Rajnish Khanna, Ph.D., Brigid McNally, M.A.
Starting out this new year, we want to draw your attention to the true meaning of the trending topic of soil health. It is said that both the planet’s health and our own individual health is linked to healthy soil. That sounds like a reasonable statement, but what exactly does it mean and what you can do to play your part in 2022?
1. Soil is a natural body containing minerals, microbes, plants, and animals
In the same way as a water body (either ocean, lake, pond, or even a puddle) contains water, fish, plants and microbes, a soil body (either forest, park, farm) consists of broken-down materials such as bedrock, volcanic matter, minerals, microbes, living and decomposing plants and animals. Although soil particles are tiny, their rich combination of different materials over millions of years of growth and decay, is what makes a soil body fertile for the next generation of plants and animals to grow and thrive. Soil is often considered to be “living” itself due to the immense number of organisms that constitute its form, activity, and functions. Further, soil organic matter holds a tremendous amount of carbon, and how we manage the soil can reduce or worsen carbon dioxide emissions from the soil. Nitrogen fertilizers added to agricultural soils can lead to emissions of nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas linked to climate change. This makes healthy soil a top priority for climate change attention and action.
Soil provides many services; it is the primary source of productivity, it plays a pivotal role in nutrient and water cycling, sequesters carbon, and shapes habitats to sustain micro and macro-organisms. A soil body may constitute potted soil, a local field, or it can be extended to regional, national, or global scales. Depending upon the scale, we can define the stakeholders responsible for managing the soil body, including a gardener, farmer, neighborhood and community, or national and international policy makers. Regardless of whether you belong to one of these stakeholder groups or not, your health is directly impacted by how soil is managed at these levels through food quality and environmental impact. Even if you are not involved in managing soil, you have an important role to play in improving the health of our soil around the planet (see how in #3 below).
2. Widely accepted agricultural farming techniques are degrading and polluting soil bodies and individual human health
Many human activities are detrimental to soil health, which lead to reduced soil capacities to retain water and minerals, and to produce and sustain organic matter needed for carbon sequestration. Excessive use of synthetic fertilizers causes harmful liquid runoff, which is toxic to local ecosystems and to human health. Broadly adopted poor agricultural practices cause soil erosion, salinization (salt build-up), toxification and desertification (which is caused by climate change and human activities such as over-cultivation, overgrazing, deforestation).
Profit-maximizing farming practices have negative tradeoffs in long term soil health. Industrial agricultural practices such as monocropping, use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, factory farm waste and tillage practices are just a few of the main negative impacts on soil health. These widely accepted practices not only jeopardize the land’s fertility for sustainable use, but also can degrade nutrient and biological composition of soil.
Monocropping describes the practice of crop specialization in a single location. In other words, a farmer practicing monocropping would grow the same type of produce on the same plot of land every single year. This technique, although it provides the farmer with more security in the short term, it inevitably reduces the organic matter in the soil over time, which is needed to stabilize the plant environment, and thereby it results with the need for synthetic fertilizers or pesticides to control pests such as fungi or insects.
Tilling, or the mechanical agitation of land, is also a cause of heavier compacting of the soil particles due to the heavy machinery. This results in poor aeration for plant roots and microorganisms and will cause smaller yields to be produced.
Synthetic fertilizers are used when the soil becomes depleted with its own organic breakdown, however these synthesized versions come with many downsides as well, such as an altering of the natural microbiological composition, or decreasing the microbiological diversity even further. Similarly, the use of pesticides, which are weed and insect killing chemicals, often leave their residue within the soil long after they are needed. Studies have concluded that excessive use of most pesticides (Onwona-Kwakye et. al., 2020) and herbicides such as those including glyphosate (Hadi et. al., 2013; Singh et. al., 2020) decrease microbial biodiversity due to killing both the good and bad bacteria, fungi, and other organisms such as earthworms (Miglani and Bisht, 2019). Even in agricultural soils managed organically for 20 years, residues of 16 different pesticides were present with negative impacts on microbial and fungal activity (Riedo et. al., 2021).
Animal waste sourced from industrial animal facilities also becomes a soil contaminant due to the concentrated animal feeding practices containing antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals. This has shown to result in an increase of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in soils, heavy metal contamination in the soil, and even uptake of certain antibiotics into the harvested crops (Kang et. al., 2013).
The overall concern for these damaging effects on our soil’s health is not only the effects on the climate, but also the harmful effects they have on our individual health in return. When the food we consume is of less quality and brings along more harmful chemicals than macronutrients, it undoubtedly will lead to large raises of negative health effects such as respiratory problems, reproductive issues, certain risks of cancer, and even some neurological damage. More research is needed to draw the cause-and-effect relationships, but these types of studies are difficult to perform in human populations due to high degree of variability and long-term effects which may develop over time into health conditions, making it hard to link many food related issues to common and severe human ailments.
What can we do now to save our Soil’s Health?
3. It’s not too late to regenerate the earth, everyone must do their part
Although the outlook may seem bleak for our agricultural system, change is on the horizon. There are multiple ways that farmers can adapt to better practices in order to become more sustainable in the long run, and many companies have developed new techniques to support this movement. Some major changes that must be focused on in 2022 are to:
- maximize the soil’s biodiversity
- maximize the continuous living roots
- minimize disturbance to the topsoil
- maximize the soil coverage
Soil, along with water, is a big part of the planet that sustains us. Patriotism is often associated with soil that represents national pride. To ensure a brighter future of any neighborhood, city, or country, we must work towards increasing our local soil’s production capacity and its ability to withstand environmental pressures. Humans are a highly innovative and resourceful species. We have come a long way in improving our abilities to produce more food on lesser cultivated land, developed methods to measure and quantify different parameters, and built machines that facilitate management of large acres. Along the way, we took some missteps. Now, we face a challenge of a global scale, which is to become a sustainable species on the planet by caring for the very land that we call home. The natural cycles of minerals such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and numerous micro and macro fauna are our collaborators in bringing a greener future. Let’s become better stewards by embracing the natural processes and aligning agricultural practices to build up our individual soil bodies into one aggregated sustainable planetary soil body.
Additionally, eating more locally grown produce and spreading more scientific knowledge about how it was grown, can be an incredible step towards healthier decision making by consumers. Further, supporting and promoting sustainable farming, composting, crop rotation, cover cropping, the adding of pasture animals, and more scientific analysis of crop nutritional information will be the direction we need to pursue.
If you are not a gardener, farmer, or soil manager in your daily activities, you have a much bigger role to play. As a consumer and citizen of your community, nation, and global representative, you can influence a shift by the choices you make. Seek and reward food producers that value food quality and sustainability in their practices. Become an aware and conscious consumer so that instead of being an incidental supporter of the ongoing problems, you decide how the next chapter in soil health will be written.
We are here to assist in this process. A passionate, new digital service called TerreLocal has been developed to help promote more local networks between communities and local producers. The mission is to bring much needed transparency into the entire food supply chain and make food quality information accessible to everyone. Decades of industrialization has depleted accountability of food quality in our food systems. The first step is to recreate direct connections between food supply and demand, and place value on food quality, while increasing networks to promote composting, maximize nutritional content of produce and incorporate the science to help farmers, restaurants, and household consumers make better educated food choices.
Discover healthier food less traveled in 2022.
- Hadi, F. et al. (2013) New bacterial strain of the genus Ochrobactrum with glyphosate-degrading activity. J. Environ. Sci. Health-Part B Pestic. Food Contam. Agric. Wastes; 48:208. doi: 10.1080/03601234.2013.730319.
- Kang, D.H. et. al. (2013) Antibiotic uptake by vegetable crops from manure-applied soils. J. Agric. Food Chem; 61:9992. Doi: org/10.1021/jf404045m.
- Miglani, R. and Bisht, S.S. (2019) World of earthworms with pesticides and insecticides. Interdiscip. Toxicol; 12:71. doi: 10.2478/intox-2019–0008.
- Onwona-Kwakye et. al. (2020) Pesticides decrease bacterial diversity and abundance of irrigated rice fields. Microorganisms; 8:318. doi: 10.3390/microorganisms8030318.
- Riedo, J. et al. (2021) Widespread occurrence of pesticides in organically managed agricultural soils-the ghost of a conventional agricultural past? Environ. Sci. Technol; 55:2919. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.0c06405.
- Singh, S. et al. (2020) Herbicide glyphosate: toxicity and microbial Degradation. Int. J. Environ Res Public Health; 17:7519. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17207519.
Rajnish Khanna, M.Sc. Ph.D., is founder and Chief Executive Officer of i-Cultiver, Inc. and Global Food Scholar, Inc., Senior Investigator at Plant Biology, Carnegie Science, and Science Advisor at The Chopra Foundation. Rajnish is a strategic biotechnology consultant, plant and soil health scientist applying multidisciplinary approaches for research and development. Known for empowering the industry through strategic partnerships with academic institutions, facilitating technology transfer into real world applications, and deploying advanced technologies such as CLASlite, a unique software to quantify and monitor crop and tree health at global scale for agro-eco projects. Rajnish is creating an innovative online food platform, TerreLocal, to integrate the entire local food supply with local demand. Rajnish is a photobiologist, interested in how information, such as light, is perceived and translated by organisms into biological responses, and underlying mechanisms that may link information to our experience of consciousness. www.rajnishkhanna.com
Brigid McNally, M.A., Creative Content Developer and Public Relations Consultant with Global Food Scholar, Inc. Brigid is passionate about communication, public education and nutrition. She is the founder and owner of PVX Farms. Brigid is a specialized vertical farmer, known for offering a variety of microgreens and sprouts with longer preserved vigor. Brigid obtained an M.A. in Communication from University of the Pacific, and she is leading the public communication and education effort for TerreLocal, a new online platform developed by Global Food Scholar, Inc.