5 simple steps for soil-friendly eating

man holding bunch of carrots
© mythja

If we don't take care of the soil, the soil will lose its ability to take care of us.

Last month I attended a Food Tank Summit in New York City to listen to some of the leading lights in the food revolution share their thoughts. People like Karen Washington, Marion Nestle, Tom Colicchio, Leah Penniman, Sam Kass, Mark Bittman, and Kimbal Musk, among others, discussed problems and solutions and it was at once depressing and inspiring. Depressing because of what a mess our food system is in, yet inspiring because of the dedicated, brilliant people working to fix it.

Among a wide range of specific topics, the one thing that most everyone mentioned was the need for regenerative agriculture – like, that was the no-brainer solution and all the food geniuses were like, yeah, of course we need that.

Now I ask you: When pondering what you can do to help the planet, do you think "support regenerative agriculture"? Do people even know what it means?

Regeneration International describes regenerative agriculture as a "holistic land management practice that leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, and build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density." It also increases biodiversity, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services. It is basically farming in ways that are sustainable and compatible with nature, and that care for the health of the soil, rather than just sucking the life out of it.

And while it sounds like something that is up to the farmers, there are ways that the rest of us can support regenerative agriculture; one way is to practice soil-friendly eating. Why does it matter? Because soil is everything to us humans – can you imagine a world without plants and trees? We'd be toast.

So with that in mind, here are some steps for how to eat in ways that are harmonious with happier soil.

1. Eat a variety of foods

Agriculture consultant Dr. Christine Negra writes for the Soil Science Society of America that "soil-friendly eating lines up well with recommendations for eating healthfully: a diverse diet rich in plant-based foods." We know that "eating the rainbow" and an array of different foods is good for getting a variety of nutrients, but Negra points out that by eating different types of foods, "you’ll help create demand for a wide variety of agricultural products, which is better for soil. Food diversity helps with biodiversity and soil fertility when land is used to grow multiple crops."

2. Embrace the pulses

Here at TreeHugger we praise the pulses, the food crops which include dry beans, dry peas, chickpeas, and lentils. They are nutritional rock stars, cheap, sustainable, and a great alternative to meat. Turns out they are also a top choice for soil-friendly eating. Negra explains:

"Pulse crops are able to pull nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil. This process is called ‘nitrogen fixation,’ and provides a natural fertilizer, which is available for subsequent crops. Growers typically plant pulses as part of a ‘crop rotation’ system in which one plant, like corn or wheat, is grown one season, and a pulse crop, like kidney beans, is grown another. Pulses tend to increase the overall efficiency of water use and disrupt cycles of pests, weeds, and diseases."

3. Make sure meat is sustainably produced

We generally advocate for eating less meat (or none at all), but if you do shop for meat, look for that which has been produced sustainably. For instance, animals grazed on pastures rather than grain are better because grain requires a lot of land, water, and agrichemicals. "There are other beneficial practices that ranchers can use such as mixed forages," says Negra. "Researchers in New Jersey are using perennial cover crops and various trees in a ‘silvopasture’ system to increase overall efficiency of their farms. In Brazil, researchers are grazing cows on land with tree legumes." Animals take a lot from the soil, so it's important to support ranchers who work to keep their soil healthy.

4. Reduce food waste

Reducing food waste has been getting much attention recently, and with good reason; by some accounts, it is one of the most important things we can do to fight the climate crisis. it also helps ease the strain on soil since it reduces its workload – every item that you throw away is an item that the soil worked for in vain.

5. Compost

Lastly, compost. There will inevitably be organic matter that you can not eat, whether it is accidental food waste or things like eggshells and coffee grounds – and they all have nutrients that want to return to the soil to nurture more plants. Set up a home composting system or check with your municipality to see what kind of composting programs they may offer.

See, aren't those easy steps to take? For more dirt on soil, visit the Soil Science Society of America.

5 simple steps for soil-friendly eating
If we don't take care of the soil, the soil will lose its ability to take care of us.

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