Regenerative Agriculture and The Need To Grow with Rob Herring

The following is a transcript of this video. Also see related article.

– Hey, everybody. I’m very, very excited about our guest today. Rob Herring, who’s the director and producer of the big hit new film, “The Need to Grow.” Rob Herring is an award-winning filmmaker. “The Need to Grow” has been seen in over 175 countries. He is also a certified holistic health coach and the co-founder of Integrative Pediatrics. Rob, Congratulations on this incredible achievement, and thank you for joining me.

– Thank you so much, sir. Happy to be here. Happy to talk about some important issues today.

– One of the, kind of the fulcrum of your movie is the challenges and also opportunities of trying to convert to a form of agriculture that’s more sustainable. And one of the things that you point out, that I think most of us are very well aware of is that we are quickly running out of top soil, the conventional, till agriculture. The UN estimates that we will completely deplete all top soil, all arable top soil in the world within sixy years. So, what is the solution?

– Yeah, I think that statistic can be a little bit overwhelming and at the base of it, we have to understand that there’s a difference between farmable top soil and what can be called dirt. And so dirt is really void of life. Dirt is sort of the medium or the platform for which this microbial life can actually happen. But this soil is really complex. There’s almost a cosmic galactic level of microbial activity happening right under our noses. And so for a long time, this was invisible. And I think it was very easy for agriculture to kind of ignore or just be unaware of this importance of this biology, this microbiology. And we now know that in as much as a tablespoon of soil we can have up to six or ten billion microorganisms. So that’s 10,000 different species, lots of biodiversity. But why is that important to agriculture? It’s because when that soil life has been depleted, when that soil life has been ignored and been mistreated by the use of chemicals, by the use of over tilling, then we are really disabling the ability for soil to grow plants. And the way that that works is that these microbes are working in exchange with soil roots, with plant roots. And so right now we’ve reached this point in human history where we can pump artificial fertilizer, after artificial fertilizer. And we grow almost what I like to look at as like a silhouette of what a plant once was. And so we know that the nutritional concentration, the nutrient density, has been depleted, so dramatically over just the last few decades. So we’re growing something that looks like a broccoli, but it doesn’t have the minerals and the nutrient density that, you know, even just a few generations ago, the broccoli would have. So we now know that, you know, some plants have lost as much as 60 times their nutrient density. So over time what happens there is that the soil becomes less and less resilient. Meaning it now needs more pesticides because it’s more susceptible to weeds and bugs and it needs more fertilizers year after year. So what can we do to change that? We can actually rebuild the soil biology, but it all starts there. And what we found, when we were making this film, “The Need to Grow.” What was so exciting was that we’re at a stage where there’s a lot of doom and gloom, about human health, about environmental health, and these things really overlap in agriculture, right? “How will we interact with our food system?” is kind of that important connection that I think we need to move forward if we’re going to see sustainable or regenerative environmental systems and sustainable and regenerative human health systems. Because it’s the over toxicity and the lack of nutrient density, right? So that all comes back to agriculture. Poison, poison, poison, artificial fertilizer, and we’re depleting nutrients. But with, through compost, through regenerative agriculture, through holistic planned grazing, through many different means, we can actually use something beyond organic. So organic is really that opportunity to buy food that has been without certain chemicals, but we want to now look at how can we actually build more soil at the end of the year? And so when we look at soil, what’s exciting is that it approaches so many different topics. Our soil is really the regulator of water-holding capacity. So we can actually prevent drought and flood just increasing the soil biology by as little as 1% per acre, we can store up to 25,000 more gallons of water. That means when it rains or when you irrigate that water stays there because the soil biology is creating the opportunity for the water to stay. So we’re reducing drought and flood. Now, by not putting those chemicals on the field, we’re actually protecting those farmers. You know very well that we’re seeing thousands of farmers that are experiencing harmful effects of being exposed to some of these toxic, and now proven to be carcinogenic, chemicals. We’re also preventing those chemicals from leaching their way into the rivers, then making their way into the oceans ultimately. So we’re protecting the water systems by changing agriculture. We’re also increasing that nutrient density that I was talking about. So we can absolutely transform human health, the end point, the user, the consumption, because food is being grown in such a way that is not purely about increasing quantity, quantity, quantity, and just growing miles and miles of the same monocrop, but actually creating biodiversity that improves the soil and then therefore improves the nutrient density of the crops. So now we have healing foods, which is what food is supposed to be doing all along. Then we’re looking at actually increasing the biodiversity of the entire area surrounding the farm. So now we’re just hitting all sorts of angles by this one multi-faceted solution potential. This is why we geek out about soil. This is why it’s so exciting, it’s really a forefront, I think of, how we’re going to possibly regenerate human and environmental health.

– You know, I spent a lot of my career, suing these big factory meat production operations, like Smithfield and Tyson. One of the things that I found out through litigating is the tremendous institutional and economic pressure against any effort to change that. And, you know, the institutional, not only the big farm organizations, but also the USDA, etcetera, and how that whole system of factory farming is locked in with monoculture production in corn. Oh, which is completely dependent on fertilizers, on petroleum-based fertilizers and chemical pesticides, and herbicides. And there’s you know there’s a whole institution, including, you know, people who are pesticide applicators and the entire air forces of people who spray. And how do you, you know, obviously you have a much better system and much more sustainable cause that’s doomed. But how do you make that transition?

– Yeah, I think it’s an important point you mentioned there is that the system itself is at this point kind of a house of cards where big chemical, big ag, and big oil are really all interconnected, right? And we all know that the incentives that are happening at the lawmaking level through lobbying are really a euphemism for a type of bribery. When we know that these systems have built such a stronghold that actually our US tax dollars go to artificially lower the costs of these destructive systems. When in reality, the true cost of those systems is much, much more expensive. And so there’s an illusion right now that we think organic is more expensive when in reality, that system is a much, much cheaper in the long-term not only from the human health, you know, not having to pay your doctor later for the medical bills, but also just the environmental cleanup that is outsourced. So we kick the can down the road in those systems continuously. So when we ask that question of how we’re gonna transition, well, what’s beautiful is that the solutions already exist. So regenerative, holistic agriculture models already exist and people are doing it around the world where they are getting off of these chemicals. And at first it’s a little bit of, you know, a restructuring of the paradigm of tradition that they may be used to. Unfortunately, there’s cultural pressure. And I’ve heard from many farmers firsthand that they literally experienced sometimes being mocked by their peers, by switching to holistic or even organic methods, because so many of their peers are stuck in reliance on these chemicals for both fertilizers and the pesticides. But what these brave farmers do when they take the time to switch, and when they have the means and the opportunity to, cause it’s not always easy to do that, we have to be patient and support these types of farmers in those transitions. When they start to rebuild the soil biology, what they notice is that their cost of inputs goes down. Their water cost goes down because their water is actually staying on the land. They are more drought resistant. They are less likely to be susceptible to serious crop loss that their neighboring farms may be hit with. They are now inputting fewer chemicals, so they don’t have those costs, right? So we want to kind of mimic nature as much as possible and close the loop. So what you’ve seen on those big animal factory farms is that all of this, this concentrated fecal matter is so completely man-made in the sense that this would never exist in natural systems, but in natural systems, there is really no waste. And all of those components would through, you know, animal fecal matter or through compost, this degeneration becomes back into regeneration. And so we need to be thinking about all of the food that we extract. This is something to take home for anyone who’s listening, that eats food, which is all of us, is that when you’re chopping up your carrots or the end of the celery, instead of throwing that into the garbage can, where then that’s gonna be moved into a landfill and it will just create more waste. What if that became part of the solution and was actually regenerated back into top soil and that’s through composting. So we have solutions like this. We know that we can put them in more cities. We know that we can actually restructure a farm and in a short period of time, sometimes it can take a year or two, maybe three for some farms, what they then see is that they’re now growing more food, it’s more nutrient dense, and they now are able to sell food at a premium. So these farmers who take that leap of faith are now making more money, they’re more safe for themselves and their family who might be working on the farm. They’re protecting the wildlife in their area. They’re more resistant to pests and weeds. And so I think one thing that people need to understand is that this reliance that we have on these chemicals it’s a negative feedback loop that becomes more and more reliant over time. And that’s the same thing that we see often in pharmaceutical medicine when we’re bypassing root cause, and we’re just, band-aiding with pharmaceuticals. We can see that as a metaphor that over time, if you’re not actually addressing what was missing with that system, the same way in environmental agriculture, when we look at the biodiversity of land, when it is there, it has natural pest resilience, natural pest defense. So it’s less likely because it’s not monoculture, right? So it’s not as susceptible. So I think we can actually restore soil on the large scale land, but we’re gonna need consumers to demand this, and we also need the top-down. And so I think sometimes people get frustrated with the lack of, you know, change that’s happening from the top down. But other people get frustrated if the responsibility is put all on the consumer and it has to be in both directions. You know, we need a grassroots movement because whether it’s politicians or whether it’s companies, they will make changes when the public demands it. So this is why for us, a lot of it does start with education. It does start with making awareness about the concept of soil regeneration, the concept of regenerative agriculture, because we are seeing even in just the last couple of years that companies, you know, they move with their dollar just like everybody else. So politicians will do that when they’re sponsored by somebody, companies will do that when they start to lose a little percentage of their market share. We know the organic movement is growing. We know that people are considering this. And so these concepts of unsustainable agriculture, I always like to remind people that when we say that, that we don’t want to forget, that literally means it has an expiration date. It’s not just that it’s bad for the environment. It literally means it cannot be sustained. So there will be an end point. And when we reach that, are we gonna be able to transition gracefully or are we gonna do it through chaos? And I think we’re at this fork in the road now where we can all go to our farmer’s markets, ask them, are you doing organic regenerative agriculture? We can start purchasing from those types of companies, if we can afford it. We can start asking our city councilmen, we can start, you know, doing the petitioning ourselves, but it has to be approached from all angles.

– You know, you talked about the subsidies and you know, I worked, I did a lot of my work in North Carolina and North Carolina is the place where factory farming started for hogs. There was a state senator, very powerful state senator named Wendell Murphy, and he looked at what John Tyson had done and Frank Purdue had done on chickens, which had meant to put it out of business, a million independent chicken farmers in America, and begin raising chickens in factories where a million chickens are shoehorned into these tiny little battery cages where they can’t turn it around their entire life. They’re dosed with subtherapeutic antibiotics, and they literally are given hormones that encouraged them to literally lay their guts out over a short and miserable lifetime. And in doing those two men had made themselves billionaires. Also Lonnie Bo Pilgrim, there were three of them. Purdue, Tyson and Pilgrim, Wendell Murphy looked at what they did and said “I could do the same thing with hogs.” At that time, when I started working in North Carolina, there were 28,000 independent hog farmers in the state and Wendell Murphy passed 26 laws in the legislature that made it virtually impossible to sue a factory farm, no matter how much they polluted your property, no matter how sick they made you, he gave huge subsidies to factory farming, and he quit the state legislature and went into farming, and he made himself a billionaire before Smithfield took him over. He had dropped the price of pork, at kill weight, pigs at kill weight, to two cents a pound. The cost of raising a hog to kill weight is 35 cents a pound. So it was all subsidies that allowed him to do that. He put out of business every independent farmer in the state, hog farmer. And those 28,000 farms became, he produced about five times as many hogs, but only from 2,500 factories, that 80% of them are either owned or operated by one company. And that company, Smithfield, is now owned by the Chinese. So you have the Chinese coming in and taking control of America’s, you know, food production base. And our whole, plus the impact that it had on our democracy. Thomas Jefferson said American democracy relied on the existence of tens of thousands of independent yeoman farmers, each with their own ownership of a plot and their own stake in the American system of government. Now we’ve wiped that out, we’ve handed our landscapes over to the Chinese and we’re giving our children pork that is loaded with hormones and antibiotics, reliant on the corn monocrop’s that you’re fighting and reliant on this whole system, what you call a house of cards of, you know, of industrial agriculture, which is completely dependent on the inputs of, you know, from the chemical industry, from the pharmaceutical industry. They’re killing us with subtherapeutic antibiotics, from the oil industry. And, you know, agriculture is no longer farming. It’s really just an extension of the big chemical and big oil, highly, highly subsidized. It’s really, and we’re eating that stuff. And as you say, there’s a lot of Americans who are out there walking around with full stomachs and malnutrition, because the food that you’re putting in you, it doesn’t have nutrients in it anymore.

– Exactly. And when you eat food that is grown in these regenerative systems, which I’ve had the pleasure to do, that are grown with true nutrient density, it’s pretty astonishing. And I’ve seen this happen, not just with myself, but everyone that we bring to some of my friends’ farms, one, I’m thinking of our friend, Eric Cutter down in Irvine, and when we have people eat that food, first, they’re blown away by the taste. There’s a completely different, we actually have feedback that is designed to search for nutrient dense food. And so when you think of the natural world that we would have evolved in, we would be noticing, wow, that tastes amazing, and it’s our body’s evolution designed to say, eat more of that because it’s nutrient dense and it’s gonna heal you. And then you actually become more satisfied. So our body is designed to actually count nutrients. And when we’re starving for certain nutrients that we’re deficient in, which most everyone is at this point because of this system, we are always reaching for the next piece of food, because our body’s saying, wow, I didn’t get enough of this mineral. I’m still looking for this. I’m still looking for that. And so our interpretation is just, I’m hungry, I’m hungry, I’m hungry. Meanwhile, the body is really reaching for nutrient density. And when you eat some of these, even a salad, from some of these farms, you have that for lunch, come dinner time, you’re not even hungry again, because your body has been so satisfied. And I think what’s going to change here is one experience. People have to experience that to some degree. So how do we make some of these systems more accessible, even in urban agriculture, where they actually taste fresh food for the first time. When you pick food it’s starting to lose its antioxidant and its phytonutrient potential for healing the moment that it’s picked. And so if you can grow some percentage of your food at home, even if it’s just your own herbs and you’re able to use fresh herbs, now you are introducing antioxidant rich components, healing compounds in those foods that would have been there in nature. And you’re able to inoculate your food, your meal, just give it a little bit of something fresh, if you can. Right, we wanna grow a little bit more if we can, not everyone’s going to grow a hundred percent of their own food at home. But as we talked about this loss and the centralization of farming, well also from the gardening standpoint, you know, in world war two, we had estimates that we were growing up to 40% of our food in backyard gardens. And now we’re at 0.1%. So what’s changed there is that we’ve been disempowered, systems that actually profit off of our lack of independence are going to wanna keep that hidden. And so I feel that all of these solutions are going to come with transparency. If the public saw what was actually happening on some of those farms, you know, that you were fighting in court, they would have,

– They wouldn’t eat anymore.

– Yeah, I mean, so we all have values, and I think that the difference that’s happening right now and where we may be seeing some cultural divides or infighting is that we are getting lost in you know, specifics in the argument. But we actually all, I personally believe, that the vast majority of people share similar values. They all want clean air, they all want clean water, and they all want clean food, and healthy food for their family. And if we were able to see the way that these systems have been profiting off of hiding their true nature from us, right? We see the package at the store of the bucolic, beautiful farm, the traditional farm. But if those packages were to show the actual image of what was going on, consumers wouldn’t buy it, if they knew what was happening. So for me, the future is gonna be, how do we create more transparency? And you know that not only have they made it illegal to sue in certain situations, they’ve also made it illegal for people to sometimes go in and even film. So journalism, to expose what’s happening has become harder and harder to do, because they’ve realized that, again, they will lose their power, they will lose the illusion. The Wizard of Oz loses its power when the curtain has been pulled back, when people see what’s actually happening on these farms. So I like to empower people, not only can you try to grow even some percentage of your own food, even if it’s just your own mint or your own basil or something at home, if you can try that, but then can you go to your farmer’s market? Can you talk to a farmer? Can you do a farm tour in your neighborhood? Can you go to a community garden? What we wanna do is not only experience this as adults, but we wanna bring children into this process as much as possible, because if we can create something that will later in life be a nostalgic connection to seeing where food is grown, most kids today think that food comes from the grocery store. They’ve never even seen a beet come out of the ground. They’ve never seen a carrot or a piece of celery literally come out of the ground. When they have that experience, or when they participate in growing something themselves, and I’ve seen this with my own nephews, right? They grow a food that they normally wouldn’t have even eaten, and now suddenly they have ownership over it. And this actually happens at all ages, but it’s just manageable to see it in children because they might grow a cucumber, a tomato, and now suddenly they’re so excited to eat it, right? And so I think when we can remove the distance between us and the food, as much as possible, in all different categories, so if we can grow a little bit of this fine, if we can’t grow, can I just go to a farmer’s market? Can I go to a community garden? Can I do a farm tour with my family? But those are the people that we want to be voting with our dollar to support. And when we don’t know is when we’re disempowered. When we don’t even – this is what true ignorance is, right? Ignorance is not an insult or saying someone is dumb. Ignorance means you’ve just been unaware. You haven’t been given the opportunity. So I think if we had that exposed, what is this farm actually doing? So, you know, independent media, like what you’re doing, what others of us, what filmmakers are doing, is so critical to this process. And we really need to support the, you know, the awareness we need to support, you know, bringing light onto these processes. Otherwise we can’t expect the consumer to care ’cause they just didn’t even know the difference.

– You know, you mentioned the taste of the food, and when I started doing this work, I ended up, you know, there’s a lot of independent farmers out there and you know, they’re organized in many of the states by the farmers union, which is really grassroots farmers, it’s opposing the farm bureau, which is the big organization that’s run by the ag industry, the big agriculture, by the big companies, the Cargills, the Monsantos, the chemical companies and the fertilizer companies, but they have this incredible food because they’re actually growing organic, whether they’re growing field raised animals and stock. And you know, I think most Americans have forgotten that you’re not supposed to be able to cut chicken with a fork. You know, you taste the chicken that you buy in a grocery store, and it’s like almost, it’s like styrofoam.

– Spongey, yeah.

– Real chicken that is that is field-raised chicken tastes completely different. And of course the pork chops all look different and the taste, it just explodes in your mouth And really its whole marketing is in response to Walmart and Walmart has uniform pork chops, which means that the pigs have to be genetically modified to all produce the exact same look of the of the pork chop. And then there, it’s so nutrient deprived. Smithfield actually buys the pork chops bred to make them look like real meat. And so the stuff that you’re getting is just a complete hoax it’s fake, meanwhile, as you point out, the animals are being treated in a way, is there are just unspeakable cruelties. The sows are put in, a pig is as smart as a dog, and they want to be outside, they want to be rooting, they want breeding opportunities. They build nests, they want to do, you know, they have these very rich social lives. And they’re locked into these crude crates where they literally cannot turn around for six weeks at a time, these gestation crates. And you know, it’s really, it’s a miserable life. It’s a miserable life and we are supporting it. And we’re supporting these, if one of these farms, a pig produces ten times the amount of fecal material in weight as a human being every day. So if you have a a hog shed, with a hundred thousand animals in it, it’s producing the same amount of poop as a city of a million people. There’s no difference between hog poop and human poop you know, it’s viral, in its capacity, propensity to just spread disease. You need to treat that under the law, under the Clean Water Act. But they don’t. They take it and they spread it on the field, and they say we’re fertilizing the field and it’s a lie, ’cause in a lot of those fields nothing will grow except for crap, because the level of nitrogen. They’re taking advantage of that loophole to dump hundreds of millions of tons of poop illegally, without any treatment, and they get away with it because of their political clout. You have these disease spreading, like pfiesteria piscicida, which is this terrible disease that you know, it infects the human brain and causes postulating lesions all over people’s bodies and paralysis, and all this other bad stuff. And these are all part of the subsidies, the cost, the externalization of the cause of those kinds of operations, and that kind of really degenerative agriculture that you’re fighting.

– Yeah, it is, it will run out of runway eventually, right? We will reach the end point. And I think you brought up an important point about the food that we’re consuming there. And is that food? Was that food healthy? And this is that age old saying of “you are what you eat.” And I think we need to make sure that that’s really hitting home for people that the food that you actually consume ends up in your blood and will become the building blocks of your physical body. That is not metaphor. But even more importantly is, was that food healthy? And so if you eat something with a healthy immune system, you can have a chance to have a healthy immune system. And this is both in whether we’re talking about animal agriculture or in plants, and we can see it in both. If we’re consuming foods that are sick, diseased, fearful, you know, contaminated and poisoned, then we are more likely to take on those traits. If we are consuming food that was healthy, thriving, happy, had a strong, robust immune system, we’re more likely to take on those traits. And the same thing is true with plants. And I’ve seen this side-by-side, when there are plants that are grown with certain biology in the soil, literally directly next to plants in an experiment done without the same type of biology, same type of plant, pests will come and attack the one that is weakened, pest will come and attack the one that has more susceptibility because the soil biology is not providing natural pest resistance. And so they will consume that. Now, when we look at the plant that was not being attacked by the pest, we’re looking at a plant that has a naturally strong immune system. When you eat that plant, you then have a higher likelihood of having a strong immune system. So we’re actually, you know, really, truly you are what you eat. And it’s just profound when you see that side-by-side because when you see certain crops that are grown in such a way that they have such robustness and health and flavor, what’s happening there is that there are different compounds that are available now to the plant because the biology of the soil was appropriate. And so it really does come back to once again, how do we create that biology in the soil systems through regenerative agriculture systems, where we’re building soil, we’re adding back food for soil, and then therefore those soil microbes are actually creating the opportunity for the plant to even have its own robust system. So we can think of the plant as almost like eating out of the soil. The same way that we’re eating the plants, the plant is eating out of the soil, but it’s having an exchange with those microbes. When those microbes aren’t there, it’s not gonna uptake those minerals. It’s not gonna have the immune system. Then we don’t have those immune system. We don’t have those minerals. And then we see kinda the whole thing collapse. People can check out our work at That’s where they can learn more about our film called “The Need to Grow.” We also have our platform, and you’ll be able to find not only “The Need to Grow”, but the other films there that we’ve been working on, that focus on the solutions for human health and planet health and why those are part of the same conversation.

– Rob Herring, thank you very much for your advocacy, for your commitment to this issue, for advocating for our democracy, for the soils, for our landscapes, for family farming, for all of those values that make us proud to be American, for our purple mountains majesty, for the landscapes that define our country. Thank you very much.

– Thank you, sir. Healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy people, healthy planet.

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