It seems an unusual partnership – farmers, medical professionals, soil scientists and consumers joining together with the common goal of regaining human health on our planet. Look a little deeper though and you will realize that this union should not be puzzling. After all, the basic goal of healthcare is to keep humans healthy while farmers are striving to provide the food and nutrients needed to achieve this purpose. It is this premise that is providing the foundation for a new initiative that is materializing now, in the summer of 2020. Backed by two US organizations, the Rodale Institute, offering an organic farming point of view, and the Plantrician Project, supplying the outlook of healthcare professionals, the Regenerative Health Institute proposes to fix our broken food and healthcare systems using a two-pronged approach; The Power of the Plate and Regenerative Organic Agriculture (1).
Agriculture and healthcare are both massive industries. Though they appear to be very different on the surface, they are rooted in the same product – food. Recent decades have brought specialization, industrialization and monetization to both agriculture and healthcare in North America. Unfortunately, this has only served to separate these businesses from what surely must be their founding goals, those of providing the means for keeping people alive and healthy. Both agriculture and healthcare are beginning to struggle to reach their targets and predictions for the future of these two industries are worrisome (1).
Our healthcare systems pride themselves on breakthroughs in the treatments of disease, yet, though many North Americans now live longer than their parents, their lives are plagued by ill health, especially as they age. The incidences of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases and obesity are increasing all over the world. Food quality is closely linked to health and longevity, but perplexingly, the universities that are training medical students to become physicians provide little to no education about the importance of nutrition in living a long life in good health.
Agricultural systems have created processed foods that boast long shelf lives but are high in calories and low in nutrients. Industrial farming exposes the Earth’s inhabitants to toxic chemicals and environmental pollutants. Our soils are so degraded that about one-third of our topsoil has already disappeared. Ominously, it is predicted that all of the world’s top soil could be gone in less than sixty years if significant changes are not made (2).
The promising solution to these problems being proposed by the Regenerative Health Institute is regeneration, a process of renewal and restoration that strengthens the health and vitality of organisms and ecosystems so that they are resilient to disturbances and damage from environmental fluctuations as well as inner disorders of function such as disease.
The steps that will start us on the path to regeneration and improve the future outlook for the health of our planet and the humans that live here are these (1);
- Shift to a system of Regenerative Organic Agriculture that is not destructive to the planet but instead repairs the soil and removes toxic chemicals from our food, air and water. This involves an organic farming process incorporating land management methods that support improved soil health; the production of vigorous food crops rich in the nutrients needed for a healthy human population; and the humane treatment of animals being raised for food.
- Shift to a system of Regenerative Healthcare that acknowledges the power of nutrient-dense whole foods to promote optimal health, lowering the incidence of chronic diseases and reducing the dependence on pharmaceuticals and medical procedures to manage disease. Along with more reliance on food choices for improving health will be support for adopting other healthful lifestyle choices such as increasing physical activity, decreasing smoking and reducing stress.
- Educate everyone concerned, including medical professionals, farmers, consumers and governments, about the benefits and the sustainable goals of regeneration. We need to collaborate to increase the fertility and health of our soils; to protect the ecosystems that make up a planet able to support all of its occupants; and to understand the enormous impact that food choices can have on the vigour and wellbeing of human beings throughout all stages of life.
How Did We Get To Where We’re At Today?
Farming began as a closed-loop system in which all the needed inputs were produced right on the farm. Each farm family grew a variety of crops and livestock simultaneously so that manure from the animals provided nutrients for the crops. This system began thousands of years ago and continued into the 20th century.
World War II inspired many technological advances, one of which was the creation of chemicals, developed for war purposes, but easily adapted for use in food production as pesticides. During the 1960s, new high-yielding crop varieties were created specifically to be grown in conjunction with these new chemicals. Farm machinery underwent its own improvements and began to increase in size and price. Larger fields were needed to accommodate the new machines, smaller farms began to consolidate into bigger ones and specialization came into being.
In the US today, 88% of farms concentrate either on crops or livestock and only 8% of US farms produce more than four different crops (3). This lack of diversity increases the risks of outbreaks of pests and disease so it is no surprise that additional new chemicals were developed to be applied as insecticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers. The result is a farming system highly efficient at growing, processing and distributing commodity crops, the vast majority of which are destined to become animal feed, ethanol as a biofuel additive to gasoline or processed foods. Efficiency and yields are the modern goals. Farmers are provided with financial incentives to grow crops such as cereal grains and sweeteners that are easy to process, ship and store and that rely on toxic fertilizers and pesticides devastating to the environment. The production of fruits and vegetables has been allowed to lag behind. Currently in the US, fruits, field vegetables and nuts are grown on 3% of all the available cropland (4). In Canada only about 0.4% of cropland is occupied by field vegetables (5,6).
Unintentionally, our modern industrialized farming system has become destructive to our agricultural land and to the health of both our human population and of our planet.
Healthy soil contains trillions of one-celled creatures which, in association with minerals, air, water and organic matter (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen), create complex networks that sustain plant growth and help support life on earth. The biodiversity within soil is destroyed by planting the same crop year after year; by disturbing soil ecosystems through deep tillage; by application of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides; and by the absence of a living ground cover. Fewer microorganisms in the soil means lower delivery of nutrients to plants which become weakened and more susceptible to infections and pests. Fertilizer requirement is increased. Synthetic fertilizers involve the burning of fossil fuels for their creation and application, inevitably increasing greenhouse gas emissions (7). Soil scientists have shown that chemical fertilizers also reduce carbon stores in the soil (8) and damage soil structure (9).
Soil loss through erosion occurs 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replaced (10). Conventional agriculture erodes soil at a rate 1.3- to more than 1,000 times greater than natural erosion under native vegetation (11).
Pesticides are harmful to humans if contacted in sufficient quantities through the skin, by ingestion, or by inhalation (12). They can increase the risks of immune system damage, kidney and liver damage, Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, cancer and other chronic conditions (13,14,15,16,17,18).
Run-off of fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides from fields pollute waterways and leach into groundwater, causing a variety of detrimental effects in both humans and in other species living in the affected area (19,20,21,22).
Modern agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution (23). Air pollution is linked to 26% of respiratory infection deaths, 25% of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) deaths, 17% of deaths from ischemic heart disease and stroke and 16% of lung cancer deaths (24).
Agriculture is also a serious contributor to antibiotic resistance. More than 80% of all the antibiotics sold in the US are used in animal agriculture for preventing disease and promoting growth in animals confined in crowded conditions (25).
Habitat loss due to land conversion for the production of food is the main driver of the extinction of beneficial insect populations. Many species of insects have declined over the past few decades and it is estimated that 40% of the world’s insect species face extinction over the next several decades (26). One-third of the world’s food crops depend on insects, birds and bats for pollination. Any decline in insects is predicted to have catastrophic effects on the Earth’s ecosystems and adversely affect our ability to feed ourselves (27).
Our food crops are declining in nutritional value (28). Bioactives, such as the phytochemicals produced by plants, are credited in the prevention and reversal of many common chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases (29,30) and they also play a critical role in healthy immune function (31). The health of the soil is critical for the production of these bioactive molecules (32). Organically-farmed soils are healthier soils with high microbial diversity. Foods grown in such soils contain significantly more phytochemicals than foods grown in conventionally-farmed soils (33,34,35,36,37).
Canada’s Food Guide recommends that adults eat 7 to 10 servings of fruit and vegetables every day (38). However, research from 2015 showed that Canadians were eating an average of only 4.6 servings daily (39). Studies from 2009 in the US found that only 0.9% of adolescents, 2.2% of adult men, and 3.5% of adult women met recommended requirements for fruits and vegetables (40). Globally, if the citizens of our planet decide to increase their fruit and vegetable intakes to recommended levels, future supplies of these foods will be insufficient to meet the demand in many countries even under optimistic socioeconomic scenarios (41).
In Canada, health expenditures represent approximately 11.6% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (42) while the US spends about 18% of its GDP on healthcare (43). Though this amounts to a massive investment by both countries, improvements in health outcomes and life expectancy are no longer occurring as they once did (44). In fact, the North American children of today are predicted to live shorter and less healthy lives than their parents (45).
Healthcare has become all about managing expensive diseases. Many Canadians consider a good health care system is one that offers “a pill for every ill”. Unfortunately, medications and medical procedures are only treating symptoms of disease, not the root causes. Additionally, a large proportion of chronic diseases can be prevented. Canada’s Ministers of Health have agreed that making disease prevention is a necessity for promoting health in Canada with their paper entitled “Creating a Healthier Canada: Making Prevention a Priority” (46). This objective needs to be moved to the forefront of healthcare policy both for relieving the tremendous pressure on government funds required to cover the ever-increasing costs of healthcare and for improving the general health of all Canadians.
Making healthy food choices is closely associated with both increased lifespan (length of life) and longer healthspan (length of healthy life). The diet most consumed in North America today consists of excessive consumption of calories from industrialized, processed foods and inadequate consumption of nutrient-dense whole fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds. The new and revolutionary Canada’s Food Guide is an important first step towards positive dietary change (47). However, more education is needed to supply health professionals and consumers alike with the abundance of evidence available regarding the power of eating whole, predominantly plant-based foods for achieving excellent health.
Regeneration is the Solution
1 Regenerative Organic Agriculture
Regenerative Organic Agriculture is a holistic approach to farming that takes into account the welfare and health of humans and animals alike and seeks to improve, not degrade natural resources. It will support the growth of healthier food crops that are rich in plant bioactive compounds. It will reduce problems with pests such as insects and weeds.
Regenerative Organic Agriculture also has the potential to sequester carbon in soil. When soil carbon is exposed to oxygen from the atmosphere, it transforms into carbon dioxide and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Regenerative farming using minimal or no-till methods avoids soil disturbance and keeps carbon locked in the soil (48). The Rodale Institute has calculated that, if regenerative agriculture practices take hold across the world, total annual global greenhouse gas emissions could be sequestered in farm fields alone (49). Moreover, carbon has been proposed as a new cash crop for farmers of the future (48).
Can Regenerative Organic Agriculture live up to these high expectations?
The longest side-by-side comparison of regenerative organic grain cropping and conventional grain cropping in North America is the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial which began in 1981. This continuing study is illustrating that, once the soil is restored to health (a period of 4 to 8 years), regenerative organic farming can supply yields at least equal to those from conventional farming practices. In fact, regenerative organic farming outperforms conventional farming in drought conditions by as much as 40%. This advantage is attributed to the ability of healthier soils to hold more water. Such soils also more readily bind together, preventing erosion of the soil and runoff into waterways (50).
Other results from the Farming Systems Trial (51);
Regenerative organic farming uses 45% less energy than conventional farming.
Conventional farming produces 40% more greenhouse gases than regenerative organic farming.
Regenerative organic farming is nearly three times more profitable than conventional farming. Even without a price premium, regenerative organic farming is competitive with conventional farming. This is likely because input costs are lower in regenerative organic farming than in conventional farming.
In 2017, Rodale added a new trial, the Vegetable Systems Trial, to explore the links between soil health and human health. This is intended to run for more than twenty years and is designed to analyze nutrient densities in root, fruit and leaf crops including potatoes, butternut squash, lettuce, green beans and sweet corn grown under both conventional and regenerative organic conditions (50).
2 The Power of the Plate
Regenerative Healthcare intends to improve daily diets through organically grown whole foods. If we are able to provide all the macronutrients (carbohydrates including fiber, fats and proteins) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals) necessary for the good health and strong immune system of human beings, we will be well on our way to preventing and often reversing many chronic lifestyle-related diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity (52). In addition, lowering inflammation through the same dietary choices will decrease the incidence of autoimmune diseases, allergies, asthma and constipation; prevent acne and dementia; improve bowel disease, kidney disease and PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome); and enhance mood (53,54,55,56,57,58,59,60,61,62,63,64,65,66,67,68,69). An added benefit for those who increase their consumption of organic whole foods is the cultivation of a diverse and healthy microbiome (70). A thriving gut microbiome is associated with a myriad of positive effects in many body systems including the heart, brain, digestion and immune system as well as in the prevention of chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and intestinal diseases (71).
To realize this goal, our population must understand the benefits of eating an optimal diet that is predominantly organic and plant-based and be willing to transition to this way of eating. If enough people make significant alterations in their buying and eating habits, enormous improvements will be seen in the health of our population, our soil and our planet.
Regenerative Organic Farming and Regenerative Healthcare appear to be advantageous, feasible and sustainable solutions for our future. Why aren’t they already in widespread use?
This is a valid question. Part 2 of this article will consider barriers to full-scale change and how they might be overcome.
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