Your Health: Why Soil Matters

Organic Produce from a CSA
Few people understand the importance of soil.  In today’s American culture, most people get their food from a grocery store.  Therefore society has lost an appreciation for what is involved in growing fruits, vegetables, and grains.  This lack of knowledge on how things are grown is the primary reason why the average Joe does not understand what it means to grow food organically.  And they certainly do not understand the role of soil in growing the food that they consume. 

When you watch a plant grow, have you ever wondered how you get something for nothing?  It almost seems that way.  You may add a little water here and there but how exactly does something go from a little tiny seed to a large plant.  We certainly understand how that happens with people.  You give kids liquid and food and eventually they become teenagers who eat you out of house and home.  Where is the food for the plant?

Yes, you can go to the nearest Home Depot and buy “plant food," but the food for the plant typically comes from the soil.  As a plant grows, it absorbs vital nutrients from the soil.  If you leave nature on its own, carcasses from animals, dead leaves, and wood decompose and return those vital nutrients to the ground.  New plants use those nutrients to achieve their form and to grow.  Different plants require different sets of nutrients to thrive and each one will absorb what they need.  Eventually these plants die and return those nutrients back to the soil.  The cycle continues on and on.  Its a beautiful self-sustaining system that God created.


What happens when you have bad soil?  The latest news on arsenic in rice is a perfect example.  Many decades ago, farmers used to use insecticides that contained arsenic for their cotton plantations.  Even though those types of insecticides were banned in the 1980s, the arsenic remained in the soil.  Fast forward to today and rice farmers are now having to contend with the arsenic in that soil and one of the main reasons why rice products, even organic ones, have arsenic in them.

In addition to whatever poisons we may add to the soil through conventional farming, the lack of crop rotation further depletes the soil of vital nutrients.  When you have a concentrated crop on a field, corn for example, it will absorb the same set of nutrients over and over.  As crops are harvested year after year, the amount that the soil is producing is not being returned.  Therefore the soil can only sustain that for so long before beginning to see the effects on the quality of the produce.  Conventional farmers respond to this problem by adding more and more NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) to the soil with not much else.  NPK allows for good looking plant, but it will be void of key nutrients. This is why organic produce has been shown to have a greater concentration of nutrients than conventional produce.  More worrisome, however, is that the overuse of farmland can lead to the destruction of soil leaving instead dusty unusable land (Read about causes of the Dust Bowl).

On the other hand, a good organic farmer uses a variety of methods to maintain the quality of the soil.  For example, they will rotate crops which not only prevents diseases and pests from taking hold, but it is another way to avoid depleting the soil.  Crop rotation will allow for certain nutrients that were absorbed by one crop to be returned by another.  After a certain period of time organic farmers will also allow the land to rest and will use livestock to graze and fertilize the soil.  Responsible organic farmers will also avoid the use of pesticides.  The result is a much more robust soil full of key nutrients and better, more nutritious produce.

What we as a society put in the soil is what will end up on our plates.  If we put pesticides in the soil, eventually it will end up in our food. And we will pay the price as a society through illness, disease, allergies, birth defects, rising health care costs, and even more ominously, the destruction of farmland.  We have to be stewards of the soil to protect our health and most importantly, our children’s health and future food supplies.

Here are some suggestions on how we can be stewards of the soil.

Stop using pesticides in our own gardens and try organic methods instead.
Stop using weed killers in our lawns and try alternative methods instead.
Grow your own fruits and vegetables.
Join a CSA.
Support organic farmers.
Push your congressman to support a sustainable farm bill, stop subsidizing irresponsible farming, and support family farms and organic farms. 

Further Reading:
Commercial Organic Farms Have Better Fruit and Soil, Lower Environmental Impact, Study Finds

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