Do healthier soils produce healthier foods?

By Matt Reese

The global population relies upon the often under-appreciated miracles of the soil for nourishment. A growing area of research is digging into the connections between soil health and the resulting health of the food produced from the soil.

At a field day on the farm of David Brandt in Fairfield County last spring, Rafiq Islam provided a broad overview of the work being done in this area of research. The overarching concept is fairly simple: healthier soils produce healthier and more nutritious foods, resulting in healthier people who eat those foods; healthier foods offer more value to society, potentially resulting in higher market prices for farm products and increased profitability for farmers working to develop healthier soils. 

Islam is a research scientist specializing in soil health with The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

“We have been thinking about this for a long time. Soil health, crop health, food quality, and public health are intricately connected. The name of soil came from Adam, ʾădāmâ‘ — it is a very old Hebrew (Semitic) word meaning fertile soil, ground or earth. It occurs over 220 times in the Bible. The nutrient composition we have in soil results in a similar composition in plants that grow in the soil, and the food we get. We are taking in these nutrients for our nourishment,” Islam said. “If you have unhealthy soil, you have unbalanced nutrient levels and plant uptake is unbalanced, and our food composition is unbalanced. Probiotics, metabolomics, and nutrients in our food will be unbalanced when produced in unhealthy soils.”  

Nutrient shortages in food produced in unhealthy soils can, Islam argues, lead to societal health problems.

“If we are short on zinc, you will be short in height. Without enough vitamin A or zinc, we can have blindness. Plants in healthy soil can take that and make all kinds of amino acids and protein and we get more naturally balanced foods that fight diseases and malnutrition in a balanced way,” Islam said. “Unhealthy soils lead to uneven distribution and uptake and unbalanced nutrient accumulation in our food and grain. This can lead to health problems like anemia if we do not get enough iron. If we don’t have enough calcium, we will have osteoporosis. Different soils have different nutrient balances that grow plants with different nutrient balances. Unhealthy soils grow food that is nutritionally incomplete and public health will be affected. The end user will have less disease with more balanced food. A third of cancer-related deaths in the United States could be prevented through dietary phytochemicals.” 

Mounting evidence shows clear connections between reduced tillage, increased biodiversity, and improving soil health in agricultural fields.

“With no-till and cover crops, you have much more soil microbial diversity producing different enzymes, chemicals, and probiotics in a more balanced way,” he said. “We are looking at amino acids, which are essential building blocks of protein, and how those change with farming systems like no-till farming with and without cover crops, conventional tillage with and without cover crops, and different macro- and micronutrients. How does the food quality change with farming practices?” 

To learn more about the connection between soil health and healthier food, Islam and other researchers with OSU South Centers at Piketon analyzed grains (including corn, soybeans, and wheat grown in soils managed with long-term cover crop, salicylic acid [aspirin], and no-till on Brandt’s farm, OSU South Centers research farm, and Askenesia farm in Ukraine). The study also looked at other types of crops in different production systems. The crops were analyzed for protein, essential amino acids, nutrient elements (N, P, K, Ca, Mg, S, Na, Fe, Mn, Zn, B, Cu, and Mo), heavy metals (Cr, Cd, and Ni), soluble solids (Brix), titratable acidity, vitamin C, lycopene, total carotenoid, β-carotenes, polyphenols, flavonoids, anthocyanin, antioxidant capacity, and taste index, then compared with results from crops produced under different farm management practices. 

“Dave Brandt’s wheat flour tests totally different than commercial wheat flour,” Islam said. “Moldboard plowed soils tend to have less phosphorus and sulfur and micronutrients. With plowing, we may not see much manganese, copper, and iron — these micronutrients are very important in enzymes. Enzymes regulate metabolic activity, which is important for our health. We are seeing that it is not organic, it is not a conventional or no-till system, it is the combination of no-till, cropping diversity, and cover crops producing the most balanced foods.”

Of course, farmers are always looking for ways to derive additional income from their products, especially with the increased management required for successful integration of no-till and cover crops. Islam sees potential for increased profitability based on a differentiated, higher quality end products grown in healthier soils. 

“Can this transition to more money for the crop? When you have a balanced food, it tastes good. Many bakeries are asking more about how the ingredients they use were produced. They are also thinking about carbon credits and credit for systems management,” Islam said. “In the future, farmers may have to show more about how they manage their soils to grow crops to get more value for them. Farmers may have to start analyzing samples of their crops to be able to make more money by producing crops with a higher nutrient and phytochemical density. When you look at the different essential nutrients, all of them are higher with no-till and cover crops. It shows that when your soil is biologically diverse, chemically balanced, and physically stable, you’ll get this type of nutrient uptake and phytochemical accumulation in the grain to make your food quality balanced. And that food is worth more money.”

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