By Deva Armoogum
“If people ate truly nutrient-rich food out of healthy soil, you would slash the national health bill straight away. The big chemical companies and big food companies know exactly what they are doing. It is now causing millions of deaths – tell me why that is not genocide?”
Dr Charles Massy
The Anthropocene has been defined as the geological era spanning roughly the last five decades, in which human activities have accelerated to such an extent that humanity has become the dominant force on the planet, shaping its biophysical conditions in unprecedented way. In this period, capitalism also emerged as the uncontested economic model which brought about the greatest improvements in human conditions, from poverty alleviation, infant mortality and public health generally, to increases in standards of living and quality of life.
This Great Acceleration did not however come without cost. Apart from greenhouse gas emissions and climate crisis, there are quite a few other negative consequences which are less obvious, such as rising inequalities, human displacements and social disturbances. What is even lesser known is how pervasive industrialisation is impacting on human health, and this is a great paradox given the significant improvements in public health.
Driven by powerful multinational corporations, industrial agriculture and food production technologies have more far-reaching implications on human bio-physical and mental health than most people are aware of. Unravelling this paradox may well challenge the sustainable strategies to save the planet, and invoke revolutionary solutions such as regeneration in various sectors of activity, starting with agriculture itself and extending all the way to the economic and financial systems.
It all started with agriculture
The food system on which human beings depend for survival has come a long way from hunter-gathering to modern industrial agriculture and food technology, all in a span of 12,000 years, which is a mere fraction in the history of Homo Sapiens. Starting with the domestication of wild plants and animals within small settlements, agriculture developed in tandem with the rise of population, and civilisations flourished in many parts of the world with the emergence of cities and empires.
Over the last three centuries, agriculture turned into a global industry with huge plantations of coffee, sugar and cotton developed in the colonies for export to developed countries, where animal husbandry also grew rapidly to meet the needs of increasingly affluent societies for meat and clothing. The British agricultural revolution and subsequently the Green Revolution saw the mechanisation of agriculture and the introduction of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and selective breeding and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which together led to the modern form of industrialised agriculture.
The rapid increase in large scale industrial agriculture and extensive use of chemicals, combined with an explosion in population, has had profound social, political, economic and environmental implications, not least being the impact on climate change. Surprisingly, agriculture, deemed to be the activity closest to nature, became one of the control variables which has exceeded the safe planetary boundaries, as seen in Figure 1. This was due mainly to the excessive flows of biochemicals like phosphorus and nitrogen compounds to the biosphere and the oceans, destroying much of the ambient conditions so critical for regeneration cycles of plants and aquatic life.
Environment was however not the only casualty. What was not fully understood until it was revealed by recent studies in soil micro-biology was the impact that chemical-based agriculture had on the bio-dynamics of the soil itself, the nutrient value of the crops produced, and as a result the adverse consequences on human health. While overground we see beautiful fields with tightly knit rows of corn, wheat or sugarcane, below ground a toxic soup of poisonous chemicals are destroying all the invertebrates, nematodes, bacteria and fungi which, like an underground non-stop factory, filter water and recycle nutrients.
Indeed, the rhizosphere, or the soil area surrounding the roots of the plant is teeming with life and is one of the most biologically abundant and diverse spaces on earth. Bacteria, for example, though invisible to the human eye, has a population of about 10 billion individuals, comprising 6 to 10 thousand species in one gram of soil. In addition, there are different types of fungus which develop symbiotic associations with the plant, called mycorrhiza, whereby the plants provide organic molecules such as sugar produced by photosynthesis to the surrounding life in exchange for water and minerals extracted from the soil.
The intensive use of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides have contributed to major declines of the thousands of soil organisms underground, leading to lifeless dirt, shallow roots and to massive loss of soil caused by erosion. What are also lost in the process are vital nutrients metabolised in the soil which humans need for their health and wellbeing.
The soil-gut connection or how eating the right food can save the planet
This may indeed look like a very strange connection: how can eating the right food save the planet? In parallel with soil microbiology, a lot of recent research has shown that the gut microbiome has a lot to do with human health and wellbeing, and this is populated by the same kind of bacteria as in the soil. Indeed, many of the soil bacteria have co-evolved with humankind and have the ability to communicate with human cells.
The intensive use of chemicals, in the form of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, is unfortunately wreaking havoc on this symbiotic relationship which have lasted for millions of years. Not only are these poisons responsible for the destruction of soil biology, the extinction of birds, bees and other useful or predator insects (which control the harmful ones), but the ripple effects include desertification, erratic rainfall and erosion through loss of organic matter and deep roots to retain the soil. More importantly, they are also responsible for many diseases, which as many new studies reveal, result from nutrient deficiencies in the food we eat as well as the absence of the right bacteria in the gut to process and metabolise these foods.
Organic agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner.
One example of such chemical is glyphosate, commercialised as Roundup, which is an herbicide so widely used that it ends up in 95% of human tissues, breast milk and even the umbilical cords. In the soil Roundup binds certain minerals like zinc and magnesium, preventing them from being absorbed by plants. The soil bacteria that normally make these minerals soluble are also killed by the herbicides as well as fertilisers and other pesticides, preventing the production of amino-acids and alkaloids which are so critical to plant defence mechanisms (hence the use of more and more pesticides), and which also play an important role in human immune systems. Magnesium deficiency alone accounts for a number of diseases like autism, Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis, depression, anxiety, and other neurological diseases.
Many other amino-acids critical to human physical and mental health, such as tryptophan are metabolised in the soil and absorbed by the plants through the symbiotic relationships between the roots and soil bacteria and fungi. This kind of metabolic activity is mirrored in the human gut, where trillions of microbes help convert the food absorbed to more useful forms, like the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin which helps regulate moods and emotions.
The study of soil health is now considered to be a critical component of nutritional science. Likewise, the future of healthcare will depend less on the study of illnesses, but rather focus on a better comprehension of the human microbiome, and the food that we need to ingest to keep the microbes in good health. Equally important will be holistic health approach that will reduce dependence on antibiotics and other medicines which destroy the good microbes in the gut. Thus, reverting to healthy soils will not only save human health but help reverse the disastrous impact of agro-chemicals on the planet.
“Eating ‘normal’ fruits and vegetables, meat, or baked goods (while still better than eating processed foods), will still leave you sick. It is like feeding your body small amounts of poisons every day and denying it nutrients that keep you well. I compare it to sitting on a ‘time-bomb’ that will explode sooner or later in one disease or other,” writes Dr Gundula Rhoades in The Food Solution: Eating for Today to Save Tomorrow.
From organic to regenerative agriculture
The term Regenerative Agriculture was first coined in 2014 in the wake of a United Nations Climate Change meeting in New York. The aim of the meeting was to set up a global network of like-minded agricultural, environmental and social organisations. Today, it has become the umbrella designation for most organic farming systems like agro-ecology, permaculture, syntropic farming or holistic grazing. The common link is the care of the soil and the organic matter it contains.
The need for a new terminology bred from a dissatisfaction with the term sustainable for the main reason that it has been completely greenwashed and lost all of its original meaning. Originally conceived as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’, the word ‘sustainable’ has been perversely interpreted, and current agricultural practices have led to sustainable intensification where more inputs are being used to lower environmental footprints. It has also led to the decline of supposedly low yielding organic farming in favour of more devious means to increase yield of commodities per land area while still meeting the definition of sustainable. Multinationals like Bayer/Monsanto, notorious for patented GMOs, their massive production of toxic agro-chemicals, and oligopolistic control on farm inputs, are rebranding themselves as being the sustainable agricultural companies in the world.
Furthermore, it became apparent that, in spite of the preponderance of agriculture in the economy, and the fact that more than 50% of the world population are in some way involved in agricultural and food production, the farming community is the least advantaged of all. Despite being responsible for producing food for sustaining human life and well-being, farmers are among the poorest, least educated and secure people in the world.
Degenerative agriculture or industrial farming is also seen as a major contributor to environmental and existential threats, responsible for up to 50% of the climate crisis, destruction of forests, soil degradation and extinction of species.
To counter such nefarious consequences, four main principles emerged as meeting the objectives of regenerative agriculture. These are defined by Regeneration International:
- Health – Organic agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible.
- Ecology – Organic agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them.
- Fairness – Organic agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities.
- Care – Organic agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment
There is an implicit recognition in regenerative agriculture that human health and wealth come from the soil and that proper management of the Soil Organic Matter (SOM) can increase soil fertility, water holding capacity, pest and disease resilience and thus the productivity of agricultural systems. Moreover, because SOM comes from carbon dioxide fixed through photosynthesis, its increase can have a significant impact in reversing the climate crisis by drawing down this greenhouse gas.
Its purpose is encapsulated in the mission of Regeneration International, which is “to promote, facilitate and accelerate the global transition to regenerative food, farming and land management for the purpose of restoring climate stability, ending world hunger and rebuilding deteriorated social, ecological and economic systems.”
Regenerative agriculture can only thrive if it is embedded in a supportive economic and financial system, hence the important question whether the present systems can fulfil this objective.
A new economic paradigm for a regenerated world
Herman Daly, former World Bank economist, is credited with the theorising of steady-state economy, as well as being one of the earliest ecological economists. He argued that economic laws that held good in an empty world no longer holds good in a full world, where the limits of the planetary boundaries have been reached. Hence the economic system has to be part of, and be integrated with, the ecosphere, rather the prevailing view that the environment being part of the economy and being managed integrally so as not to miss growth opportunities. Based on the thermodynamic laws of physics, he argued that there is a conflict between gross domestic product (GDP) and the environment, hence growth has to be replaced by development without growth, which promotes qualitative improvement without quantitative increase in resource throughput beyond an ecologically sustainable scale.
The economic system has to be part of, and be integrated with, the ecosphere.
Natural resource flows are now the scarce factor whilst capital stock and labour are now relatively abundant, hence questioning the validity of the capitalist system, which for all its successes has been held responsible for the disastrous outcomes like the 2008 financial crisis, climate change, the exploitation of the economically and politically disadvantaged, and the extreme accumulation of wealth for the restricted few. The rules of nature that determine the success of regenerative agriculture may hold the secret for thriving economic systems.
The science of flow systems, bio-mimicry and holistic thinking are some of the new fields of knowledge behind the quest for new principles and strategies to drive future human activities. These derive from the important observation that the same principles and patterns of systemic health that govern all living systems like bacteria and human cells, with inbuilt stability and sustainability also apply to non-living systems like transportation, the internet, societal and economic systems, and even monetary systems. Creating self-sustaining systems requires a regenerative paradigm which goes beyond the sustainable or even restorative systems, as shown in Figure 2.
The capacity to regenerate itself is central to the idea of Regenerative Economics, which is simply defined as an economy which regenerates its capital assets. These assets are not limited to physical and financial assets but include all forms of capital which contribute to long term social and economic wellbeing: these include natural, cultural, human, intellectual, social, political, financial and built capitals.
Rather than seeking profit maximization in the short term, a regenerative approach can help to transform the unsustainable form of present capitalism into balanced and flourishing economies for a more just and equitable world. It builds on the idea that sustainability is a possible outcome only if the system is regenerative as a whole. This holistic approach is reflected in the principles of Regenerative Economy, as expressed in a conceptual framework designed by the Capital Institute, led by John Fullerton, a former Wall Street banker. This is illustrated in Figure 3.
Regenerative Economics is best understood in terms of a human health analogy. A person achieves good health if he builds his immune system through the intake of nutritious food and the disposal of wastes, exercises and sleeps properly and has a meaningful purpose in life. The reverse happens if these life habits are not observed, and the person will then need to have recourse to frequent medication or more aggressive medical interventions.
Similarly, a regenerative economy adopts the principles and patterns of systemic and resilient health, rather than rely on remedial measures after the harm is done. The relentless pursuit of growth and efficiency unfortunately comes at the cost of resilience. A sustainable economy seeks the optimum balance between efficiency and resilience in what is called the Window of Vitality, inherent in all healthy systems where the efficiency factors (small, diverse, flexible and densely connected) balance with the resilience factors (big, streamlined and powerful) to achieve optimal network health.
As pointed out by ecologist Robert Ulanowicz, “an emphasis on increasing scale and efficiency is useful up to a point, beyond which it is destructive to the system as a whole.” Both the financial crisis and the climate crisis are surely examples of this happening already, and one may surmise, the Covid-19 pandemic as well.
Business support and financial systems
Though still in its early stages of development, Regenerative Economics is already attracting support from the business community. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development envisions a world in which, by 2050, more than 9 billion people can live well within planetary boundaries. This however calls for a radical shift in mindsets. Financial systems for instance will have to recognize the value of social and environmental outcomes, together with financial performance, consistent with the recognition of multi-capital approach to value. Business models will have to be redesigned in terms of resilience and regenerative operations to generate long term value. Similarly, as explained earlier, agriculture will have to be regenerative with a focus on restoring degraded farmlands back to their original, biologically diverse productive state. Generally, businesses will have to understand that their success are intrinsically linked to the health of the earth systems as a whole, and be mindful of their actions that will ripple across all systems, including the healthcare system, which would have to undergo a thorough overhaul.
Financial systems will have to recognize the value of social and environmental outcomes.
For a Regenerative Economy to work, investments and capital flows will have to be redirected to more regenerative, nature-based solutions (NbS). The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that more than half of the world’s total GDP is moderately or highly dependent on nature, and there are considerable trillions of dollars of opportunities for private sector investments in NbS that will restore the integrity and resilience of the Earth’s ecosystem and meet the challenges of food security, climate change, water security, human health and enhanced resilience to disaster risk. The Capital Institute is spearheading research in Regenerative Capitalism and how this can redirect capital flows in a regenerative economy. There are impact investment organisations like P4G (Partnerships for Green) a “pioneering market-based, multi-stakeholder entity with transformative ambition, and which has the potential to bring long-term and sustained systemic change through commercially viable solutions that deliver green economic growth.” SEEDS is a financial system which funds, promotes and facilitates the transition into regenerative and local food systems, and simultaneously evolving to meet humanity’s “needs and desires in a healthy, regenerative and cooperative way.”
On the threshold of a new era
Eating the right food can save both the planet and human health, and this food can only come from healthy soils produced by regenerative forms of agriculture. In the process the negative impacts of industrial agriculture on the environment get reversed, and bio-dynamic systems create greater resilience against pests and diseases, with direct consequence on human immune systems and general wellbeing. This has to be supported by an economic and financial system which aims at a more equitable distribution of costs and benefits, and where the farming community takes the central stage in this revolutionary era.
Humanity is standing on the threshold of an era which can lead to the extinction of many forms of life on the planet, including the human species, but, if properly managed, can transition into a new civilisation where the human species can flourish in harmony with nature and all other species. What is needed is enlightened leadership, a change in mindset and the vision for a bright new world.
Stay In Touch