Promoting regenerative agriculture — farming practices that restore depleted soils and hold the promise of slowing down climate change — is often framed as one of those things that we human beings can and should do for the sake of the environment. For sake of the planet. To heal the Earth.
But frankly, that’s not on most people’s priority list. For many people, healing the Earth is a nice idea, but they have much more pressing and immediate concerns that directly involve themselves. Such as, how to be happy and healthy — how to maximize one’s well-being in an increasingly complex, busy and toxic world, with rising health care costs.
Well, I’m going to make a bold statement here: supporting regenerative farming is not just Earth care, it’s self-care. If you’re not going to do it because it’s good for the planet, do it because it’s good for YOU. By buying and eating food grown on such farms, you’re investing in your own health and vitality, and the benefits can be immediate.
Our current food culture is obsessed with wellness and nutrition. “Nutrient-dense” and “superfood” are the buzzwords among those who have the discretionary income to follow food trends. Whether they’re eating Paleo, gluten-free, vegan, high-carb, low-carb, organic, or are religiously devoted to green juices, everyone’s keen on getting the most bang for their buck — finding the ingredients or the combinations that will up their nutrient intake, boost their vitality, reduce inflammation, and so on. The same desire is fueling the multi-million dollar supplement industry.
The obsession with finding the next trendy superfood or miracle supplement has been sparked, in part, by the disconcerting reports that the nutrient and vitamin content of food is going down worldwide. This is at least in part due to modern chemical farming methods, which have stripped the soils of their minerals and nutrients. These mineral deficiencies have been linked to specific health issues, such as teenage depression, ADD, and autism. Yes, we have reason to be concerned.
But what if the true superfoods are not the next trendy tropical leafy green or exotic berry? What if the true superfoods — the foods that will truly improve your health — are simply any foods grown in or on healthy soil?
In other words, what if rejuvenating depleted soils is actually the best way for us to rejuvenate ourselves?
Many still assume that organic food is automatically optimal for health. Yes, organic food has been shown to have less pesticide residue and fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But organically grown food is not necessarily more nutritious than conventionally grown. “When researchers have looked at the impact of organic systems on both soil quality and food nutrient levels, they have found that they often fare no better than conventional farms,” writes Daphne Miller, M.D., in her book Farmacology (p. 49).
Where we do see a direct correlation is between the food’s nutrient content and soil health. Not all organic farms are necessarily improving soil health; many of them are in fact large monocrop farms and routinely till the soil, which kills the soil microbiology. If we focus on farms that are improving soil health — building humus (soil organic matter) and the amount of carbon in the soil — we start to see some startling evidence of improved nutrition. Miller’s Farmacology beautifully demonstrates this connection between farm ecosystem health and human health, weaving together stories from regenerative farms and interviews with doctors and scientists.
Why is soil health important for human health? There’s actually a really intimate connection between soil and the most intimate, innermost part of humans — our gut. More and more studies are showing the key role that our gut health plays for some of our biggest health issues. Depression, behavioral problems in kids and adolescents, cancer, asthma and allergies, and various immune system dysfunctions are just some of the issues that have been traced to the imbalance of our gut microbiota. Essentially, we don’t have enough “good bugs” in our systems. Our modern, predominantly urban, overly hygienic, anti-bacterial, over-medicated, sedentary lifestyles and the kind of diet characteristic of such lifestyles — excessive sugar, processed food and not enough fresh produce — have shifted our gut biomes away from the desirable kinds of “probiotic” species, and towards what Daphne Miller calls “the Homer Simpson bacteria”: the kinds that thrive on refined flour, sugar, and processed food.
But here’s the exciting part: you can start shifting your internal environment. You can start today. You do it by changing your food and where you source it from. We need more beneficial microbes in our guts, which means we need more of them in our food, which means we need more of them in our soils which grow the food.
And that’s where regenerative farming comes in.
Regenerative agriculture is a pretty new term for farming practices that specifically build healthy soil. Like organic farming, regenerative skips the chemical fertilizers and pesticides. But it goes beyond organic in that it, by definition, returns nutrients to the soil and builds up soil organic matter (humus). Regenerative farmers recognize that their primary assistants in this task of soil-building are the beneficial soil microbes and fungi, which help to create humus . That’s why they follow farming practices that don’t destroy these soil organisms, but on the contrary help them to thrive: not tilling the soil, intentionally managed intensive grazing of livestock, integrating annual and perennial crops (or plant crops and livestock) on the same land, and applying compost rich with beneficial micro-organisms. When these micro-organisms flourish in the soil, they make nutrients more available to plants, which in turn makes them bioavailable for humans.
So if you really want to eat food that’s optimal for your health, skip the trendy, overpriced superfoods and supplements, and instead eat from regenerated soils. Here are four key principles to follow:
- Look for regenerative farmers in your area and start meeting some of your weekly food needs through them. Depending on where you live, you can find fresh produce, grassfed and pastured animal proteins, fruit and nuts, or even no-till grains. Our Carbon Farm Map is a good place to start if you’re in the U.S.
- Don’t scrub or peel your produce too compulsively! You’re getting rid of the part that’s best for you (the peel and, yes, little bits of dirt – the kind that’s good for you).
- Include fermented and raw foods in your daily diet. Think sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, yogurt.
- The loss of nutrients over time starts right after harvest. Plant your own home veggie garden and harvest the goodies right before eating them.
To our planet’s health — and to yours!
For further reading: Health Ambition’s “15 Incredibly Nutrient Dense Foods”