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Commentary: Depleted Soil at the Root of Poor Health

Does soil quality affect our health? Experts say yes.
Soil degradation an issue that should concern us all, say health experts. Photo: Metro Creative Connection


We recently wrote about the gut microbiome – the remarkable digestive ecosystem that influences how nutrients and bacteria contribute to weight management, organ function, and even our mental health. But did you know there is a soil microbiome, and that this too affects your health?  It turns out, we’ve not taken good care of it.

Perhaps you already worry about the air you breathe and the water you drink. You are, at least, choosing healthy foods that deliver the nutrition you need. You don’t buy processed products, don’t drink soda, and limit salt intake. Maybe you are even vegan, feeling good about both your health and your carbon footprint. But you may need to consult with a farmer, not a doctor, to learn about the risks facing your vegetables.

At its best, good soil is home to worms, beetles, bugs, and untold numbers of microscopic organisms that serve important functions.  In life and death, they furnish the soil with nutrients.  Their busy work helps the soil absorb and retain water. Some of them help control harmful pests. But farming practices have been unkind to these critters. Relentless tilling of fields and applications of fertilizers have lessened the quality of topsoil across North America. It is dry; unable to hold nutrients or water. It blows away. And the water run-off, polluted with nitrate, a common fertilizer, is a major concern.

Regulatory limits determine acceptable levels of nitrate in public drinking water supplies. But the degradation of groundwater from over-application of nitrogen fertilizers is a major concern to researchers studying human health. A report in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health warns of a relationship between nitrate ingestion and colorectal cancer, thyroid disease, and neural tube defects, including at water nitrate levels below regulatory limits.

The United Nations considers soil degradation one of the central threats to human health in the coming decades.

For now, studies show that farmed vegetables still provide all the necessary nutrients for good health. Your practice should be a diet containing the recommended number of servings per day of vegetables, fruits and whole grains.

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