Human health needs to be a bigger part of the regenerative movement
We have to rethink our diet and get consumers actively involved in the transition away from our broken, industrialized food system. An emphasis on human health could be the missing catalyst we need.
Short on time? Here’s the TLDR version: We may claim that price is the number one limiting factor to scaling regenerative agriculture, but it’s not. Emotions drive most of our purchasing decisions, and our personal and familial health (or lack thereof) are emotionally ripe consumer concerns for the regenerative movement to resolve. To successfully scale regenerative agriculture, human health and how regeneratively raised food can benefit human health need more consideration.
Take care of the land and it will take care of you. - Hugh Hammond Bennett
The regenerative movement will not grow if human health isn’t at the forefront of our conversations.
Our health is dependent upon our soil health, yet reflect back on a recent reunion or family gathering.
How often did you hear folks discussing soil health?
How often did you hear of someone’s new diet or diagnosis?
If your experience is similar to mine, you heard all about Auntie’s new celebrity-endorsed diet or your good pal’s new medication trial. Bring up soil health or the importance of dung beetles, and…cue the awkward silence.
We care about our health, but we often fail to see the connection between what we eat and our health outcomes. That narrative is beginning to change, but the regenerative movement is uniquely positioned to reconnect us with not only food that’s produced in a way that’s best for our planet, but also food that is best for us and those we love.
This brings to mind a Wendall Berry quote:
“People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health, and are treated by the health industry, which pays no attention to food.”
We are we eat ate, and it shows.
Our current food system is adept at producing cheap, hyper-palatable, nutrient-poor foods.
The US spends about 20% of its GDP - $4.1 trillion - on healthcare and is expected to grow at an average rate of 5.5 percent per year through 2027.
We have the highest per capita healthcare expenditure of any country in the world, yet rank near the bottom on many health metrics, including life expectancy, obesity, and prevalence of chronic disease.
Our medical students receive less than 25 hours of nutrition education during their four years in medical school and we have a growing population of overfed, undernourished citizens.
A paper published in Nature found that we are successfully producing ample carbohydrates but not nearly enough protein or other nutrients.
In an opinion letter in the Washington Post, coauthor Gerald C. Nelson, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a former senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, said the following:
Our success with carbohydrates, however, has had a serious downside: a worldwide plague of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases. The World Health Organization reports that in 2014, there were 462 million underweight adults worldwide but more than 600 million were obese—nearly two-thirds of them in developing countries. And childhood obesity is rising much faster in poorer countries than in richer ones. Meanwhile, micronutrient shortages such as Vitamin A deficiency are already causing blindness in somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 children a year and killing half of them within 12 months of them losing their sight. Dietary shortages of iron, zinc, iodine, and folate all have devastating health effects. These statistics point to the need for more emphasis on nutrients other than carbohydrates in our diets.
Our cheap food has become very expensive. We’ve optimized for a few, specific outcomes while externalizing the health and environmental costs of such a production model. Our Standard American Diet is entrenched with highly industrialized, chemically-intensive, extractive farming methods, which have their own separate health risks apart from consuming the resulting products.
To shift our discussion on food security from “calories” to “nutrient security” means we must question how we produce (and promote) the most critical nutrients. We’re not going to solve our diabetes and obesity epidemics with more rice, corn, and wheat.
Enter regenerative agriculture and well-raised animal-sourced foods.
There’s surmounting evidence of which practices produce the most nutrient-dense foods and which are best to regenerate soils, but how do we take these practices from the field and into the body?
In other words, how do we get consumers to both care about regeneratively produced food and buy it?
In a recent survey, Consumer Perspectives on Regenerative Agriculture, only 19% of respondents reported that they’ve heard of regenerative agriculture; two-thirds said they’re unwilling to pay for it.
Although people care about the planet, they claim it’s challenging for them to prioritize it over price, taste, healthfulness, and convenience.
I argue that amidst all of our discussions about soil health, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and ecosystem restoration (all crucial elements, of course), we’ve neglected to emphasize the human health benefits of a regenerative food system.
But what if this human aspect is the missing building block to scaling regenerative agriculture?
Over half of Americans reported following a diet in 2022 and reported healthfulness as a very important factor when deciding whether to purchase food and beverages and as “nutrient density” becomes a prominent term in food marketing, consumers are ripe to make more regenerative food choices.
The regenerative movement can capitalize on these trends to propel consumer adoption. Faced with a modern public health epidemic of chronic disease, we have to rethink our diet and get consumers actively involved in the transition away from our broken, industrialized model.
“Consumers won’t pay a premium price for regenerative food!” folks exclaim.
But herein lies the fundamental problem: the assumption that consumer purchasing decisions are entirely driven by price.
According to Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman, consumer purchasing behavior is driven by the subconscious mind.
Per Zaltman’s research, many consumers report comparing competing brands and price points when making purchase decisions, but this isn’t actually the case.
Emotion drives our decisions.
Understanding this is key to marketing, selling, and branding the regenerative movement. Whether we’re discussing transition farming, fencing, CPG products, or regenerative farm stays, highlighting only the physical or data-heavy attributes will likely generate lackluster results.
The human element cannot be ignored.
As the old saying goes - sell the sizzle, not the steak.
Which brings us back to the beginning…how do we get consumers to care enough to advocate for regenerative agriculture?
We make it about them. We bring in emotion. And nothing is more emotional than the health (or lack of health) and wellbeing of ourselves and those we love.
Next week, we’ll dive into the current data on the health benefits of regeneratively raised food and how to use that data to sell the sizzle of this movement.
In the meantime, tell me:
Do you think human health should be more predominant in our conversations about scaling regenerative agriculture?
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Thank you for this post. We so agree. Human health can be a great driver for regenerative farming and foods. And it often meets the point you make here about emotions versus price. America needs more lifestyle medicine teaching patients the why and how of illness and the role of food in healing. It's already on its way, we just need more. Lifestyle medicine greatly supports the good, hard work of regenerative farmers.
You might find this post of interest: https://livingwelllocally.substack.com/p/agricultures-first-question
Very true, consumers purchase on emotion, not primarily price. I'm beginning to learn more, so I'm looking forward to the data next week!