I want to share with you a topic that has become near and dear to my heart, and one that I think has the potential to transform human health and the health of our planet. That topic? Regenerative Agriculture.
What is Regenerative Agriculture?
Regenerative Agriculture is a set of farming and grazing practices focused on the restoration of healthy, fertile soil. According to Australian regenerative farmer, Charles Massy, it is an ecological approach to farming that enables landscapes to renew themselves. He calls it a practice of enabling Nature rather than dominating it. It is beyond organic and far more impactful.
[For a great TED Talk on this topic, click https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QfTZ0rnowcc]
Why Focus on Soil?
To answer that, let’s compare soil to dirt. Soil is a complex, living ecosystem teeming with life. Dirt is degraded soil that is devoid of life. To give you a sense of just how alive soil is, there are more microorganisms in 1 teaspoon of soil than there are people on the Earth! When you add to this the countless worms, insects, and living root systems found in healthy soil, it becomes clear that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to soil.
Healthy soil increases crop yields, resistance to droughts and pests, and produces healthier, more nutrient-dense plants. The animals (including us humans) that eat these healthier, more nutrient-dense plants are, of course, healthier as well. It’s fairly simple. Without healthy soil, you can’t grow healthy crops or raise healthy animals.
A Crisis of Soil
The United States has been called the world’s bread basket due to the prodigious amount of cereal grains we produce. We have long benefitted from the natural fertility of our land. Regrettably, this is no longer the case. We are currently losing topsoil faster than it can be naturally replenished. New soil is created at a rate of 1-2 inches every several hundred years—that’s a long time! We are currently losing topsoil 10 times faster than it can be replenished. The situation is far worse in other parts of the world. Half of the world’s topsoil has been lost in the last 150 years.
What Has Caused Our Current Soil Crisis?
In a word, agriculture. Tilling fields, synthetic fertilizers, and chemical herbicides and pesticides have degraded our soil, leading to widespread erosion and the loss of topsoil. As a result, our agricultural system has become ever more reliant on ever heavier doses of synthetic inputs to grow increasingly nutrient-depleted crops.
What is it about Tilling and Chemical Inputs that Undermines Our Ability to Produce Resilient Nutrient-Dense Food?
Tilling tears apart the root and fungal networks that hold soil together. These networks not only keep the soil on the ground, they enable plants to access nutrients, cause soil to retain water— making crops more drought resistant—and provide a home to billions of microorganisms. The microbes are absolutely essential as they drive 90% of soil functions.
Chemical herbicides and pesticides kill soil microbes and destroy fungal networks. Synthetic fertilizers act to bind (chelate) essential minerals, such as iron, zinc, magnesium, and copper, further depriving the plants (and the animals that consume them) of vital nutrients. The result: chemically drenched, nutrient-depleted food, as well as grave threats to our food security.
How Does Regenerative Agriculture Overcome these Problems?
Regenerative Agriculture seeks to mimic Nature, tapping into her tremendous regenerative capacity, and, in the process, replenishes topsoil at an extremely accelerated pace.
Regenerative Agriculture relies on 5 basic practices:
- Zero to minimal tilling and no chemical inputs.
- Cover cropping and crop rotation.
- Keeping living roots in the soil and composting.
- Promotion of biodiversity (with dozens and dozens of different species found on a single farm, rather than single crop monocultures).
- Rotational grazing techniques.
Collectively, these practices restore soil stability, prevent erosion, build soil biomass (think microbes and fungal networks), improve water retention, and increase nutrient availability. With improved soil health serving as a foundation, entire ecosystems can be brought back to life. There are many documented examples within Regenerative Agriculture circles of deserts transforming into abundant, biodiverse grasslands teeming with plant and animal life. (Click here to see some startling photos.)
Impacts on Human Health
We can now begin to envision some of the ways in which Regenerative Agriculture can improve human health. Eating a nutrient-dense diet is the basic tenet of our nutrition program at Arizona Natural Health Center. We generally accomplish this by promoting a whole foods diet, rich in vegetables and fruits. Sadly, the nutrient density of our food has declined sharply over the last 50-70 years. One study concluded that we would have to eat 8 oranges today to get the same amount of Vitamin A that our grandparents got from eating one. Wow! Fortunately, Regenerative farming practices restore the nutrient density of our food.
Nutrient-density is one part of the equation. Toxins are another. Regenerative Agriculture reduces our toxic exposures because regenerative farmers do not use chemical herbicides and pesticides. These chemicals are poisons, originally developed as chemical weapons and war-time defoliants. They are designed to kill. And just as they kill weeds, insects, and soil microbes, they kill us, only more slowly. Chemical herbicides and pesticides kill off the highly beneficial bacteria that live within our guts and throughout our bodies. These chemicals are associated with numerous health concerns, including skin, digestive, neurologic, respiratory, and reproductive diseases, cancers, and hormonal disruption.
Impacts on Planetary Health
The potential impacts of Regenerative Agriculture on planetary health are vast. One of these is probably obvious. If chemical toxins are bad for human health, they are likely equally harmful to the planet and the countless forms of life that inhabit it. The fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides used in conventional agriculture seep into our water supply.
Each year, scientists observe a dead zone where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico. No marine life can live within the dead zone, destroying vital fisheries. The size of the dead zone varies from year to year with the largest dead zone thus far recorded (2017) the size of the state of New Jersey! The source of the dead zone? Synthetic fertilizers and chemical herbicides and pesticides leaching out of America’s farm belt and into the Mississippi River. Equally concerning, glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weed killer Round-Up, has recently been detected in tap water. By eliminating chemical inputs, Regenerative Agriculture can eliminate this problem.
Reduced chemical toxicity may be the most obvious benefit of Regenerative Agriculture on planetary health, but it may not be the largest or most important. Enter carbon. Every living thing on planet Earth is made of carbon. Carbon is also the source of greenhouse gases that threaten the Earth’s climate. Carbon itself is not the problem. Carbon makes life possible. The problem arises when carbon is not where it is supposed to be.
Soil is the largest carbon storage system on the planet. There is more carbon in soil than in the atmosphere and all the world’s plants combined! When there is too much carbon in the atmosphere, it causes the greenhouse effect. When there is too little carbon in the soil, it becomes lifeless dirt. Conventional agriculture releases carbon into the atmosphere by destroying soil. Regenerative Agriculture puts the carbon back in the ground by restoring soil. If we increase the amount of carbon in soil by 0.4% per year, it could offset all the carbon pumped into the air by humans.
Connecting the Dots
Planetary health and human health are inextricably linked. We cannot have one without the other. And the basic design principles are the same for both. While we have been culturally steeped in the belief that Nature is intrinsically competitive (think ‘Survival of the Fittest’), a growing body of science is demonstrating that Nature is equally collaborative—if not more so.
Biodiversity is at the root of all healthy living systems, whether we are talking about tiny microscopic organisms, massive forest ecosystems, or human organisms. Just as microbial diversity is a key indicator of soil health, and the diversity of the gut microbiome is a key indicator of human health, plant biodiversity is a key indicator of forest health.
I love to spend time in Nature, especially the mountains of northern Arizona. In these beautiful forests, the interplay between biodiversity and health is readily apparent. Healthy, old growth forests are a panoply of diverse species. Huge Douglas fir, Blue spruce and towering Ponderosa pines intermingle with aspen, ferns, and moss, as well as abundant animal life. This is in stark comparison to previously logged areas that contain mostly pines and shelter fewer animals. We are all connected. Not just us humans to one another, but to all the countless lifeforms with whom we share the planet. If we want to be healthy, we have to assure their health as well.
In Naturopathic Medicine, we talk about fixing the terrain. In contrast to conventional medicine, where we focus on exterminating, or at least managing, the disease as something somehow apart from us, in Naturopathic Medicine we focus on changing the terrain. Diseases are not separate from us, they are us. They are the signs of unhealthy terrain. Just as degraded soil produces plants that succumb to droughts and pests, degrading our inner terrain causes us to succumb to disease and poor health. And just as regenerative farmers follow a set of principles that improve soil health as a means to improve plant and animal health, naturopathic doctors follow a set of principles that improve the health of our inner terrain as a means of improving human health.
Nature is highly resilient. Regeneration is a part of the basic fabric of life. If abundant, healthy grasslands can be restored through the practices of Regenerative Agriculture, imagine what is possible when you provide your body and mind with a nutrient-dense diet, regular movement, sufficient sleep, and a positive mindset?
What You Can Do Right Now
I want to close by giving you some concrete steps you can take right now to promote Regenerative Agriculture.
- Support a local regenerative farmer. Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and receive a box of fresh, nutrient-dense produce each week or go to your local farmers market. Either way, make sure to ask the farmer whether he or she employs regenerative practices. If you are in the Phoenix area, you can buy a farm box from Rhiba Farms, a small regenerative farm in San Tan Valley with drop off locations throughout the Valley.
- Donate to organizations that promote Regenerative Agriculture or that assist farmers in making the transition. One such organization that we support by donating a percentage of our monthly revenue is Farmers Footprint. Join us!
- Grow a garden. Growing some of your own food is a great way to improve your health and help the planet. It can be a lot of fun, too! It’s also a great way to get kids involved. If you are new to gardening or unsure how to do it without using synthetic fertilizers and chemicals, look for a local resource or community garden. Good search terms include, permaculture, biodynamic, sustainable. One such resource in the Phoenix area is GrowPHX Collaborative.