Why Supporting Regenerative Agriculture Is The Most Powerful Thing You Can Do For Your Health

Healthy soil equals healthy people.

September 18, 2017
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When we talk about sustainable farming practices, we tend to focus on its importance for the environment, for our food security, and our desire to put food on the table that’s not contaminated with pesticides. But there’s an important topic doesn’t get talked about often enough: how food sustainability is inextricably tied to our health.

Over the past decade, physicians have increasingly recognized the importance of good nutrition to human health. An article published last week in The Journal of the American College Of Nutrition noted that the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases such as as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease is linked to long-term poor nutrition. Good nutrition, on the other hand, is one of the most powerful (and least expensive) forms of preventative healthcare you have at your disposal. A good diet can help prevent heart disease, diabetes, obesity, autoimmune and digestive disorders, and several types of cancers.

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(Brag your love of gardening with the Organic Life 2018 Calendar, featuring gorgeous photographs, cooking tips and recipes, plus how to eat more—and waste less!—of what's in season.)

And it turns out that the best food for you–the most nutritious food–is food that comes from a sustainable food system.

The foundation of a healthy diet is whole fruits and vegetables, which contain vitamins, minerals, macronutrients, and phytochemicals—and compounds only found in plants, like lycopene, that are essential to our health.

Many of the compounds essential to human health are destroyed when whole fruits, vegetables, and grains are processed into shelf-stable foods. To make for their lack of nutrition (especially vitamins), synthetic nutrients are added to processed foods. However, studies show that certain synthetic nutrients pale in comparison to natural ones—even those found in synthetic supplements (particularly vitamin E and vitamin D).

Did you know that banana peels are even more nutritions than bananas? Here are 7 reasons to add 'em to your next smoothie:

Some investigations of organic food show it to be better for you in a number of ways. The European Parliament Research Service’s Scientific Foresight Unit reviewed of all the recently published laboratory, human, agricultural, and consumer studies that looked at the impact of organic and conventional food on human health. They released their findings in December 2016 as “Human Health Implications of Organic Food and Organic Agriculture.” They found organic offered distinct advantages over conventionally farmed produce in terms of having smaller amounts of pesticide residues, fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and exposing consumers to less cadmium. Other studies have found higher amounts of healthy omega-3’s in organic meat and dairy products.

 

But organic produce isn’t necessarily more nutritious than conventional. According to Allen Barker, Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at University of Massachusetts Amherst, nutrient availability doesn’t fall neatly on an organic versus conventional spectrum.

“I found little or no differences between organically fertilized crops and chemically fertilized crops,” said Barker of his research on accumulated nutrients.

However, there is a direct connection between soil health and food's nutrient content.

While organic farming practices are less damaging to soil health than conventional, not all organic farmers are actively building soil health—The USDA rules for organic focus on mitigating environmental damage through the use of synthetic pesticides, sewage sludge, and genetic engineering.

And it’s good soil management that is the key to nutritious foods.

Healthy soil is more than just dirt—it’s a living collection of microscopic creatures, minerals and bits of living material. Soil is healthy when organisms in the soil are present and doing the work they are supposed to do to support the growth of plants.

Related: These Microscopic Animals That Live In Soil Are Unexpectedly Adorable

But gardening and farming that relies on heavy doses of synthetic chemicals and fertilizers destroys beneficial life in the soil, leaving plants without this important support system. While chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides protect plants from pests and provide them with nutrients, over time they adversely affect soil life.

“Generally, more nutrients are removed from soils by crop production than are returned back to the soil,” said Barker.

 

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“Because synthetic fertilizers either kill or repel bacteria…or don’t contain the organic bulk that natural fertilizers do, plants get fed, but soil structure doesn’t get built,” writes Jeff Lowenfels in his book Teaming With Nutrients. Regenerative farming practices return nutrients to the soil and build up organic matter, and encourage the flourishing of micro-organisms which in turn ensure that the soil’s diverse nutrients are then taken up by plants, where they become bioavailable to humans.

Next time you’re at the farmers market, ask your farmer what they are doing to build soil health. Support farmers who support healthy soil (read more about the new Regenerative Organic Certification label), and think about the weight of your choices. The sustainable produce in your palm isn’t just a snack—it’s an investment in your health.