Written by Emma Loewe
If you’re up to speed on nutrition news, you’ve probably heard talk that large-scale, industrial agriculture can deplete crops of essential vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to thrive. But why, exactly, does that happen, and what can be done about it?
For such a massive problem, the solution is actually microscopic.
How soil microbes contribute to healthy, nutrient-dense food.
In its natural state, soil is full of invisible but essential microbes. Like, really full of them. There are more microorganisms in a handful of healthy soil than humans who have ever lived, and the microbes on our planet outnumber the stars in our universe more than a million times over.
In healthy systems, plant roots feed these soil microbes sugars and give them a place to latch onto. In return, the microbes help the plants absorb nutrients in the surrounding soil. All life on Earth depends on this symbiotic relationship—but some agricultural practices can mess with it.
“The problem is that most conventional agriculture practices erode the organic matter and life in the soil,” Ryland Engelhart, co-founder and executive director of Kiss the Ground, a nonprofit that proposes a new way of farming, tells mbg.
Take tillers: those giant machines that look right at home on a large, open pasture. They break up the soil in preparation for the planting season, but in doing so they often disrupt underground microbial systems. Farms that use conventional tools like these typically have 60% less biomass from soil microorganisms than ones that age managed with soil health in mind.
“Without plants being able to uptake micronutrients, our food is deficient; therefore, our health is deficient,” Engelhart reiterates.
As such, our farms are producing food that isn’t as nutrient-rich as it could be. “We are destroying the ability of the soil to provide nutrition to the plant, said” Mark Hyman, M.D. The functional medicine doctor estimated that the nutrient density of plant foods is 50% less than it was 50 years ago, thanks to the invasive way we’ve been farming.
The next wave of farming—and what to do in the meantime.
Regenerative agriculture, a type of farming that seeks to improve soil health, is one promising solution to this nutrient-density dilemma, as well as other major global issues like climate change. (Healthy soil has the capacity to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the ground.)
“Feeding soil life to encourage biodiversity and abundance means managing the farm so that there are living roots in the ground for as much of the year as possible,” reads a new report by The Rodale Institute, a nonprofit that conducts farming research. To do so, regenerative agriculture uses methods like cover cropping, crop rotation, and reduced tillage to keep soil microbe communities intact.
A global transition over to regenerative farming is underway, but it’s going slower than most nutritionists and environmentalists would like (though there are a few ways we can all get involved in speeding it up). In the meantime, experts are saying we should be extra diligent about getting the essential nutrients that are being farmed out of our food—one of the most important of which is magnesium.
“In the modern diet, our magnesium intake is low,” says nutritionist and magnesium researcher Andrea Rosanoff, Ph.D. “And we have been a bit low generationally—our mothers were low, and our mothers before that.”
Beneficial microbes increase farms’ capacity to produce nutrient-dense food. Certain farming practices can deplete our soil of them, making our crops less nutritious and contributing to some of the mineral deficiencies we’re seeing today. Supporting the transition to regenerative agriculture and eating (and supplementing) with nutrition in mind can help keep you and the planet healthy.
About the author:
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner. She received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University.