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Why Consumers Should Care About Soil Health

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As stewards of the earth, it's crucial that we consider the health of our soil. With a growing global population, we need more productive soil to ensure we can produce enough food for everyone. But healthy soil doesn't just benefit us; it also leads to fewer environmental problems and a more resilient cropping system that can withstand droughts and other challenges. So why should consumers care about soil health? The answer is simple: healthy soil equals a healthy planet.

Soil Health Benefits to Consumers

Safe and Nutritious Food

Growing safe and nutrient-rich food requires healthy soil. Crops cannot receive the essential nutrients they require to grow without healthy soil. This implies that the quality of the food produced will be reduced, and it might even contain dangerous contaminants like heavy metals or toxins from pesticides or fertilisers used on the crops, which would make it unsafe to eat. By investing in healthy soils, farmers are able to grow high-quality crops with fewer dangerous contaminants, resulting in safer and more nutrient-dense food for consumers.

Better Water Quality

Healthy soils play an essential role in filtering contaminants out of water supplies. Overfarming and other practices can erode soils, making it harder for them to effectively filter out these contaminants. If left uncontrolled, this can increase contamination levels in our drinking water supply, which could harm human health. Investing in healthy soils helps maintain our drinking water's purity and safety.

Improved Air Quality

In addition to filtering contaminants from our water supply, healthy soil also contributes to better air quality by preventing dust and other airborne pollutants from entering the environment. The ability of soils to act as a natural filter for these pollutants decreases with soil degradation brought on by unsustainable agricultural methods or other activities. As a result, contaminants can build up in the air we breathe, leading to respiratory issues and other harmful health impacts.

Climate Resilience

Healthy soils can significantly contribute to our ability to adapt to climate change by enhancing our capacity to store carbon dioxide. As a result, less CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere, reducing the effects of global warming and other climate-related problems like extreme weather. By making investments in better soils today, we can lessen the effects of climate change on future generations.

Threats to Soil Health

Soil Erosion

Soil erosion is a significant threat to soil health, and it occurs when soil is washed or blown away, leaving behind barren land. Erosion can occur due to natural processes like wind and rain, but it can also be caused by human activities such as over-tillage, deforestation, and overgrazing. Soil erosion can lead to decreased soil fertility, loss of nutrients, and water pollution, which can ultimately result in reduced crop yields and food shortages.

Soil Compaction

Soil compaction is another significant threat to soil health. It occurs when soil particles are compressed, reducing the air spaces in the soil. Soil compaction can be caused by heavy machinery, animal traffic, and other human activities. When soil is compacted, it becomes harder for water, air, and nutrients to move through the soil, resulting in reduced crop yields.

Soil Pollution

Soil pollution is a severe threat to soil health, and it occurs when toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and other pollutants accumulate in the soil. Soil pollution can be caused by the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, improper disposal of waste, and industrial activities. Soil pollution can lead to reduced soil fertility, decreased crop yields, and can also contaminate groundwater, which can lead to water pollution.

Overuse of Fertilizers and Pesticides

The overuse of fertilizers and pesticides is another significant threat to soil health. While these products can help increase crop yields, they can also have harmful effects on the soil. Overuse of fertilizers can lead to soil acidification, which can decrease soil fertility and decrease the availability of essential nutrients. Pesticides can also kill beneficial microorganisms in the soil, which can lead to reduced soil health and decreased crop yields.

Loss of Biodiversity

The loss of biodiversity is a significant threat to soil health, and it occurs when plant and animal species are lost from an ecosystem. Biodiversity is crucial for soil health, as it helps to maintain healthy soil ecosystems. When plant and animal species are lost, the soil ecosystem becomes imbalanced, and this can lead to decreased soil fertility, reduced nutrient cycling, and increased vulnerability to pests and diseases.

What Can we do About Soil Health?

Farmers play a critical role in improving soil health. They can take steps like keeping the soil covered with crop residue and cover crops, reducing soil disturbance through no-till or minimum tillage, and providing living roots to feed soil organisms year-round. Increasing biodiversity through diversified crop rotations and cover crops is also important. By doing these things, farmers can promote a thriving soil ecosystem that includes earthworms, fungi, bacteria, nematodes, protozoa, insects, and other arthropods.

Cover Crops

Cover crops are an effective way to boost soil health and offer many benefits. For example, cover crops increase soil organic matter and improve rainfall infiltration, resulting in less soil compaction and erosion. They also scavenge nutrients, prevent nutrient loss, and provide nitrogen fixation from legumes. Additionally, cover crop residues can keep soil cooler and improve weed control. With all these benefits, it's clear that cover crops are a win-win for both farmers and the environment.

Increasing Soil Carbon

Increasing soil carbon and building soil organic matter are also crucial to improving soil health. By doing so, we can improve the water holding capacity of the soil, promote root growth, and increase nutrient availability. And over time, higher organic matter soils are more resilient in the face of droughts and other severe weather. Moreover, sequestering carbon in the soil helps to remove it from the atmosphere, which is beneficial for reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.

Cover crops and improved soil health can even improve water quality. Cover crops improve rainfall infiltration, which prevents eroding soil from leaving fields with harmful pesticides and nutrients. Additionally, cover crops can scavenge or tie up nutrients that would otherwise leach into groundwater or run off into surface waters. So not only do cover crops benefit soil health, but they also benefit the quality of our water.

Public Policy

One way to motivate more farmers to adopt cover crops and other soil health practices is through incentive payments. State or federal governments can offer a per-acre payment to farmers for using cover crops or other soil health practices. Educational programs can also teach farmers about the benefits of these practices. Farmer-to-farmer networking can also help farmers learn from each other about effective soil health practices that can improve their profitability. With these tools and resources, more farmers can be motivated to adopt soil health practices, leading to healthier crops, healthier soil, and a healthier planet.

Wrapping Up

As more consumers and food producers recognize the importance of healthy soil, it's becoming an increasingly popular topic in the industry. Innovative companies like Trace Genomics are mapping the composition and health of soil with remarkable accuracy, providing valuable data for brands and consumers. The rise of this trend means that companies that maintain good soil practices could position themselves at the forefront of health and sustainability, making it an area worth investing in for the future. By caring for and protecting soil, we not only produce healthier food but also protect the planet we all share.

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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