Part 1 of this article looked at the many compelling reasons for a worldwide conversion to regenerative methods in food production and in healthcare. In Part 2, we will look at barriers to this substantial system change.
Implementing Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Regenerative Healthcare
is a major transformation in food production and consumption habits.
Here are some of the required alterations (1).
Eliminating the use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides
Implementing diversity of crops through crop rotation. Benefits of this include healthier soil, less depletion of nutrients and lower risks of diseases and pests, (15)
Encouraging healthy soil and the diversity of soil microorganisms through the use of…
Minimal or no tillage
Employing cover crops and planting more perennial crops
Fertilizing with natural fertilizers such as compost and green manures (cover crops or plant
parts left to wither on a field so that they serve as a mulch)
Integrating livestock into land management through pasture-based farming which will improve
the cycling of nutrients into the soil and subsequently into crops
Increasing soil organic carbon levels through low tillage and cover crops which improve soil
structure and the water-holding capacity in times of drought
Establishing conservation practices to protect waterways and their aquatic and terrestrial life. Buffers such as grassed strips, areas of vegetation planted between fields, act as filters to reduce soil, nutrients, pesticides and other contaminants from being carried away from cropped fields into streams, rivers and lakes. The US Natural Resources Conservation Service estimates that such buffers can remove 50% or more of the nutrients and pesticides; 60% or more of the pathogens; and 75% or more of the sediment from the water running off of fields (14).
Using productive farmland to grow food for people. It is no longer feasible to expand agricultural land to increase food production. Destroying forested areas, especially tropical forests, is extremely harmful to the environment and is not necessary (2). It is possible to feed the earth’s population into the future from the agricultural land that exists today. It simply has to be used more efficiently by producing more food crops that will end up in human stomachs. Only 55% of crop calories grown today feed people directly; 36% feeds livestock and 9% are turned into biofuels and other industrial products (3).
Reducing consumption of animal-sourced foods. Raising animals for meat is resource-intensive. Beef, for example, requires twenty times more land, one hundred times more water and emits twenty times more greenhouse gases per gram of edible protein produced than plant proteins such as beans, peas and lentils (2,12).
It is useful to know that, for every 100 calories of grain fed to a food-producing animal, the consumer of an animal receives (4);
40 calories from milk
22 calories from eggs
12 calories from chicken
10 calories from pork
3 calories from beef
Implementing proven methods of preventing and reversing chronic diseases. Healthcare professionals need to reduce their reliance on pharmaceuticals and procedures to treat patients suffering from diseases of lifestyle. The power of nutrient dense whole foods in promoting good health should be foremost in the minds of those treating the vast numbers of people suffering from diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. Recommendations for treatment should include dietary changes, prescriptions for weekly physical activity, suggestions for activities helpful in stress reduction and training on the achievement of restorative sleep BEFORE a prescription for medication is written or a medical procedure is advised.
Providing education to everyone involved. Only with knowledge can meaningful change occur.
Health professionals must understand the power of proper nutrition in optimal health.
Farmers must understand the purpose behind regenerative organic agriculture and the techniques that they can use to grow healthy crops in healthy soils that promote health in both people and the environment.
Consumers must understand the effects of good nutrition on health and the potential for regenerative farming to deliver nutritious foods as well as to conserve limited resources like soil and water.
Governments must be on board with policies that support regenerative farming and preventative, regenerative healthcare.
Barriers to Overcome
These suggested changes are not trivial ones and they can only work if they are adopted. But, they will involve a major shift in cultural norms that will revolutionize the practice of both agriculture and healthcare. Education will go a long way to convince those involved of the importance of these transformations. However, many commonly held conceptions will be difficult to leave behind.
To Till or Not to Till
The Regenerative Agriculture Initiative has outlined four main barriers to the widespread adoption of regenerative agriculture: (5)
Insufficient farmer training programs
Uncertain demand and unwillingness of consumers to pay more for organic products
A crop insurance system that rewards conventional farming practices that degrade farmland
The high cost of farmland
The most influential of these barriers may be the lack of training programs for farmers. Farming is not just a career but a way of life. On many farms, the land has been passed from one generation to the next multiple times, with each new generation learning from the previous one. Changing time honoured farming methods is difficult. However, most farmers realize that new discoveries are being made in all facets of life and are willing to keep up to date with farming practices given the opportunity.
For example, let’s take a look at the concept of tilling the land. Regenerative agriculture requires as little disturbance of the soil as possible. Minimal tilling and no-till farming methods have existed since the very beginning of farming. During the 18th and early 19th centuries however, plowing tools were improved and were widely adopted by farmers because of their ability to make planting seeds easier. Tilling turns over the first 6 to 10 inches of soil, blending crop residues, weeds and manure and working them into the soil. But what was not realized at first was the resultant destruction of the communities of microorganisms and larger creatures such as earthworms that are essential players in a healthy soil. Nor were the consequences of leaving the soil bare and vulnerable to erosion by wind and water. Regular tilling fractures and disrupts soil structure making it less able to absorb and filter water and nutrients (6).
No-till farming began its comeback during the 1940s after severe drought conditions across much of North American farmlands in the 1930s led to a widespread agricultural depression. No-till methods keep the soil structure intact, slow evaporation, encourage healthier soil organisms and protect the soil from erosion. They also save time and money for farmers by removing the requirement of tilling the soil before planting. However, no-till farming became linked with genetically-modified seed that could tolerate the use of herbicides, touted by the companies producing the chemicals as the only way to take care of unwanted weeds no longer destroyed by the plow. In this light, herbicide use becomes higher in no-till farming than in tillage-based farming. These ideas, however, are misconceptions. Organic no-till farming actually has a variety of options for effective weed management that can take care of the weed problem without tillage or herbicides (6).
Weed-eliminating strategies available for regenerative organic no-till farming (6,7)
Use of a live cover crop or an organic mulch that suppresses other plant growth. Cover crops can be grown between commercial crops to maintain a permanent cover over the soil. Because substances in the cover crop plants suppress other plant growth, this practice discourages weed infestations and allows much lower, sustainable levels of herbicide use compared to amounts required in conventional growing systems. Implements such as roller crimpers or knife rollers can be used to kill the cover crop and create from it a weed-suppressing mat into which the seeds for the next commercial crop are planted. These practices have resulted in complete non-chemical weed control in sample plots. Reduced tillage practices can also be used in which the soil is plowed every 2 or 3 years only (3,8).
Avoiding the seeding of weeds in the first place by not allowing weed growth even in the off season.
Allowing weeds to remain if they are at a point where the crop can suppress them. In this case the weeds will not damage the crop but will help control other pests such as insects.
Using no-till practices for several years after which weed germination is naturally reduced where the soil has not been disturbed. This is because the superficial weed-seed bank becomes depleted and any seeds left in the soil find germination difficult due to lack of light.
Using regenerative grazing (mob grazing) of livestock (9,10). When managed correctly, this practice can build soil health; reduce weed problems, nutrient loss and farm inputs; prevent stress in animals being raised for food; and diversify farm income. Regenerative grazing involves moving a large number of densely packed, heavy animals quickly over a farm’s land during the growing season, initiating soil-building events;
Tall grasses (which have deep roots) are grazed close to the ground which hampers the plants’ abilities to rebound. The roots die back, leaving organic matter (including carbon) deep within the soil, effectively sequestering carbon.
Manure from the grazing animals supplies nitrogen and biological microbes to the soil. The animals also turn up sod allowing rain to carry these nutrients deeper into the soil where they will not run-off to pollute waterways.
Grasses remaining after the herd has been moved on are allowed to continue to grow until the herd crosses the same land again. This provides more root penetration into the soil.
Breaking Down Other Barriers to Regenerative Agriculture and Healthcare (1)
Provide financial support through grants and loans for young farmers just starting out in regenerative farming and for farmers transitioning to organic and regenerative farming practices.
Stop subsidies of conventional commodity crops.
Offer incentives for resilient agriculture practices such as the organic production of fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.
Offer incentives for the capturing of carbon in the soil.
Fund research on the organic production of fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.
Develop markets and infrastructure for the distribution of regenerative organic products.
Offer incentives for healthcare professionals to implement healthy lifestyle changes through innovative payment models that cover time spent in the education and support of patients as they make their transitions.
Drastically increase the amount of nutritional education offered to medical students.
Introduce programs in medical institutions that increase patient access to fresh fruits and vegetables both while in the hospital and after returning home.
Is Regenerative Agriculture and Healthcare in our Future?
Whether we like it or not, our world cannot continue to successfully feed its inhabitants through our present system of producing food. Our soil is dying and disappearing; toxic chemicals used in farming are harming humans and polluting the land; our agricultural practices are polluting the atmosphere; the loss of whole species of insects will destroy ecosystems and add to our difficulties in food production; our food crops are losing their healthful nutrients; chronic diseases are eroding individual health and overwhelming our healthcare systems; and our current food-production systems will never be able to keep up with our burgeoning population.
Regenerative agriculture and healthcare is a promising answer. It would integrate our food and healthcare systems with evidence-based solutions emphasizing nutrition and lifestyle choices that prevent and reverse disease, and an agriculture style that could both feed the earth’s population and heal the injury already inflicted on our environment by previous farming practices. Together these solutions could radically improve the future of human health.
As the Regenerative Health Institute states, “Health begins with food and healthy food begins in the soil.” (1,13) Let’s hope the citizens of this world begin to comprehend the seriousness of our present food production trajectory and work in partnership to achieve a regenerative way of producing food that will mend our damaged planet and nurture all the myriad of organisms that make it their home.
If you are interested in more information or resources on regenerative agriculture and healthcare, please visit the following website (11);
4 Cassidy E.M et al. Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare. University of Minnesota. 2013. Environ. Res. Lett; 8: 034015.
12 Pimentel, D., Pimentel, M. Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment.
Am J Clin Nutr. September 2003; 78(3): 660S-663S. Https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/78.3.660S.
13 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Healthy Soils Are the Basis for Healthy Food Production. Year of Soils, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2015. www.fao.org/3/ai4405e.pdf.