Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

Could Regenerative Agriculture Help People Live Longer Healthier Lives? Mushrooms could hold the clue.

by CRARS staff member Sheryl Karas. M.A.

oyster mushrooms growing in soil

If you love Chinese food prepared with delicious oyster mushrooms you’re eating a food that could keep you healthier and add years to your life! Scientists believe it is because they contain a higher content of a powerful antioxidant amino acid—L-Ergothioneine(opens in new window) (ERGO or EGT)—than any other food. Several researchers have been studying EGT and the results are surprising. All people have EGT in their bodies, but it was found that people with neurodegenerative conditions(opens in new window) like Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease have significantly less. Other research has found that higher human EGT levels are associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease(opens in new window) and that eating mushrooms that contain high levels of EGT is associated with a lower risk of cancer—particularly breast cancer(opens in new window) and prostate cancer(opens in new window)). The higher the EGT content, the better the results, and those results extend to other inflammation-related degenerative conditions that we commonly associate with aging. Longevity is, therefore, assumed to be a likely benefit of EGT as well. 

What is interesting is that people and animals cannot synthesize EGT in their own bodies—we need to get it from the food we eat. But plants don’t produce EGT either. They uptake it from the fungi in healthy soil; then animals and humans eat the plants. This led one food scientist, Robert Beelman PhD from Penn State University(opens in new window), to wonder about whether modern conventional farming methods might be impacting the amount of EGT Americans get in their diet. Diseases caused by chronic inflammation are certainly rampant in this country—the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(opens in new window) says that six in ten Americans live with at least one (heart disease and stroke, cancer, or diabetes). And we also know that soil microbes like fungi can be quite deficient in agricultural operations using tillage, fungicides, pesticides, and other modern conventional practices. That begs the question: could soil restored through regenerative agriculture lead to improved human health and longevity? 

A recent study(opens in new window) by a Penn State research team headed by Beelman looked into that, and the results were quite definitive. Specifically, they wanted to know if tillage practices that disturb the soil affected the amount of ergothioneine found in the crops produced. They tested maize, soybeans, and oats grown in soil managed with three different tillage approaches: annual moldboard plowing (most intensive), chisel/disking (less intensive), or no-tillage (least intensive). The amount of EGT in all three crops improved as tillage decreased, and the difference between no-till and moldboard plowing was dramatic! EGT content in the no-till crops was approximately 30% higher than those grown with the most intensive tilling method. Also, interestingly enough, one of the intentions of tillage—higher crop yields—was negated in this study. Crop yields improved as tillage decreased. No-till produced the best yields for maize and soybeans. Chisel/disking and no-till produced similar results for oats, but that was significantly better than moldboard tillage. These crop yield results are unusual compared to some other studies. The researchers believe that this is because most studies are done on small plots laid out on level soil for relatively short periods of time (3-5 years), so the effects of soil erosion would be small. Their study, which is still ongoing, was done on normally undulating agricultural farmland in crop rotation for 40 years. 

Soil loss, of course, has been shown to lead to lower yields(opens in new window) over time, and long-term intensive tillage is a key cause of soil degradation and erosion. That’s why soil conservation approaches in agriculture have been advocated since the Dust Bowl. More recently, however, farmers have been successfully compensating for poor soil through increased use of fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides. But, if soil degradation and erosion continues long enough, the cost/benefit of synthetic inputs eventually can slide. Adding in the challenges created by extreme weather events is what prompts some farmers to look into regenerative agriculture.

The Penn State study cites the benefits of regenerative agriculture in restoring the soil, and minimal tillage is certainly the hallmark of this approach. But they also recommended more research to test the results with a wider variety of crops and with additional regenerative techniques that might also affect the results. Reduced pesticide use and keeping living roots in the ground year round are also associated with increased mycorrhizal fungi populations in the soil, so combining practices might improve the results shown in this study. On the other hand, the authors say some food crops such as brassica do not form symbiotic relationships with mycorrhizal fungi and even reduce their population in the soil. It is not known whether fungi in the soil affects EGT content in brassica. More research would answer questions about the actual mechanisms involved in EGT incorporation in a variety of crops. Still, the authors were enthusiastic about the prospects of increasing the EGT content in the U.S. food supply using regenerative techniques that would be both environmentally sound and profitable.