• Kristyn Emmer

Soil is the Future of Healthcare

If you’ve read anything from Wendell Berry you get the idea that the main theme throughout all of his writing is that everything is connected. I’m connected to you, and you to me. Our economy is not separate from the people who operate it. The soil is not disconnected from food and food not disconnected from our health. 

Our highly individualized society, though, operates as if that just isn’t the case. Given the sheer number of the world’s population living in urban areas, many people have never seen a farm that could conceivably grow their food. I remember the first time I heard an adult tell me they have never seen a cow live and in person before. And this disconnect, coupled with the overabundance of foodstuffs in the western world affords us the temporary ability to forego having to think about not only where our food comes from, but the importance of the faces and practices behind our food. 

It won’t take long, though, and we will have to change. The latest predictions show that 8 out of every 10 children will have a chronic illness by 2025. The recent events with COVID-19 have brought to light that 88% of Americans are metabolically unhealthy. And we are well past the benchmark of having more adults with an autoimmune disease than not. 

What’s to know about each one of these is that they are each preventable through altering lifestyle factors, specifically as it concerns our food. But in order to understand the scope of the problem, we must think beyond the pantry or the supermarket. We must start with the farm. 

The Problem with Industrial Agriculture 

While farming practices have evolved significantly over the many thousands of years humans have been growing their own food, we have not seen as significant of a change as we have seen since World War 2. Post-war farming led the world into what we know as an industrialized farming era, where farmers were encouraged to grow bigger with a heavy focus on yield, or how much the farm could produce. In the process of growing bigger and faster, the need for more complex tools arose in the form of machinery, chemicals, and specialized seeds. 

Today we know that these farming practices that were adopted then and are still alive and well today have degraded our soils drastically. Through the use of heavy tilling, monocropping, and chemicals such as the ever-popular glyphosate (which is the active ingredient in RoundUp), farmers today are left with soil that has very little fertility, predicating the use of more machinery and more chemicals to make their crops grow. 

But trying to solve a problem with the same tactics used to get there is rarely, if ever, a good idea. Rodale Institute estimates that a mere 8% of farms produce more than four crops, which is known as monocropping. This also means there is a severe lack of diversity on farms today. When farms lack diversity in what they grow, they rely more on heavy machinery and synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.

What’s known as a “specialty crop” in the USA — think most of your fruit and vegetables and complex grains — makes up only 3% of what is grown by US farmers. So the likelihood of the miles and miles of cornfields you could drive by actually feeding the world is highly unlikely. In fact, you can be almost certain that those cornfields are actually going to feed cows down the road, your car in the form of ethanol, or will end up in your food as high fructose corn syrup. 

As a result of the availability of cheap agricultural products, the food industry has produced more and more cheap, highly processed foods which end up in our grocery stores, on our tables, and in our bodies. 

How Agriculture Impacts Humans 

Industrial farming practices decrease nutrient availability in food, increase toxic exposure, decrease immune and metabolic function within the population, and cause a significant explosion of health issues. And yet, our current healthcare model largely dismisses the role of nutrition, lifestyle, and toxic load on the body as both a driver of ill health and a solution to a massive, complex problem. 

The industrialized medical model we have in most western cultures today is focused on symptom management, not root cause healing. As a result, more toxins in the form of pharmaceutical drugs are given to patients experiencing the side effects of poor diet. This leaves most people in a viscous and endless cycle between Big Ag, Big Food, and Big Pharma, while leaving most people without answers to their most pressing health issues. That same model comes out of our pocket as well, costing Americans $3.6 trillion in healthcare costs to treat the side effects of industrial agriculture. 

Here are just some of the ways agriculture has a direct impact on human health: 

  • Toxic exposure from pesticides: Studies show that exposure to pesticides may increase the risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and other chronic conditions.

  • Air pollution: Air pollution has been linked to cell dysfunction, oxidative lung damage, vascular inflammation and exacerbations of asthmatic conditions.

  • Antibiotic resistance: Of all antibiotics sold in the United States, 80% are sold for use in animal agriculture, and 58% of those are excreted into the environment.

  • Water pollution: Research from Rodale Institute has shown that conventional farming practices leach atrazine, a known endocrine-disruptor in amphibians, at a rate of nearly 3ppb into the water table, which ends up in our municipal drinking water.

  • Nutrient density: In a study of nutritional concentrations of 43 crops between 1950 to 1999 revealed a decline in most nutrients. Protein, Calcium, Potassium, Iron, Riboflavin, and Vitamin C declined between 6% to 38% in our food sources. The same study also showed that today’s food has higher water and carbohydrate concentrations.

Instead, we can think differently. Other models of healthcare offer us different ways to not only think about, but to treat individuals who have found themselves impacted by the degraded soil and cheap food offered to them constantly. 

Enter Regenerative Healthcare 

Many people have heard “food is medicine,” but I believe it’s time we take that one step further: “The way food is grown is medicine.” This means that not only is it important to think about what food you’re selecting from your grocery store or local farmers market, but it’s ever-more important to know how that food was grown if you’re going to set yourself on a path to full health. 

This means that our food industry and our agriculture industry and our healthcare model must find a way to meet up. Thankfully, Rodale Institute has offered a way forward through their new model of Regenerative Healthcare. 

Regenerative Healthcare, according to Rodale Institute, is defined as: 

A system in which farming and healthcare work together to inform a prevention-based approach to human and environmental health. Rather than relying on toxic chemicals to solve agricultural issues and pharmaceutical intervention to manage disease, Regenerative Healthcare aims to prevent disease through an organic, whole-foods, plant-forward diet that begins on farms that work in harmony with nature.

And to understand Regenerative Healthcare, it’s important to understand the solution to make this a possibility. That solution lies in Regenerative Organic Agriculture. As leaders in the world on Regenerative Organic Agriculture, Rodale Institute is paving the way in research and in practice for farmers to transition to this whole-systems approach to farming. 

Regenerative Organic farming seeks to operate in a way that repairs the soils, brings natural ecosystems of the land back to life, removes toxic chemicals, and diversifies the land use. This way of farming brings soil back to life and, in turn, shares more of that nutritional density with our food that ends up on our plates and in our bodies.

As Rodale Institute stated in their recent white paper entitled “The Power of the Plate,” “by integrating our food and healthcare systems, emphasizing nutrition and lifestyle choices that prevent, suspend and reverse disease, and transitioning to regenerative organic farming on more cropland, we could radically improve the future of human health.” 

What You Can Do 

The part of Regenerative Healthcare I find to be most encouraging is that it truly calls out everyone’s purpose in the grander vision. Everyone from farmers to consumers have a role to play in ensure the health of our humanity. It’s truly the path voices like Wendell Berry and many others have set out for us — everything is connected and therefore we must operate as one. 

With everyone having a role to play in Regenerative Healthcare, you might be asking yourself, “What’s my part?” Here are just a few ideas: 

Buy Organic or Regenerative Organic wherever possible. One of the best ways to participate in Regenerative Healthcare is to “vote with your fork.” Multiple times per day, we have the opportunity to send a message by what we eat. When we choose organic and regenerative organic foods, we are telling an entire system from farmers to supply chains and governments what we want. And the more of us buying this way will make it possible for those who don’t have access to organic and regenerative organic foods yet to have the opportunity to participate as well. It truly is a regenerative practice that we can integrate into our day as early as the next time we eat. 

Buy direct from farmers through farmers markets or a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). When you buy direct or as close as direct as you can from farmers, you’re supporting your own local economy. You’re able to invest back into your community while at the same time learning about your food. When you’re able to ask questions about your food, questions about where your food was grown, how it was managed, who participated in the growth of the food, you’re able to find the healthiest, most nutrient dense variety available.

Educate yourself! Learn about regenerative organic farming practices. Learn more about brands selling regenerative organic products and go buy those. Participate in webinars and research that organizations like Rodale Institute are continually offering to public audiences. Visit a farm. Seek opportunities to learn about food — how it’s grown and how it interacts with your body. There are endless ways to gain information; we just need to see it. 

Compost at home. Composting is one of the most regenerative practices you can integrate into your lives for a very low cost. Most homes hardly realize the amount of food waste they contribute to landfills — food waste that actually could be going straight back to the soil. Composting is a practice that gives back to the earth what we have taken from her, and will be gold to you if and when you decide to start growing something yourself! 

Work with a functional medicine practitioner who can help you get to the root cause of your illness. Functional medicine practitioners of all varieties — doctors, dieticians, health coaches, chiropractors — focus on the root cause of illness and disease. They take a personalized approach to care, meaning they seek to understand your unique design and story before deciding on a course of action. Functional medicine practitioners can also help you understand how foods interact with your body, where your own deficiencies might be, and can help you to integrate more organic and regenerative organic foods into your daily life. 

The vision of Regenerative Healthcare is an exciting one because it’s truly connected and one we all participate in. By taking small steps to learn more, eat more consciously, and understand that the way food is grown truly is medicine, we can realize a scenario of a society that is healthy, connected, and regenerative. 

Author’s Note: References available upon request.

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