SPECIAL GUEST AUTHOR: Michael Reilly
For people who are new to yoga, one of the first things they must understand is how it’s different from stretching. Stretching is a one-dimensional activity. It’s all about the muscle you need to limber up. You can do it while watching TV, mentally rehearsing for a big presentation coming up at work, or maybe nibbling on a snack.
Yoga is integrative. It often involves stretching our limbs, but it’s more about connecting each body movement with our breath. We do this through the practice of mindfulness, which in essence means detaching from distractions and letting go of our thoughts.
In his book, Peace Is Every Step, Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh says: “Our breathing is the link between our body and our mind. Sometimes our mind is thinking of one thing and our body is doing another, and mind and body are not unified. By concentrating on our breathing, ‘In’ and ‘Out,’ we bring body and mind back together, and become whole again.”
Becoming whole again is not only key to our health and wellness, it is fundamental to our survival. We call this process restoring, or regenerating, and it transpires within us and around us every second of every day. Regeneration means “giving or receiving new life or energy.” Every breath we take is regeneration at its core.
And every bite of food we take should be regenerative too. But unfortunately, in our culture it too often is not. In fact, our habits and values toward food have led us down a path that’s the direct opposite of regenerative. It’s often call reductionist. This is where integrated processes are reduced to one-dimensional parts. It’s like stretching versus yoga.
Reductionism is a distorted way of thinking that helped instigate the “Green Revolution,” beginning in the mid-20th century. This “revolution” relied on the massive increase in chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and high-yielding cereal grain crops. The system not only produced large amounts of low-quality, cheap food for humans to eat, but for animals as well, and the quick expansion of confined animal feedlot operations (CAFOs) followed suit. It’s called factory farming.
The great promise of the Green Revolution was that it would feed the world’s exploding population. That is now a proven myth. What it has done is feed the bottom lines of a handful of corporations in the Big Food, Big Ag, and Big Pharma industries. Meanwhile, billions of people around the world remain poor and malnourished. Nearly all of the food produced in our industrial system is sold in developed countries, like the U.S., where 40% of it is wasted, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. That’s because we’ve developed a dysfunctional attitude toward food that relegates it to a cheap commodity. Easy come, easy go. Indeed, Americans spend less of their income on food than any other country in the world. Buying the newest iPhone seems more important.
And it’s killing us. Literally. The epidemic of chronic disease is tied directly to the food we eat. The severe impact of global warming that is now upon us is connected directly to our industrial, factory food system. Disruption to our weather patterns threaten already diminished food sovereignty in regions all over the world and create further economic destabilization that fosters political strife, war, and terrorism.
Returning to the foundation that Mother Nature provides for us is our only hope.
Regenerative agriculture is that foundation. It is nothing new. The principles of regeneration have made the world turn since the dawn of time. Many experts have been extolling the benefits of these principles to mankind for decades, if not more. But we are now on the cusp of these discussions shifting from the fringes to front-and-center. They absolutely must.
By loose definition, regenerative agriculture is the practice of managing land holistically. This means letting the earth’s rhythms create balance by eliminating chemicals from crop systems and using natural processes - such as cover cropping and composting - to capture carbon and build soil health. It involves raising animals on pasture where they belong, and can primarily eat their natural diets and help fertilize and restore the land, instead of degrading it.
Most people by now understand that organic food generally means food grown without chemicals. So it makes sense that organic and regenerative are one and the same. That’s partially accurate. All food was pretty much organic before the Green Revolution. It was just called food. The onslaught of chemicals made organic certification necessary. In the U.S. that process did not become finalized through the USDA until 2002, nearly a dozen years after it started.
Shockingly the term “organic” is now owned by the U.S. government, to the extent that small farmers must be cautious about using it if they are not certified. In many cases these farmers are using practices that exceed the requirements of certification, but they choose not to bear the cost and record-keeping required for certification. It’s a farce they can’t call themselves organic without risking fines and punishment.
The term organic has also been watered down in many ways by the hand of the Big Food and Big Ag industries, which see profit to be gained. Organic meat is a primary culprit. Meat can be certified organic and still involve raising animals in confined systems, where even though they might have access to the outdoors, they are not raised in pasture. Most small livestock farms using true, regenerative practices are not certified organic in part because they know how meaningless the term can be when applied to meat.
And then there’s the avalanche of organic packaged goods. This includes everything from cookies, to candy, to soft drinks. While organic packaged food eliminates many of the most harmful ingredients found in conventional processed food - such high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils - they still often contain sugar and other refined ingredients that impede the ability of the human body to achieve its own balance.
That balance is most important in the human gut, or digestive tract. And this is where the concept of regeneration ties it all together in ways that other “healthy food terms” like organic, sustainable, natural, and biodynamic can fall short.
Just as yoga connects the mind to the body, regenerative food connects the soil to the gut. Soil is alive. Literally. A tablespoon of healthy soil contains billions of microorganisms that make plant and animal life on this earth flourish. It’s a balanced ecology that mirrors life in a healthy human gut, where billions of microbes direct a majority of the physiological functions in the body. These functions include the regeneration of new cells and tissue that takes place constantly throughout every day of our lives.
Just as we’re killing the soil with chemicals and factory farming, we’re killing our guts from from a food system that has disconnected us from the source of all life. We can restore harmony by devoting ourselves to a regenetarian diet.
This includes eating mostly green stuff, to paraphrase acclaimed food author Michael Pollan. And it means selecting crop foods which are nutrient dense, grown with regenerative practices that are natural, and chemical-free. If you’re not sure, certified organic fruits and vegetables are a great place to start. But seek out products from local regenerative farms as well.
For those who eat meat, a regenetarian diet includes only meat from authentic pasture-based, holistic livestock farms. And it means eating much less meat, and treating it more as a side item than a main dish. It absolutely shuns factory farmed meat.
Ultimately, a regenetarian diet revolves around restoring or maintaining gut health. This cannot be achieved while still eating industrial wheat products. Modern wheat, along with dairy and sugar are among the top scourges of our collective poor health. With that said, there are encouraging trends in all areas of our food system, bread being one of them. Bakeries around the country are baking artisan bread that’s crafted through traditional methods of fermentation and using whole, organic grains, often stone-milled on site. And speaking of fermentation… fermented foods are vital to gut health and should be added to one’s regular diet. This includes krauts, water kefir, and kombucha. Bone broths and vegetable stocks are also beneficial for their restorative properties.
While eating at home is preferable - because it theoretically gives us more control over ingredients - eating out is often a desirable part of life.
Someday hopefully all businesses will be leaders like The Juice Laundry, with its values and commitment toward sourcing 100% organic fruits and vegetables for their cold-pressed raw juice. To get there we must collectively understand the vital role regeneration plays in our health as individuals and in the overall health of our planet.
Regeneration is not some new gimmick or food fad. And it’s not just for foodies or health fanatics. It should be for everyone. Once again, it’s based on principles that have helped humans survive on earth for millions of years. The more we reconnect with these principles, the better chance we have of saving ourselves from the destructive path we’re headed down. There’s no stretching that truth.