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Commusings: Our Healing Begins in the Soil by Jeff Tkach

Jul 17, 2021

Dear Commune Community,

Let me get the dreary news out of the way.

34 million people in the United States have diabetes and another 100 million are pre-diabetic. 44% of Americans are obese. Rates of chronic disease such as heart disease, cancer, and mental illness continue to surge. These proliferating numbers can be directly attributed to the standard American diet which brims with processed foods and added sugars.

Chemical herbicides and pesticides have stripped our food of essential nutrients and are contributing to intestinal permeability, also known as leaky gut. This syndrome allows toxins and bacteria to enter our bloodstream and triggers the chronic inflammation that is the primary source of much of our disease.

Intensive conventional farming techniques, in turn, contribute to climate cancer — the symptoms of which abound from extreme weather events (heat domes in the Northwest to floods in Europe) to soil degradation and deforestation.

Farmers are ever more reliant on increasingly expensive external inputs to grow crops. This dependence is leading to the collapse of small farms and local economies, often reflected by boarded-up main streets.

What if I told you there was a solution that simultaneously sequesters carbon, enriches the soil, grows nutrient-rich food, and re-animates local communities?

Well, just look down. My friend, Jeff Tkach, delivers the good news.

Drop me a line at [email protected] and follow my rants on IG @jeffkrasno.

In love, include me,
Jeff

• • •

Our Healing Begins in the Soil

by Jeff Tkach

 

Healthy Soil = Healthy Food = Healthy People.” — J.I. Rodale

In 2016, I experienced a tremendous health collapse. That October, after pushing relentlessly beyond my limits (jumping on and off airplanes, flying back and forth across the country for business meetings in a former career), I was struck with flu-like symptoms that kept me sidelined for more than two weeks. My general practice doctor ran a battery of tests and bloodwork, only to find no positive results.  

Over the next few months, I would get well enough to go back to work only to crash again, each time a bit harder. I kept returning to that same doctor, determined to get answers, and he kept referring me to one specialist after another, none of whom provided resolution.

By early January, I was completely bedridden and forced to go on medical leave. My doctor diagnosed me with “depression and anxiety,” prescribed a ubiquitous antidepressant, and told me there was nothing more he could do.

After six doctors and $50,000 in medical bills, completely depleted and unable to work, I did indeed feel hopeless beyond despair. I suffered from chronic gastrointestinal distress, fevers, night sweats, hallucinations, intense body aches, and panic attacks. I felt like I was losing my mind, terrified that no one could give me a reason for my deteriorating health.

At that point, I had been surrounded for some time in my professional life by the idea that the food we eat significantly impacts our bodies. Faced with no other options, I finally decided to truly take that to heart. It’s amazing how sometimes you have to exhaust every option before taking your own medicine.

I sought out a functional medicine doctor who, after numerous tests, suspected I had chronic Lyme disease, not depression and anxiety.  Given the symptoms I was experiencing, he decided to run a more elaborate Lyme test (iSpot). Sure enough, I tested positive for Lyme (my numbers were off the charts) even though I never found a tick bite or bulls-eye rash. 

Now that I knew Lyme was the culprit behind my health collapse, my research made it clear that the only path forward was to treat my body as a whole ecosystem and nourish it slowly back to health. Food became one of my greatest healers. What I learned is that Lyme disease feeds off of sugar, so I had to completely eradicate sugar, processed food, gluten, dairy, and starchy foods from my diet. In addition, the ubiquitous chemical glyphosate that is found in trace amounts in most conventional foods puts a strain on the immune system. 

Therefore, my diet consisted of only certified organic food. Mostly plants, moderate amounts of pasture-raised meats and eggs, and high-quality fats.

Through this process of redefining my diet, I realized a larger, unsettling truth: Much of the food grown in this country isn’t the medicine it should—or used—to be.

Conventional farming practices, such as monocropping (planting the same crop on the same plot of land year after year), repetitive deep tillage, the application of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and the absence of living ground cover or cover crops, all contribute to the destruction of biodiversity below ground that depletes the nutrients in our food.

Moreover, without abundant microorganisms in the soil to feed crops, the plants become more susceptible to infections and pests, requiring the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to grow to maturity. The result is increasing dependence on synthetic inputs that require the burning of fossil fuels to create and apply, reduced carbon stores in the soil, and the destruction of soil life. Damaged soil structure also exacerbates erosion, and, ultimately, creates nutrient-deficient food. 

Scientists hypothesize that a decrease in the diversity of microorganisms in the soil driven by industrial farming methods could also contribute to loss of diversity in the human gut microbiome, decreasing immunity and contributing to chronic health conditions. 

We’re collectively getting sicker, not healthier. And for others to have the same healing I was privileged to experience, we must start with the soil.

• • •

Skip ahead to 2019. I was sitting in Pennsylvania’s state capitol building, meeting with one of the state’s top legislators. My mission was to demonstrate how the work of the non-profit Rodale Institute was helping farmers move toward more economically viable and ecologically sound production models.

As I was explaining the benefits of organic agriculture, the legislator stopped me mid-sentence and said “I don’t believe in that organic stuff. In the county that I come from, a carrot is a carrot, an egg is an egg, milk is milk.” 

Dumbfounded, I said, “Do you really believe that’s true?” 

I could see his wheels turning, knowing that Rodale Institute sits on 40-plus years of science that suggests otherwise. He paused, surveyed the room (including the eyes of his own staff) and said, “No, that’s the stupidest thing I ever said.”

Sad but true, that legislator’s original sentiment is the reality for most Americans. Living all-too-busy lives bombarded with marketing messages from manufacturers of cheap, convenient foods, we have become disconnected and divorced from the agricultural process, where our food comes from, and how that food was produced. So much so that we honestly believe a carrot is a carrot, no matter how it was grown.

I promise you that is not the case. The Vegetable Systems Trial, housed at Rodale Institute, is a side-by-side comparison of conventional and organic methods for growing vegetables.

The Vegetable Systems Trial is specifically designed to analyze nutrient density in the finished crops. It’s the first of its kind in the United States—no other crop comparison study has been focused on exploring the links between soil health and human health.

We know that the nutrient density of fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S. has been in sharp, steady decline over the past 50 to 70 years. For example, over the past 50 years, the amounts of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and vitamin C in conventionally grown fresh fruits and vegetables have plummeted. 

That means many people today are struggling with “hidden hunger.” They’re getting enough calories but not the vital nutrients necessary for health. Millions of Americans are now overfed and undernourished. 

• • •

A much-needed solution is “regenerative healthcare,” which consists of adopting regenerative organic farming practices, improving our diet through whole foods, and adopting lifestyle changes that reduce disease. 

We need to consider farmers as being on the front lines of our healthcare system. 

We need to emphasize education and collaboration between medical professionals, farmers, and consumers to identify the positive impacts of a whole foods, organic diet. 

It is no longer enough to ask what a patient is eating, but how what the patient is eating was produced.

Ever since I experienced the transformational effects of food on my own personal health, I’ve been begging people to take a moment and think about where their food comes from and how that food was grown. Because once you see, you cannot unsee. 

For too many years it was much too difficult to connect the source of our life-giving food with the produce lined up anonymously inside massive grocery store chains. Everything in our food system was designed to tell us, “this carrot is just another carrot” — whether it was farmed in microbe-rich soil or doused in chemicals. 

Until 2020.

Last year in the U.S., farm-to-consumer sales increased by 420%. People planted 22 million new gardens.

As we saw our grocery shelves go bare (maybe for the first time in our lives here in America) everyone wanted, needed to know exactly where their food was coming from, how it was produced, and how they were going to get it. Humans began to reconnect with the source of our health and vitality — agriculture.

Even as we face human health and environmental epidemics of massive proportions, here is why I have hope:

We are living in a deeply divided time, when humans are more disconnected from ourselves, each other, and the planet than ever before. Yet, if you look back in history, so many great healings and reconciliations began around a table. Food unites all of us.

When the 32-year-old tech worker in Whole Foods or the grandmother at her city’s farmers market purchase organic food products, it creates a ricochet of economic opportunity for our brothers and sisters in rural America to reinvent agriculture and to save the family farm.

In 2019 Rodale Institute launched the Organic Crop Consultancy to help farmers all across the United States transition to regenerative organic practices, improve soil health, and create greater economic stability. Less than two years ago, this program had one employee and zero clients. Today, we have eight consultants overseeing hundreds of thousands of acres in various stages of transition.

I recently sat at a farmer’s kitchen table in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, just a few miles from where J. I. Rodale founded our institute. The farmer was hesitant about transitioning to organic, but was spurred on by his niece, who felt an organic farm was a legacy worth inheriting.

The tension around that table was palpable, but so was a fresh excitement. For the farmer this was a grieving process in a way — coming to grips with the reality that the conventional farming methods he had employed for decades were no longer viable, productive, or profitable.

But he also felt the winds of change, and that day the new guard convinced the old to consider the future of her health and the health of the acres of earth composing that farm.

Whatever your place in our food system, you are part of this process. And when we see the value we each bring to the table, then we can also see that we sit at the same table, sharing a meal that binds us at a soul level. 

The great healing of our time begins in the soil — from which all life springs.

• • •

Jeff Tkach is the Chief Impact Officer of Rodale Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to growing the regenerative organic movement through research, farmer training, and consumer education. Learn more at RodaleInstitute.org.

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