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The Crucial Connection: Human Wellbeing Can Only Happen With Healthy Soils

By Jessie Emerson

There is a direct relationship between minerals in the soil and minerals in the body. There is a direct connection between nutrition and optimal health. Nutrition is the foundation of a healthy body that resists disease. The mineral content of the soil determines the mineral content of food. Cancer, diabetes, heart disease, premature births, birth defects and immune suppression are all related to nutrition and the nutrient content of the soil. There is an old saying among farmers: “The soil makes the animal.”

Intensive techno-agricultural practices of the last 70 years have taken their toll on American soil. The soil is depleted and poisoned. Fields are sprayed with pesticides and herbicides that were developed from nerve gas used in World War II. They are applied without thought of consequences. Crops grown in the soil contain the toxic chemicals sprayed on them. The nervous systems of insects, birds, fish, animals and human are affected. Small organisms die quickly. It may take humans up to 20 years of suffering before they die. If there are no nitrogen-fixing bacteria present; nitrogen is leached away. Extensive irrigation washes away minerals from stunted roots. Plants that have their water needs supplied by irrigation have no need to form long roots or symbiotic relationships with soil micro-organisms.

“The soil makes the animal.”

Soil is one of our most important resources. A healthy, well-balanced soil is alive and crawling with microbes, fungi, worms, nematodes, small insects and rodents. Like the organs in the body, each performs a vital function necessary for the whole to survive. Like the body, the soil and its inhabitants work best when conditions are neither too acid nor too alkaline. The solubility, and thus the availability of most nutrients, is highest at a slightly acid pH of 6.3 to 6.8. Most soil bacteria and fungi function within this pH range (the pH of blood ranges from 7.35 to 7.45 ). In acidic conditions, below 5.5, most major nutrients and some micronutrients assume insoluble forms. Under these conditions, there is reduced bacterial activity and slower release of nutrients in organic matter. Iron, manganese and aluminum have increased solubility and may rise to toxic levels in soils water and people. Alkaline soils also decrease the availability of many nutrients and micronutrients.

The relationship between plants and microbes is symbiotic. Plants make a nutritional food that attracts and sustains soil microbes. In return for this benefit, microbes produce chemical substances that stimulate plant growth and reproduction and help them resist extreme temperatures and drought. Some fungi even secrete antibiotics or chemicals that inhibit the growth of pathogenic species. Working together in balance, they thrive. A healthy soil food web can protect plants and humans from the toxins that are being dumped into our environment. If microbes are present in the soil, they do their best to ingest and digest toxic chemicals into less harmful compounds. The bacteria Bacillus laterosporus and the fungal species Phanerochete are known degraders of 2,4-D and DDT. Inoculations of these critters also build the soil. They assist the plants and capture nutrients and water. After Chernobyl, the land and water around the site was highly contaminated. Sunflowers were used to decontaminate it. They were planted on land and in floating gardens, their roots dangling in the water. The roots absorbed the radionuclides. After 3 to 4 weeks, the roots were disposed of as radioactive waste. It is said that just 50 to 60 plants are able to clean up a 75-square-meter pond.

With the death of BSOs, the system slips out of balance and pathogens proliferate. Plants become vulnerable to disease-producing organisms. Chemicals are applied. Organisms die or fight back and mutate. More chemicals are applied. The system is out of control. The techno-farmer applies fertilizers that contain only macronutrients. Water is supplied. A growth rush occurs. Like a drug user, the plant is now dependent on its supplier. The symbiotic relationship between plant and mycorrhizae and rhizobium is disrupted. Soil microbes die from lack of food.

Disruption of the equilibrium of the soil disrupts the equilibrium of the body. Adding fertilizers to the soil is like eating “enriched” white bread. Fertilizers and enriched white flour contain only a few of the nutrients required for optimal health and fertility. Inorganic fertilizers usually contain nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Plants and humans need more than that. In 1897, Gabriel Bertrand introduced the idea that trace minerals were essential to the functioning of living cells. Today we know that trace minerals are needed to activate enzymes, which are the catalysts for every chemical reaction in the body and in the soil. Trace minerals are required for the manufacture of all living matter. At least 16 elements in the proper amounts are needed to ensure healthy plants, animals and humans. Soil is the “modifier “of organic matter. When it is out of balance, life is out of balance. Soil fertility requires not only nutrients, but nutrients in proper quantities. Von Liebig in 1840 formulated the “law of the minimum,” which says that crop yield is limited by the minimum amount of any one of the essential minerals in the soil.

To illustrate this interconnectedness, consider the trace element boron. Boron is neither metal nor nonmetal ― sort of a Twilight Zone micronutrient. The desired amount of iron in the soil is 25,000 ppm, but only 50 ppm of boron is needed. It has been proven that boron is absolutely essential for plants. From its role in plant nutrition, we get clues to its function in people. The function of boron in plants includes:

  1. Plant reproduction and pollen viability
  2. Formation of sugars and starch
  3. Involvement with calcium in cell wall formation
  4. Regulation of carbohydrate metabolism
  5. DNA synthesis in meristem tissue
  6. Nodule formation in legumes
  7. Sugar transport throughout the plant

In plants, boron works with calcium in cell wall formation. It has been proposed that one of its biological functions in people is that it acts indirectly as a proton donor and exerts an influence on cell membrane structure and function. It impacts mineral metabolism, uptake and use. There is evidence that both composition and functional properties of bone are affected by boron. Both boron and magnesium are needed for optimal calcium metabolism (this may be very important in preventing osteoporosis in postmenopausal women and older men). In animal research, it has been shown to increase life span by 9.5 percent; a deficiency decreases life span by 69 percent. Studies by J. G. Penland show that boron plays a role in human brain function, alertness and cognitive performance (manual dexterity, eye-hand coordination, attention, perception, short- and long-term memory).

In the study, “The Effect of Dietary Boron on Mineral, Estrogen and Testosterone Metabolism in Postmenopausal Women,” Nielsen suggests that boron might be required for the synthesis of steroid hormones and Vitamin D and may act to protect hormones from rapid inactivation. Boron may be essential to hormone balance and may be one of the factors in “peri-menopause” symptoms. Some of the major roles of boron in plants have to do with carbohydrates. Perhaps adequate amounts of boron are required in human carbohydrate metabolism, and this may be a factor in diabetes.

Boron-deficient plants contain little or no vitamin C in root tips, resulting in extremely slow growth rates. Other signs of deficiency in plants are:

  1. Death of growing leaf tips
  2. Leaves thickening and having a coppery texture, curling and becoming brittle
  3. Stunted root growth
  4. Lack of formation of flowers
  5. Soft or necrotic spots in fruit and tubers

Information on boron deficiency is limited in humans. Insufficient intake of boron becomes obvious when the body is stressed. In chicks, a boron-deficient diet produces high triglyceride levels. Could that be a factor in elevated triglyceride levels in people? Fertility, miscarriages, immune insufficiency and impotency in men may all be related to micronutrients in the soil.

Boron is low or deficient in acidic and sandy soils. Large amounts of precipitation, flooding and irrigation wash boron away. The best sources of boron in the natural diet are foods of plant origin, leafy vegetables, non-citrus fruit, nuts, legumes and sea vegetables. More than 25,000 ppm of iron in the soil may disrupt the balance (as when applied in inorganic fertilizers) and require more than 50 ppm of boron.

Balance is the key with nutrients in the soil and in the body. Nutrients are in competition with each other. One example is the phosphorus-to-calcium ratio. These elements compete for binding sites and uptake. Anyone consuming large quantities of sodas containing phosphorous, especially children, can induce an imbalance resulting in a calcium deficiency. The chlorine in our drinking water can out-populate iodine, binding with the thyroid. The thyroid doesn’t get the iodine it needs to function properly. A person begins to have symptoms of a hypoactive thyroid; the cell rate of metabolism decreases, the person has little energy for daily activities, and will eventually need thyroid supplementation. Plants need iron for chlorophyll synthesis and oxidation, and it is a constituent of various proteins and enzymes.

Humans need iron for the production of red blood cells, certain enzymes and proper metabolism of B vitamins. When the soil is deficient in iron, the plant will be deficient in iron. It will have yellowing of the leaves while the large veins on leaves remain green. The stems will be short, slender and weak. Iron deficiency in humans is called anemia. The person is pale, weak, easily fatigued, has brittle nails, breathing difficulties and constipation.

Balance is the key with nutrients in the soil and in the body.

Since the 1930s there has been a growing concern about the consequences of industrial agriculture ― chemical-based agriculture and factory farming of animals ― on human health. Lady Eve Balfour was a British farmer, educator, organic farming pioneer and the co-founder and first president of the Soil Association, an international organization that promotes sustainable agriculture and organic farming. She wrote about soil and human health in her book The Living Soil, published in 1948. In it she clearly describes the relationship between agricultural methods and human health. An example today would be factory dairy farming, where cows are crammed hock deep in manure with nowhere to go but their pens. A farm scene that brought tears to my eyes was one cow who broke away from the others and stood on top of a manure hill, maybe dreaming of green pastures. The large amounts of nitrogen that are produced in these operations go into the ground water and the soil. Nitrogen is essential for our bodies and for plants. Nitrogen is found in amino acids, the building blocks of our bodies. Nitrogen is also part of our DNA; it determines our genetics. Too little nitrogen and plants and people cannot thrive. Plants lose their color and become yellow, have small flowers and fruits, and just don’t grow well. Too much nitrogen and plants produce bulk but no fruit and have weak root structures.

Plants with high levels can poison farm animals. High levels in water decrease the amount of oxygen and kill aquatic life. In areas of intense farming, the nitrate-nitrogen concentration may exceed the EPA limit of 10 mg/L. Pregnant women, nursing mothers, infants and the elderly are the most vulnerable. The conditions most reported are birth defects and cancers.

A recent article in the European Journal of Soil Science discussed the concept of soil security and its link to human health. There is a global need for the production of plentiful and quality food, which means the soil must be able to pass nutrients up the food web and act as a filter or purifier to cleanse the soil of toxins. The presence of harmful chemicals or organisms disrupt this system. Society must value human health and value soil for its role in creating human health. The way these are valued is reflected in the way soil is managed or treated.

The World Health Organization defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, not merely the absence of disease. Optimum health and our resistance to disease is interconnected with the health of the soil, and the health of our planet. With soil and plants, we can co-create a sustainable and healthy environment that supports and nurtures all of life.

This article appears in the September 2020 issue of the Acres U.S.A. magazine.