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Food & Health News

Regenerative Agriculture: The Hidden Hero of Modern Farming

The future of sustainable farming goes way beyond organic. It's about planting to rebuild the soil itself, increasing biodiversity and getting "good bugs" back into our bellies.

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While you already know about the importance of eating probiotic-rich foods, if you aspire to go a step further, you need to look beyond the end of your fork to under your farmer’s feet.

What do a spoonful of sauerkraut and healthy soil have in common? A vast complex of “good bugs,” or life-supporting probiotics, that act as your silent partners when it comes to keeping your gut healthy, supporting nutrient absorption and keeping your immune system in tip-top shape.


It turns out that the impact of beneficial microbes runs much deeper – and actually extends beyond the grocery store shelf all the way back to the farm itself. The concept of regenerative agriculture refers to farming or grazing practices that yield food crops and restore the quality of the land by rebuilding organic soil matter, increasing biodiversity and pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it back into the ground. San Francisco–based physician Daphne Miller, MD, maps out the clear connections between a healthy farm ecosystem and the human ecosystem in her bestselling book, Farmacology (William Morrow, 2013). In a nutshell, the idea is this: Compared with modern agriculture systems, traditional or regenerative farming methods hold a hidden hero – a vast complex of beneficial microbes that are vital players in the farming system itself, from the soil right up to the milking barn. “Being connected to a healthy farm cycle offers us a whole series of health benefits,” says Miller. Farmacology uncovers many benefits beyond advantages such as cleaner water, soil and air for the community, including more-nutritious foods (by making soil nutrients more available for plants to pull up in their roots) and exposure to more naturally occurring good bugs on the foods you eat, which may improve your body’s own microbiome.


An explosion of research has begun to shed light on just how these beneficial microbes may act as levers on human biology – especially when it comes to allergy protection. One Swedish study, for instance, found that children living on traditional dairy farms (as opposed to larger conventional farms) have just one-tenth the risk of developing allergies compared with children who don’t. Another Swedish study discovered that farm exposure during pregnancy significantly reduced the risk of allergies in infants. And in 2016, a US study in The New England Journal of Medicine reported that children raised on traditional Amish farms enjoyed significantly lower rates of asthma and allergy compared with children raised on industrialized farms, likely because their immune systems get a boost from close contact with the microbes from farm animals.


Then there’s the bevy of benefits under your farmer’s feet. Much like how a wholesome diet encourages a healthy microbiome, traditional farming methods encourage a more robust and vital microbial community to thrive in soil. These good bugs are far more than neutral bystanders simply along for the ride. Scientists continue to discover the dazzling ways soil microbes stay oh-so busy at the farm, helping plants better extract nutrients from the soil, pulling carbon from the atmosphere, recycling nitrogen and other nutrients back into the soil naturally (reducing the need for fertilizers), and bolstering a crop’s ability to withstand heat waves and drought – all of which promise to boost a farm’s resilience in the face of climate change. Good bugs, it turns out, are vital partners for a healthy body, a more resilient food system and a greener world. Discover four ways (see right) you can bring the benefits of these health-boosting microbes back into your own kitchen.


1.  Invest in Farm-Fresh Ingredients

Buying from local farms that grow a diverse set of crops and who use organic, biodynamic or regenerative farming methods can help bring you closer to the beneficial bacteria of the farm ecosystem. It’s important to note that some of these smaller farms might not be formally certified (as this certification can be costly and difficult to obtain), so talk with your farmer. At a minimum, make sure they are mostly pesticide/synthetic fertilizer–free.

2.  Leave the Leaves and Skins On

Miller encourages her patients not to peel off all the outer leaves and skins of hardy vegetables like carrots, potatoes and broccoli. Instead, keep them intact. “In general, this tougher, pest-nibbled, sun-exposed covering is precisely the part of the food that has the highest concentration of nutrients,” says Miller, who adds that peels and leaves are best suited for feeding the beneficial bugs in your gut.

3. Include Fermented Foods Daily

Foods such as apple cider vinegar, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and tempeh are excellent alternative sources of good bacteria.

4. Give Back

Sign up for a community garden plot, volunteer at a nearby farm that’s pesticide free (many will swap produce for sweat equity!) or join a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. Compost your own scraps back into your garden or bring them to a local farm or city compost center.