While the critical importance of soil health for good farming is well-established and  widely recognized, one aspect which has not received adequate attention is the link of soil health to nutrition of crops. This aspect needs to be explored further and the already available evidence should also be better appreciated and collected. In a note of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations titled Healthy Soils Produce Healthy Crops it has been stated that soil quality is directly related to food quality and food quantity.

It is well-known that excessive use of chemical fertilizers causes a loss of flavor of food; what is less known is that is can also cause a loss of nutritive value and even create some serious health problems. According to prominent nutrition expert C. Gopalan, “the use of high analysis chemical fertilisers, which is part of the modern intensive agricultural technology, had not always gone hand-in-hand with appropriate measures for soil testing and soil replenishment, with the result that, as shown by the studies of FAO (1982), there are disturbing evidences of micronutrient depletion of soils in some areas; these are likely to be eventually reflected in impaired nutritive value of food-grains grown in such soils.”

Such a clear opinion of a very senior nutritionist should not be taken lightly and should have been followed-up more extensively. It is not just a question of nutrition value being impaired, serious health hazards are also involved when soil health is badly harmed by excessive use of agro-chemicals.

Richard Douthwaite has written in his recent book ‘The Growth Illusion’, “Nitrogenous fertilisers can raise the amount of nitrate in the final crop to four or five times the level found in the compost-growing equivalent, while at the same time cutting vitamin C and dry matter levels. This change is potentially serious, since nitrates can be turned into powerful carcinogenic nitrosamines by bacteria found in the mouth, while vitamin C has been shown to protect against cancers.”

While organic matter in the soil, the product of on-side biological decomposition, provides balanced nutrition to soil, unbalanced nutrition provided by various kinds of chemical fertilizers can never equal this and the deficiency of some micro nutrient or the other keeps emerging. Then attempts are made to make up for this by various artificial additives mixed in food. But artificial additives cannot be the equivalent of nutrition provided by natural wholesome food grown in healthy soil. In addition some additives or their excess are also harmful for health.

There has been a big increase in recent years in the number and quantity of additives used by the food processing industry, including flavours, colours, emulsifiers, preservatives and an amazing range of other additives. The London Food Commission noted in 1988 that about 3,800 additives were being used to perform about a hundred functions. Only about a tenth of the additives were subject to government control. The commission wrote “A single meal may contain a cocktail of 12 to 16 additives. The combinations of additives may react with each other and with foods to produce new chemical substances.” A wide range of health hazards has been reported for an equally wide variety of food additives.

The entire question of the link between soil health and nutrition should be better explored, as also the futility of first creating nutrition deficiency in staple food and then trying to making this up by artificial additives.

Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist and author. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children and Planet in Peril.


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