Fred Provenza: Where Wonder Meets Science (And Why They Aren’t Mutually Exclusive)
Today, Dr. Fred Provenza talks about the many layers of intrinsic wisdom present in the natural world, from the perspective of a respected scientist and researcher. He is professor emeritus in the department of wildland resources at Utah State University, a renowned animal behaviorist and author of the recently published book Nourishment: What Animals Can Teach Us about Rediscovering Our Nutritional Wisdom. Fred has seen the entire discipline of ecology shifting toward holistic views, even as (and perhaps because) science continues to advance by leaps and bounds.
Listen in to hear about:
- Imbuing his writing (and latest book) with a little more heart and soul than your average scientific text.
- Plant consciousness and what Fred thinks about it—Totally implausible? Absolute fact? Tune in to find out.
- How plants can sense nutrients and how this “nutritional wisdom” has been lost in humans.
- The possibility of regaining nutritional wisdom (there may still be hope!)
- One low-cost change you can make in your life that will help “link us back to the land,” as Fred puts it.
Rootstock Radio Interview with Fred Provenza
Air Date: February 4, 2019
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m so honored to be here today speaking with Dr. Fred Provenza, who’s a professor emeritus in the Department of Wildland Resources at Utah State University. He is a renowned animal behaviorist as well as an author—and, actually, I read that he has been an author of as many as 250 publications, and he’s also been a speaker in over 300 international meetings. We will be speaking today, not so much about all those things, but about a wonderful book called Nourishment: What Animals Can Teach Us About Rediscovering Our Nutritional Wisdom. Welcome, Fred.
FRED PROVENZA: Thank you very much, Theresa. It’s wonderful to be here with you.
TM: You know, the first thing I will say, as I read your book, I am so excited about what I read about animals and plants. But as I read it, I felt like it was almost an autobiography, because I felt myself getting to know you, from being a young man all the way through to today, almost. Would you say it’s got that kind of biographical feeling to it—or part of it, anyway?
FP: Yes, it does for certain. You know, in the science literature we write in very boring kind of ways. And Nourishment was an attempt to really put some heart and soul into the writing and to try to personalize it.
Let me give you a little background on what, for me, Nourishment is really about. And I think it’s ultimately about the mysteries and wonders of a visit to Earth. For me, more than anything else, that’s what it’s about.
I wrote the book after I retired, while my wife and I were living in the peace and tranquility of the backwoods of Colorado. We were really 12 miles in on graveled road, far in as you could get; it was just incredible. In a word, it was a meditation. We were living at 9,500 feet elevation in the transition zone between the conifers and aspens in this beautiful, beautiful parkland of what’s referred to, it’s called South Park. We were surrounded in all directions—north, south, east, and west—by 14,000-foot peaks. So we were immersed in the beauty of nature, from the exquisite arrays of different plants to the wonderful arrays of different wild animals.
So it was a wonderful time and place to reflect on the mysteries of a universe in the process of consuming itself. From galaxies and stars in the cosmos to herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores above and below ground, right here on Earth. We live in a universe with some 200 to 300 million galaxies—just think of that—each with billions of stars. And at the center of each one of these galaxies is a black hole in the process of consuming the galaxy. We live on a planet where life lives literally by consuming itself below and above ground.
So, what I did in Nourishment is to use comparative food selection, nutrition, and health of plants and animals—from insects to we human beings—as a way to reflect on the mysteries and wonders of existence. So that, to me, is where I’m coming from in writing the book. And certainly it’s about nutrition and health, and comparative nutrition and health of everything from insect to humans, but that, to me, is a workhorse that I used to really tell what is, for me, a much more meaningful and important story.
TM: Well, you know, I have to agree with you that as I read it, I was so struck with so many amazing and wonderful things. You know, you talk about soil a lot. There was something that you said that really stood out for me as you talked about how roots can sense nutrients. And I thought to myself, you know, Paul Stamets said once, he thinks that mycelium is smarter than humans. And during that chapter where you talk about roots and plants and just how much intelligence they have, it made me think: What is intelligence? How are plants intelligent in the way that they sense nutrients?
FP: Absolutely the case. You know, years ago people were writing books about plant consciousness, and those books were really critiqued by scientists. But nowadays, there has been a tremendous, tremendous amount of work by really hard, hardcore plant physiologists, biochemists, that beyond a doubt they make the point that plants are intelligent; there’s this intelligence. And every cell in plants, and in us as well, every cell is conscious; there’s a consciousness there. And so, that’s not even really open for debate anymore with all the amazing work.
And then, as I explained in the book, my experience interacting with plants, and the plants teaching, were becoming a teacher of me. I was learning so much by the ways that they were responding, the defenses that they produce to protect them from being utilized too much. That’s a kind of consciousness, a response that the plant’s deliberately making.
And then, thinking of them as the first biochemists, we know that plants produce energy, protein, and so they create that, and they utilize minerals and so forth. But what’s amazing is this tremendous, tremendous number of these so-called secondary plants—plant’s compounds. The broad class is like phenolics and terpenes and alkaloids. And to realize that any plant is producing tens if not hundreds if not thousands of these compounds.
And so, they literally are the first biochemists, and they’re using that tremendous biochemistry as a way to interact with every facet of the environment. Herbivores and human beings are just one part of that. Every facet of their interaction with the environment is being mediated by these so-called secondary compounds, which we realize now that was a term that was labeled back in the days when people didn’t know the roles they play, all the ecological roles. Well, now we’ve come to appreciate this tremendous, tremendous amount of roles they play in functionality of plants with the environment, and then in the health of all the creatures that utilize plants. Those compounds are contributing to their health. So they’re not secondary compounds at all. They’re primary and just playing absolutely key roles in the health and well-being of ecosystems including this whole idea of consciousness, you know, and what that is.
TM: When we call them secondary, are they the same as phytochemicals?
FP: Yes. I use those terms interchangeably, and you’re right, Theresa. Originally people, biochemists who studied plants, came to understand the importance, of course, of energy and protein to the plant, and how plants make those, and then minerals and so forth and the roles that they were playing—nitrogen, NPK, and all those sort of things. And then there was this huge array of compounds that were, way back, referred to as waste products. They were viewed as waste products of plant metabolism, sort of the excrement of the plant.
Forty years ago when I became involved in the field, all these ecologists were studying these things, we were calling them secondary compounds. And now, as we’ve been saying, we’ve come to realize that they’re just fundamental to the health of ecosystems—not only the plants but every facet of the ecosystem, including the health of the animals that utilize those plants and those phytochemicals that are in the plants.
TM: I loved the chapter talking about how plants can protect themselves. First, they can sense nutrients and they can sense things are poison. And their roots, particularly, are just so linked with, I guess, the mycelium, I think is what they’re called, to even though they can’t go anywhere, they protect themselves. And I wondered if you could just say a little bit about how they are able to do that.
FP: Yeah, well literally, there is this huge underground network that links plants, not only of the same species but of different species as well. And so that network literally contributes to the health of all of the organisms in that environment.
You know, when I was at Utah State University many years ago, there were some mycologists in our department studying these things that, back in those days, it wasn’t well-known and well-appreciated all of the roles that these mycelium are playing underground and these fungal hyphaean relationships. That’s really come to be part of the forefront nowadays, compared to the days when these couple of colleagues were working in their little offices and out in the field to try to understand these relationships.
TM: Probably everyone thought they were wing nuts—
TM: —out there doing that. And the way that they’re all connected, I was thinking that maybe we learn a whole lot more from plants than just nourishment. Maybe we could study them and learn how they cooperate, and then maybe we could learn how to cooperate.
FP: No, well, that’s a fact. That’s a fact, you know. And if you are brought up in ecology, back in the day, anyway, the accent was really on competition, competition, competition. It’s a dog-eat-dog world; everything’s competing. I think those views are starting to change, and I think they’ll change in some major ways away from this idea of dog-eat-dog and total action on competition to the idea that it’s about interrelationships and cooperation, and the tremendous amount of cooperation that’s going on to enable these plant species to survive.
I’ve done a lot of work in Australia over the years—[unclear—“not”? “out in”?10:55] Western Australia, a very harsh kind of landscapes, yet this incredible, incredible biodiversity. And people there are really appreciating that it’s cooperation that’s enabling this tremendous number of different plant species to coexist and co-create in those landscapes.
TM: Well, I want to just go a little bit into: you’ve done some tremendous research, and it’s just fascinating. At first I thought I was reading a mystery novel. Can animals, or can they not, decide what their deficiencies are and choose plants that will correct that deficiency? What did you find out about that?
FP: You’re right, Theresa. Let’s explore that just a little bit. Being in a field is so important. Just being out because you love it, and watching what animals do, and seeing kooky things that they do. For instance, why [are] goats eating woodrat houses? Why are they doing that? Goats avoiding what we think is the, from lab analyses, is the most nutritious parts of the plants.
And then a belief that wasn’t common in those days at all—in fact, people did not believe that animals, domestic animals especially, had nutritional wisdom. There was this notion that wild animals had it, but we didn’t really understand it. And there’s this notion still today, I think, that humans don’t have nutritional wisdom; we’ve lost that.
So there was a belief, though, watching these animals that, you know, they know what they’re doing. They have to know what they’re doing, so how does that work? And then that led to 35, 40 years of research to try to understand: What is nutritional wisdom, and how does that work? Understand the whys and wherefores.
And that’s why our research becomes relevant, whether you’re talking about an insect or chipmunk or a human being. It’s when you start to think about the whys and how does it work, that takes you to process, that then helps you to understand, “Oh my goodness, we’re really not so different from a goat.” You know, on the surface you think, well, how does what a goat does relate to a human being? Or, let alone, an insect?
So there’s three legs of this stool that enables nutritional wisdom, and if you break any of one of those legs, you’re not going to have it. If you absolutely destroy all three of them, as we’ve done in human food systems, of course you don’t have it. And so, when people write review papers that say, “You know, there’s no evidence, really, of nutritional wisdom in humans,” sure, that’s right, there isn’t. And it’s because we’ve destroyed all three legs to the stool.
And the three legs are this: The one that twisted my mind when we started into it is what I refer to as “flavor feedback relationships.” You know, if you ask somebody why you like a particular food, we’re going to say, “Because it tastes good.” Why don’t you like it? “Because it tastes bad.” And that’s absolutely the case. It’s flavor that’s guiding our selection. And what we don’t realize, though, that was so mind-twisting to me in our research, is that it’s feedback that’s really changing our liking for the flavor of food. There’s no way to overstate how important that is.
And I often enter into this by saying, “Think about where food goes. Why do we eat food and where does it go?” And it’s interesting to throw that out. Where it goes is cells. What we’re feeding is cells—cells and organ systems, including the microbiome. Feedback is how cells and organ systems change our liking for the flavors of different foods. And they do that through a whole bunch of mechanisms that we don’t need to get into—neurotransmitters, peptides, hormones, nerves throughout the body. That’s an amazing morphology and physiology that underlies it. But the bottom line is, cells can only forge on what’s in capillaries. And the way that they influence what’s in capillaries is through feedback. So that’s one leg to this stool, and that’s fundamental to how any creature on the planet is built and how it functions.
But the second part that becomes so critical has to with herbivores, with plant diversity, having a diverse array of plants species available that becomes the nutrition center and the pharmacy. Well, the same thing is true for human beings. If we have a vast array of really wholesome foods—that means the vegetable matter, the fruit, the meat, the dairy products—if we have wholesome arrays of those available, the body knows what to do with that. And just because it’s a fruit or a vegetable doesn’t mean it’s wholesome. And just because it’s meat doesn’t mean it’s wholesome either. It depends on the varieties and the phytochemical richness of those when it comes to fruits and vegetables.
And from a standpoint of meat, it depends upon the diets that the animals are eating. If they’re eating phytochemically rich diets, those phytochemicals get into their meat and milk, and that leads to biochemically rich foods for humans. So this whole idea, then, of diversity in the diet and having that be wholesome diversity is the second leg to this stool.
The third leg to the stool is the social cultural part of things. And these linkages, how palates get linked to landscapes through the relationship between mother and offspring, and then extended families. You know, in wildlife species like we studied, and then in domestic species—cattle, sheep, and goats—when they’re allowed to be what they are, they live in extended families. And there’s different roles that those family members are playing. But just from the real practical standpoint of a young offspring, we know that in the womb they start to learn about the flavors of foods that Mother’s eating. Those flavors are cues as to what’s food after birth.
And we know also that genes are being expressed epigenetically by the fetus in the womb. Genes are being turned on and off that are going to enable that offspring to better utilize the foods that are in the environment. After birth, mother’s milk. And it’s so important to be nursing the child rather than having this artificially made substances that come from nowhere, that link—maybe they do, I guess, link us to our processed diets. But flavors in mother’s milk are cues again. And they’re switching on genes into what’s food and what’s not food. Then Mother is model, what and what not to eat, where and where not to go, what’s a predator, what’s not a predator.
All those were so fundamentally important to our survival as a species, historically, to the survival of species nowadays. That social, cultural, extended family part of things is the third part to the link. And those, all three of those, are just fundamental to having nutritional wisdom and health, and palates linked functionally and in healthy ways to environments. When you break those down—and as I say, not to be a broken record, but we’ve broken all three of those in human food systems—you simply do not have nutritional wisdom being manifest.
And, what is worse, is you don’t have humans that are linked in functional ways with the environments that ultimately nurture our health and well-being. And I see that as a very, very scary thing, where we are nowadays in society.
TM: Well, if you are just listening to us out there, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here today with Dr. Fred Provenza, professor emeritus in the Department of Wildland Resources at Utah University. And he’s a renowned animal behaviorist, and we are discussing his book, Nourishment: What Animals Can Teach Us About Rediscovering Our Nutritional Wisdom.
And so, you know, Fred, let’s talk a little bit more. What can we do here as humans? We know that animals maintain nutritional wisdom. Are they smarter than us?
FP: I think that’s a good question to ask. I don’t think that they’re any smarter than us. I think that they—especially the wild plants and animals—don’t live in welfare states of any sort. They have to make it on what’s out there in their environment. So there’s a real integrity there, and I think we can learn from that.
As you know, there’s this whole movement at a grassroots level, regenerative agriculture, that I think has so much value to add to human food systems. But people involved in agriculture, that’s less than two percent of the population here in the United States, and the folks involved in regenerative agriculture are even a smaller percentage of that. So, as the book moves on, I write about that and reflect on: Well, how could we link back with our landscapes?
And this is going to sound heretical, and it would take absolute transformation of consciousness, but I think if this happened, it really could get us linked back in. In the western U.S., we love to grow lawns, and we love to grow golf courses dominated by one plant species, Kentucky Bluegrass. We spend tremendous amounts of resources: the amount of water that we put on those, the amount of fossil fuels we use to cut those, the amount of herbicide we use to keep not even one dandelion in those. That’s a tremendous, tremendous cost. And it means we have to work hard to do that.
What I would suggest is that the native plant species that grew—which would vary tremendously depending on where you are in the western United States or the east or whatever—those are beautiful. They’re magnificent manifestations of what’s able to make it in those environments. And they do it at zero cost, because that’s where they evolved to be.
My mother had raised plants ever since I was a child; she loved plants. So I’d seen plants all the time in our yard. But I never really saw a plant until I took a taxonomy class in college. And we had to go out, collect and identify 50 different plant species. And it was just, it was absolutely stunning to me, the beauty of those different plant species. And to realize that that’s what grows naturally, and to realize that as you go from early spring to summer, to autumn, all these different suites of plants and coming going. They each do their thing and reproduce and then the next suite comes. It’s a never-ending bouquet of these beautiful, beautiful manifestations of plants.
And so, my wife Sue and I live in Ennis, Montana, and we have an acre and a half of land. There was a little bit of lawn that was planted here, and the rest of it was beat to death. And we decided we are going to encourage the native plant species that grow in this area in our yard. And over the last couple of years, it’s incredible. The diversity, the way those plants have taken over, for one. The incredible diversity of those different plant species, for two. And so here you have this manifestation of these beautiful plant species.
We decided, too, we’re going to plant all kinds of these native shrubs that grow in the environment that produce berries, that are wonderful for different wildlife species. We planted probably 150 different species of plants in our yard. We planted all kinds of tree species. Then we wanted to grow vegetable gardens, which we’ve done ever since we’ve been together for virtually 50 years. Herbal gardens, medicinal gardens—all those are ways that start to link individuals back with landscapes. And so you don’t have to be a farmer or a rancher involved in regenerative agriculture. Each one of us can do that in our own property. But it literally will take a transformation of consciousness. And it’s low cost!
We did a lifetime study of this, and I was just in a long interview with a lady about functionally what it means in terms of least-cost operations for ranchers on landscapes. All this is least cost because it’s thinking about how does nature work? And then emulating nature, and then letting nature self-organize in our presence. Rather than fighting everything constantly, it’s simply going with the flow.
When I wrote the book, we were living in the backwoods of Colorado, as you know, surrounded by these beautiful, beautiful arrays of different plant species: grasses, forbs, shrubs, and all these different species of birds and mammals. And all that is, it’s existing at no cost. We didn’t have to plant a thing. We just had to sit back and enjoy the beauty and the wonder of all that, and then watch all the animal species interacting with one another and the plants. And that’s at zero cost. Zero cost to society in terms of resources like water in the arid West, fossil fuels, let alone all the pesticides we put on to declare war on nature rather than declare love and nurture and realize we’re part of that beautiful system.
I quote this in the very opening of the book, out of the Tao Te Ching: You know, when we try to control things, we end up, it seems like, always in trouble with these kind of relationships.
TM: And I loved one of the quotes that you had in there that I wrote down, and it said, “Nature does not exist for the convenience of man.” What do you think it’s going to take to get us back to that nutritional wisdom, that little bit of understanding how we work with nature, not fight it? How we learn to cooperate like the plants do and their root system. Any thoughts on how we can accelerate change?
FP: Well, I think no creature ever changes just ’cause; just ’cause it’s a nice thing to do. You know, “Well, that would be nice to change.” [In] Our work with wild domestic animals, nothing changes, and we don’t either. You have to be forced. You literally have to be smashed down into submission. And I don’t want to end this on a negative note, because it’s not negative. But I see all these health issues, I see what’s happening with changing climates, as both a blessing and a curse.
It’s a curse for the havoc it’s going to wreak on all the populations on this planet. It’s a blessing because it may be what it takes, finally, to get our attention to say, look, if we’re going to continue as a species on this planet—we know life will go on; there’ve been five mass extinctions, we’re participating in the sixth right now, so life’s going to go on. But if we, as a species, want to be on this planet, it’s going to take a total transformation of our consciousness, I have no question about that. And I don’t mean this in a negative sense, but I think that’s what it’s going to take.
And I think if we make it, we will be transformed in our consciousness and our relationship. We will no longer be declaring war on everything. We will have learned how, through nurturing relationships, to co-create and coevolve in the environments—the ever-changing environments we inhabit. That’s my thought on the deal.
TM: That is beautiful, Fred. And it’s just such a delight to talk with you; it’s so stimulating. Fred Provenza, his book Nourishment: What Animals Can Teach Us About Rediscovering Our Nutritional Wisdom, is a lovely book with just so much wisdom in it. Thank you so much.
FP: Well, Theresa, thank you for the honor to be here with you, and thank you.
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