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Soils in Relation to Human Nutrition

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National consciousness has recently become aware of the great losses from soil erosion. We have also come to give more than passive attention to malnutrition on a national scale. Not yet, however, have we recognized soil fertility as the food-producing source that reveals national and international patterns of weakness or strength. Soil fertility, in the last analysis, must not only be mobilized to win wars, but must also be preserved as the standing army opposing starvation for the maintenance of peace.

What is soil fertility? In simple words, it is some dozen chemical elements in mineral and rock combinations that are slowly broken out of the earth’s crust and hustled off to the sea. Enjoying a temporary rest stop enroute, they become part of the soil and serve their essential roles in nourishing all the different life forms. They are the soil’s contribution — from a large mass of organic essentials — to the germinating seeds which empower the growing plants to use sunshine energy in the synthesis of atmospheric elements and rainfall into a wide variety of plant food. The atmospheric and rainfall elements are carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen, so common everywhere.

Soil minerals constitute the 5% that is plant ash. It is this small handful of dust that also makes up the corresponding percentage in the human body. Yet it is the controlling force that determines whether Nature shall construct plant foods of only fuel and fattening values, or of body service in growth and reproduction. Because soil minerals make up only 5% of our bodies, we are not generally aware of the fact that they dictate the fabrication of the other 95% into something more than mere fuel.

We are in the habit of speaking about vegetation by names of crop species and tonnage yields per acre. We do not yet consider plants for their chemical composition and nutritive value according to the fertility in the soil producing them. This failure has left us in confusion about crops and has put plant varieties into competition with, rather than in support of, one another. Now that the subject of nutrition is on most every tongue, we are about ready for the report that vegetation as a creator of essential food products is limited by soil fertility.

Protein rich vegetation, and its synthesis by many unknowns which also help to remove hidden hungers and encourage fecundity of both man and animal, are common in the prairie regions marked by moderate rainfalls. It is the soil fertility, rather than the low rainfall, that gives the midwest, or those areas bordering along approximately the 97th meridian, these distinctions:

  • Its selection by the bison in thundering herds for the “buffalo grass.”
  • Its wheat which, taken as a whole rather than as refined flour, is truly the “staff of life.”
  • Animals on its range nourish themselves so well that they reproduce regularly.
  • The greater number of more able-bodied selectees for military service, of whom 7 out of 10 were chosen in Colorado in contrast to 7 rejected out of 10 in one of the southern states.

Carbon rich vegetation abounds in the high temperature, heavy rainfall regions of eastern and southern United States, as the forests, the cotton plants, and the sugarcane testify. These soils have been leached of much fertility, and plants must draw heavily upon air, water and sunlight rather than the soil for their materials. Annual production as tonnage per acre is large in contrast to the lower yields of the western prairies, but the fuel and fattening values are more prominent than the aids to growth and reproduction.

Life behavior is more closely linked with soils as the basis of nutrition than is commonly recognized. The depletion of soil calcium thru leaching and cropping, and the almost universal deficiency of soil phosphorus, directly affect animals, since bones are the chief body depositories for these two elements. In forests, the annual drop of leaves and their decay are a prime necessity for tree mainetnance. Is it any wonder then that animals struggle so desperately to find the necessary calcium and phosphorus to make their bones?

Antlers are quickly consumed by the porcupine, pregnant squirrels, and other animals living on the highly weathered, or rocky, forest soils. Deer in their browse will select trees that have been given fertilizers in preference to those untreated. Pine tree seedlings along the highway transplanted from fertilized nursery soils are taken by deer when the same tree species in the adjoining forests go untouched. Wild animals truly “know their medicines” when they take plants on particular levels of soil fertility.

Man shading his eyes with his hand and looking over a black forest meadow where cows are grazing.

The distribution of wild animals, the present distribution of domestic animals, and the concentrations of animal diseases, can be visualized as symptoms of the soil fertility pattern as it furnishes nutrition. It is on the lime-rich, unleached, semi-humid soils that animals reproduce well. It is there that the disease rate is lower and some diseases are rare. There beef cattle are multiplied and grown to be shipped to the humid soils for fattening. Similar cattle shipments from one fertility level to another are common in the Argentine.

The influence of added fertilizers shows itself markedly in the entire physiology of the aniaml. Tests on sheep reveal differences not only in the weight and quality of the wool, but in the bones, and more pronouncedly, in semen production and reproduction in general. Rabbit bones vary widely in breaking strength, density, thickness, hardness and other qualities, as well as mass and volume. Male rabbits used for artificial insemination become sterile after a few weeks when fed on lespedeza hay grown without soil treatment, while those eating hay from limed soil remain fertile. We now have conclusive evidence that the physiology of an animal, seemingly far removed from any slight change in soil conditions, faithfully registers the fertility or sterility of the soil.

The instincts of animals are compelling us to recognize soil differences. Not only do the dumb beasts select herbages according to their carbon or protein content, but they select from the same kind of grain the offerings according to the different fertilizers with which the soil was treated. Hogs select corn grains from separate feeder compartments with disregard of different hybrids, but with particular and consistent choice of soil treatments. Rats indicate their discrimination by cutting into the bags of corn chosen by the hogs, and leave uncut those bags not taken by the hogs. Surely the animal appetite that detects soil fertility so correctly can be of service in guiding animal production more wisely by means of soil treatments.

The pattern of distribution of human beings and their diseases can be evaluated nationally on a statistical basis as readily as crops of wheat or livestock, but these are not yet seen in terms of the soil fertility. Man’s nomadic nature has made him too cosmopolitan for his physique, health, facial features, and mental attitudes to be labeled by the particular soil that nourished him. Our collection of foods from far-flung sources also handicaps our ready correlation of our level of nutrition with the fertility of the soil. In addition, we have finally come to believe that food processing and refinement are denying us some essentials. We have not yet, however, come to appreciate the role that soil fertility plays in determining the nutritive quality of foods, and thereby our bodies, and our minds. Quantity rather than hidden quality is still the measure.

Since any civilization rests on its resources rather than on its institutions, changes in the institutions cannot be made in disregard of so basic a resource as the soil. Researchers in soil science, plant physiology, ecology, human nutrition, and other sciences have given but a few years of their efforts to human welfare. It is to be hoped that our national consciousness can be made aware of a dangerously declining soil fertility, and that we will call on our sciences and industries to rebuild and conserve our soils as the surest guarantee of the future health and strength of the nation.

About the Author:

Dr. William A. Albrecht, the author of these papers, was chairman of the Department of Soils at the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, where he had been a member of the staff for 43 years. He held four degrees, A.B., B.S. in Agriculture, M.S. and Ph.D., from the University of Illinois. During a vivid and crowded career, he traveled widely and studied soils in the United States, Great Britain, on the European continent, and in Australia. Respected and recognized by scientists and agricultural leaders from around the world, Dr. Albrecht retired in 1959 and passed from the scene in May 1974 as his 86th birthday approached.

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