It is estimated that 95% of our food is directly [or indirectly] produced in soil. Yet no one talks about dirt or it’s impact on the food itself. Because well… it’s dirty!
Instead, we micro-analyze the quality of the food itself and scratch our heads when we recognize nutrient density of food is sharply decreasing. Simply by looking “upstream” at the soil the food was grown in, the answers unfold.
It turns out healthy soil is the foundation of our food system because it is the agricultural “medium” in which colorful, life-giving food is produced. And just as the quality of the paper used to produce art is of utmost importance to an artist, the quality of soil used to produce colorful food is equally as important.
Food grown in nutrient depleted soil might look the same but when you compare the nutrient density, sustainability and life giving impact of the food grown in healthy living soil vs food grown in unhealthy depleted soil, the end product is a direct reflection of its origin.
WHAT MAKES DIRT SO SPECIAL?
Soil not only supplies essential nutrients, water, oxygen and root support to our food-producing plants but it also serves as an insulating buffer to protect delicate plant roots from drastic fluctuations in temperature. Even more fascinating is the fact that soil is a living dynamic ecosystem, brimming with microscopic and larger organisms, all of which perform many vital functions including converting dead and decaying matter providing minerals to support plant nutrients. As a “ team,” these organisms control plant disease, insect and weed pests, improve soil structure [which improves water and nutrient retention capacity] and ultimately improves crop output and quality.
When soil is exploited for crop production without restoring the organic matter and nutrient contents, the nutrient cycles are broken rendering soil fertility and the critical balance of nutrients within the soils destroyed. It is of utmost importance that the soil be rested and re-supplied with organic mater and clean water in order to sustain a healthy food product that’s alive and ready to breed life. Just as any human needs exposure to healthy food, sleep and water, soil needs all that too.
But with the increase in demand for food due to a growing population, our soil has been under deep pressure to “perform.” In many countries, intensive crop production has depleted the soil, drastically jeopardizing the soil’s productive capacity and ability to meet the needs of our future generations.
HOW LARGE OF AN IMPACT DOES SOIL QUALITY HAVE ON FOOD?
With evidence linking soil quality directly to the levels of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in food, it’s wise to take a look at the details. Donald R. Davis, PhD, a research associate with the Biochemical Institute at the University of Texas in Austin, analyzed data gathered by the USDA analyzing 43 fruit and vegetable crops and discovered that six out of 13 nutrients had declined by at least 50% in these crops over a 50-year period.
Growing evidence also continues to link organic production with higher levels of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants as well. For example, a 10-year study comparing organic tomatoes with conventional tomatoes suggests that organic tomatoes had 79% higher levels of quercetin and 97% higher levels of kaempferol [2 powerful antioxidants] on average, than conventional tomatoes. This increase corresponded not only with increasing amounts of organic matter accumulating in the soil along with fewer toxins, synthetic pesticides and antibiotics.
WHAT DO WE DO [BIG PICTURE]?
Farmers play a critical role in protecting our soil. Numerous and diverse farming approaches are necessary to promote the sustainable management of soils with the goal of improving the health of the soil. For instance, agroecology, conservation agriculture, organic farming, zero tillage farming and agroforestry are all farming management approaches that can mitigate this soil “ crisis” but need more attention if we are going to preserve the quality of the soil- directly impacting our healthcare.
Our global population is projected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, compounded by competition for land and water resources put healthy soil at risk, ultimately putting our food security at risk. Diversifying your vegetable intake alone supports farmers that continue to invest in the diversification of their crops [avoiding mono-cropping]. With every intentional produce purchase you make in larger market setting, you are telling farmers that their investment in their soil and their product matters. Farmers play a role in changing the trajectory of our soil but they are a reflection of what the market demands. So purchasing organic produce [when plausible] from farmers who are invested in the big picture [and future food sustainability] is you voting with your dollars for healthy soil.
WHAT CAN I DO ON THE HOME FRONT?
start by investing in food that has been grown in high quality soil – this means supporting your local farmers working to grow food in organic soil with a diversity of crops
consider growing some produce in a home garden [now YOU are the farmer]
create your own compost, fed by material from organic food scraps [building your own healthy soil] invest in organizations that are on a mission to improve the quality of soil
consider joining a community supported agriculture [CSA] for your produce when seasonally plausible
geek out on soil quality via books + documentaries listed below…
Investing in plants you eat is step one to wellness. Step two is investing in the soil those plants are grown in. And by investing in the soil, you are not only investing in your healthcare but the healthcare of the future generation. Go on now! Get dirty!
BOOKS WORTH READING:
Building Soils for Better Crops by Fred Magdoff and Harold van Es
Farmacology: Total Health from the Ground Up by Daphne Miller M.D
DOCUMENTARIES WORTH WATCHING:
The Biggest Little Farm • Kiss the Ground
Before the Plate
Follow the Food
The Need to GROW • Rooted
ORGANIZATIONS WORTH FOLLOWING:
Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell Soil
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, “Food Without Thought: How U.S. Farm Policy Contributes to
The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, www.leopold.iastate.edu • The Organic Center, www.organiccenter.org
Prevention Institute, “Cultivating Common Ground — Linking Health and Sustainable Agriculture,” www.preventioninstitute.org