Regenerative Agriculture Could Save Our Planet & Your Gut, Nutritional Medicine Expert Explains

So what is regenerative agriculture and why is it important? Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D., referred to as the Father of Functional Medicine, leads us through the connection between our wellness and healthy soil and why we should care.

Image of an aerial view of a large open farmed field with a flock of sheep grazing as part of a regenerative agriculture movement.

Regenerative agriculture may not be on your radar, but it should be — it affects more than you know. Let’s take a look. What would you guess the following have in common?

  • Climate change
  • Reduced nutritional quality of our food
  • Toxic chemical exposure
  • Water pollution
  • Increase in chronic diseases
  • Loss of biodiversity
  • The fall of the Roman Empire

The answer is simple but probably surprising: dirt. And to get more specific, the soil our food is grown in. It turns out that modern farming and ranching technologies introduced over the past 70 years have diminished the quality of our precious topsoil, and this affects all of the above.

Read on to learn how depleted soil means less nutrients in your food and an out-of-balance microbiome. 

The Green Revolution and Soil Exhaustion

Image of the ground level view down a row of green farm crop, answering the question, "What is regenerative agriculture?"

Chances are you’ve heard of the human microbiome (read, How to Improve Your Gut Health in 4 Steps & the Emerging Science, written by Dr. Austin Perlmutter, Senior Director of Science and Clinical Innovation, Dr. Bland’s colleague at Big Bold Health), it’s been a popular health topic for several years. As researchers have uncovered more and more information about the beneficial impact a diverse and thriving intestinal microbial community has, interest in achieving optimal gut health has soared.

Would it surprise you to learn that soil also has a microbiome? It’s a fact. We’re talking about an ecosystem that teems with bacteria and microorganisms that affect plant health and nutrient quality. When soil is overused and not renourished, that microbiome can become less stable over time. This leads to a phenomenon known as soil exhaustion. In essence, the soil can no longer perform vital functions that nourish and nurture a crop to its full potential.

This concept of soil exhaustion tracks back to the 1960s and to the so-called Green Revolution. This was a time when industrial agriculture practices included the use of genetic hybrid seeds, deep tilling, intensive chemical fertilization, herbicides, pesticides, and other chemicals to increase crop yield. Some experts predicted that the Green Revolution would have long-term adverse effects on environmental stability. And… that’s exactly what has happened. (You can read more about this in Charles Mann’s excellent 2018 book, The Wizard and the Prophet.)

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The Price of Poor Agricultural Practices

Just a few decades before the Green Revolution, the United States endured a catastrophic agricultural event. This should have established a profound respect for soil health. The years 1930-1936 are now referred to as the Dust Bowl, and the lives of millions of people were affected. Across numerous midwestern prairie states, a devastating drought was exacerbated by irresponsible farming practices.

The entire region was plagued by severe dust storms that not only contributed to crop failure, but also to health issues among the people who lived in that region. With no way to make a viable living from the land, a mass exodus to California and other states ensued. It took several years and government conservation initiatives to restore the ecological balance of the areas affected by the Dust Bowl.

Today, many people believe we are repeating the mistakes of the past through our use of exhaustive agricultural practices. To remedy this and prevent further disasters, we urgently need to not only preserve existing topsoil, but increase soil health. This new model is called regenerative agriculture. It’s a movement that is growing and becoming more established, even among agricultural producers. To read more, I recommend Growing a Revolution, a book by the acclaimed environmental scientist, David B. Montgomery, PhD.

Do you have any insight into regenerative agriculture or the need to adopt this method of farming? Please share with the OA community in the comments below!

What is Regenerative Agriculture?

Image of someone standing next a wheel barrow with soil touching the soil from a regenerative agriculture farm. We define what regenerative agriculture is and it's connect to global and human health.

Regenerative agriculture encompasses farming, grazing, and ranching practices that focus on soil preservation and the reconstitution of soil health. Research indicates these techniques also help combat climate change by reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Here are some of the factors that set regenerative agriculture apart from the organic food certification process:

  • Avoidance of deep tilling
  • Use of cover crops to prevent the erosion of bare soil and to naturally increase nitrogen (an important soil nutrient)
  • Crop rotation
  • Incorporation of grazing animals
  • Increasing carbon capture in the soil and enriching soil organisms associated with healthy soil

Why is regenerative agriculture more than just a trend? The benefits may start with the soil, but there is a network effect that must be considered. Healthy soil — rich from the complexity of organisms that nourish it — improves the nutrients in our foods that support our immune systems, such as flavonoids and other polyphenols. (Read, I’m a Doctor, You Can’t Boost an Immune System—Try These 5 Balancing Tips Instead, by Dr. Bland’s fellow Big Bold Health colleague, Dr. Austin Perlmutter.)

In a field trial with Himalayan Tartary Buckwheat grown in soil that included natural mycorrhizal and other bacterial inoculants, analyses showed a trend toward increased rutin concentration (or plant pigment) in bran produced from the plants. Studies like this demonstrate how the microbiome of the soil influences the health of a plant grown in it. Just as our human intestinal microbiome supports the health of the individual.

Regenerative Agriculture Certification vs Certified Organic

You’re familiar with organic certification — an entire generation has come of age with this standard. (Historic Stag’s Leap Cellar Wines just went certified organic and the biodynamic winemaking is making its mark.) Is a new certification — regenerative agriculture — really necessary?

The Organic Food Production Act (1989-1990) was passed by Congress to establish standards for producing foods that could carry organic certification. This criteria includes the following: (1) the land could not be treated with agricultural chemicals for at least three years, and (2) the crops grown on this land could not be genetically modified. You’ll note that these standards do not adequately define farming methods to improve soil health, which we now know is crucial for long-term safe and sustainable food production, the stability of the farming system, and — significantly — the health of our planet now and in the future.

Image of a farm from the view of the fields down toward the buildings/structures at golden hour with windmills in the background. Regenerative agriculture represents a very small percentage of farmland in the US.

Recently, several organizations have been established to provide certification standards for regenerative agriculture. One of the earliest to emerge is Regenerative Organic Certified™ (ROC™). This standard incorporates both organic and regenerative criteria, a fact that has led to some debate among leaders in the field. As with any movement in its formative years, we may see evolution over time.

Presently, within the United States, there are 35 million acres of wheat, 87 million acres of soy, and 100 million acres of corn in production. That’s 222 million acres. Very little of it is organically certified, and virtually none of it is regenerative certified. Only 5 million acres (or 0.5%) of the 893 million acres of total farmland in the U.S. is “Organic Certified.” Within that 5 million acres of organic land, ROC™ has certified a very small percentage. We have a long way to go, and consumer involvement is critically important. More detailed information on the specifics of regenerative agriculture can be found at the Center for Regenerative Agriculture website.

The Price We Pay for Poor Soil

Yes, Green Revolution technologies created tremendous increases in crop yield, but at what price? The loss of soil health has translated into — and caused — many of the problems we are experiencing as a global society. These include climate change (due to increased carbon dioxide output and decreased carbon capture by soil), loss of topsoil, water and air pollution, a drastic decrease in the biodiversity of our farmland. Not to mention human health issues due to a decrease in the nutritional value of our foods and an increase in exposure to toxic agricultural chemicals. It is truly time to start moving toward a regenerative agriculture future.

The Fall of the Roman Empire

Back to the fall of the Roman Empire. This is a factoid borrowed from Dr. Montgomery and his research. The Roman Empire was a culture of epic scope that spanned nearly 1000 years of existence. Did a lack of soil preservation contribute to a dramatic and crippling reduction in food production? We know the rest of that prophetic story. It’s time to act now to prevent the sequel.

Read More Nutrition Nerd Deep Dives 

If you have a hard time getting all the nutrition and veg you need in your daily diet, which, by the way, should be your first line of defense, read our deep dives on which reviewed and tested greens powders we like best and the powers of spirulina powder according to the science. See what exactly chlorella is and what it can do for you, and finally read up on what the experts say about the wonders of wheatgrass.

P.S. Did you know? Organic Authority has its own nutrition and wellness shop to meet your needs and help you take control of your health. Shop clean supplements for energy, sleep, inner beauty for skin support, protein, workouts, pantry items and more. Shop The Organic Authority Shop now.

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Dr. Jeffrey Bland, PhD - World-Renowned Nutritional Medicine Expert, “Father of Functional Medicine”, and Founder of Big Bold HealthDr.... More about Dr. Jeffrey Bland, PhD