Sick people get sicker much easier and much faster than healthy people. It is really that simple. Once the first line of defence in an immune system has been breached, then susceptibility to other diseases increases rapidly.
This basic logic has been on clear display for all to see during the covid-19 pandemic. Various studies have indicated that about 90% of people who were hospitalised due to the novel coronavirus had one or more underlying condition.
Welcome to the world of co-morbidity – a world characterised by various layers of disease. So, which disease must be treated, and how, and is it possible to discern what the impact of treatment will be from one person to the next when the underlaying layers of disease differ? Six months, millions of patients and 500 000 deaths later, we still do not have a universally accepted diagnosis and treatment for covid-19.
Our world is awash with disease layers such as hypertension (high blood pressure), obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases – diseases virtually unknown to us as recently as 70 years ago. Once one or more of these layers are present, the chance of hospitalisation when a person has contracted covid-19 increases dramatically. The global economy has thus not come to a standstill because of covid-19, but because of these disease layers.
Society is therefore paying dearly for the prevalence of these layers. What, however, do they have in common? What has sparked this recent avalanche? The answer to these questions lies in these diseases being causally related to what we eat.
The nutritional quality of our foods has steadily decreased over the past 50-70 years due to how we have farmed since the 1950s and 1960s as well as the degree and type of agro-processing. Stated differently: soils depleted by heavy and intense ploughing and continuous mechanical disturbance, chemical crop applications, the excessive processing of foods, the rise of the fast food cult and extremely narrow diets have all contributed to this drop in the nutritional quality of our food. In short, we are sick because of what we have done to our food.
In addition, this lack of high-quality nutritious food costs the world billions in medical bills each year. For example, the United States leads the world in industrial agriculture and processed foods, it also leads the world in per capita health spending but despite this, it ranks only 37th in terms of health outcomes. Yes 37th! France which ranks first spends less than half of the US per capita amount. In our rush to dominate the natural world and make money we have edited the medicine out of food and are now paying the price.
As with the United States, South Africa has allowed similar industrial thinking to create similar problems.
In Mzansi, our staple food is maize which we have allowed to now become an almost entirely genetically modified crop (GMO). – Andrew ardington
The outstanding feature of GMO maize is that it can withstand direct chemical application and thus these crops are exposed to even greater amounts of chemicals. This maize is then processed removing the nutrient rich hull and germ to create a highly refined and monotonous, yet nutrient-poor product. Diversity, nutrient density, sustainability and food security are all sacrificed in the name, and bottom line, of industrial agriculture.
Soil as ‘export commodity’
While technology and the Fourth Industrial Revolution can contribute to food security, it can only do so if soil health is improved and then preserved. Every civilisation before ours has fallen because they depleted their soil, and now this soil degradation is taking place on every continent – there will be nowhere to go when our soils finally collapse. This is also the case in South Africa. We “export” about 13 tonnes of topsoil per hectare of commercially grown grain crops every year. Soil is one of our largest “export commodities”, yet we’re paying for it rather than being paid.
The silver lining on all of this is that nature is incredibly resilient and forgiving, and given the correct treatment can recover, but it requires a change in land use management. As farm management systems transition to regenerative processes the soil biology is given space to recover. This means the full range of minerals and metabolites once again become available to the plants we grow.
These, in turn, are made available to be passed on to the livestock and people who eat them. In short if we work with nature and eat the right foods, we can start to turn the tables on environmental destruction and deteriorating human health. Food production can become something that solves two of our great issues rather than a major contributor to both.
Recent droughts and covid-19 have drawn our country’s attention to our food supply. Initially to the vulnerability of the health of our people with co-morbidities and then secondly to shortages of food. Industrial agriculture and its focus on scale do little to relieve these problems – in the US, the meat processing industry was closed due to rampant infections in the highly centralised production facilities.
Consequently, people are thinking more about knowing their farmers, supporting smaller, local businesses, transparency in their food chain, growing their own vegetables and indeed their local economy.
All of this begs the question: “What can I as a consumer do?”. Buying regeneratively produced food over the counter is difficult, if not downright impossible, as our food chain is dominated by big industrial players who focus on maximising profit at the expense of human and environmental health.
To this end the Regenerative Agricultural Association of South Africa and the Vredehoek Slow Food Club have been building a web application, the Food Club Hub, to facilitate the easy formation of food clubs with the ultimate aim of creating a regenerative food chain across the country. This regenerative food chain is something we need to build together, it’s about farmers, millers, food makers and as importantly consumers all coming together to build a resilient, regenerative food chain. A food chain that saves our soil and gives us a chance at food security, a food chain that heals the land and in turn heals the people.
What exactly is a food club?
It is a collection of people coming together to shorten their food chain and collectively buy healthy, local, ethically produced foods. A club leader gathers a community of likeminded people who are concerned about the health impacts and environmental impacts of what they eat. They login into their club, order their food and then collect it from the club leader’s house or an alternative venue. In the process they improve their and their community’s wellbeing, decrease their environmental footprint, grow small businesses and ensure the producers receive a fair price.
It is the start of a holistic process of transitioning food production in southern Africa, with the end goal being that all of our foods are produced regeneratively; that our soils are able to produce food for us in 50 years’ time, that our water cycles continue to give us life giving rain and that people have access to food that does not leave them hungry.
When we heal people, we can heal communities, when we heal communities, we are able to heal the country. Imagine a country where disease rates are not growing but in decline, where at an individual and a country level health care costs fall rather than rise. Imagine a country built on stable ecosystems and a healthy population.
Food Club by food club, regenerative farmer by regenerative farmer let us start the process of building that country.
- Andrew Ardington is a founder of the Regenerative Agriculture Association of South Africa and the Food Club Hub.