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The ripples of soil health: From the ground to your plate

October 18, 2022
Soil microbes

"Soil health is our health." Geologist and science writer David R. Montgomery explained the interconnectedness between soil, plants and human feeding and health.

"Are you what you eat? Or, in fact, are you what your food ate?”

With these thought-provoking questions, geologist and science writer David Montgomery opened his presentation as part of the Crop Science track at the Alltech ONE Conference (ONE) last May. The author talked at ONE in advance of the launch of his new book, which is aptly titled “What Your Food Ate: How to Heal Our Land and Reclaim Our Health” and is co-authored by his wife, Anne Biklé.

“The big point that I’m trying to make is that soil health is our health,” Montgomery said during his presentation. “How we treat the land, in turn, affects how the land will treat us (…) in terms of what's in our food and what that actually may do in terms of supporting our health.”

Montgomery explained the various ways that modern farming practices — including tillage and the overuse of commercial fertilizers — are unbalanced and can disrupt the necessary, healthy symbiosis between plants and the soil.

“We traded away quality in pursuit of quantity as modernized farming chased higher yields, overlooking a farmer’s natural allies in the soil.”

—David Montgomery and Anne Biklé, “What Your Food Ate: How to Heal Our Land and Reclaim Our Health”

"David Montgomery"

The roots of good health are planted on farms

We know that our diet influences our health, and it’s safe to say that how we grow our crops and what we feed them plays a significant role in our overall health as well.

“In general, we don’t think about a plant having a diet, when, in fact, they do,” said Montgomery. “Plants absorb a myriad of elements from the soil which we can consider to be their food, and how we feed them — the ‘diet’ we present them with — will reflect directly in the final outcome.”

When determining the health of the soil, it is important to consider some basic elements of crop production, such as the NPK — or the ratio of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in a product — of conventional fertilizers. Applying large amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium can lead to larger crop yields. But what does higher levels of those elements mean for the health of the soil where we grow those crops and the health of the crops themselves?

Currently, most farming operations are intensely focused on increasing yields, thanks in part to the pressure of needing to feed a fast-growing population. But if quantity is an important measure, quality — and, more notably, nutrient density — is equally important and, in modern societies, is increasingly worrying.

Unbalanced farming practices can disrupt the partnerships between soil bacteria and plants and can have a negative impact on soil health. They also shape the types and amounts of health-promoting minerals, fats and phytochemicals in our crops, which are transferred to us through the foods we eat.

Understanding and improving these connections could have profound implications for the food we eat and how we grow it, both now and in the future.

Farming practices, soil health and all that it encompasses

“Looking around (at) agricultural soil globally, a significantly large portion could be classified as ‘sick,’ if we thought about soil as a living ecosystem having health, which most of us probably don't,” Montgomery said during his presentation at ONE.

According to the United Nations’ (U.N.) map of global soil degradation, most of the world's agricultural soils are listed as “degraded” or “very degraded”. Furthermore, the U.N. estimates that around a third of the world's farmland soils have been degraded to the point that their lower quality could have a profound impact on their agricultural productivity.

This widespread soil degradation is partially the result of the two fundamental agricultural practices on which conventional agriculture has long been reliant: tillage and the over-use of chemical fertilizers.

While tillage has deep historical roots, chemical fertilizers, on the other hand, are much more recent in terms of their development and application. Researchers like Montgomery and Biklé are increasingly acknowledging that these practices can thoroughly degrade the organic matter of soil — which is, in essence, the very life of the soil — and can alter the soil microbial community in ways that are detrimental to both soil health and fertility. The difficult reality, however, is that farmers rely on these practices to harvest much of the food we grow today.

Another report from the U.N. released in 2015 projected that we're losing around 0.3% of our ability to produce food every year due to soil erosion and the degradation of organic matter — or, in other words, due to the loss of healthy soils. Montgomery put this statistic in perspective.

“0.3% doesn't sound like a really large number on an annual basis, but if you play that out over the rest of this century, it adds up to degrading another third of the world's farmland in this time interval,” he explained. “As the world population continuously grows, that is something that we can't afford.”

Harkening back to Montgomery’s application of the concept of health to soil, due to their remarkably low levels or lack of organic matter, many of the world's agricultural soils could be categorized as “sick”. Based on the statistics outlined above, a large percentage of soils simply cannot be called “healthy” in terms of their ability to foster soil biological activity and support strong root development, plant growth and crop productivity.

Bringing life back to the ground

Regenerative agriculture practices can contribute to rebuilding and revitalizing organic matter, which can, in turn, help rebuild soil health and fertility.

Some of the most well-known and effective regenerative agriculture principles include:

  • Low-to-no tillage: Minimizing soil disturbance
  • Cover cropping: Maintaining a permanent ground cover and/or growing cover crops in between cash crops to always keep living roots in the soil
  • Crop rotation: Maintaining a diverse rotation of five to six crops

The combination of minimal disturbance, always having something growing in the soil and growing a diverse array of plants is essentially the antithesis of what many farmers and agronomists have been taught and are currently practicing in modern agriculture.

“Over the last 100 years, we have emphasized tillage, the overuse of synthetic agrochemicals and specializing in one or two crops,” Montgomery said. “This idea of regenerating soil life and soil health is a different way to look at agriculture and think about soil.”

Regenerative farming practices can rebuild soil health, bringing life back to the ground and fostering microorganisms’ communities, as well as their synergistic relationships with plants. These benefits can, in turn, suffuse the soil, the rhizosphere, the plants and the crops they grow with the elements they require in order to thrive, such as macro- and micronutrients, minerals and phytochemicals.

Most prominently, regenerative farming practices can increase the amount of carbon in the soil — which basically means more organic matter, as organic matter is roughly 40–50% carbon. A dark soil reflects an increasing sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere into the soil. Photosynthesis is nature’s way of pulling carbon from the atmosphere to the plant, and regenerative agriculture practices are a way to “park” more of that carbon in the soil.

Regenerative farming practices can also result in less off-site nitrogen pollution and better water quality as the result of a reduction in the use of synthetic fertilizers.

And finally, using more regenerative farming practices could translate to more sustainable and profitable farming. Farmers can achieve comparable or even higher yields by using fewer inputs and fossil fuels — the biggest expenses of modern farming — while also safeguarding natural resources.

"Solutions exist right beneath our feet, if you take the time to read the story of soil."

—David Montgomery and Anne Biklé, “What Your Food Ate: How to Heal Our Land and Reclaim Our Health”

Soil life-focused farming practices hold the key to healing sick soils, allowing farmers to produce enough nutrient-dense food to feed us all and tapping into agriculture’s potential to improve human health.

So, when it comes to soil, can we have both quality and quantity? Montgomery wrapped up his presentation at ONE with a sobering yet inspiring message: “What's good for the soil is good for us, too.”

Key takeaways

  • Soils have a diet, and healthy diets are required to foster healthy soils
  • Billions of beneficial soil microorganisms foster the symbiotic relationship between soils and plants, making them our top allies for soil and crop health
  • Just like people, soils can be in poor health or in good condition — and globally, our soils currently aren’t in top form
  • The health of the soil impacts the health of our crops, our livestock and, ultimately, ourselves
  • Reestablishing an underground feast for soils will alter what’s on our own plates