. Nabhan is humbled and honored to serve as a professed Ecumenical Franciscan brother, helping the Franciscan Action Network in shaping ethical responses to environmental injustice, to immigration issues, and to climate change.


Hands holding a sapling with soil. Photo by Kyle Ellefson/Unsplash

The Healthiest Thing You Can Do Today? Get Dirty!

Turns out that working to restore our lands is good for our personal health.

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published July 24, 2019 in Earth Island Journal.

Americans now spend a stunning 90 percent of their time indoors. Our sedentary, screen-addicted lifestyles have been blamed for a range of ills — including obesity, attention problems, allergies and more.

We know that getting out of the house and into nature confers many benefits for physical and mental health. But there’s an additional benefit you might not know about: contact with the soil — good old dirt — enriches the gut microbiome, the community of microorganisms that inhabit our digestive tracts. A growing body of evidence shows that a healthy gut microbiome is essential for our wellbeing. Moreover, new research indicates that by restoring soil health, we can restore our internal microbial communities — a win-win for nature and human beings alike.

When I think about the protective power of dirt, I remember my own childhood. When I was released from grade school at the onset of summer, my mother would throw away my shoes and let me roam barefoot through the Indiana Dunes until Labor Day. Even though we lived not far from Gary, Indiana’s steel mills and oil refineries, there were thickets, prairie patches, and shallow marshes large enough to keep my brothers, cousins, and me occupied from dawn until dusk. During our explorations on the city’s edge, I would occasionally eat clay or rabbit scat (which I mistook for raisins), drink water straight out of Lake Michigan, or chew on leaves of wild grapes and sassafras.

You can bet it never dawned on me nor my parents that I might be enriching my gut microbiome through such audacious acts of eating on the wild side. But I was blessed by repeated exposure to myriad beneficial microbes, and no doubt some troublesome ones as well. They probably primed my immune system and protected me from all manner of diseases for many years to come.

Most of us who grew up in US cities belatedly learned of the protective interactions between diverse soil and gut biota only after we “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” My generation was perhaps the first among Americans to suffer what journalist and author Moises Velasquez-Manoff has called an epidemic of absence.

Velasquez-Manoff coined that phrase to refer to a whole set of diseases that may be triggered by the loss of microbes in our guts and on our skin. Each of us contains multitudes: the millions of microbes in our bodies have evolved along with us, and play vital if not fully understood roles in regulating our immune systems. We do know that diminished gut microbiota, which is common in developed countries, is associated with higher rates of autoimmune disease, allergy, depression, and more.

Today, many epidemiologists, ecologists and public health experts believe that those diseases result from pervasive changes in our landscapes, in addition to the misuse of antibiotics and agrichemicals, and the barrage of toxic chemicals now pervasive in the air, in our fabrics, and in our diets.

Increasingly, they point to the rather sudden, precipitous declines of certain microbes in our bodies, resulting from our diminished contact with the fertile earth that once lay beneath our feet. The Human Urban Microbiome Initiative (HUMI) website now lists well over a dozen maladies that afflict urban youth, in contrast to their peers who grow up on farms or surrounded by wildlands.

HUMI contends that the lack of protracted contact with a wild and diverse soil microbiome may make children more vulnerable to ADHD, allergies, cancers, cardiovascular disease, depression, diabetes, inflammation-related pain, migraine headaches, muscular dysfunction, and vertigo, among other disorders.

This suite of disorders is not necessarily due to a general lack of engagement with “nature.” It is not so much about the birds and the bees, or a dearth of outdoor recreation opportunities in manicured parks. Instead, it may arise when there is a lack of frequent inoculation of the human microbiome with a diverse set of species that inhabit healthy soil.  

Our access to healthy landscapes and the beneficial microbes hidden within them has been disrupted by decades of land development, habitat fragmentation, contamination and homogenization. Unfortunately, microbiomes in urban green spaces have not been well studied. But research shows that it is possible to restore degraded soil microbiomes to approximate wild, unspoiled areas. That’s why my friend James Aronson of the Missouri Botanical Garden claims that we need to mobilize a global effort to restore the health of damaged ecosystems, in ways that might just restore our own health as well.

In May, Aronson and I heard Chris Skelly, HUMI’s International Program Director, make a show-stopping statement at the kick-off meeting of the new international EcoHealth Network  in St. Louis, Missouri:

“What destroys the health of ecosystems and their soil microbiome and what destroys the health of people are one and the same. So we find ourselves at a tipping point. We will now require biodiverse green spaces in urban settings to restore health to our communities...We must look beyond the conventional health care system to biodiversity to heal our ills, for conserving the diversity in our soils may be the most effective health intervention we can ever make.”

Despite the magnitude of the challenge, there is room for hope. At the EcoHealth Network meeting, Martin Breed — a scholar of ecosystem health, restoration ecology, and genomics based at the University of Adelaide, Australia — observed that much is being done, and there is more we can do to restore such green spaces to our metro areas:

 “Urban restoration is the new frontier,” said Breed. “And fortunately, the healthiest thing you can do in this world is to get physically engaged in ecological restoration.”

That’s right — by getting your hands dirty planting trees or building soil erosion control structures — you are not only conserving biodiversity, you are also inoculating yourself with microbes that you yourself may need. One study found that contact with healthy soil had such a powerful effect on human health, it was equivalent to increasing socioeconomic status.

What’s more, there are other benefits from the positive social contacts and community cohesion you experience when you work to restore soil health with others of different races, classes, faiths or political persuasions. These are the “spill-over” effects of what Native American ecologist Robin Kimmerer calls reciprocal restoration: “As we work together to restore our homelands, we ourselves are restored,” she writes.

The new research has implications for how we protect and enjoy nature. As Henry David Thoreau shouted out during one of his epiphanies, our experience with the natural world requires “Contact! Contact!”

Today, our hands-on contact with nature is minimal. The wildlands and scenic rivers we once set aside as parks for our children’s health and enjoyment have become overdeveloped, filled up with sports arenas, parking lots, concrete-lined swimming pools, and sterile bleachers.

We do not need to pave every new pathway running through our parklands, nor make all our children who visit such places “stay on the trail” as they now must do even when visiting Walden Pond, where Thoreau once lived.

They need contact with the blessed earth itself: the tilth of well-managed soil; the furriness of moss- and lichen-covered rocks; the roughness of tree bark and smoothness of driftwood; the sweet-and-sour fragrances of compost; the subtle pungency of aged manures and mulches.  

We need to rewild our urban sanctuaries set aside long ago as parks and forest reserves. The matrix of asphalt and cement have turned them into islands. Rather than building more roads, parking garages and hermetically-sealed stadiums on these lands, we need to restore their biological diversity, getting rid of sterile buildings, as well as intensively sprayed, meticulously mowed lawns and putting greens.

We need to plant them with native plants like Canada wild rye, sideoats grama, bluestems, and Indiangrass, and inoculate the plants with mycorrhizae. We need to sow prairie coneflowers, bee balms, wild mints, and sunflowers in their midst. We need perennialize them, so that prairie dogs and gophers can manage the soil, rather than letting tractors and rototillers and lawnmowers do that work.

And when a court determines that some “truant” youth needs to do community services to atone for his or her sins, we need to let them join a work crew of restoration ecologists who are sowing pollinator meadows, spreading compost on damaged lands, or transplanting trees for a fencerow to hold a riverbank in place.

In Patagonia, Arizona, where I now live, our Borderlands Restoration Network has engaged over 150 youth in activities like these over the last five years. The young people work five hours a day, for five weeks of their summer. Some come from the declining border towns of Nogales and Douglas, Arizona, where asphalt and cinderblocks cover more ground than mesquite and desert wildflowers. But now many of our multicultural border youth are delighted to be camping, building dams to slow soil erosion, replenishing depleted soils with compost, and gardening with their hands deep in the dirt.

These “Borderlands Earth Care Youth” have not only gotten inoculated with microbes during their work together; they have also been inoculated with hope.

Perhaps both the microbiome and hope itself regenerate and flourish when we are engaged with other lives unlike our own — lives that may otherwise hidden from our view and from our hearts.

And perhaps we need to take the awesome pledge that Wendell Berry once shaped into a beautiful chain of words: “What I stand for is what I stand on.”

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Build a Border Wall? Here's a Better Idea

What border communities really need are solutions to address economic, health and climate problems — and the mesquite tree can help.

This opinion piece was originally published February 20, 2019 on The Revelator

President Trump has declared a national emergency to fund a wall along our nation’s southern border. The border wall issue has bitterly divided people across the United States, becoming a vivid symbol of political deadlock.

But for many of us who actually live along the U.S.-Mexico border, the wall is simply beside the point. We know that a wall can’t fix the problems that straddle the boundary between our nations; nor will it build on our shared strengths. So a group of us — ranchers, farmers, conservationists, chefs, carpenters, small business owners and public-health professionals from both sides of the border — have come up with a better idea. We call it the Mesquite Manifesto.

Our plan would tackle the root causes of problems that affect border communities on both sides. While the media have fixated on the difficult conditions in Mexico (and other Central American nations) that propel immigrants northward, there are real problems on the U.S. side too. The poverty rate in this region is twice as high as for the nation as a whole, and joblessness drives many into the lucrative drug trade. Poor diets and inadequate healthcare contribute to high rates of disease: Nearly one-third of those who live along the border suffer from diabetes. And a rapidly growing population, along with rising demand from industry and agriculture, is stressing the region’s limited water supply — a problem made worse by the changing climate.

To address these problems and build a sustainable future for the region as a whole, we look to mesquite, the iconic native tree that grows in every county and municipio along the border. Its gnarly branches have provided food, fuel, medicine, shade and shelter to indigenous communities in the borderlands for more than eight millennia.

Deep-rooted mesquite trees such as velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina) and honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) are remarkably drought-resistant, anchoring the arid desert land and fixing nitrogen to improve the soil. Their seeds contain more protein than soybeans and can be milled to make flour with a low glycemic index, which helps regulate blood sugar.

It’s no wonder that mesquite long sustained indigenous communities in this fragile land. What is remarkable is that mesquite is seen as a nuisance tree by many who live here now. Indeed there’s scientific consensus that mesquites are among the most “under-managed” resources on our continent, though they cover nearly 200 million acres of arid and semi-arid lands in Mexico and the United States.

Continue reading "Build a Border Wall? Here's a Better Idea" here...

Island Press Field Notes blog

Hold the Soy, Save the Pollinators

Instead of compensating soybean farmers for losses, we should pay them to plant native perennials to protect bees and butterflies.

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Op-Ed Was Originally Published November 30, 2018 In Civil Eats.

These are tough times for soybean farmers. As President Trump’s trade war with China drags on, retaliatory tariffs are clobbering soybean prices—and some farmers are selling their crops at a loss.

The federal government has stepped up to help: At the urging of Midwestern senators, the USDA is compensating farmers for some of their losses, shelling out $3.6 billion to soybean farmers so far. While the subsidy is appreciated, many soy farmers I’ve talked to see it as a politically motivated handout that won’t help them in the long run. They would rather work toward lasting solutions than accept a quick fix.

So, here’s a proposal. Instead of simply compensating farmers for their losses, let’s pay them to plant native perennials on land taken out of soy production. If we do that for a decade or more, we can help restore lifesaving habitat for monarch butterflies and bumblebees—saving these critical species from extinction, and protecting the future of American agriculture.

Pollinators are in deep trouble: some bumblebees have been listed as endangered species; the majestic monarchs, which have declined more than 80 percent in the last two decades, are likely to be listed next year. Pollinators are essential to the web of life—and to three fourths of all crops grown in the U.S. Their loss would be devastating for many American farmers. Moreover, if the monarchs are listed as threatened—a determination that must be made in 2019 — farmers will have to cope with tight regulatory constraints on how they grow their crops and use their land.

Habitat loss is a major cause of the pollinators’ decline. In part, that’s because millions of acres that were once part of the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the federal program that pays farmers to set farmland aside, have been put back into corn cultivation over the last decade because farmers can get bigger subsidies for ethanol production.

Other habitat is threatened by commonly used agrichemicals. A recent report by the Center for Biological Diversity suggests that 9 million acres of monarch and bee habitats could be damaged by the off-target movement of the herbicide dicamba. Chemicals like dicamba and glyphosate kill native milkweed, which feeds monarch caterpillars.  We need 1.5 billion new milkweed sprouts to stave off further monarch declines.

The good news is that farmers are aware of the problem—and many are willing to help. In the 2016 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, 81 percent of the farmers surveyed said they were aware of monarch declines, and 65 percent were concerned about them. A majority of the farmers said they would like to learn how to improve monarch and pollinator habitat on and near their land.

That’s not just idle talk. Since 2008, the Xerces Society has trained more than 120,000 farm professionals in pollinator habitat conservation and restoration; many more have participated in workshops facilitated by the federal government, universities and non-profits. According to Mace Vaughan of Xerces, those efforts have helped restore more than a half million acres of wildflower-rich habitat on working farms across the U.S.

The current trade crisis offers an opportunity to greatly expand these efforts. Given the falling price of soybeans, we could see 6.7 million fewer acres planted in soynext spring.  While many farmers will switch to corn, cotton, or another crop, some of that acreage may remain fallow due to the high transition costs of planting other crops. If even a portion of that land was restored as habitat, we might be able to save pollinators from extinction.

The 2016 Iowa farm survey revealed that a quarter of the farmers were on board to plant as much as 4.8 acres with native plants each, if they could receive full reimbursements for planting and maintaining pollinator habitats. Extrapolated out to just a quarter of all of the 300,000 current soybean farmers in our country, that would suggest that more than 360,000 acres of pollinator habitat could have been voluntarily planted even before the tariff wars began.

Imagine that the current incentives (CRP funds, National Fish and Wildlife Federation grants, and Monarch Collaborative grants and contracts) support farmers to ramp up the plantings to 360,000 acres of additional pollinator habitat for each of the next five years, supporting 900 million additional monarchs in new milkweed-rich pollinator habitat.

But we don’t need to stop there. To save the monarchs—and prevent their listing as an endangered species—we’ll need as many as 1.8 billion additional stems of milkweed plants in North America, according to a recently published U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study. Scientists with the USGS found that a total of 3.6 billion milkweed stems are needed in the landscape to reestablish a stable monarch population, but only 1.34 billion stems remain in the U.S.

Next year, farmers are expected to plant 82.5 million acres in soy, down from 89.1 in 2018—a decline of 6.6 million acres. If they plant 500 milkweed stems on just over half of those acres—3.6 million—we’d have the needed 1.8 billion milkweed stems to assure a viable monarch reproduction and successful migration.

Since soy farmers say they don’t just want a handout, let them get paid for bringing back pollinators instead. Soy farmers received a substantial cash infusion from taxpayers to ease their suffering from the tariff wars. And that was on the heels of U.S. farm policies that facilitated 17 straight years of growth in sales of soy to China.  That two-decade surge in the proliferation of herbicide-resistant soy came at the expense of much needed pollinator habitat in the Midwest, and in particular, at the cost of imperiled monarchs.

It’s time for the 300,000 soy farmers in the U.S. to sing for their supper. I  propose that bean farmers given cash infusions be mandated to put a percentage of acres formerly reserved for soy into pollinator habitat, using funds from NFWF, NCRS, the Monarch Collaborative, and industry to support monarch and bee recovery over the next five years.  The percentage should be calculated to ensure adequate habitat for the monarchs and other pollinators.

Today, farmers and pollinators are both in trouble. By diverting a portion of farm subsidies and wildlife conservation funds to support monarch habitat restoration, we can ease the financial strain on soybean farmers, while saving the pollinators on which we all depend.

Urban Resilience