Crops grown with regenerative agriculture are healthier, study finds

Dive Brief:

  • Food grown using regenerative agriculture practices has higher nutritional content, according to a new University of Washington study published in science journal PeerJ. Regenerative farming is a way to restore the soil and water used for food production and reduce climate change through practices including increasing soil biodiversity and adding cover crops to keep carbon in the soil. Farms that engaged in practices associated with regenerative agriculture over five to 10 years produced more nutritious food with higher amounts of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.
  • The study collected data from 10 different farms across the country with differing climate and soil properties. Soil from farms with regenerative agriculture had higher quantities of nutrients than neighboring traditional farms. Beef and pork raised using regenerative grazing techniques had higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally grown meat, according to the researchers.
  • While the researchers note that the findings are preliminary because of the small sample size of soil analyzed, the results could bring increased interest in regenerative farming from both CPG manufacturers and consumers.

Dive Insight:

These findings follow years of research into the nutritional content of soil on American farms. As farmers have produced higher yields of crops in recent decades, the nutrition density of food declined, according to California State University Chico researchers. A University of Texas in Austin study tracking USDA data between 1950 and 1999 found the content of phosphorus, iron, calcium, protein, ascorbic acid and riboflavin in the crops declined through the years by 9% to 38%.

Soil scientist Christine Jones, cited in the CSU study, said the lower nutrition of today’s conventionally grown produce stems from non-biologically active soil that is “not conducive to nutrient uptake.” Heavy levels of tillage on behalf of farmers, according to Jones, removes nutrients and leaves soil bare in between crops being planted.

Regenerative farming practices that improve the variety of bacteria and fungi within the soil can make food more nutrient-dense, according to University of Washington researchers. Soil health is linked to properties including the microbes and fungi that boost healthy elements in crops, David Montgomery, lead author of the University of Washington study said in an accompanying statement. Montgomery said improved soil can lead to significant health benefits for consumers.

“The biology of the soil was really the part that got overlooked in moving to chemistry-intensive farming,” Montgomery said. “It may be that one of our biggest levers for trying to combat the modern public health epidemic of chronic diseases is to rethink our diet, and not just what we eat, but how we grow it.”

Regeneratively grown food’s health halo could make it more appealing, but focusing on that aspect may prove controversial without more evidence to back it up. The purported health benefits of organic produce, a food group seen by a majority of consumers as healthier according to Pew Research, have been questioned by some academics. Researchers on Harvard University’s health blog said while organic foods are generally safer, with higher phosphorus levels and less pesticides, there is scant evidence that they offer higher levels of nutrients, including minerals. They cited a 2012 study published in Annals of Internal Medicine that found evidence that organic foods are not significantly more nutritious than their conventionally grown counterparts.

Despite this, organic food’s health halo leads to its continued growth. Organic produce sales topped $9 billion in 2021, after seeing significant growth since the start of the pandemic.

Food CPGs have embraced regenerative practices in recent years as a way to signal their commitment to sustainability issues, but research like the University of Washington’s could make it appealing as a way to court health-conscious consumers as well. However, in order for regenerative agriculture to prove itself as healthier, more continuous research is needed to document its impacts across growing regions, which was noted by the University of Washington researchers. This way, researchers and farmers can gauge how significant its nutritional improvements are.