U.S. global nutrition plan should bring nutrition back to Earth

Poor nutrition harms the health of more than one-half of the people on the planet. Two billion suffer from malnutrition.  It drives poverty that entrenches inequality across generations, and is the underlying cause of 45 percent of child deaths worldwide. Another 1.9 billion people suffer from over-nutrition by virtue of eating too much of the wrong stuff—calories that overwhelm rather than sustain our bodies.

Given that unhealthy diets fuel chronic disease worldwide, the U.S. government is engaging every federal agency with a hand in nutrition to develop a global nutrition strategy.  A coordinated strategy could help to reverse the biggest global health crisis of our time. But with the strategy outline finally available for public comment, I am struck by one glaring and fundamental omission: soil.

{mosads}You may wonder why soil should be in a global nutrition strategy. After all, we don’t eat soil, we eat food.  But every food we eat, whether plant- or animal-based, depends on the soil. The minerals and nutrients that support human health originate in the ground.  Calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, nitrogen, iron, zinc, and more are all required for human health–and are all found in soil where they are taken up by the roots of plants. 

Malnutrition can arise from reliance on foods grown in nutrient-deficient soils – and 40 percent of the world’s agricultural land is degraded.  In Africa, where malnutrition is rampant, 65 percent of agricultural soils are unhealthy.  The economic and human costs are staggering.  The annual cash value loss due to lowered yields in unhealthy soils in sub-Saharan Africa is $68 billion.

But the most important losses are incalculable.  They are the losses in brain power as a result of severe malnutrition suffered by hundreds millions of infants and young children.  Such impacts have been documented. Zinc is one example.  The consequences of zinc deficiency include stunted growth and impaired brain development. Evidence shows that soils deficient in zinc produce crops with lower zinc concentrations, and people who eat these crops receive less zinc from their diets.

One report commissioned by Save The Children found that children who had suffered malnutrition at age five were severely disadvantaged in their ability to learn several years later. Left unchecked, malnutrition has a devastating impact on children’s future potential.

Human health is rooted in soil health, but the U.S. government’s work on the Global Nutrition Coordination Plan does not yet appear to recognize this key link. Unfortunately, the same has been true for other global nutrition initiatives that may otherwise play pivotal roles in raising awareness and compelling action.  Just this month, a major nutrition report released by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and a new $1 billion child nutrition initiative of the World Bank, corporations and the United Kingdom both neglected to substantively address soil health. 

How can this be? Some claim the evidence connecting soil and nutrition is not strong enough, and that the relationship between the two can be difficult to extricate. In fact, there is a real need for more multidisciplinary research that involves soil science, sustainable agriculture, public health and nutrition sciences. But surely there is enough evidence to include healthy soil as a basic prerequisite of a nutritious food supply.

It may also be that a siloed approach to improving health, nutrition and agriculture narrows the scope and vision of each.  Agricultural experts, for example, tend to consider soil health primarily in relationship to a crop’s productivity, not to its nutritional value.  Fertilizers are promoted as a means to raise yield. But fertilizers alone do not restore the health of unhealthy soils, nor can they recreate the rich matrix of nutrients and microbial life that we are learning is essential to plant health. 

Replenishing the health of our soils will require a combination of approaches based adoption of soil management practices that strengthen the inherent qualities of healthy soil.  This includes the nurturing and use of an overlooked resource–beneficial soil microbes. Indeed, we are learning that soil bacteria interact with plants to facilitate nutrient uptake. As one example, scientists in India used beneficial microbes to increase levels of iron, copper, manganese, and zinc in corn, suggesting that bacteria could be used to enrich one of world’s most important crops. But as soil is depleted, relationships between the soil and plants that have evolved over eons are disrupted, and with it, human health.

We need to make the connection between healthy soils and healthy foods.  It’s that simple. The U.S. government’s Global Nutrition Coordination Plan offers an opportunity to make this connection, and to bring the global conversation on nutrition back to earth.

Ngumbi is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at Auburn University in Alabama. She serves as a 2015 Clinton Global University (CGI U) Mentor for Agriculture and is a 2015 New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.


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