Regenerative Organic Agriculture

by Brooklin White MS Candidate, Dietetic InternLifestyle

It’s easy to turn a blind eye to larger scale issues that don’t recognizably impact us on a day-to-day basis. Some examples of these issues are environmentalism and climate change, animal welfare, social justice, healthcare and agricultural practices. Although it is understandable to prioritize issues that directly impact the wellbeing of our personal network, leaders of these larger scale movements have begun to urge individuals to look forward and consider how certain day-to-day practices might be harming our bodies, our society and our planet long-term.

Industrial Agriculture

One of these movements is based on the current food system within the United States. Although industrial agriculture was revolutionary at the time to address hunger and famine, it has created a system that not only depletes the soil and disrupts natural ecosystems, but it has also diminished the quality of the food most Americans eat on a daily basis. Industrial agriculture evolved to provide calories and lengthen the shelf life of food, but in order to make this happen, key nutrients were stripped away. The U.S Department of Agriculture nutritional data from 1950 to 1999 indicate that because of industrial agriculture, 43 different vegetables and fruits have seen noticeable declines in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and vitamin C (1). It comes as no surprise that an estimated 31% of the U.S population is at risk of at least one vitamin deficiency (2) while the prevalence of chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease are rising (3)(4).

The majority of cropland in the U.S and other developed countries can be identified by large monoculture crops (soy, wheat, corn etc.) whose production relies on soil tillage and external fertilizers and pesticides. Although these practices can lead to large crop yields, they deplete soil microorganisms which ultimately diminishes plant immunity (5)(6)(7). This decline in plant health makes the crops more vulnerable to disease and has led farmers to use larger quantities of pesticides, such as glyphosate. Similar to how excessive antibiotics can hurt the human microbiome and suppress immunity, glyphosate not only kills off pathogens but also the beneficial microbes in the soil (8). Glyphosate can also lead to health problems in humans. It has been estimated that 25 million agricultural workers are affected by pesticide poisoning per year (9). Even low-levels of pesticide exposure found in non-organic food can cause serious health problems in humans including immune, kidney and liver damage (10)(11).

Additional issues with conventional agriculture include the use of soil-tillage which disrupts underground microbial networks and depletes carbon levels in the soil (12). It is estimated that tillage and erosion alone have released 133 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, which of course, contributes significantly to climate change (13). The use of monoculture crops contributes to feeding the biology just one type of root exudate, which ultimately yields a less diverse soil microbial community (similar to how eating a diet high in refined carbohydrates can decrease the amount of beneficial microbes in the human gut) (12)(14). Industrial agriculture has not only disrupted natural ecosystems and reduced the nutrient density of our food, but it has also created a societal disconnection from the source of our food and the magnificence that is the soil.

Soil Health

Healthy soil is composed of a wide variety of microorganisms, worms and insects that support the health and vitality of the plants that grow in them. One teaspoon of healthy soil contains as many as one billion microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi, and protozoa (15). The microbiome of the soil functions as the lifeline of plants as these microbes break down organic matter (plant and animal decay), stimulate and provide nutrients to plant roots, promote germination, retain water, accelerate plant growth, and reinforce resistance to disease (16)(17). Much like the microorganisms in the human gut, an integral, symbiotic relationship is shared between the plants and the microorganisms that live in and among their roots.

Regenerative Organic Agriculture

The foundation of regenerative organic agriculture lies in soil health and the partnership with mother nature. Regenerative agriculture emphasizes five key principles: (1) minimize soil disturbance by avoiding tillage, (2) minimize the use of chemical inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides, (3) maximize plant and microbial biodiversity, (4) incorporate year round cover crops to sustain a living root, and (5) incorporate grazing livestock (when possible) to mimic natural, regenerative processes (18).

Sir Albert Howard was an English agronomist who provided the philosophical foundations for regenerative organic agriculture. Howard viewed the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal and man as one great subject and was staunchly against the reductionist approach of the industrial system, including the invention of chemical fertilizers ‘NPK’ (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium)(19). Although these natural elements can be found on the periodic table and do help plants grow, they also disrupt the natural, synergistic relationship between the plant and the organisms of the soil. Mycorrhizal fungi, for example, increase the availability of minerals and trace elements to the roots (such as phosphorus and nitrogen) and then receive some sugar (carbon) through photosynthesis in return (20)(21). When chemical fertilizers are fed to plants, it disrupts this natural, symbiotic relationship and the levels of beneficial microbes, and ultimately the health of the plant, diminish (22). Probiotics (beneficial bacteria) are as key to a healthy microbial community in the soil as they are for humans. Probiotics including kimchi, miso and sauerkraut enhance beneficial bacteria in the gut while compost does the same for the soil (23)(24).It has been found that plants grown in synthetically fertilized soils are less nourishing and less resistant to disease than ones grown in composted soils (25)(26). Feeding the soil with multi-specie cover crops, similar to a diverse, plant-based diet in humans, strengthens and diversifies the commensal microbes in the soil, which can then provide micronutrient diversity to plants and enhance their immunity (12). Several studies have also documented that the inclusion of cover crops can further help to reduce the initial yield gap between organic and conventional systems (27).

Regenerative organic systems are more successful the longer they are in place due to improved water retainment, natural pathogen resistance and the increasing nitrogen and carbon availability in the soil (28)(29). The Rodale Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding the regenerative agriculture movement, demonstrated that after an initial transition period from conventional to regenerative farming, their Farming Systems Trial (FST) was able to produce yields equal to conventional plots while simultaneously improving soil quality (30)(31). These regenerative systems also led to greater profitability and emitted fewer greenhouse gases due to diversified income streams and carbon sequestration (31). While still prioritizing yield and profits, the farmers of regenerative agriculture pay respect to nature and the future by treating their land as one large ecosystem, with the soil being its foundation.

Conclusion

The art of functional medicine is not restricted to the principles of human health but of all life on this planet. With nearly 30% of the world’s cropland abandoned due to industrial farming (32) and an increasing chronic health epidemic, a new agriculture system based on soil biodiversity, food quality and environmental conservation must be considered.Organizations such as the Rodale Institute and Patagonia have come together to create Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC), which is the world’s highest-bar organic food label designation. To be ROC, farms must meet the USDA Certified Organic standard and then incorporate additional standards for soil health, animal welfare and worker fairness (33). The ROC was created to bring together existing high-bar certifications so farmers can avoid duplicative audits. This certification is new, as the pilot program was just completed in 2019, so the ROC label might be hard to find at your local grocery store. Interested clients can, however, support the regenerative organic movement and their health by purchasing food items from companies such as Nature’s Path, Apricot Lane Farms and Patagonia Provisions. Clients can also support local regenerative farms by purchasing weekly or biweekly CSA boxes. We encourage our clients to purchase local, organic produce such as from farmer’s markets or the local section of grocery stores, even if regenerative organic produce is unavailable. We also encourage clients to volunteer with local farms, or to start small gardens themselves to reconnect with the source of their food.


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