Does regenerative agriculture produce healthier food?
Regenerative agriculture can benefit the health of both people and planet, but the challenges are complex. In this guest blog, Climate Farmers’ Arlene Barclay explores how nature and farming can - and should - coincide.
This blog was authored by Arlene Barclay of Climate Farmers, a startup on a mission to scale regenerative agriculture and reverse climate change in Europe by working directly with farmers and developing best practice tools.
The ‘Green Revolution’ of the mid-20th century marked a paradigmatic shift where traditional farming practices were replaced by high-input agriculture aimed at boosting productivity. Synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, commercial seeds and genetically modified crops have become the status quo of farming.
Coinciding with the rise of these new farming methods has been a decline in the nutritional value of our food. Studies suggest that from 1950-2002 food nutrient density has fallen by up to 38% (1,2).
We’re not only consuming fewer nutrients than our grandparents. We’re also facing a rapid rise in public health crises attributable to the food we eat. From cardiovascular disease linked to ultra-processed foods, a spike in cancer cases attributable to synthetic inputs, and people simultaneously experiencing obesity while being malnourished (3), it’s irrefutable that something needs to change.
Does soil health account for the decline in nutrient density?
Evidence suggests that higher yields on the field via disrupting biological processes correlate with lower nutrient density on our plates. A growing body of literature is attributing this decline to the dwindling quality of our soils.
In healthy soil, most plant nutrient acquisition is mediated by microbes, a nearly invisible army of underground organisms. Industrial agricultural practices such as excessive tillage negatively impact these organisms (4), whereas regenerative methods aim to regenerate the soil and promote biodiversity.
As such, many soil scientists believe practices that disrupt microbial activity are to blame for the decreasing nutrient density of our food (5). As David Montgomery, an Earth scientist at the University of Washington, points out “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.” (6)
Learn more about soil health and methods being used to regenerate ecosystems from the soil up:
Soil is life
The case for regenerative agriculture
There is an emerging movement of stakeholders that aim to transform human health through the transformation of our food system. A cornerstone of that movement is regenerative agriculture.
Regenerative farming turns our current agricultural paradigm upside down. It promotes restorative techniques that work in line with nature rather than against it. Evidence is mounting that regenerative management not only improves ecosystem health but also nutrient density. A 2022 study of US farming highlighted that food produced in regenerative systems had higher nutritional value than conventional plots (7).
Comparing neighbouring farms, the study found that crops produced under regenerative management had 11-34% higher nutritional composition (7). Analysis of meat products further echoed the message. Beef and pork from regenerative farms had more omega-3 and a-linolenic acid, two essential nutrients for human health and development (7).
Bottom line: farming practices influence the quality of the soil, and the quality of the soil has a significant impact on the quality of our food.
The broader public health benefits of regenerative agriculture
Regenerative farming delivers a myriad of benefits beyond nutrient density.
As a society, we depend on healthy ecosystems to purify the air so we can breathe, sequester carbon for climate regulation, provide clean drinking water for human survival, and pollinate crops so we don’t starve. Regenerative agriculture contributes to every single one of these essential ecosystem services.
Notably, the regenerative management style also aims to minimise or eliminate chemical intervention. Research has highlighted that our use of synthetic inputs has led to the contamination of food, air, waterways and soil. If practised at scale, regenerative agriculture could significantly reduce human exposure to agricultural toxins while minimising the devastating effect these inputs pose on ecosystems (8).
What are the key challenges of regenerative agriculture?
Our work at Climate Farmers has highlighted that access to knowledge and financial support poses a significant barrier for farmers looking to make the change.
Regenerative agriculture is entirely context specific. As such, farmers looking to shift their operations often face difficulties in discovering not only how to implement new practices, but also whether these methods will succeed on their land. Furthermore, despite regenerative agriculture being up to 60% more profitable after the transition period (9), financial barriers such as upfront investment stand in the way.
As such, mechanisms to facilitate upskilling and unlearning, as well as transition finance, food corporate support and policy incentives are crucial to mobilise regenerative management at a large scale.
Securing a healthy future with healthy farming
The connection between human health and how our food is produced is complex. But the emerging evidence is clear: these two worlds are inextricably connected and it’s time to act on what we know. Whether it's the dwindling nutrient density of our food or damaged ecosystems, our interference with natural systems is backfiring.
The time is ripe to mimic nature rather than manipulate it. And to make this possible, farmers must be at the centre of everything that follows.
- Donald R. Davis, PhD, FACN, Melvin D. Epp, PhD & Hugh D. Riordan, MD: Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999
- David Thomas: The Mineral Depletion of Foods Available to US as A Nation (1940–2002) – A Review of the 6th Edition of McCance and Widdowson *
- FAO: The state of food insecurity and nutrition in the world 2022
- Marjo Helander, Irma Saloniemi, Marina Omacini, Magdalena Druille, Juha-Pekka Salminen, Kari Saikkonen: Glyphosate decreases mycorrhizal colonization and affects plant-soil feedback
- National Geographic: Fruits and vegetables are less nutritious than they used to be
- Food Navigator: Study reveals nutritional benefits of regenerative agriculture crops
- Montgomery, David R et al: Soil health and nutrient density: preliminary comparison of regenerative and conventional farming
- Udeigwe TK, Teboh JM, Eze PN, Stietiya MH, Kumar V, Hendrix J, Mascagni HJ Jr, Ying T, Kandakji T: Implications of leading crop production practices on environmental quality and human health
- Boston Consulting Group: The Case for Regenerative Agriculture in Germany—and Beyond