Wednesday, November 18, 2020 - If you're up to speed on nutrition news, you've probably heard talk that large-scale, industrial agriculture can deplete crops of essential vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to thrive. But why, exactly, does that happen, and what can be done about it?
For such a massive problem, the solution is actually microscopic.
How soil microbes contribute to healthy, nutrient-dense food
In its natural state, soil is full of invisible but essential microbes. Like, really full of them. There are more microorganisms in a handful of healthy soil than humans who have ever lived, and the microbes on our planet outnumber the stars in our universe more than a million times over.
In healthy systems, plant roots feed these soil microbes sugars and give them a place to latch onto. In return, the microbes help the plants absorb nutrients in the surrounding soil. All life on Earth depends on this symbiotic relationship—but some agricultural practices can mess with it.
"The problem is that most conventional agriculture practices erode the organic matter and life in the soil," Ryland Engelhart, co-founder and executive director of Kiss the Ground, a nonprofit that proposes a new way of farming, tells mbg.
Take tillers: those giant machines that look right at home on a large, open pasture. They break up the soil in preparation for the planting season, but in doing so they often disrupt underground microbial systems. Farms that use conventional tools like these typically have 60% less biomass from soil microorganisms than ones that age managed with soil health in mind.
As such, our farms are producing food that isn't as nutrient-rich as it could be. "We are destroying the ability of the soil to provide nutrition to the plant," Mark Hyman, M.D., said on his last visit on the mindbodygreen podcast. The functional medicine doctor estimated that the nutrient density of plant foods is 50% less than it was 50 years ago, thanks to the invasive way we've been farming.
"Without plants being able to uptake micronutrients, our food is deficient; therefore, our health is deficient," Engelhart reiterates.
COMMENT: The depletion of soil microbes and soil fertility is not only a problem for humans, but affects livestock health and production as well. Back in the day, after World War II, the old Tri-Min (equal parts salt, bone meal, and limestone) was deemed adequate for most livestock needs. Nowadays, savvy livestock owners offer their animals a dozen or more different minerals — served up in a free choice cafeteria style feeder system. This method not only allows the animals to make up for the minerals deficient in the feeds, but also lets them exercise their natural nutritional wisdom to balance their mineral needs on an individual basis.
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