Next up in Part 2 of the Your Fork & the Future series we will be discussing the importance of soil health. If you missed Part 1, be sure to check it out here: Your Fork & the Future Part 1- Our Broken Food System.
Where Food Begins
Remember that old adage "You are what you eat?" Well, if we eat plants and animals, and animals eat plants that eat and thrive in the soil, are we then not also reliant on the soil? Perhaps the expression should read, "You are what your food eats."
Food is the direct manifestation of soil fertility and biodiversity. The many minerals that come from the rocks, animals, bugs, worms, bacteria, microorganisms, and fungi all work together to feed and replenish our soil, which then feeds our food. Therefore, if we are in a direct, dynamic relationship with our food, we are then simultaneously in relationship with the soil. And if we cannot take care of the soil, the soil and the natural world cannot take care of us.
Currently, our soil is dying at an alarming rate. It is believed that we are losing thirty soccer fields of soil every minute due to conventional farming practices, erosion, and deforestation. This rapid erosion has led to the prediction that we have less than 60 years before we can no longer grow food if we continue in this way. Furthermore, because healthy soil is one of the best ways to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, we are losing our ability to naturally balance the changing climate. We have truly become dirt poor, and our future looks bleak because of it.
What is Soil Degradation
Soil degradation is the physical, chemical, and biological decline in soil condition and quality caused by improper use or poor management. Ultimately, it is the diminishing capacity of an ecosystem to support others, or in this case, everything! Usually caused by agricultural, industrial, or urban practices and uses, it can involve the following:
Loss of organic matter
Soil acidity or alkalinity
Contamination (toxic chemicals and pollutants)
What Does This Mean for Our Food
Over the past ninety or so years, there has been an apparent decline in nutrient content in food due to soil degradation. Fruits and vegetables grown decades ago were much richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us consume today. There is a huge difference in the nutritional composition of an apple your grandma ate in 1950 and the one you eat today. You now need to eat eight oranges to get the same nutritional value of one orange fifty years ago. The main culprit in this disturbing nutritional trend, again, is soil depletion. Modern intensive agricultural methods have stripped increasing amounts of nutrients from the soil in which the food we eat grows. Sadly, each successive generation of fast-growing, pest-resistant, mono-cultured crop is truly less good for you.
What Does This Mean for Our Health
Depleted soils mean depleted diets. If we are what we eat and what our food eats, and if plants and animals are eating nutrient-starved foods, then we are also becoming malnourished. Over the past fifty years, vegetables and fruits have seen considerable declines in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, B vitamins, as well as vitamins C and E. Magnesium deficiencies are also on the rise, which have been directly linked to soil quality. Studies have found up to a 30% decrease in these nutrients across many different plant foods in the last half century. Deficiencies in such nutrients can lead to a plethora of chronic conditions including headaches, migraines, fatigue, cognitive impairments, anxiety, depression, thyroid disorders, bone disorders, anemia, infertility and much more.
Depleted soil also means a depletion in biodiversity of its microorganisms. Like our guts, the soil is made up of millions of microorganisms, all of whom play a very different, yet very important role in the health of the soil as well as our digestive system. As the diversity of these organisms go down, the increase of chronic disorders simultaneously increases. Decreased biodiversity has been linked to environmental and food allergies, skin conditions, autoimmunity, hormonal imbalances, suppressed immune systems, and cognitive disorders such as ADHD and autism.
Where to Point the Finger
As mentioned before, the majority of the food grown today is done so through conventional farming practices - mono cash crops, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and animal factory farming. This system often prioritizes yield and profit over taste, nutritional quality, and environmental sustainability. With most of the government farm subsidies going to larger, mono crop farms, our food system has become overrun by commodities such as wheat, corn, soy, and sugar. These crop cultures are highly water and nutrient thirsty and take a heavy toll on our soils. Our current, large scale farming practices do not take the time to replenish this depleted soil with cover crops, companion planting, or crop rotation. And to add insult to injury, we are over-tilling and spraying heavily with herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides, killing all those that evolved in nature to help support the health of the soil - the foundation of our wellbeing. The soil is literally starving and is in desperate need of hospitalization.
But, to be clear, we don’t need to go blaming the farmers. Remember that big, scary food system (read Part 1)? And who has heard of Bayer? Yikes! And Monsanto? A bigger Yikes! I’ll be chasing these guilty parties in stories to come, but the point is, even though those two names play a major role in our homeland farming practices, it is our global food system that truly makes it difficult and expensive for farmers to operate in a way that supports them financially as well as promotes nutrient density within the soil.
There is a lot of dirt wrapped up in this topic and we will dissect it further in weeks to come, but the main takeaway is this: Dirt isn’t dirty. It is a fundamental natural resource and is the basis for all terrestrial life. It is time we started to think of soil as more than just dirt, but as the foundation of all nutrition and the planet’s wellbeing.