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Human Health is Related to Soil Health
by LuAnn Rolling, District Conservationist
New research from Penn State shows that tillage on farms may significantly reduce the availability of ergothioneine (ERGO) in crops.  ERGO is an amino acid produced by certain types of soil-borne fungi and bacteria that is known as a “longevity vitamin” due to its potent antioxidant properties. This research, conducted by an interdisciplinary team at Penn State, is among the first to demonstrate that soil disturbance can directly impact a key dietary factor associated with long-term human health.

According to Robert Beelman, professor emeritus of food science at Penn State, “Research suggests that a lack of ergothioneine in the diet may result in increased incidences of chronic diseases of ageing, such as Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease, and reduced life expectancy.”  Beelman says that ERGO is produced by fungi and also makes its way into plants.

Sjoerd Duiker, professor of soil management and applied soil physics at Penn State, said, “This led us to speculate that agricultural soils that receive minimal or no tillage may have higher levels of fungi, and therefore, crops grown in these soils may have higher ERGO levels than crops grown with aggressive tillage.”

New research led by David Montgomery, a professor of geology at University of Washington, compares the effect of regenerative farming on soil health and crop nutrient density from paired farm trials across the United States. Along with evidence from several other paired farm and plot studies this comparison indicates that regenerative agricultural practices employing no-till, cover crops, and diverse crop rotations enhance soil health and the micronutrient and phytochemical density of various crops.

Montgomery’s research also compares the fatty-acid profile of beef and pork raised on one of the regenerative farms to a regional health-promoting brand and conventionally raised meat purchased at a local grocery store. The results suggest that farming practices that affect soil organic matter and microbial communities are under-appreciated influences on crop nutrient density, particularly for micronutrients and phytochemicals relevant to plant health and chronic disease prevention in humans.

Dr. David Thomas the author of a widely-cited study entitled, “The mineral depletion of foods available to us as a nation, 1940-2002”, did an analysis of historical changes in food composition published by the medical Research Council. He says that soil dysfunction impacts human and animal health.  He reports that over the last 70 years the level of every nutrient in almost every kind of food has fallen.

He says that an individual today would need to consume twice as much meat, three times as much fruit and four to five times as many vegetables to obtain the same amount of minerals and trace elements as available in those same foods in 1940.  He attributes the mineral depletion in meat and dairy to the fact that animals are consuming plants and/or grains that are themselves minerally depleted.

We can reverse the trend and implement healthy soil practices on our farms. We can restore nutrient density to what we raise, but it involves changing our farming practices. The basics to farming regeneratively, include no-till, cover crops, not raising the same one or two crops over and over, introducing livestock and therefore utilizing manure rather than synthetic fertilizers.

We can be very careful with crop inputs and only apply insecticides and fungicides if careful scouting proves that it is essential and then only on those areas requiring treatment.