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Dirt Don’t Hurt

Written by Jane Summerfield

The United Nations has named 2015 the “International Year of Soil” (IYS) and we are thrilled!

This vital resource, Danielle Nierenberg of Food Tank reminds us, is “every bit as non-renewable as oil” and without it, we simply wouldn’t be here.

IYS intends to raise global awareness of soil’s importance and—with groups like the Soil Renaissance, the Global Soil Partnership, and now Food Tank leading connected charges—we’re hoping to see soil come back into our culture.

We need to pay homage to conserve soil via more conservation-oriented farming practices, Nierenberg explains:

Since the beginning of agricultural production, one-fourth of the Earth’s surface has been converted for agriculture; and currently, two-thirds of global cropland is used for monocultures and annual crops.

These practices are accompanied by the widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, altering the soil biota landscape and depleting its health.

Perennial crops, agroforestry, intercropping, and other agroecological practices can be more efficient methods, conserving soils, preventing erosion, and protecting water.”

But the utility of conserving and building “healthy” soil (soil rich in nutrients, organic matter, and microbial activity) goes far beyond just growing better crops and sustaining food production for the future.

Diversity in the soil directly impacts the health of our bodies.

Eating seasonally can help. Dr. John Douillard wrote a piece earlier this month on the importance of eating with an eye on the changing seasons.

Not only is it typically cheaper on the wallet and a better guarantee that you’ll get fresh produce (particularly if you buy locally) you’ll, theoretically, introduce soil microbes into your gut that prefer the different seasons:

With each seasonal shift, the microbiology of the soil changes, the chemistry of the plants changes, and the microbes that attach themselves to the roots, stems, and leaves of each plant shift like a changing of the guard.

When we eat these plants in season, we consume the nutrients in the plant as well as the microbes that are attracted to and attached to that plant. We are also ingesting the foods that the microbes who are attached to these plants love.”

Douillard posits that these seasonal microbes flourish in our guts, out-competing other harmful (or at least non-beneficial microbes) and building a diverse microbial ecosystem to better support digestion and ultimately our immune systems.

Who knows, maybe one less scrubbing-off of the dirt on that farmer’s market carrot could mean one less cold this winter.

With a more clinical approach to soil health and human health, scientists are harnessing soil microbiology to develop new and promising antibiotics.

James Gallagher of BBC News explores the research of scientists at Northeastern University in Boston who used a soil sample from their backyard to develop over 25 new antibiotics.

The scientist used a novel method of isolating uncultured soil bacteria and growing propagating by burying them in the soil. One resulting strain was tested under the name “teixbactin.” Gallagher explains its accolades:

Tests on teixobactin showed it was toxic to bacteria, but not mammalian tissues, and could clear a deadly dose of MRSA in tests on mice.

Human tests are now needed.

The researchers also believe that bacteria are unlikely to develop resistance to teixobactin.

It targets fats which are essential for building the bacterial cell wall, and the scientists argue it would be difficult to evolve resistance.”

Some scientists claim it is too early to tell about teixobactin’s ability to mitigate resistance in pathogens, but many people in the medical science community are excited about the developing field of using soil to grow soil microbes.

Whether via farming, eating or medical science, paying attention to the health of our soil has many proven and yet to be known benefits to the health of our planet … and the people on it.

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