Soil Organic Matter Is the Secret to Good Food

Written by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

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Story at-a-glance -

  • The majority of food produced as meats in the U.S. comes from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), industrialized systems that, by their very nature, degrade the ecosystems around them
  • Regenerative farming restores and increases soil organic matter, leading to a number of beneficial outcomes, like reduced runoff, less need for irrigation and carbon sequestration
  • By farming without harsh chemicals and tilling, regenerative agriculture allows microbes in the soil to thrive, which is essential for nourishing plant growth
  • Using regenerative farming methods may allow farmers to increase production without the use of imported water, feed, fertilizer or pesticides
  • Interest in regenerative farming is growing, but it still represents less than 2 percent of farms in the U.S.

The majority of food produced as meats in the U.S. comes from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), industrialized systems that, by their very nature, degrade the ecosystems around them. But “to be economical and efficient, farming needs healthy ecosystems,” notes “A Regenerative Secret,” the important documentary video above.

This stark contrast between two farming methods is at the heart of the film. One, the industrialized model favored in the U.S., is steadily destroying the environment while the other, known as regenerative agriculture, is trying to rebuild it.

Why CAFOs Are Destroying the Planet

CAFOs house hundreds to even millions of animals in small spaces, confining animals into unnatural, mostly indoor (often windowless) settings where disease propagates and animal welfare is an afterthought. Some CAFOs, such as those for livestock, may also include feedlots, where animals may roam outdoors.

But unlike the green pastures you may envision when you picture cows grazing outside, feedlots crowd hundreds of thousands of cattle into small pens that are devoid of greenery. The animals trample over mud, dust and an excess of feces and urine, which washes into nearby waterways.

Raising large numbers of animals in such an unhealthy system leads to disastrous environmental outputs. According to the environmental organization Sierra Club:1

The amount of urine and feces produced by the smallest CAFO is equivalent to the quantity of urine and feces produced by 16,000 humans.

CAFO waste is usually not treated to reduce disease-causing pathogens, nor to remove chemicals, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals or other pollutants.

Waste is often collected into noxious “lagoons” for storage or sprayed onto neighboring fields.

Over 168 gases are emitted from CAFO waste, including hazardous chemicals such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and methane.

Airborne particulate matter is found near CAFOs and can carry disease-causing bacteria, fungus or other pathogens.

Animals frequently die in CAFOs. Their carcasses, often in large numbers, must be dealt with.

Infestations of flies, rats and other vermin are commonplace around CAFOs and therefore around CAFO neighbors.

CAFOs Devastate Water, Air and Soil

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), manure from industrial agriculture is the primary source of nitrogen and phosphorus in waterways.2 The resulting damage includes an excess of nutrients that lead to algae overgrowth, depleting the water of oxygen and killing fish and other marine life in expansive dead zones.

This, combined with the excess fertilizers applied to monocrops like corn and soy (much of them used to feed CAFO animals), sends a steady stream of nitrogen and phosphorus to both surface and groundwater, spreading potentially disease-causing organisms and unsustainable amounts of nutrients along the way.

In fact, in the U.S., agriculture poses the greatest threat to water quality and is single-handedly impairing drinking water supplies across the country. CAFOs are also toxic to the air. Research published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters demonstrated that in certain densely populated areas, emissions from farming far outweigh other sources of particulate matter air pollution.3

As nitrogen fertilizers break down into their component parts, ammonia, a byproduct of fertilizer and animal waste, is released into the air. When ammonia in the atmosphere reaches industrial areas, it combines with pollution from diesel and petroleum combustion, creating microparticles.

CAFO workers and neighboring residents alike report higher incidence of asthma, headaches, eye irritation and nausea. Research published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine also revealed that markers of lung function were related to how far people lived from CAFOs.4

The closer they lived to the factory farms, and the greater the density of livestock, the more impairments in lung function were revealed. Lung function of neighboring residents declined in concert with increased levels of CAFO-caused ammonia air pollution, the study revealed.5

At the same time, CAFOs and the industrial monocrops used to feed CAFO animals destroy soil, depleting it of nutrients and adding an excess of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

For example, glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, the most widely used herbicide globally, shuts down amino acid synthesis, followed by inhibition of protein synthesis necessary for plant growth. When that happens, it makes the plant more susceptible to pathogens in the soil.

Glyphosate also acts as a mineral chelator, and minerals such as zinc, copper, and manganese act as cofactors in many enzymes. This mineral suppression opens the plant up to disease and when minerals are bound to glyphosate in the plant, they will not be available to your body when you eat it. Instead, those minerals will be excreted or stored in your body along with the glyphosate

Regenerative Farming Rebuilds the Earth

Regenerative agriculture is the opposite of industrial farming. Where CAFOs pollute and destroy the soil, regenerative farming rebuilds it. Allen Williams, Ph.D., a sixth-generation farmer and chief ranching officer for Joyce Farms, is described as the “grass fed guru” in the featured film. He explains how regenerative farming restores and increases soil organic matter, leading to a number of beneficial outcomes.

For starters, soil organic matter is 50 percent carbon, so by rebuilding soil they’re putting carbon into the ground. The importance of carbon sequestration simply cannot be overstated. Not only will it reduce the carbon dioxide (CO2) load in the atmosphere, but once sequestered in the soil, the carbon actively nourishes soil health and improves water retention.

Adding just 1 percent soil organic matter to the earth means every acre can hold another 25,000 gallons of water, according to Williams. “When you contrast that with the average farm and ranch across North America, water infiltration rate is less than a half-inch an hour,” he says.

With classic industrial farming, this means the water will either evaporate or run off, carrying with it topsoil (more than four tons per acre are lost this way annually, Williams says), along with nitrates and phosphates that run off into waterways, creating significant environmental issues. Regenerative farming, on the other hand, reduces the need for irrigation, which currently accounts for 70 percent of the world's total fresh water usage.

Regenerative Farming Builds New Soil Organic Matter

According to Williams, by using regenerative agriculture techniques, they’re able to build new soil organic matter at a rate of 0.5 percent to 1 percent annually. For comparison, a 0.4 percent increase in the world’s soil organic matter would completely negate all current CO2 emissions. What techniques are used to create this impressive output?

In short, they try to mimic what bison once did as they roamed the plains, by creating different paddocks where cattle are moved multiple times a day, a practice known as adaptive, rotational grazing.

This prevents overgrazing, allowing the grass in one area to grow back while the animals graze in another, and promotes fertility and growth. Additional principles of regenerative agriculture, as described by Williams’ Joyce Farms on their website, include:6

Build Soil Health — By farming without harsh chemicals and tilling, regenerative agriculture allows microbes in the soil to thrive. These microbes are essential for preventing runoff and nourishing plant growth. “Soil doesn’t work without microbes,” they say, as soil should be alive, not dead. “Dead soil cannot hold carbon, so it is released into the atmosphere as CO2.”

Diverse Cover Crops and Plant Life — Planting a diverse variety of plants increases microbial populations and organic matter in the soil, while also covering and protecting the earth. “By introducing a diverse variety of plants to the soil, the microbial population in the soil becomes stronger. With soil life, ecosystems thrive,” they say.

No Till — Tilling destroys soil structure and reduces soil organic matter while increasing weeds and the release of CO2.

No Chemical Inputs — The use of chemicals like fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides kill off beneficial species, like pollinators, and pollute waterways with chemical runoff. It’s also a relatively recent practice that traditionally was not part of farming.

“For hundreds of years chemicals where not needed or used in farming because, sensibly, chemical inputs aren’t needed when you are working with (not against) the systems Mother Nature already has in place,” the Joyce Farms website explains.

Livestock Integration — Rather than housing livestock separately from other animals and crops, livestock is integrated into a symbiotic, complementary system that mimics the way nature works.

“The way we do this at Joyce Farms is by mimicking the dense herds of grazing ruminants that used to roam across America, grazing and trampling plants into the soil. This trampling provides an armor of plant life for the soil and feeds the soil microbes.”

Why Aren’t More Farmers Adapting the Regenerative Way?

Interest in regenerative farming is growing, but it still represents less than 2 percent of farms in the U.S. According to Allen, regenerative farmers make up just one-tenth of 1 percent of the entire U.S. population. Why aren’t more farmers doing it? “It’s just because people don’t know,” the featured film notes.

One common misconception is that in order to farm in a way that’s good for the environment, you can’t make a lot of money. In reality, Williams was able to increase production on his farm fivefold in the last three years without the use of imported water, feed, fertilizer or pesticides.

With the improved soil health, he’s now growing 3.5 times more forage per acre, which means he can also carry more cows per acre, bringing in more profit. In addition, as organic matter in the soil has been rebuilt, plant growth and diversity thrives. This has resulted in a return of significant wildlife populations, including but not limited to deer, ground-nesting bird species and wild turkeys.

Beneficial insect populations that are vital to fertilization and propagation of plants are also positively impacted. Allen has noted a significant return in the pollinator insect population and other beneficial organisms like earthworm and dung beetles on farms that have adopted regenerative land management principles. He says:

“We know how profound this impact is, not just on farmers and ranchers and their ability to make a good living but also on the rural economies surrounding these farms and ranches. We can rebuild our ecosystem, our degraded soils and our degraded water cycles. That’s what excites me. And we’re creating an opportunity to bring young people back into agriculture.”

How to Support Regenerative Farming

One of the most straightforward ways is to seek out grass fed food from regenerative farmers, via local farms, farmers markets or food co-ops. You may also be able to find sustainably grown food at small local markets and online.

Foods from Joyce farms, for example, are available not only online but also at select farmers markets and retail locations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Washington D.C., Georgia and Tennessee. If you’re not sure how the food was raised, ask questions of the shop owner or farmer to find out.

In addition, consumers can unite to support policies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), EPA and others that support regenerative agricultural practices while voting against policies that are detrimental to regenerative farmers.

In your own backyard, you can also stop using agricultural chemicals in favor of regenerative practices like not tilling and using mulch and compost. By creating a regenerative garden in the spring, it will allow you to improve soil microbiology on a small scale while also rewarding you with fresh, nutrient-rich food.

Every little bit helps, and the more individuals and larger scale farms move away from industrial methods to regenerative ones, the faster the Earth will heal and the brighter the future becomes.