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The connection between soil health and human health

By Patrick Holford, nutritionist and author

The purpose of growing food is to nourish people and make a living in the process.

When I first started studying nutrition I was amazed at the variation in nutrient levels in foods. if you look up an orange it has 52mg of vitamin C. Yet, in analytical studies an orange can contain from zero to 160mg. An ‘average’ carrot contains 8,000iu of vitamin A but studies show from 70 to 18,500iu. Spinach, the reported source of Popeye’s strength, can contain anything from 0.1 to 158mg of iron per 100g.

The same also applies to people. Our needs for nutrients vary massively. If a person lacks vitamin B3 (niacin) they develop a type of psychosis called pellagra. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) which I call the Ridiculous Dietary Arbitrary for niacin is 18mg. Some schizophrenics need 2,000mg of niacin a day to stay sane.

Obviously, the nutrient levels in soil has a lot to do with it but forced growth also means more water content, so less nutrient per 100g. You end up with a big, but translucent carrot. ‘Real’ carrots are too dense to see light through. While ‘organic’ food does tend to have more nutrients and less water can we do better? What role do the fungi and other micro-organisms play in the soil?

The big buzzword in nutrition and medicine is the microbiome. A new study is published every day! With more bacteria in us than cells, and hundreds of different kinds, creating all sorts of different compounds that help digestion and absorption of nutrients, it seems obvious to me something similar must be happening in the soil. I’m no expert but books like David Montgomery’s latest, What Your Food Ate and Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, make it clear that there is a partnership between the soil’s microbiome, the fungi and mycorrhizae, and the plant, which transfers and magnifies nutrient content.

Those nutrients make us. Literally everything in your body, from bones to brain, is made from food. Where else could it be made from? The brain is the most hungry organ consuming 25% of all energy and nutrients. Do you think a modern brain has to work harder than an ancient brain? I’d say so.

Yet, modern man is consuming a fraction of the nutrients of ancient man. Why? Because we don’t eat enough. We don’t have to with cars, home delivery, water from a tap, central heating. The skeletal remains of the 'Red Lady in Paviland’ in the Gower peninsular, in Wales, thought to be a woman due to the beads and ornaments but actually a man, showed that almost a quarter of their diet was marine foods. They will have expended two to three times the calories we do today hunting and gathering. So half our diet would have to be marine food to get the same intake of nutrients - omega-3, phospholipids, B12, selenium, iodine and zinc to name a few. Is it any surprise that our brain size has shrunk by 10% in the last 10,000 years, from 1.49kg to the average today of 1.35kg. But it’s not just quantity but quality. All their food was real food - fresh and organic. Good food goes off. Factory food lasts forever.

We are dumbing down. Mental illness is escalating. More and more children are suffering from ADHD and autism. In poor areas up to half of women are prescribed anti-depressants. Older people are losing their minds. Globally, more violent deaths are attributed to suicide than all other causes (wars, murders etc). If this goes on we literally lose our humanity - our ability to think straight, to connect, to socialise, to be happy. We are paying a high price for cheap food.

Humanity desperately needs better food and better nutrition and, I believe, will pay for it. If the nutrient density of food was visible on the label, I’m sure people would pay for it. It is already taste-able and smellable. I hope, in my talk, to connect the dots between the soil and our brains, learn from you, the regen farmers, and hopefully guide you in understanding what our food is missing and how to put the nutrients back in the soil and back into ourselves.

In 40 years of research since I set up the Institute for Optimum Nutrition in 1984, writing as many books, I have seen total transformations in people with cancer, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and mental illness simply by optimising nutrient intake. Now, having recently acquired a 19-acre farm in South Wales, I’m going back to my roots - how to get the nutrients into food in the first place. We are a product of nature and growing healthy food has to be a partnership. Gone are the days of force-feeding plants, killing pests and weeds with toxic compounds that ultimately transfer to us. People need health, want real food, and we are here to deliver the goods. I believe it is a win-win, both us for us and nature, but also knowing our food is making people healthy.

Regenerative Agriculture Conference

Find out more about what a growing number of farmers are doing to farm more regeneratively and from other experts in this area at The Green Farm Collective’s Open Day and Regenerative Agriculture Conference on Wednesday 24th May near Wolverhamption. For more details and to book, click here.

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