If you're up to speed on nutrition news, you've probably heard talk that large-scale, industrial agriculture can deplete crops of essential vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to thrive. But why, exactly, does that happen, and what can be done about it?
For such a massive problem, the solution is actually microscopic.
How soil microbes contribute to healthy, nutrient-dense food.
In its natural state, soil is full of invisible but indispensable microbes. Like, really full of them. There are more microorganisms in a handful of healthy soil than humans who have ever lived, and the microbes on our planet outnumber the stars in our universe more than a million times over.
In healthy, symbiotic systems, plant roots feed these soil microbes sugars and give them a place to latch onto. In return, the microbes help the plants absorb nutrients in the surrounding soil. All life on Earth depends on this mutually beneficial relationship—but some agricultural practices can mess with it.
"The problem is that most conventional agriculture practices erode the organic matter and life in the soil," Ryland Engelhart, co-founder and executive director of Kiss the Ground, a nonprofit that proposes a new way of farming, tells mbg.
Take tillers: those giant machines that look right at home on a large, open pasture. They break up the soil in preparation for the planting season, but in doing so they often disrupt underground microbial systems. Farms that use conventional tools like these typically have 60% less biomass from soil microorganisms than ones that are managed with soil health in mind.
As such, our farms are producing food that isn't as nutrient-rich as it could be. "We are destroying the ability of the soil to provide nutrition to the plant," Mark Hyman, M.D., said on a visit on the mindbodygreen podcast. The functional medicine doctor estimated that the nutrient density of plant foods is 50% less than it was 50 years ago, thanks to the invasive way we've been farming.
"Without plants being able to uptake micronutrients, our food is deficient; therefore, our health is deficient," Engelhart reiterates.
What the current farming system means for health.
Regenerative agriculture, a type of farming that seeks to improve soil health, is one promising solution to this nutrient-density dilemma, as well as other major global issues like climate change. (Healthy soil has the capacity to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the ground.)
"Feeding soil life to encourage biodiversity and abundance means managing the farm so that there are living roots in the ground for as much of the year as possible," reads a recent report by The Rodale Institute, a nonprofit that conducts farming research. To do so, regenerative agriculture uses methods like cover cropping, crop rotation, and reduced tillage to keep soil microbe communities intact.
A global transition over to regenerative farming is underway, but it's going slower than most nutritionists and environmentalists would like (though there are a few ways we can all get involved in speeding it up). In the meantime, experts are saying we should be extra diligent about getting the nutrients that are being farmed out of our food—one of the most important being magnesium.
"In the modern diet, our magnesium intake is low," says nutritionist and magnesium researcher Andrea Rosanoff, Ph.D. "And we have been a bit low generationally—our mothers were low, and our mothers before that."
Nearly half of Americans, around 45%, don't get the recommended daily amount of magnesium from food and drinks alone. Magnesium plays a role in around 600 body reactions, from bone development to digestion to sleep, making it important to stay on top of for optimal health.*
In addition to loading up on magnesium-rich foods like dark leafy greens, legumes and nuts, wheat and other grains, and fish, taking a magnesium supplement is one way to ensure you're reaching the recommended daily intake of magnesium—420 mg for men and 320 mg for women—and giving your body the tools it needs to function at its best.* (If you're in the market for recommendations, here are our favorite magnesium supplements for every need.)
The bottom line.
Beneficial microbes increase farms' capacity to produce nutrient-dense food. Certain farming practices can deplete our soil of them, making our crops less nutritious and contributing to some of the mineral insufficiencies we're seeing today. Supporting the transition to regenerative agriculture and eating (and supplementing) with magnesium in mind can help keep you and the planet healthy.*
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 articles on mbg, her work has appeared on Bloomberg News, Marie Claire, Bustle, and Forbes. She has covered everything from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping to a group of doctors prescribing binaural beats for anxiety. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.