Soil to Plate

Rachel Jesson exploits some unsavoury truths about food production and, in the process, helps empower us towards better nourishment of health and physical performance.

There are two main types of farming made available to us: the large commercial or intensive factory farms that normally concentrate on a single crop or animal on a very large scale or the smaller organic, biodiverse or naturally grown crop farms or pasture- reared animal farms, which focus on a variety of produce. Taking a closer look at the different forms of farming can help us to make more educated choices about the food we buy and how we can ‘pick’ our way to improved health and physical performance.


Commercial agriculture is the production of crops and/or animals for sale on a very large scale, intended for widespread distribution to wholesalers and retail outlets. Most conventional farms focus on producing one type of crop (mono-cropping) for purposes of mass production and capitalising equipment availability for cheaper harvesting.

Large-scale commercial agriculture came about relatively recently after the Second World War. Massive industrialisation of the countryside ensued, and farming in tune with nature and tradition consequently dropped away due to small-scale farmers being unable to compete with the cheaper produce that was being generated by the substantially larger mono-culture farms.

Use of chemicals

In 1910, German scientists figured out how to convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia – a key ingredient in both artificial fertiliser and TNT. After the war, America adopted this technology for agricultural use. Additionally, during experimentation for the battlefield, scientists stumbled on chemicals that could kill insects and so chemicals were created for mass farming. Post-war, American ammunition plants were converted into factories that made artificial fertilisers and chemical insecticides and pesticides.

Within the conventional crop farming practices, the growing process involves spraying the crops (by humans wearing gas masks) with chemical fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and insecticides (otherwise known as agrochemicals) to keep pests and disease at bay. This process enables the conventional farmer to sell perfect end-products for retail.

What goes onto the product from inception to retail is not the issue; it’s about what the product looks like and their end-product yield. Featherstone’s book Grow to Live1 states that ‘some 20 per cent of all agrochemicals used serve only to improve the look of the vegetables and fruit.’ Farmers understand that most large retail stores will not purchase marked produce, so most will do whatever it takes to farm the most perfect-looking food, with the highest market yields.

Environmental damage

Every day, the environmental and health consequences of conventional farming become more apparent. As long ago as 1992, The World Summit on Sustainable Development sounded the alarm bells with regard to the dangers of pollution: nitrates from fertilisers and chemical residues from agrochemicals had, at this time, been detected in ground water. In fact, these pollutants have been detected as far from civilisation as the North and South Poles and in the deepest reaches of the ocean. Certainly, the food that we eat has easily detectable levels of these chemicals: Erlich et al.2 state that a non-organic apple has an average of 16 different pesticides applied to it at least 36 times by the time we get to consume it. Recent studies have indicated that agrochemicals are incredibly toxic to human health, causing a myriad of health problems because our body often can’t detoxify these pollutants.

Antibiotic and hormone use

During the same time period that chemicals were first being applied to crop farming, so too was antibiotic and hormone use rife within factory livestock on international farms. Antibiotics are used to keep diseases amongst the animals at bay because they may be living unnaturally in over-crowded factories. Instead of happily grazing in pastures like in the past, these animals might be stepping on each other, scratching and biting one another to retrieve food and water and they are genuinely being hurt by one another in the cramped conditions just to survive. Not to mention, they have no choice but to eat genetically modified corn (sprayed with agrochemicals) to stay alive. The hormones that they are injected with increase the growth rates exponentially to stay in line with rushed, mass production. A mentality of complete disregard for animal welfare persists. Animals are forced to grow at rates that are not conducive to their physiological make up, which may mean that they are standing around in agony because of incomplete bone growth, or they are too heavy for their constitution due to this forced growth development.3 These practices are particularly prevalent in the poultry industry, but occur in other meat and fish production too.

Fortunately, a few of South Africa’s farms still retain traditional farming practices, where animals are allowed to do what nature intended. But if factory farming practices remain unchallenged, at some point these animals will be forced off the land into grassless pens where they will be intensively fed concentrated feed, hormones and antibiotics to artificially fatten them and escalate growth rates. Not only is this an unhealthy practice for our animals, but it has negative consequences for our health.

For some pretty frightening reading on this topic and for encouragement to never consume battery produce again, read the heart-wrenching book Farmageddon.3 An important point to note is that whatever the animal ate or was injected with, so we ingest. I can’t help but ask the question, ‘are we assimilating their same sad energy too?’

What we can potentially conclude about conventional and factory farming is that it has short-term economic benefits for the farmer and long-term negative consequences for humans, animals and the environment. Since the intention for good health and prosperity is not evident, this way of farming does not contribute to future health outcomes. How is it that an industry that started out with such good intentions of feeding the world, ends with such sad, negative consequences that place wealth and profits over human health?


Naturally grown (organic crop) farming, also known as wild-harvested farming or subsistence farming, is the way that food has been grown for thousands of years. It is important to understand the practices and methods of this type of farming so that we can go back to eating delicious, sweet-tasting fruit and vegetables, packed with nutrients and enzymes.

Pasture-reared exclusive livestock farms have hectares of land available to the animals, who also roam and feed like they would in the wild. The meat of these animals is packed with nourishing goodness, healthy edible fat and exceptional flavour. When animals are given the opportunity to live happily, naturally and wholesomely, they thrive and when we consume their meat, we ingest wholesomeness and embody their rich vibrancy.

Naturally grown farming promotes biodiversity because it relies on crop rotation, intercropping, green manure, composting and natural pest control practices, all of which maintain and enhance the quality of the soil. Nourishing, rich and wholesome soil is of paramount importance to the farmer because this is the key to keeping diseases and pests at bay and is often the reason why this produce is so delicious and nutrient dense. Most farms generate what they require on their own land and make minimal use of off-farm inputs. The central focus is on restoring, maintaining and enhancing the ecological harmony of the land. They follow a ‘law of return’ practice, meaning that whatever is taken out of the soil is put back in equal measure. So, naturally grown farming combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the environment and promote shared relationships and a good quality of life for everybody involved.

The PGS system

The Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) is being explored, whereby the farmers themselves guarantee or certify the agro-ecological nature of their produce. The PGS removes the third-party certifications, which are costly and places farmers at the centre of the certification or guarantee system. This type of system does exist at food markets around South Africa, although it is reliant on an honesty policy on the part of the farmer. Farms can be assessed at any time by a committee, or even the public, without the farmer knowing about the visit, so if the farmer wants to continue business, it is in his or her best interest to uphold the farm’s standards.

Certified organic farming

Certified organic farming means that the item is grown according to a strict set of uniform standards that are verified by independent government or private organisations. This includes site inspections of the farm fields and the processing facilities, detailed record keeping and periodic testing of the soil and water to ensure that growers and handlers are meeting the standards that have been set.

Biodiverse farming

Organic crop farms normally come with limited, but varied, livestock because they will provide the manure for fertilising, composting and other inputs. This is called biodiverse or biodynamic farming. The animals roam freely in allocated areas, which are rotated frequently so that the land is not over-used, but rather reconditioned. The livestock live naturally and choose how much sun, exercise and nourishment they need.

‘The true farmer and caretaker of the land produces better and better crops, and leaves the soil in better shape each year while needing fewer inputs.’ ~ Charles Walters


If it is not safe to spray agrochemicals onto our crops without a gas mask, how can it be safe to eat these crops? If we’re eating abnormally fatty meats injected with hormones and antibiotics and some dosed with preservatives, are we honouring our health? Food security is not in our supermarkets, food security is in empowering ourselves with the right philosophies and education. We need to take ownership of it.

Source     This article is an excerpt from the book Wholesome Nutrition, authored by Ian Craig and Rachel Jesson.


  1. Featherstone P. Grow to Live. Jacana Media. 2012.
  2. Erlich M, et al. Super Nutrition for Babies. Fair Winds Press. 2012.
  3. Lymbery P. Farmageddon. Bloomsbury Publishing. 2014.
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Soil to Plate

Rachel Jesson
About The Author
- BPhys.Ed (Hons) MPhil. Rachel is a trained teacher and holds a Masters degree in Sports Science and Psychology. She is also an NLP practitioner. Being an ex-South African triathlete, her passion lies in food, health and physical fitness. Her current sporting interests are running, mountain biking and CrossFit. Rachel is a food specialist and focuses on practical and extremely healthy meal and snack options for athletes, active people and those who want to be healthy.