• Jens Hannibal

Do you care about soil? You should. It could save your life and civilisation.

Soil is not dirt

Would it be an overstatement to say that soil generally is taken for granted? In my own past experience, soil certainly wasn’t something that I gave much thought to. That’s until I began to realise how vital it is for the nutritional value and taste of food - not to mention life general.

In this post, I want to share with you a summary of some of the most important findings about soil health, its connection with yours and my health, and the flavour (joy) we get from the foods we eat. By the end of it, you should have a good understanding of the wonder that is soil, and hopefully this will inspire and empower you to get more flavour, more vitality and more joy from eating.

If you’re interested in good food and the planet it comes from, then keep reading.

What is soil?

Before we proceed it’s important to define what soil actually is. When looking at soil, what we see at first glance is a blackish brown matter that appears inert. But look closer, much closer, and you find that soil is anything but inert. At optimum vitality, soil is a wild concoction alive with micro organisms, microscopic animals and organic matter, also know as ‘humus’.

As I believe a lot of people do, I mostly used to associate soil with the gravel and clay that it also contains. I didn’t realise that the complex processes that create soil that happen in a time-frame of centuries, and that we were rapidly losing lots and lots of it to soil erosion.

The death of soil

In the 19th century the German scientist, Justus von Liebig, credited as the father of organic chemistry, proclaimed all that plants needed to grow are the macronutrients: nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous (known as NPK for their letters in the periodic table). That is analogous to saying that all humans need to eat are the fat, carbs and protein. We know that’s not the case. At least not if you want to ‘grow’ a healthy human. In order to do so, you need a multitude of micro-nutrients: minerals, antioxidants, etc. Liebig went on to devise a formula for how to make synthetic nitrogen in the form of nitrate in a process using petrochemicals (oil).

As investigative journalist, best selling author, activist and Harvard Professor, Michael Pollan, puts it in his 2007 book, In Defence of Food, “the discovery of synthetic nitrogen changed everything, not just for the food system, but for the way life on earth is conducted.” Whereas fertiliser before was something that animals provided in a farming system that emulated nature, now, vast quantities of cheap synthetic fertiliser could be produced.

This caused a wide-spread separation of animal agriculture and crop agriculture to the great detriment of animals, crops, and soil. We may have been able to increase production, but the increased quantity has come at the expense of the quality of the food we grow and eat.

Along with harsh pesticides, herbicides, excessive tilling and monocultures with shallow root systems (industrial wheat strains have very small roots compared with its natural ancestors), the life in the soil died, and the soil was rendered an inert medium unsuitable for plant life – was it not for more synthetic fertiliser and chemicals all over again, sustaining plant-life as a shadow of itself.

Without all the organic matter and roots, the top layer of living soil that took many centuries to form, the ability of the top layer to absorb water is diminished and so soil erosion set in. Across the globe we are losing vast areas of arable land every year due to erosion of top soil. An article in the journal Nature Sustainability makes the implications clear: “Soil erosion is a major threat to food security and ecosystem viability, as current rates are orders of magnitude higher than natural soil formation.”

So reducing the notion of soil and crop cultivation to being about just the three macro nutrients, NPK, has had devastating consequences for nature. But what about for human health. What kinds of impact has the reductionist approach by Big Agro indirectly had on our bodies?

Soil health = plant health = your health

To answer that question first we must explore further the effect of poor soils for the health of the plants that grow in them. Plant, like animals, actually have something like an immune system. This ‘immune system’ is the complex system of compounds, such as flavonoids and polyphenols that the plants deploy as natural defences against diseases and pests. Now, here’s the really amazing parts: The compounds that make up the plants’ immune system also happen to be really, really good for our health. Can you guess what happens when you spray a plant with chemicals that kills diseases and pests on behalf of the plants?

Well, it basically stops producing the flavonoids and polyphenols that naturally would protect it. The problem is compounded by the fact that the soil the plant grows in isn’t actually soil, as we have established. The result, is that on average you’d have to eat five conventionally grown carrots to get the same amount of nutrients that you would get from one carrot grown in healthy soils that hasn’t been sprayed, not to mention that you get five times more flavour!

Good soil, better flavour

I couldn’t agree more with Michael Pollan who says that “discovering that the best choices for our health also happen to be the best choices for the planet, and that these also happen to be the most delicious choices, which is good news indeed.” Dan Barber, a pioneering chef, activist and writer has devoted ten years of primary research and written a thick book to the subject of soil health and its link to flavour.

It’s a really refreshing perspective because it hammers home in such a relevant way (we all like things that taste good) that before anything else (saving the planet and all that) there is just so much more flavour and consequently pleasure in eating food that comes from healthy soils.

The reformation of agriculture

Fundamentally, what we need is a complete reformation of agriculture shifting from mono-cultures to an approach that emulates the way Nature does things. It’s not that long ago when this was in fact how agriculture was done. Then Monsanto came along and managed to convince us all that we couldn’t feed the world without genetic modification and round-up. Nothing could be further from the truth!

In nature a multitude of plants and animals work together to feed one and other. The grass grows, the cows eat the grass, the cow pads become nutrition for the grass in a regenerative cycle. As a torch bearer for this new approach, 42 Acres Somerset, is showing the way. We hope that more and more farmers will open their eyes to approach as it's the way forward.

This change has to start with the consumer, or, as I prefer to say, ‘citizen. When we buy something, we literally are casting votes for the world as we want to be in the future. This is particularly true for food as everything that you eat comes from nature, and the choices you make have a real impact. That means that you can make a difference. And the more of us get on board, the bigger the impact.


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