BY: MARBURY JACOBS, MS, MPH
As health and wellness professionals, we are often encouraged to think of food as medicine. Not only can food meet our basic needs, but it can also be used as a preventative and healing tool for health. As a farmer and public health practitioner, I want to encourage you to dig a little deeper. How can we in the health and nutrition sector, promote food choices that are not only healthier for us, but also healthier for the planet? I recommend starting from the ground up – beginning with soil.
Healthy soil is alive, fertile and productive! It is teeming with beneficial microbial and insect life, often invisible to the naked eye. Healthy soil has good tilth, encouraging a balance between water moisture retention and proper drainage for plant root systems. Healthy soil can even help to mitigate climate change by serving as a carbon sink. Healthy plants have stronger immune systems, providing better natural resistance to disease and pest pressures. Healthy plants are also more resilient, allowing them to better adapt to extreme weather events, as well as short and long-term changes to their climate. Perhaps most importantly, healthy plants are even more nourishing thanks to their increased nutrient density.
On the other hand, unhealthy soil is essentially dead - void of minerals, nutrients and microbial life. Poor soil health results in weak plants that lack strong immune systems, which then require farmers to utilize chemical pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides -further depleting the soil and damaging the plants.
As farmers attempt to produce more and more food on the same amount of land each year, it is imperative that they prioritize soil health. Without healthy soil, farmers often resort to short-sighted quick fixes to ramp up production. Between the use of chemical-based solutions,intense soil tillage and wasteful irrigation practices, the health of the soil and environment largely ignored.
Luckily, many farmers have learned that by improving the health of their soil through ecologically sustainable and regenerative practices, they can actually increase their yields and grow healthier crops, leading to higher nutrient content. As a consumer, you can help support and promote farms and businesses that prioritize the health of their soil, which ultimately benefits you. It is important to understand the various labels (USDA Certified Organic, Non-GMO, Certified Naturally Grown, etc.) and aggressive marketing techniques that influence your shopping behavior. It is important to be familiar with the farming practices they reference, as these labels can sometimes be deceptive. Many of these certifications still allow for practices that deplete the soil without regenerating it for the following season.
Poet, farmer and environmentalist Wendell Berry famously wrote, “What we do to the land, we do to ourselves”. Sustainable agriculture is a major public health priority throughout the world. In the United States, agriculture accounts for 7 percent of greenhouse gas emissions- but it also has the opportunity to reduce and offset emissions. Not only must we ensure we can feed our friends and neighbors, but also to ensure we are growing food in a manner that supports life for generations to come by serving as responsible stewards of the land. It’s difficult to feel a personal connection to the food you purchase at a grocery store - much less to the actual farm on which it was actually grown. However, as a consumer, it is crucial to seek out information regarding farming practices in order to play an active role in mitigating climate change and protecting human health.
I recommend committing yourself to regularly attending your local farmers market. It is the best way to thoroughly understand how your food is grown, and who grows it for you. Most local farmers are proud to tell you about their growing practices. Although they may not have any of the expensive marketing labels mentioned above, you might learn that their farming practices align with or even exceed those required for certification. At my farm, The Garden Farmacy, located outside of Jackson, Mississippi, we use the following terms to describe our soil-regenerating farming practices:
As a health and nutrition professional, you want to provide the most helpful and accurate information possible. While you may not be a farmer or gardener, there are plenty of reasons why you should care about soil health and supporting regenerative farming practices. Not only are plants grown in healthy soil better for the environment, but they are also better for you.
 The Many Benefits of Healthy Soil. The NM Healthy Soil Working Group. https://www.nmhealthysoil.org/benefits/. Accessed January 2021.
 Agriculture, Climate Change and Carbon Sequestration. ATTRA—National Sustainable AgricultureInformation Service. https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs141p2_002437.pdf. Published 2009.
 Healthy Soils Produce Healthy Crops. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education. https://www.sare.org/publications/manage-insects-on-your-farm/managing-soils-to-minimize-crop-pests/healthy-soils-produce-healthy-crops/. Accessed January 2021.
 Nutrient Density. Rodale Institute. https://rodaleinstitute.org/why-organic/issues-and-priorities/nutrient-density/. Accessed January 2021.
 Wallenstein, M. To restore our soils, feed the microbes. Published July 27, 2017. https://theconversation.com/to-restore-our-soils-feed-the-microbes-79616. Accessed January 2021.
 Why Regenerative Agriculture? Regeneration International. https://regenerationinternational.org/why-regenerative-agriculture/. Accessed January 2021.
 Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, 1990-2016. United States Environmental Protection Agency.
https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-01/documents/2018_complete_report.pdf. Published April 2018.
 Innovative Policy Solutions to Global Climate Change - Agriculture’s Role in Addressing Climate Change. Pew Center on Global Climate Change. https://www.c2es.org/site/assets/uploads/2001/10/policy_inbrief_ag.pdf. Accessed January 2021.