“The world needs science-based evidence that organic and regenerative agriculture is the healthiest approach for people and the planet,” — Andrew Smith, Ph.D.
In his new role as Chief Scientist for Rodale Institute, the global leader of regenerative organic agriculture, Smith aims to lead the organization’s rigorous research in proving just that.
To Smith, health is more than just calories and measures of blood pressure—it includes social, emotional, and environmental well-being and the health of families, communities, and ecosystems at large. Smith believes regenerative organic agriculture has the power to positively impact them all.
“We need to continually look to nature as we create our farming systems,” he says, “because there’s a direct link between how we treat the soil and how we treat people.”
Smith, who grew up on a farm that used both organic and conventional practices, had an innate interest in agriculture. He earned a Bachelor of Science in agronomy at Cornell University and a Master of Science in entomology at the University of Maryland. After two years in the Peace Corp sassisting a cooperative of small-scale vegetable farmers in Guatemala and ten years farming organically in Pennsylvania, Smith attended Drexel University in Philadelphia, where he earned his Ph.D. in environmental science with a concentration in molecular and population ecology.
The same week Smith submitted his Ph.D. thesis in 2015, he accepted a position with Rodale Institute as the Research Director for their Vegetable Systems Trial, a long-term, side-by-side comparison of vegetable crop nutrient densities in organic vs. conventional systems. The study will continue under Smith’s direction in his new role.
It’s the long-term, systems-based approach that sets Rodale Institute apart from other research institutions. Take, for example, its Farming Systems Trial, the longest running side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional grain systems in North America. After decades of data, the Farming Systems Trial has shown that organic yields match conventional under normal conditions and can outperform conventional in times of drought. “If the trial had been a two-year study and those two years had shown adequate rainfall, we’d never have known that organic systems are resilient in times of drought,” says Smith. “It can take five, ten—even fifteen or twenty years—for a study to yield its most valuable results,” he adds. “We’re in it for the long game.”
Smith’s approach is people-centered, ultimately aimed at improving quality of life for both farmers and consumers. His philosophy can be seen in action at the 140-acre organic farm he owns with his wife. Alongside a pick-your-own fruit operation, the farm boasts a “Universally Accessible Garden” with raised beds at varying heights and wheelchair-accessible pathways so people of all ages and abilities can visit and connect with each other. Produce from the garden goes to local food banks and is distributed with assistance from Philabundance, Philadelphia’s largest hunger relief organization. Smith’s farm is a microcosm of the regenerative model: good for everyone involved.
Rodale Institute’s research focuses on three primary areas: growing organic agriculture, mitigating and adapting to climate change, and solving food insecurity by growing nutrient-dense foods. In addition to its long-term studies, the Institute currently conducts more than 20 research projects on its 333-acre experimental farm in Kutztown, PA. Areas of focus include investigations of soil carbon accrual, production and use of mycorrhizal inoculum, nutrient management in organic systems, and improved techniques for compost management and pest and disease prevention.
“I had the chance to work alongside Dr. Smith as he developed the Vegetable Systems Trial—innovative research that is connecting food and farming to human health and healthcare,” said Jeff Moyer, Executive Director of Rodale Institute. “Dr. Smith truly epitomizes one of our core values: that our research is a catalyst for change. We’re honored to launch Dr. Smith onto a global stage so he can help provide solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.”