As a healthcare practitioner, I have had the privilege to work with many people over the past 15 years. Let me let you in on a little secret I have discovered from years of talking to people about health: We are all worried about our food. Really, all of us: rich people, poor people, Libertarians, Democrats, Republicans, people who drive trucks for a living and eat at places called “Little America”, people who do yoga and only buy organic, people who are skinny, or obese, or anything in between. The concern that something is out of whack with the industrial food system turns otherwise opposing groups of people into quick agreement. We suddenly look surprisingly like a shelf full of Bobbleheads during an earthquake.
The entire food supply is a complex topic with more twists and turns than a crime novel. Perhaps the best place to start unraveling this Gordian Knot, is at the beginning. All food requires soil. As much as humans want to think we are separate from the world around us, we aren’t. We take in that carrot, and break it down to extract beta carotene, that later becomes part of the building blocks for cells in our eyes. The salad you had at lunch provides magnesium necessary to build insulin, melatonin, and serotonin. The protein in our beef is broken down into amino acids that are then turned into muscle. It is not just that “we are what we eat”, or even “we are what our food ate”. We are, quite literally, made from the soil the plant grew in. In order to have nutrient dense food, we need healthy soil. It’s like that old saying, “If Mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.” To that, we might add, “If the Soil ain’t healthy, nobody’s healthy.”
So here’s the bad news...Mama ain’t happy. Here’s the good news...We know how to fix it.
Modern farming practices, including regular tillage and pesticides, are major factors in the loss of biology in the soil. A landmark study on the topic by Donald Davis and his team of researchers from the University of Texas (UT) at Austin’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry was published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. They studied U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional data from both 1950 and 1999 for 43 different vegetables and fruits, finding “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C over the past half century. Davis and his colleagues chalk up this declining nutritional content to the preponderance of agricultural practices designed to improve traits (size, growth rate, pest resistance) other than nutrition. 1
Why is the soil biology so important to growing nutrient and mineral rich food? There are many factors, but here is one glaring example: Some fungi in the soil have the extraordinary ability to inject an enzyme into rock and extract minerals. Those minerals travel through tubes (called hyphae) to the plant, in exchange for sugars from the plant (in the form of liquid carbon). In science we call it a symbiotic relationship. When we till the soil, we destroy fungi that provides not only nutrients to the plant, but also provides numerous other benefits to soil and soil structure. The use of chemicals, in the form of pesticides and herbicides, significantly damages fungi.
Who knew that fungi was so important to nutrient dense food? I’ll be the first to admit that I did not, and regular tillage was part of how our farm has grown large scale gardens. As the late poet and author, Maya Angelou wrote, ““I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” New information comes with the corresponding responsibility to change the way we think, and to change the way we farm. By implementing no-till or low-till agriculture we can rebuild the biology in the soil. Fungi work for free, 24 hours a day. They show up on the job without fail if you provide the habitat they need. Good for them, because they get to live in the soil as nature intended. Good for you, because they increase the nutrition of your food. It’s the ultimate win/win.
Traditionally, cows ate grass. The leaves of plants, including grass, are rich in omega-3s. Seeds on the other hand, are rich in omega-6s. They are both essential for health, in their appropriate balance. However, too high a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 can contribute to heart disease and other inflammatory conditions, probably because omega-6 helps blood clot, while omega-3 helps it flow. (Omega-3s have been found to be more anti-inflammatory, and omega-6’s have been associated with being more pro-inflammatory.) 2
Beginning in the fifties and sixties, cheap corn made it profitable to fatten cattle on feedlots instead of grass. What we didn’t realize at the time was that this transition affected the nutrition of the meat. Grass finished beef has been found to have three times the amount of Omega 3s as grain finished beef. It also is higher in Conjugated Linoleic Acid (which has been found to have anti-cancer properties) and contains considerably more antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. 3
At our farm, we tested the Omega 6:3 ratio of pork from a Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) that was purchased at a grocery store and found the ratio to be 30:1. Our pigs that were put on pasture and rotationally moved had a ratio of 14:1, even with a full grain diet. When we tested the meat of pigs that had a 50% reduced grain ration, and were supplemented with a variety of cover crops to graze, the ratio went down to 10:1. That is triple the Omega 3s of conventional pork. Another side benefit is that pasture-raised pork tastes better than conventional factory farmed pork. James Beard Award winning journalist Barry Estabrook sums it up nicely, “Once you've tasted well-raised pork, you really can't go back to the old stuff. I tell people it's the difference between a January tomato in a supermarket and a nice summer tomato from your garden; factory pork and well-raised pork is that different.”
Utilizing regenerative agricultural practices of rotationally grazing on perennial grasses and implementing cover crops (when appropriate) for animals increases the nutrition of the meat. Every. Single. Time.
At a certain point in American history, we were a nation of diversified farmers, growing food for our own family and selling off the rest to the community around us. Currently, 80% of America’s crop acreage is planted with four crops: Corn, soybean, wheat and hay. The result is 63% of the average American caloric intake is from those crops, or animals that ate those crops. What we 4 plant has a direct impact on what we eat. Most farmers today aren’t even eating the food they grow. As Gabe Brown says, “When was the last time you sat down to a meal of field corn and soy?”
So long as we just focus on commodity crops like corn and soy, we are going to get more of the same. Without subsidies, corn syrup would be more of a luxury and not find its way into so many foods in our standard American diet. Corn syrup and other sweeteners account for about 14% of the average American’s daily caloric intake. Why does this matter? We are in the middle of a health epidemic. Dr. Francine Kauffman coined the term “diabesity” (diabetes + obesity) to describe metabolic dysfunction that ranges from mild blood sugar imbalance to full-fledged type 2 diabetes. Recent statistics suggest that diabesity may already be the leading cause of chronic disease and death in the world, and its impact is expected to rise dramatically in the next 25 years. Diabetes and Obesity are a human-made problem. We made corn syrup, one of the 5 sweetest foods in our diet, also the cheapest food.
So, what do we do? Diversify. Nature doesn’t create a monoculture. Regenerative Agriculture provides a model for the food system. Growing monocultures is not a path to health. With a polyculture of polycrops, one can feed thousands of different types of microorganisms in the soil. Turns out, humans also thrive when we eat a diversity of plants, and animals that ate a diversity of plants.
People are up to their eyeballs in the myriad of problems facing us, and the multitude of potential crises we appear to be passing along to our kids. Sidelong glances at who to blame is not going to get us very far. It isn’t enough to do another “awareness raising” campaign about the problems in food and agriculture. We have real world, proven solutions that not only create healthier food, they create a healthier planet. If we focus on what unites us, rather than what divides us, we have the potential to change agriculture in America. The solution is in the soil beneath our feet: Feed the soil. Protect the soil. Trust the soil. Take care of mama, and mama won’t let you down.
2 Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, (New York: 2006) 268-269.