Soil health affects Nutrition Industry

soil health

Soil health as related to untangling food webs is the work of a lifetime.  That’s why it’s so difficult to predict the effect of large-scale inputs of chemicals into agricultural ecosystems.  And some of these effects don’t become apparent for decades.

Long-term effects of poor soil health

For example, the Haber/Bosch process is a little more than a century old.  This is a catalytic process, invented by German chemists in the early 1900s, by which nonreactive nitrogen—the stuff that makes up most of the atmosphere—can be converted into ammonia, the basis of chemical fertilizers.

The development was one of the most important of the industrial age, and is the mechanism by which the world’s billions are fed. Prior to this breakthrough, policymakers at the turn of the nineteenth century were looking forward to a world plagued by malnutrition and starvation. There was thought to be no way to raise agricultural production fast enough to feed the world’s rising population (about 1.6 billion in 1900) with the relatively small amount of reactive nitrogen at hand in the form of animal manure and compost.

Who could have predicted in the first bloom of the use of these nitrogen fertilizers the eventual consequences? These include oceanic dead zones utterly depleted of oxygen by rivers saturated with agricultural runoff. According to Scientific American, there were 49 such dead zones identified in coastal waters around the world in 1960. A study conducted in 2008 found there are now more than 400.

Vaclav Smil, Ph.D., a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba in Canada, is one of the first researchers to have sounded the alarm about excessive nitrogen use.  In addition to the runoff problems, he said excess nitrogen also can contribute to the greenhouse effect and can work over time to demineralize soils.

Glyphosate use accelerating

Similarly unintended (or hidden, perhaps?) consequences affecting soil health can be ascribed to the use of many pesticides and herbicides, including glyphosate.  The use of this herbicide, marketed by Monsanto as RoundUp, has been accelerating rapidly in recent decades.  Recent studies have shown that by 2020, worldwide glyphosate use is expected to hit  1 million tons per year. Another study shows that in the US, the rate of growth has been accelerating. Between 1995 and 2004, glyphosate use grew by 356%. Between 2005 and 2014, it grew by 637%.

Studies have shown that plants exposed to high levels of CO2 grow faster, but contain fewer nutrients. The same appears to be true of crops treated with glyphosate.  One of the side effects of this heavy usage, which now includes spraying fields to desiccate the crops prior to harvest, is a lowered microbial diversity in the soil.

Committing to true sustainability

MegaFood and its parent company Food State is one organization that has been putting its money where its mouth is in terms of its sustainability message. Bethany Davis, MegaFood’s director of advocacy and government relations, said supporting soil health has now become part of the company’s core mission.  And getting the word out about the side effects of high glyphosate usage is part of that effort.

“People know about gut microbiome. They understand the importance of that. But the same thing is true of the soil,” Davis told NutraIngredients-USA.

Davis and others maintain that soil rich in a full suite of microbes, fungi, and viruses functions better in many ways. Plants grown in such soils are more nutrient dense, and soils with diverse, robust microbiomes absorb and hold more water, easing runoff and drought concerns.

And a key point that figures into the climate change debate: Rich soils store much more carbon than do their depleted counterparts.

Regenerative solution

Regenerative agriculture is the catchphrase for practices that have topsoil health, replenishment and, ultimately increase as a core principle.  It goes a step beyond organic, which is mostly about acceptable inputs, to take a holistic view of the agricultural ecosystem.  The need to address topsoil loss is illustrated by a 2011 report by the Environmental Working Group that highlighted data from the Iowa Daily Erosion Project coordinated through Iowa State University. The project estimated that agricultural fields in 440 townships encompassing 10.1 million acres may have suffered erosion at rates greater than the statewide average and that eight townships encompassing 184,000 acres experienced utterly disastrous average erosion rates exceeding 50 tons per acre.

“I like to joke that the reason why any of us are here is that there are six inches of soil and it rains sometimes,” Davis said.

“Our food is about 50% less nutritious on average than it was 40 or 50 years ago. Regenerative agriculture is integrally linked to nutrition. That is one of the reasons we stand for it, and it is confusing that so few people in our space stand for it,” she said.

Dietary supplement companies might observe that the sum total of ingredients used in our industry hardly amounts to skimming the froth from a huge vat of milk when talking about the large-scale effects of agricultural practices relating to soil health.  They are mere derivatives, in other words.

But, as the sellers of derivative mortgage securities discovered in 2008 and 2009, when the underlying market is unhealthy, everyone, even the bit players, suffers.  For dietary supplement companies touting a sustainability message, and exactly as we see in climate change issues, being part of the solution seems to be the place to be, rather than sitting on the sidelines.

Climate change and supplement industry

Recent mainstream media reports about climate change leave one wondering where the planet is headed when considering its effect on the supplement industry. Two are especially harrowing.

Ice disappearing because of climate change

climage change

In late September, the National Snow and Ice Data Center based at the University of Colorado, Boulder released its annual report on the extent of Arctic sea ice.  The report showed that at its lowest extent, the Arctic ice pack covered about 1.77 million square miles. This is tied for the sixth lowest extent on record.  In the past twelve years, the ice pack matched or exceeded the 1981-2010 average minimum of 2.4 million square miles only once.

“This year’s minimum is relatively high compared to the record low extent we saw in 2012, but it is still low compared to what it used to be in the 1970s, 1980s and even the 1990s,” said NASA climate change senior scientist Claire Parkinson. (NASA supports the ice data center.)

Insects are too

Another even more sobering report was published late last month in The New York Times.  Titled “The Insect Apocalypse is Here,” the report looked at still poorly understood population declines across insect species.  Conducting population studies is unglamorous, rigorous, time-consuming and grueling work, the article noted, which is why few of them have been done.

But the few that have been done have turned in alarming results. The Times article detailed a 2013 German study on insect abundance that was the work of a group of highly skilled and committed citizen scientists.

“The German study found that, measured simply by weight, the overall abundance of flying insects in German nature reserves had decreased by 75 percent over just 27 years. If you looked at midsummer population peaks, the drop was 82 percent,” the article noted.

Another researcher, entomologist Arthur Shapiro of the University of California Davis, has for the past 46 years been walking the same transects in California’s Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothills counting butterflies.  He has noticed a similar dearth of individuals as was seen in Germany.

Similar declines have been noted in a rain forest study in Puerto Rico.  The insects there have not been contending with pesticides and habitat loss, two concerns mentioned in the German study, which leads researchers to point to global temperature induced rise as the probable culprit.

Climate change is responsible

Despite White House tweets to the contrary, worldwide scientific consensus attributes blame for rising temperatures on increased greenhouse gas emissions which cause climate change.  These come from smokestacks at factories and power plants, from the tailpipes of hundreds of millions of vehicles and from the burning of tropical woodlands to create cattle ranches or palm oil plantations.

climate change and supplementsWhere does the dietary supplement industry fit into that equation?  From a practical standpoint, the industry’s footprint is minuscule.  Some ingredients, like fish oils, tropical botanicals, or krill oil, might get shipped around the globe more than once when all of the extraction, formulation and packaging steps are taken into account. But even so, the carbon footprint of these materials is still not even a rounding error when it comes to the global emissions problem.

So, should supplement companies just wave their hands and say, ‘not my problem?’

Effecting change

It appears this is an ethical consideration, not a marketing-driven one.  After all, how much does it matter if a company can nudge a particular consumer’s personal health needle in a positive direction if the environment that person is living in is falling off the edge of the table?

“I think absolutely supplement companies can be part of the solution,” consultant Steve Hoffman told NutraIngredients-USA. Hoffman, who is a principal in the consulting firm Compass Natural, was also tapped by Colorado governor-elect Jared Polis to serve as an adviser to his transition team as part of the on the Natural Resources & Energy and Agriculture committee.

Hoffman pointed to certain brands, such as Mercola, that have made big commitments to sustainable packaging. The energy that goes into packaging and shipping is part of the equation.  Other companies have made commitments toward restricting the flow of waste material off-site, or have announced goals for use of renewable energy.

Other brands such as Gaia Herbs and MegaFood, have committed to supporting regenerative agriculture. This is a concept that goes a step beyond traditional organic farming concerns, which is more about the nature of inputs.  It looks at the role agriculture can play in supporting local biodiversity (remember those insect declines?), creating rather than depleting topsoil and lessening the overall carbon footprint of agriculture.

The idea has coalesced into plans for certification called Regenerative Organic Certified.  Brands participating in the founding discussions are Horizon Organic, Guayaki, and Maple Hill Creamery.

Part of the solution

All of these may be small steps, mere drops in the ocean of the global climate change debate.  But it is also true that every journey can only begin from where you are.

As the author and activist Eldridge Cleaver is reputed to have said, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”