Ideally, food is healthful and nutritious, fueling bodily needs while also training your immune system. But there’s an often overlooked part of this story.
The food that nourishes us can be produced in a manner that is healthy or unhealthy for the soil, the biodiversity of life within and around it, and even for the broader planetary environment. Healthy soil means a healthier planet, and healthier people.
This is especially relevant to our immunity. In fact, the way we care for the soil — which sustains the vast majority of what we eat — can have an outsized impact on our immune function.
We now understand that modern agriculture methods are unsustainable in many ways. These include loss of soil fertility and heavy reliance on chemicals that accumulate in water and soil. All this can take a major toll on the quality of our crops. To combat this problem, “regenerative agriculture” is being hailed as a prime solution.
What is regenerative agriculture?
What are the differences between regenerative and conventional agriculture?
Let’s start with conventional agriculture:
- A field usually grows a single type of plant, like wheat or corn.
- Pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are used to promote quick and predictable plant growth.
- Tilling the field (to break up the soil) and use of herbicides are the main methods of controlling weeds.
- The field is left bare between crops.
Now let’s talk about regenerative agriculture, at a basic level:
- Growing many plant and insect species (there’s that biodiversity!) creates a living system of checks and balances that controls more aggressive or damaging pest and weed species. You might think of it like eating lots of healthy prebiotic and probiotic foods to help grow and diversify the “friendly flora” inside your intestines, since they help edge out the “bad guy” microbes.
- Minimal or no tilling of the soil maintains the valuable multi-layered system of organic life within it, keeping soil fertile year after year. This living system is what makes high-quality soil smell so good. You’re actually smelling the symphony of life!
- Animals are allowed to graze and (plug your nose!) fertilize the soil between growing periods. This gives it precious carbon, nitrogen, and bacteria to restore the soil’s nourishing qualities after crops take what they need from it. This is a little like taking supplements, because it’s a process that gives back missing nutrients that help rebalance optimal health.
Regenerate, then rejuvenate
What do all these things have to do with immunity? Lots!
Enhancing the spectrum of organic life in vast tracts of agricultural land would go far toward helping the soil regain its native fertility, structure, and composition. Greater natural biodiversity in our environment provides the perfect system (it worked great during our evolution as a species) for training our immunity to distinguish between what can harm us and what does not, in contrast to the immune confusion engendered by ubiquitous industrial and agricultural chemicals.
Given the contributions of pollution and loss of biodiversity to immune problems like infection, allergies, and inflammation, it could also aid better balance between immune offense and defense functions. This is especially true since regenerative agriculture may also improve the nutritional qualities of foods grown through that system.
For a deeper dive
The idea of regenerative agriculture is a lot of food for thought to chew on! If you’re interested in a more detailed dive into the philosophy behind it, here’s a recent article you might enjoy. It explains how regenerative agriculture can be more profitable for farmers as well as being “good medicine” for the soil.