June 4, 2015

Healthy Soils, Healthy People: Integrating Soil Science into Nutrition Security

Next Generation Delegation 2015 Commentary Series 

By Andrew Margenot, PhD Candidate in Soil Science & Biogeochemistry at the University of California, Davis and 2015 Next Generation Delegate
Action on food security must integrate nutrition if it is to be effective: this was the dominant discourse at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Global Food Security Symposium 2015. The role of nutrition has generally been overlooked by traditional calorie-focused approaches, yet it significantly impacts human health: directly through nutrient deficiencies and indirectly by increasing susceptibility to infection and chronic disease, and stunting bodies, minds, and ultimately economies.
Addressing nutrition security requires investments in tangible as well as less tangible opportunities, such as soils and dietary education. Nutritional security is more complicated than calorie-based food security. It extends from soil fertility to agronomy and postharvest potential, to economic access and dietary preferences. There may be different manifestations of food insecurity from the nutrition perspective, such as stunting versus obesity, but developed and developing worlds alike face the same problem in the end: waste, not only of food or dollars, but also of human potential.
Because these obstacles carry inertia from being entrenched by resource, cultural, and even political causes, substantial and long-term investments are needed, from soils to education. The challenge here, beyond the usual cold feet felt by individuals and institutions at the prospect of allocating resources for long-term, uncertain returns, is how to make such investments. The increasing recognition of nutrition security marks a new way of thinking about global food issues, but for the same reason that it is a fresh way of thinking, we find ourselves facing knowledge gaps. The transdisciplinary nature of these challenges are implicit, as are its potential solutions.
Arguably, biophysical sciences have the most tractable problems, but the solutions to these cannot be solely biophysical. For example, increasing soil fertility to improve food production regionally in areas of need is alone no guarantee of improved caloric and nutrition status of individuals. Markets, purchasing power, and the knowledge of how to use crops matter. For example, the most perishable crops vulnerable to postharvest losses are precisely those that are most nutritious, and are often culturally-specific vegetables and fruits that carry greatest nutritional value. Postharvest engineers, economists, nutritionists, and anthropologists are needed to translate investments at different points to tangible outcomes such as reduction in childhood stunting that handicaps individuals and nations.
From my perspective in soil science, I would like to emphasize that the link between human and soil nutrition extends beyond metaphor. The nutrition insufficiencies that stunt childhood development can reflect the insufficient nutrition of crops. The direct and indirect effects of soil degradation on food insecurity have led to the recognition of “unhealthy soils, unhealthy people.” These twin issues are mutually reinforcing, yielding a soil poverty trap: high pressures on soils to produce begets soil degradation, which consequently deepens food insecurity and increases demands on production, thereby perpetuating the cycle.
Investments in soil nutrient status represent an addition to the diversified portfolio of nutrition security strategies highlighted in this year’s Symposium, including crop breeding, biofortification, food waste reduction, and dietary education. Investments in soils offer arguably the best return as a baseline improvement. Imported sacks of wheat can fill bellies, but sacks of nitrogen and phosphorus can fill soils with nutrients to grow a diversity of crops to better fulfill nutritional requirements. 

Read previous posts in the Next Generation Delegation 2015 Commentary Series:

The Importance of Understanding Urban Food Flows, Dana Boyer, PhD candidate in Science, Technology and Public Policy, University of Minnesota

Genetic Engineering: A Tool to Strengthen Global Food Security, Megan Fenton, PhD Student in Agronomy - Plant Breeding and Genetics, Purdue University

Edible Insects as an Integrated Component of Sustainable Food Systems, Afton Halloran, GREEiNSECT and Social Science and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Fellow, University of Copenhagen



The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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