By Sarah Spinner, Community Fellow
Understanding the intricacies of soil and plant health provides great potential to improve human health, environmental integrity, and lead to a more sustainable food system.
Healthy soils - with their high concentrations of microbes, fungi, nutrients, and organic matter - are the foundation for healthy plants and nutrient-dense food crops. The connection between healthy soils and human health is backed by literature amongst diverse fields of study with overwhelming consensus. While these connections are widely recognized, all the complexities and mechanisms are not yet well understood. Although more research is needed to further understand the specifics, there are many intriguing ways in which our health is dependent on that of soil.
Let’s look at all the indirect ways we rely on soil health…
· Healthy soils provide the basis for which we grow our food, including supporting livestock.
· Healthy soils aid in maintaining the ecosystem functions that our entire species depends on - even outside of food supply.
· Access to healthy soils impact social determinates of health, providing nutritious food, employment, and a safe environment.
In a recent research boom, medical professionals, soil scientists, climate scientists, and dietitians are all trying to decode the health benefits of the soil. Among the unique research out there, I think Dr. Christopher Lowry’s research into Mycobacterium Vaccae. M. vaccae, a common soil bacterium is particularly fascinating. This research shows that the bacterium has the capacity to activate certain neurons regulating emotions and suggests it might even have the potential to act as an anti-depressant.
While this specific study is super narrow, larger connections are increasingly understood and widely adopted - even in medical care. Right here at Augusta Health a group of health coaches, dietitians, chefs, gastroenterologists, and, of course, us AMI farmers, are teaming up to provide holistic care for patients suffering from gastrointestinal issues, many of which are highly linked to environmental factors such as diet, such as IBS.
Some of the most recognized direct health benefits of the soil are…
The synergist relationship between the soil microbiome and the human gut microbiome
Soil provides a diverse range of beneficial microorganisms that are taken up by the plant. When we eat the plant, these microorganisms are added to our gut flora as probiotics. For example, just one single spinach leaf has over 800 different species of bacteria from the soil. Soil contains approximately the same number of microorganisms as the human gut. Studies have concluded that those who consume a diverse diet high in fresh produce have a more diverse gut microbiome. The benefits of a healthy gut and possessing a diverse microbe population are universally understood to improve immune function, protect from allergies, and aid in disease prevention.
Increased nutrient quality of food crops
Healthy soils with high levels of microorganisms and fungi promote nutrient cycling and uptake. Therefore, eating foods from healthy soils provides more nutrient-dense food crops and protects from nutrient deficiencies such as iron, calcium, and vitamin C, and riboflavin. These nutrients have declined by up to 38% since 1950 and increased agricultural intensification, increased use of pesticides, and a heavy focus on yields – all practices consistent with conventional agriculture.
Improved immune function
Just being in contact with the soil can help improve immune function. Agricultural workers and rural communities who keep in closer contact with soil typically are more resistant to allergies and asthma. Animal studies have found that soil exposure strengthens immune responses to pathogens such as viruses. Now, I’m wondering why my allergies are so bad and hoping that maybe working on the farm will help, although I am not sure they work that instantaneously!
Soil health is threatened by conventional agricultural practices that degrade the soil as well as pesticides, industrial and mobile pollutants, and climate change, including the impacts of increasing erosion and extreme climatic events. The need to build up healthy soils through regenerative agricultural practices will lead to improved human health and environmental integrity. As the population grows and the demands for resources and pressures of climate change amplify, practitioners in every field have a responsibility to take a systems approach to consider the indispensable health of the soil. With a multidisciplinary approach, we can work to simultaneously protect our environment while promoting community health.