Regenerative agriculture is taking our modern farming system by storm, and for good reason. A recent study concluded that the soil quality of crops and livestock directly impacts the nutrient density of your food.
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Did you know the nutrients you put in your body come directly from your food’s soil? The healthier the soil, the more nutrients and greater density of vitamins and minerals in your food. You really are only as healthy as your soil—what crops “eat” can influence the nutrients on our own plates.
Dirt to Dinner believes that both conventional and organic farming have a place in our modern-day farming efforts to increase yields on existing land in order to feed a growing global population. That said, regenerative ag practices span all farming methods on both conventional and organic farms and may just be the key to healthy soils and even more nutritious foods.
If you’d like more information on what “regenerative” means, here is more detail.
It’s summertime, so let’s take a look at blueberries. Wild and freshly picked off the bush, these blueberries taste sweet and explode with flavor. In the wintertime, purchased in the grocery store, you run the risk of eating something that might taste like cardboard.
And the differences don’t stop with seasonality and taste: wild blueberries have higher minerals such as calcium, magnesium, manganese, zinc, and polyphenols, while their cultivated counterpart has higher iron and cadmium contents. Why the difference between the two types? The soil!
As we have previously written, soil is not just dirt. The world within the soil is more diverse than all the species in the Amazon rainforest. It is full of nutrients, minerals, microbiota, and fungi, just to name a few ingredients. All of these microorganisms work together to produce the nutrients that plants need to grow and that we need to stay healthy.
Studies have shown that regenerative agriculture is the best type of farming to enhance the nutrients in the soil. Regenerative farming practices reduce disturbances to the soil while nurturing its biology. These techniques include practices like no-till farming, the use of biodiverse cover crops, crop rotation methods, utilizing sustainable manure, and integrating livestock to support the life of the soil. What is especially great about regenerative agriculture is that farmers can tailor their practices to a specific crop, location and type of land, and water availability.
These farming practices have been shown to increase organic matter in the soil, reduce water evaporation, and improve water-holding capacity. Those benefits, in turn, help support carbon sequestration, reduce erosion, and, as we now know from a study published in Peer Journal, improve the nutritional profiles of crops and livestock grown on regenerative land.
Ultimately, healthy soil = nutrient-dense foods!
Conversely, unhealthy soil can produce foods lacking in nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
By examining eight pairs of regenerative and conventional farms across the US, researchers compared the nutritional content of food crops grown using the two different farming practices. The findings detailed that food produced on regenerative farms contained more magnesium, calcium, potassium, and zinc, as well as more phytochemicals and vitamins B1, B12, C, E, and K. This study supports the theory that what crops “eat” directly impacts its nutrition.
Participating farmers in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Tennessee, Kansas, North Dakota, and Montana agreed to regeneratively grow one acre of peas, sorghum, corn, or soybeans. On a neighboring acre, the same crop was grown using conventional methods. Furthermore, one meat producer participated.
“Most notably, soil health appears to influence phytochemical levels in crops,” the authors write, “indicating that regenerative farming systems can enhance dietary levels of compounds known to reduce risk of various chronic diseases.”
The primary variable in this study was the farming technique—one that had been conventionally farmed for years, with the other applying regenerative practices. The study controlled for key variables given the adjacent plots of land, providing consistency with regard to weather, equipment, and soil type.
David Montgomery, professor of Earth and Space Science at the University of Washington, noted that regenerative practices yielded crops with more anti-inflammatory compounds and antioxidants across the board. He and Anne Bikle are co-authors of the newly released book, What Your Food Ate. Their book goes into great depth to show the correlation between soil health and human health, referencing many foundational studies that set the tone for this new research.
This research is compounded by many other studies, including nutrient density studies, density evaluation tools studies, research on where we get our nutrients, assessments of our current land and soil, soil health in various agricultural systems, and global soil resources.
Linking your health to soil
The links between soil, crop, and human health cannot be stressed enough. Consumers often don’t think of the source of their foods. For instance, when eating a spinach salad, most of us just think as far as the local grocer. But what about the storage facility that kept it refrigerated while waiting to be stocked at retail or the trucking company that transported it from the farm to the wholesaler? Or how about the farm that provided land and labor, the seed that gave the crop life, or all the way back to its life in the ground, the dirt…. the soil? And while all the links in the supply chain play critical roles in keeping our expansive and complex food system functioning, it all starts with the soil.
We have written at length about the importance of your gut microbiome, a critical component of human health and debatably as crucial as your brain in keeping your body functioning. Let’s think of soil’s microbiome in the same way—a critical yet overlooked component in determining the nutrient density of our food. Healthy soil comprises millions of diverse microbes, including fungi, bacteria, and other compounds. As the newest Peer Journal study states, our school of thought should really be:
“It may be that one of our biggest levers for trying to combat the modern public health epidemic of chronic diseases is to rethink our diet, and not just what we eat, but how we grow it.”
It is easier to see the correlation between the soil and plants, but the study also revealed that the soil impacted the beef producer. The study found that the beef from the regenerative farm versus the conventional farm had three times more omega-3 fats, specifically, more than six times the amount of alpha-linolenic acid (an essential omega-3). The cattle grazing on the land had meat samples taken from both the regenerative and conventional farms. A comparison was made, showing the direct impact that the soil had on the cattle and, ultimately, the beef we will eat.
A solution for carbon sequestration
This research also revealed some environmental implications. With the threat of climate change growing with each passing year, there is a broad consensus that regenerative agriculture could be a scalable solution. Montgomery’s study noted that soil samples from the regenerative plots had twice as much carbon in the topsoil as well as a “soil health score” three times higher based on the USDA’s Haney test for soil health. Other studies also explored the overall soil health of regenerative ag vs. conventional and similarly concluded regenerative ag’s benefits to soil.
The figure above shows the distributions of soil health metrics for regenerative ag (in blue) and conventional ag (in red). SOM is the percentage of soil organic matter, followed by the Haney test scores, as well as the ratios of paired regenerative and conventional farms value for % soil organic matter and Haney test scores.
In the future, when you go to the grocery store, you will soon be able to see the nutrient density and environmental impact of your food. This will be a primary factor in consumer purchasing habits. According to New Nutrition Business, a food and nutrition consultancy, the concept of ‘nutrient-dense’ foods is being mentioned more in the US Dietary Guidelines than ever before.
Companies are also taking note, using farming practices as a marketing tool in selling their products. The appeal to consumers is growing, and thus, so is the prevalence of the value of healthy soil. We are sure to see this reflected in labeling down the road.
Getting consumers on board
It is not just the small operations applying regenerative ag practices on their farms; a few prominent companies are committing to regenerative farming partners for their supply, including PepsiCo, Walmart, General Mills, Unilever, Danone, Land O’Lakes, and Hormel, among others.
According to Mintel’s recent report, The Future of Food Sourcing & the Supply Chain, consumers will pay extra for farmers implementing environmental impact solutions, even in the current inflationary environment. When we did our survey on trusted sources, farmers were trusted along with scientists, healthcare professionals, and educators.
The challenge with soil is that it is hard to get the everyday consumer to think about it, let alone care about it. The hope is that with more prominent research like this, soil health, farming practices, and the nutrient density of your food choices will be top of mind the next time you are picking out your fruits, veggies, proteins or any unprocessed foods, for that matter.
Just remember, all your nutrients come from dirt, so the next time you reach for your blueberries, think: were these wild blueberries, picked off the vine, grown in nutrient-dense soil? Seek food grown regeneratively when possible, to get the most nutrients from your foods. After all, what you can consume each day is limited, so why not make the most of it.
The Bottom Line
The importance of soil cannot be stressed enough. The ability for us to feed a growing population depends on the health of our soil. This latest research illustrated that the nutrient density of our food also depends on it.