The food we need to fix us: Part 1

The food we need to fix us: Part 1

What is the ultimate goal of farming? At Zylem, we’d like to think that it’s to support human life by giving us the food and nutrients that our bodies require. But the danger in modern agriculture is that we are moving further away from these roots and focusing on the goals of efficiency and yields. In an ideal situation, the sustainable farmer should strive for both.

A similar sentiment is echoed in “The Power of the Plate: The Case for Regenerative Organic Agriculture in Improving Human Health”, a white paper by the Rodale Institute that compiles historical data, along with comprehensive health, nutrition and agriculture research from around the world. It uses this data to conduct a holistic analysis of the global food system. The paper suggests that agriculture and lifestyle medicine can come together to improve quality of life:  “Food has the ability to bring us together, over a meal, or at a shared table. And the right food – nutrient-dense food, produced regeneratively, with respect for the environment and with the goal of human health – can fix our broken food and healthcare systems.”

In this blog series, we’ll look at the link between lifestyle diseases and industrialised agriculture, and how regenerative organic farming practices offer a solution. 

Where we are now

Medical systems around the world are overburdened as they attempt to treat chronic diseases with pharmaceutical intervention. Simultaneously, conventional farming systems are prioritising crops that are low in nutritional value and relying on toxic inputs that have the effect of degrading human health. With chronic conditions and climate change on the rise, and less arable land available to us, now is the time to find new ways to feed the world and improve human health.

How did we get here?

The Rodale paper is specific to American food systems, but many of the same principles apply both in South Africa and across the modern world. 

Starting in the 1900’s, significant cultural changes and global food and farming technologies changed the way we farm and eat:

  • Humans turned increasingly to convenience foods and meals outside the home.
  • Farming shifted from small, diversified operations to large commercial operations focused on maximising yields of a few crops for storage and export. 
  • Intensification was also aided by technological advances leading up to World War II. Methods and chemicals used to create munitions were produced on a large-scale; surplus chemicals developed for the military were then diverted to agriculture.
  • Massive adoption of chemicals in agriculture took place.
  • New, high-yielding varieties of crops worked in conjunction with new chemicals, leading to an explosion in food production.
  • New machinery allowed for the increased mechanisation of agriculture. 

The result?

  • Accelerated loss of diversity, only 8% of farms (in America) producing more than four crops.
  • These monocultures result in the need for greater chemical inputs. 
  • Lack of diversity and reliance on chemical inputs leads to pest and disease outbreaks as well as degraded soils.
  • This ‘treadmill’ of inputs required to maintain production creates a system that is dependent on synthetic fertilisers, insecticides and herbicides. 

This industrial food system that prioritises yields and shelf life over nutrition predominantly supports the production of processed, nutrient-poor foods. It is these very foods that are fueling today’s epidemics of obesity and chronic disease.

Direct impacts of industrial agriculture on human health

  • Toxic exposure from pesticides and environmental pollutants
  • Exposure to potentially endocrine-disrupting chemicals
  • Air pollutants
  • Antibiotic resistance 
  • Water pollution
  • Poor nutrition and chronic disease. 

There’s hope: healing the Earth to heal ourselves 

Farmers of today need to look to increasing the availability of nutrient-dense foods and initiating regeneration of the soil by shifting to regenerative farming practices; practices that eliminate toxic inputs and focus on foods optimal for human health. Alongside this, we need a shift in our medical system to a holistic focus on lifestyle medicine – of which regenerative, whole, nutrient-dense foods are an important part. By doing this, we have the potential to alter the trajectory of chronic disease and create a healthier future for all. 

Read more about regenerative agriculture.

Get in touch with the Zylem team to find out more about how we promote soil health, plant health for human health. Contact us on 033 347 2893 or send your enquiry to

Look out for our next blog post as we continue to assess the impact of industrial agriculture on human health.

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