Week 15: Soil Health and Food - A Tipping Point

A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.

The quote's author, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, has been consistently regarded as one of the United States' two greatest presidents (the other being Abraham Lincoln) by the academics and scholars who established an annual ranking system in 1948. He also implicitly understood the importance of agriculture. In fact, within days of his 1933 election, at the depths of the Great Depression, his very first piece of legislature was the Agricultural Adjustment Act - or AAA - to create parity for farmers, a practice that continues today. And while Roosevelt couldn't foresee the industrial consolidation of our food system - by companies that have become the ultimate beneficiaries of his 83-year old policy, and which we will discuss in detail later in this post - he understood nonetheless that without that which sustains us, we would perish, and acted accordingly.

The subject of soil health is a loaded one. It goes back to the birthplace of human agriculture - to the Fertile Crescent - and the explosive growth of human population that it fed. It continues through today, more critically than ever, because two major topics - population growth and decline of food productivity (that is, nutrient density per acre) - are currently in opposite modes. In fact, the subject is so big that we can only touch on it here, to provide context for the state of nutrition today and that of the imminent future. As we will see, there are many ways in which human activity is - in the research and conclusions of a growing number of scientists and governments - reaching a tipping point. Which brings us to some startling statistics.

"One third of the world's arable land has been lost to soil erosion or pollution in the last 40 years," according to Reuters, reporting new research scientists presented at this past December's climate change talks in Paris. In another report, published exactly one year earlier in Scientific American (SA), the title of an article reads "Only 60 Years of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues." Another estimate - that of the non-profit National Security Institute [for soil health], gives it just 48 years. Think about that for just a second. In 48-60 years, without action, farming ends. We know that without topsoil - the 'arable' part of the Earth's lithosphere - we have no food production. And without food production, we have no people.

Our management of soil, perhaps more than any other subject, defines whether humans will live or die. 

So what exactly is happening?

To understand the phenomenon of farmland reduction, we have to look at four separate topics: ground water depletion; deforestation; human population; and agricultural practices (apart from ground water depletion and deforestation): farming, grazing and industrialization. And beyond the absolutes of available soil acreage, nutrient density - that is, nutrient output in the foods we grow per acre of farmland - is also declining. So not only do we have less land to grow food, but that land is becoming less productive, as you'll see, chiefly because of the choices that large-scale industrial food corporations have made insofar as how to maximize economic productivity, whatever the outcome. So let's begin.

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Ground Water Depletion

In 2013, the Economist published an article on the Fertile Crescent - the place where, about 11,500 years ago and for the first time in human history, man set down roots, because its arable land provided enough ground water to support food production in addition to the hunting and gathering that had until then defined human existence. Populations swelled as we began to manipulate Nature in order to coax productivity from it. The creation of 'farming' also meant that for the first time, not everyone needed to focus solely on food production. Hence, the birth of science, art, literacy... the modern fruits of a population subset with time on its hands.

That was then. In the article, the Economist cites a recent depletion of groundwater in the Tigris-Euphrates basin  - the heart of the Fertile Crescent, in present-day Iraq - of 144 cubic kilometers of water, or the size of the Dead Sea, in just six years, between 2003 and 2009. This constitutes the world's second-fastest loss, after that of Northern India. Due to human-induced aquifer depletion, it has corresponded to a 30% reduction in surface water - or the water available for farming. 

Just next door, in Saudi Arabia, the situation is even worse. The American Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) published an article in April 2015 on the disappearance of water in the Kingdom. In the 1970's, wealthy landowners convinced the king to let them pump the country's 20,000-year old aquifer - one that appears in multiple biblical references - to make Saudi Arabia 'wheat-independent', which they argued would create food security. Saudi Arabia went on to become the world's sixth largest producer of wheat, the majority of which it exported, since production far exceeded demand. In just 40 years, the aquifer has been drained, and a body of water the size of Lake Erie - one that took the equivalent of 800 human generations to create - is essentially gone. At the hands of just four families who became unfathomably wealthy, Saudi Arabia - which is 95% desert - essentially exported their water, in the form of wheat it didn't need. Today, the Kingdom currently imports 80% of its food, and wheat production has ground to a halt.

But if you think food problems are just the stuff of far-off countries and America's breadbasket is safe and sound, you'd be very, very wrong. 

The CIR article I cited above is called What California Can Learn from Saudi Arabia's Water Mystery. California grows half of the United States' fruits, nuts and vegetables, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The chief reason for this is not climate. In a thinkprogress.org report, Richard Walker, a UC Berkley professor, says there's "plenty of good soil elsewhere". He says “...it’s the ability to put water on [that soil] over a long, dry summer that allows you to get very quick results.”

And results they have delivered. California pumps water to nine million acres of farmland each year, according to the report - second only to Nebraska. And the source? Aquifers. According to both CIR and thinkprogress.org, 65% of California's food production system is fed by aquifers today - aquifers that, like those of Saudi Arabia, are being depleted as quickly. NASA hydrologist Jay Famiglietti wrote last year in the LA Times that California has "only about one year left of water supply in its reservoirs," and that its backup - groundwater - is "rapidly disappearing".  

The Earth is a closed loop. Water is neither gained nor lost. But when we use up ground water, on which agricultural crops depend, and it evaporates after it is processed - into clouds - the majority of it ends up in the oceans, where it has increased water levels by a half-inch in just 100 years. And saline water in an ocean does not grow crops. Given that it takes 1,000 years for Nature to generate just 3 centimeters of topsoil, we are looking at a catastrophe of untold proportion. Maria-Helena Semedo, the Deputy Director of Food Resources for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, says in the SA article we mentioned up top, "Soils are the basis of life. Ninety-five percent of our food comes from soil." She says that by 2050, the global productive land per person will be one quarter of what it was in 1960. Worse, since soil encapsulates carbon, the faster we lose it, the hotter the Earth gets, creating a 'vicious cycle' of increased rate of loss.


It is not only water use that leads to the loss of arable land. The conversion of forests to grasslands is the prime agent of deforestation, accounting for 80% of it, according to the UN Framework Convention for Climate Climate Change: 48% for subsistence farming, and 32% for commercial agriculture. The loss is especially acute in conjunction with genetically modified organism (GM or GMO) farming, according to the article, since those require massive amounts of nitrogen fertilizers, unbalancing soil's inherent biological diversity. We will discuss this in detail below - and explored GM foods in detail in Week 11

In his phenomenal book Collapse, Jared Diamond - one of my favorite authors - tackles the fundamental question: what makes societies fail or succeed? Several chapters of the book deal with the unmanaged use of natural resources - trees primary among them. He discusses the common practice of tree removal for the creation of grassland and direct use, for building and heating. He writes that the removal of both the tree canopy that shades plants and provides animal habitat, and the root system that stabilizes not just soil but the plants on which animals depend (and on both of which we depend, as food) leads to systemic biological and societal collapse, due to the loss of habitat and arable soil. He uses myriad examples from across the globe, including places like Greenland where if anything, there is an overabundance of water. So it is not just ground water depletion that leads to loss of farm land, and life.

Human population

We have already discussed human impact on ground water depletion and deforestation. We also know that as the population increases, the demand for food does, too, proportionally. The human population is predicted to peak at around 9.2 billion people, according to consensus by most experts, somewhere around the year 2050. This is due to reductions in human fertility. But that's still 25% higher than today's global population of 7.3 billion. Thus the need to feed that many people will exacerbate the world food supply to the tune of a 25% increase over today's demands. And it's not just land-based foods, lest you think we can turn to the oceans that comprise 71% of the Earth's surface. According to a 2012 report by the BBC, humans consume four times as much fish per capita as we did in 1950. In that period, we have decimated over 85% of the world's fish stocks, through exploitation and depletion. The United Nations' FAO says that in order to supply adequate food to 'peak humans' in 2050 - by land or by sea, global supply will have to increase by over 70%. That's an interesting trick in the context of ocean depletion, soil degradation and loss, and as we'll see in a minute, science- and industry-led losses in soil nutrient density.

So far, we've discussed global issues over which few of us can exert a direct influence. First, aquifer depletion rests largely in the hands of governments and their policies. Companies (mostly) do only what they are allowed to do. Second, deforestation follows the same laws, with companies profiting chiefly only from sanctioned actions - or in the case of countries like Brazil, among others, inadequate governmental capacity to police and enforce policies that outlaw it. Of course, deforestation and ground water depletion have led to an extensive global loss of arable land - one third of it in just 40 years, according to that Reuters report. Third, any discussion about limiting growth in human population is both appalling and utterly impractical. It is what it is, until Nature deems it otherwise. Along with eating, the urge to mate is chief to our species' survival. Which brings us to our fourth influence over food production.

Agricultural practices

Agricultural production comprises a complex and inter-related set of decisions and practices, beyond those of groundwater and forestation. In the end, the practices we adopt result in either the sustainability (by which we mean the ability to be sustained in perpetuity) or the instability of the soil in which we must grow food if we are to survive and support 9.2 billion people within a few decades. Beyond the amount of soil we have, the productivity of of that (top)soil is central to the survival of the humans: those on the planet today, and those we will add in the coming decades.

I mentioned at the outset of this post that population growth and food productivity are at opposite ends of their trends: that is, the population is increasing while the productivity of our soil is decreasing, setting the grounds, without overstating it, for a crisis. But how do we know the soil is less productive?

To understand this, we need to look at how farming is practiced. Until the 20th Century, and really until after World War II, the way we farmed was by mimicking biology. Marianne Sarrantonio, PhD, an associate professor of sustainable agriculture at the University of Maine, told Sharon Palmer, RD in a 2009 issue of Today's Dietitian (TD) that "before modern fertilizers were available, farms had to be more in balance. The nutrients in the soil were in balance because the farms had livestock and the manure was applied to the field. They grew cover crops to return the nutrients to the soil and used organic material as well. They didn't go to the store and buy a big bag of fertilizer. They planned the whole crop rotation to benefit the soil." According to the article, one teaspoon of native grassland contains between 600 and 800 million individual organisms, creating a 'virtual community of living organisms'.

Angie Tagtow, MS, RD, LD, who in 2014 became the Executive Director of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) at the mighty USDA, contributed the following belief to that same TD article, 5 years prior to her current role:

“I believe nutrition professionals need to broaden their expertise beyond how food influences the health of individuals … to how individual, community, and societal food choices affect the availability and quality of natural resources: soil, water, genetic biodiversity, and nonrenewable energy. Everything we and animals eat is linked to soil. It is the life-support system for plants, animals, and eaters. Healthy soil is the basis for a healthy planet."

So what are we doing now that is different from what we did for the first 11,450 years of agriculture, which seemed sustainable, for all intents and purposes? Well, two things could be argued to have produced the greatest negative influence over soil health, and hence productivity. 

Monoculture Farming

First, we have moved from bio-diverse farming - what modern farming pioneer Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms refers to as 'polyculture' or 'biomimickry', as related in Michael Pollan's seminal book The Omnivore's Dilemma, to that of monoculture production: that is to say, endless fields of one product: corn, soy, wheat, cotton...

"When one crop is planted repeatedly on the same land," according to chemical and environmental engineer Victoria Wilson in an article for One Green Planet, "certain nutrients become depleted from the soil due to the crop's specific nutrient demand." The article gives an example: "Plants, like soy, are able to 'fix' nitrogen from the air into the soil, where a crop like corn cannot. If you do not rotate between nitrogen-fixing plants and non-nitrogen fixing plants, the soil will be depleted of this vital nutrient." So, even among the United States' two largest crops - soy and corn - we cannot theoretically balance this one critical ingredient. And health of soil goes well beyond the measurement of its nitrogen. Per the TD article:

'The soil-to-food web is powered by the primary producers: plants, lichen, moss, bacteria, and algae in the soil that use the sun’s energy to fix carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Other soil organisms get energy and nutrients by feeding on the organic compounds found in plants, other organisms, and waste products. As organisms decompose, their nutrients become food for plants and other organisms. This web is an essential lifeline for all plants to receive nutrition and, in turn, for animals and humans to receive nourishment. Healthy soil also makes clean water and air possible.'

Complex, right? Just like Nature herself - incredibly intricate, holistic, and largely beyond (most of) our understanding. 

Enter Monsanto. 

We've reported in a few posts that Monsanto owns 27% of the world's seed market; that their seeds are 'terminator' seeds, requiring repurchase because by design they cannot reproduce, guaranteeing their patent-holder future income; that 60% of the US food supply contains GMO's, chiefly courtesy of Monsanto's seed banks; and that the prime GMO trait on which Monsanto profits is the seed crops' resistance to the chemical fertilizer Roundup. Roundup, the herbicide in which Monsanto's crops must be grown, exists - in essence - in order to reduce or entirely remove biodiversity in fields: the 'invasive' crops (which means anything outside of the 'desired' monoculture); and the 'pests' (living organisms that are part of a biodiverse food chain). Roundup accomplishes these by making the soil toxic to anything that has not been genetically engineered/modified to withstand it. 

In addition to removing plant and animal material from a monoculture, Roundup (the trade name for its main ingredient, glyphosate) has been shown in human studies - detailed here - to increase rates and/or severity of ADHD, Alzheimer’s, birth defects, autism, brain cancer, breast cancer, celiac disease, gluten intolerance, chronic kidney disease, depression, diabetes, heart disease, colitis, hyperthyroidism, IBS (leaky gut), liver disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Parkinson’s, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, obesity, reproductive problems, and respiratory illnesses. And over 75% of air and rainfall in the Mississippi Delta contains glyphosate. This herbicide is simply Monsanto's latest creation in a long line of virulent chemicals, dating back 100 years. These include the insecticide DDT, which was finally banned in 1974 after causing depletion in populations of wild and domesticated birds and fish, as well as causing cancer and other illness in humans - thanks to the journalist who broke the story - Rachel Carson; the chemical warfare weapon Agent Orange, which was created to decimate crops and forests (and humans) in Vietnam in an attempt at forced victory, until it was finally banned in 1971; and the chemical coolant PCB, a known endochrine disruptor and neurotoxin that was primarily ingested via the food supply until it, too, was globally banned, by 1979.

Back to Roundup. If it triggers that many diseases in humans, what does it do to the soil?

In 2013, Iowa farmer Dennis Von Arb's conventionally grown corn was dying. It turns out his neighbor, Brad Vermeer, was spraying his own GM corn with glyphosate, 'next door'. In spite of his crop loss, Mr. Von Arb, according to the New York Times article, was more concerned about his soil. "Anything you put on the land affects the biology of the land, and that's a powerful pesticide," he said, referring to Monsanto's Roundup. Mr. Von Arb and local agronomists in Iowa tried to get Mr. Vermeer to switch away from Roundup and GM crops, citing their concerns that soil health. "They're going to have to show me that conventional genetics can produce the same income," is Mr. Vermeer's response. Therein lies one of the prime issues with the commercial effort of being a farmer. And while cash on hand is decidedly short-term in its outlook, when you're faced with whether or not your family can feed itself, we all tend to rate the long-term impacts on society-at-large a distant second.

But just how bad is it? According to permaculture.org:

  • Glyphosate-laden crops have created 'super weeds' among 120 million hectares of global farmland, leading to both resistance and increased use. In Argentina alone, glyphosate use increased tenfold as a result, between 1996 and 2010, in order to achieve the same results, pre-super weed.
  • Glyphosate-laden soils have led to 40 widespread plant diseases across the US due to chelation, damaging their inherent photosynthesis and reducing their ability to retain water, requiring greater quantities of it to equal effect.
  • Glyphosate damages macro- and micro-organisms, like the all-important earthworms, which Charles Darwin himself referred to as 'nature's ploughs' for their ability to create channels for oxygen, water and carbon dioxide to pass through, and whose voraciousness converts plant matter into waste that can be absorbed as nutrients by the soil. 
  • Glyphosate's high water solubility has accelerated the deterioration of water quality - especially in small systems, decreasing algae and killing frogs while increasing toxic-bloom-forming cyanobacteria.

Another expert, Harold Van Es, who chairs the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at Cornell University, agrees:

Organic farms rely on organic inputs and organic sources of nutrients to feed the soil, according to van Es. “The set of rules and guidelines for organic production generally result in improved soil health. Organic fertilizers contain carbon, organic matter, and compostable material. The nutrient content is much lower than a bag of synthetic fertilizer. Organic fertilizer might contain 3% nitrogen compared with a conventional fertilizer that might contain 32% nitrogen. In an organic system, there is more balance of nutrients and less over-accumulation of certain nutrients,” notes van Es, who offers an analogy of donuts. You may get a lot of energy from donuts but not other nutrients or compounds that are important to sustain human life.

Angie Tagtow, the Executive Director of the CNPP, adds, “Ironically, we treat soil, plants, livestock, and humans in similar ways. When disease occurs, a chemical is applied or pharmaceutical is prescribed. The etiology of the disease is often ignored, and disease prevention strategies are not adopted."

Nutrient Density

Our final topic related to soil health is its most direct, insofar as the nutrition of the foods you eat today. I've saved this for last, in spite of the fact that the consumption of nutritious foods is most likely the primary - or only - reason you read these posts. But to provide information about nutrition without the context of its broader influences that create and safeguard it is to do everyone a great disservice. 

In a related question, whether or not an acre of soil will yield more or fewer bushels of corn today than it did in 1950 - translating directly to dollars in farmer's pockets and kernels on your table - we must look at both yield and nutrient density. That is to say, in the case of the latter, to determine whether an ear of corn today is in fact of lesser nutritional value to my body, since in the end, food = bio-energy that fuels our metabolic processes.

Well is it?

A 2011 article in Scientific American (SA) lists several sources and studies that offer an emphatic 'yes' to that question. One landmark study by the University of Austin's Departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry, led by researcher Donald Davis, pored through 50 years of USDA nutritional data, from 1950 to 1999 for 43 vegetables and fruits. Their findings? 'Reliable declines' in concentrations of 6 key nutrients: 6% for protein; 16% for calcium; 9% for phosphorous; 15% for iron; 38% for riboflavin (B2); and 20% for vitamin C. By contrast, not one nutrient in any food measured over a 50-year period increased in value

Similarly, a study by macrobiotic pioneer The Kushi Institute in Western Massachusetts [where my own brother, a practicing physician, ate regularly and took nutritional courses for years] analyzed available data for 12 fresh vegetables and found that over a 22-year period, between 1975 to 1997, calcium dropped 27%, iron by 37%, vitamin A by 21%, and vitamin C by 30%. And there were other studies, including one that found that you'd have to eat eight oranges today to glean the same amount of vitamin A as that which our grandparents received from just one.

This means, bluntly, that even if yields were to increase under the artificial conditions of monocultures and pesticide use - which they decidedly don't - we would still be left with the fact that we have to eat more (sometimes far more) of any given food today to glean the vitamins, minerals, amino acids and phytonutrients as our grandparents did before we began this whole enterprise. And this news comes in the context of declining soil acreage, an increasing population, and a contaminated planet.

The SA article concludes very simply, 'The key to healthier produce is healthier soil'.

Selective Breeding

But there's more. A 2013 article in the New York Times - an original copy of which I've kept since it was published, talks about the selective breeding that humans have practiced since the dawn of agriculture back in the Fertile Crescent. That is to say, we have selected and re-bred cultivars (subsets of a given crop) based on maximizing yield, and favoring sweetness. The latter is one reason we have starch-rich foods that are low in phytonutrients: we as humans have always favored sweet over bitter. Starches are compound sugars: strings of glucose molecules that - once they hit the small intestine - are immediately absorbed by the body, and converted into energy. We also know that the body has limits on how much sugar energy it can immediately use, and that the excess supply spikes insulin production that captures those sugars in little fat packages called triglycerides. In other words, overconsumption of sugars makes us fat. While fat consumption is not the subject of this post, starches are the most common nutrient in the packaged foods that comprise 90% of our diets, which comprise the majority of US crops and farmland, which makes the practices of its growth very relevant. Phytonutrients in foods, on the other hand, not only don't make you fat; they have been shown to decrease mortality rates by 30%, according to just one recent study, as we saw in Week 13. What's the relevance of comparing starches to phytonutrients? They're at the opposite end of the flavor spectrum. Phytonutrients are bitter, or pungent; and as such we've overwhelmingly favored the cultivars of common foods that are lowest in phytonutrients and highest in starches for millennia, because of our proclivity for sweet tastes. A few examples:

  • Blue corn has 29% more of the phytonutrient anthocyanin than the sweet yellow corn that we can buy in the supermarket, and 20% more protein. 
  • European crab apples have 5-66 times the phytonutrients of the 6 most common varieties we eat
  • Dandelion greens have 30 times the antioxidants of all lettuces
  • Purple carrots pack 18 times the phytonutrients of orange carrots
  • Similarly, purple peruvian potatoes host 32 times the phytonutrients of yukon gold potatoes


Michael Pollan says, "The multi-billion dollar organics industry was created by consumers voting with their dollars." Organic foods are broadly considered more sustainable: to the soil, to the animals, to the biome and to the humans - us - who consume them and depend on their continued supply. Organics avoid the use of synthetic pesticides, and therefore organic farmers are overwhelmingly beholden to the age-old practice of farming via biodiversity. As such, organics carry our greatest hope of feeding 9.2 billion people on diminishing acreage, and a very large number of farmers outside of 'industrial food' consider the productive density of an organic farm to far exceed that of a conventional farm using synthetics.

So vote with your food dollars. The Economist provided great information and ammunition on the subject as early as 2006, here. Buying organics also reduces reliance on GMO foods, the purchase of which strengthen food giants like Monsanto and support the sale of pesticides that not only deplete soil health, create runoff and disease both in humans and the seas where they end up, but also don't solve the problems that they purportedly address. The biological organisms that these toxic substances are created to destroy - Nature's biodiversity - will always win, since Nature's mastery over mutation invariably leads to new strains of resistant 'invasive' species that will require a cyclical increase in pesticide toxicity and dose in order to accomplish a commensurate effect, as we've seen again and again.

To the same end, avoid packaged foods. They are overwhelmingly comprised of repackaged versions of the same cash crops that rely near-exclusively on farming practices and chemicals that deplete the soil, which depletes the nutrition value of the foods it grows. We reported in Week 7 that non-GMO corn contains between 6 and 438 times the nutrient levels of phosphate, calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese, copper, sulfur, cobalt, iron, zinc and molybendum as that in GMO corn, the latter of which comprises 88% of the US market. The numbers are staggering, both for their direct impact on our bodies, and for their larger impact on global food sustainability.

I'll end this post with the other quote I debated using 'up top'. It is by British renaissance man Jacob Bronowski - a mathematician, science historian, author, poet and inventor. He is best remembered for his 1973 book, The Ascent of Man - about the rise of humans from pre-history through modern times. His BBC version of the book is considered one of the 100 world's best television programs by the British Film Institute. Says Bronowski:

"You will die, but the carbon will not; its career does not end with you. It will return to the soil, and there a plant may take it up again in time, sending it once more on a cycle of plant and animal life."

We have a chance of finding solutions to our own species' survival; but it will only come from being committed to practices that have sustained the Earth for the half-billion years that complex animals have existed here; practices that put the survival of the species above the gain of the individual, whether that individual is tending the Earth or reporting to its stockholders.