Regenerative agriculture is getting a lot of attention these days, but it’s not necessarily a concept that many consumers are connecting with. The Soil Science Society of America launched a campaign for “soil-friendly eating” to try to close that gap, and make the concepts more simple and relatable for consumers. Susan Fisk from the organization talks about this push for soil-friendly eating, why the organization is making the effort, and how retailers can play a role.
First, a quick guide to soil-friendly eating:
- Improve your food diversity
- Vary your protein routine
- Include beans in your diet
- Look for sustainably produced meat
- Reduce your food waste
Where did this concept of soil-friendly eating come from, and why is the Soil Science Society of America focused on connecting with consumers?
Susan Fisk: We’ve seen a proliferation of terms around food—regenerative agriculture, sustainable agriculture, sustainable food and so on. It’s hard to keep up. And when we go to the grocery store, we’re buying off the shelf in a hurry—but we don’t think about, how does the person who’s growing this food treat their soil? Not even I know when I go into the grocery store what I should buy.
The SSSA talks about diversity in the diet as a key principle of soil-friendly eating. What does that look like, and why is it important?
SF: All of those things people say are healthy—it also happens to be better for the soil and better for the environment. We know vegetables have varying amounts of vitamins and minerals, and you want to make sure you have a balanced diet—that applies in the same way to the farm. So if you’re going to have wheat one day, have rice another day, and throw some sorghum into it. Just like farmers are going to rotate their crop, you can rotate your grains and your vegetables. And it applies to your protein sources; you can have beans, you can have chicken. If you decide you’re going to eat red meat, you should probably put yourself on a budget.
We can’t have farmers growing crop A over and over and over again. That’s not good for the soil and the soil microbiome. It’s better if they can grow crop A and then crop B and crop C. That gets complicated because the crops need different farming equipment and that’s expensive—but when farmers are able to grow different crops at different times of the year, that helps the soil microbiome. Just like our gut has microbes inside of it that we take probiotics for, there’s a movement for probiotics in farming and looking at the soil microbiome. And consumers can help that, because farmers respond to what people buy.
Crop rotation has been around for a long time. But we went in a different direction as a society—not as farmers, not as agronomists, not as scientists, but as a society.
It’s convenient to have recipes on a can of soup. And people are busy, so I understand that it’s very hard to put the work in to vary your diet. But it’s so important. If we as consumers are demanding edamame or purple rice or free range chicken—if we’re putting our dollars toward variety, that helps farmers choose what to plant and when so those choices can be beneficial for soil health. I’m not endorsing any one type of food. The key is that I go out of my way to really vary my diet.
Why is it not necessarily a safe assumption to think if you’re eating organic, you’re automatically eating a soil-friendly diet?
SF: Organic regulations are about chemical use, and weed control gets to be a real issue for organic producers. They turn to some tools to get rid of weeds because they have to—like tilling up the soil, and in some cases that’s all they can do. In some cases, it’s all they know how to do. But that’s problematic for soil health.
I think that advertisers have done a really good job of implying that organic is the best. I don’t think there’s been anything published on the human or soil science and agronomy side that says organic is the one way. I don’t think there is just one way.
Do retailers play a role in this effort?
SF: We, as scientific societies, have been looking at how we can partner with many groups, including retailers, on how to best provide information that consumers can use to make decisions. We all have a part to play in informing consumers, and to making sure all people have adequate and nutritious calories—scientists, growers, retailers, consumers and lawmakers.