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Human health: the catalyst to creating regenerative food systems
“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.” - Wendell Berry.
We are we eat, and it shows.
Our current food system is adept at producing cheap, hyper-palatable, nutrient-poor foods.
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.
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 won’t solve our diabetes and obesity epidemics with more rice, corn, and wheat.
And much to the chagrin of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, we’re not going to solve our health or planetary crises with the same industrial, extractive processes that got us here.
But much to the chagrin of the regenerative food movement, we’re not going to regenerate our planet at the speed and scale we need until we start focusing on and regenerating human health.
In our discussions about soil health, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and ecosystem restoration, we’ve neglected to emphasize the human health benefits of a regenerative food system.
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.
Faced with a modern public health epidemic of chronic disease, we have to rethink our diet and get consumers actively involved in transitioning away from our broken, industrialized model.
“Consumers won’t pay a premium price for regenerative food!” folks exclaim.
Herein lies the fundamental problem: the assumption that consumer purchasing decisions are entirely driven by price.
According to Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman, the subconscious mind drives consumer purchasing behavior.
Per Zaltman’s research, many consumers report comparing competing brands and price points when making purchase decisions, but what we report isn’t how we act.
Emotion drives our decisions.
Whether we’re discussing cross-fencing, CPG products, or nature-based solutions, ignoring our emotion- and health-driven humanity will never drive us to the regenerative future we seek.
We’re humans wanting to be seen, heard, respected, and cared for by other humans and connected within the natural world we’re all striving to repair, protect, and preserve.
We have to rethink our diet and get consumers actively involved in transitioning away from our broken, industrialized food system. How we think about our own physical, mental, and emotional health is an underestimated catalyst we need to scale regenerative food systems.
“Stone Skipping Is a Lost Art. Kurt Steiner Wants the World to Find It” by Sean Williams. A long-form essay that’s sure to inspire. Kurt Steiner dedicated his adulthood to “stone skipping, sacrificing everything to produce world-record throws that defy the laws of physics. To hear him tell it, he has no choice.” If you’re short on time, at least read this excerpt:
Kurt toiled with the duality of his mental life throughout his teenage years, lurching from hyperfocus to apathy. Classmates would crowd around to watch him at a pinball machine, where he could go hours without losing a ball. He excelled at chess, could pick apart a radio and put it back together, and racked up an Asteroids score so crazy he assumes it broke any known record. “He was seeing the back end of the coding rather than the graphics on the screen,” Victor “Chip” Susol, one of Kurt’s oldest friends, told me.
Whenever he discovered a body of water on these sojourns, he skipped rocks. It felt natural, as if by clasping a stone he was anchored to the planet, able to “hold infinity in the palm of your hand,” in the words of William Blake. Skipping was “safe from development and capitalism, and in control,” he told me, at odds with a society that seemed “hell-bent on detaching itself from the natural world.”
You may be surprised to learn that in the US, farmers have the highest suicide rate of any profession. Regeneration: The Beginning explores this crisis while exposing the human and environmental impacts of chemical farming. The first part of this docu-series follows the Breitkeutz family, a fourth-generation family running Stoney Creek Farm, as they transition from conventional practices - e.g. tilling the soil and spraying crops with herbicides - to more regenerative methods, which focus on improving the water cycle and increasing biodiversity. The series was produced by Farmer’s Footprint, a coalition of farmers, educators, doctors, scientists, and business leaders aiming to regenerate five million acres of farmland by 2025.
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