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The influence of agricultural soil on people’s health and food safety
How do soils influence people’s health? A priori, the relationship is not so easy to understand or even see. However, it does exist. The way we treat the soil, how it is protected and used directly influences two basic aspects: the quantity and the quality of food that ends up on our table. The soil’s biological activity and its health, in turn influences the nutritive properties and the possibility of producing ecological and bio products, among other things.
What is food safety?
The FAO explains that ‘food safety exists when all people, at all times, have access, (be it on a physical, social or economic level) to enough safe, nutritive food to cover their nutritional needs and cultural preferences for a healthy, active life’. Quantity, safety and quality: these three aspects are essential when it comes to food, as we can see.
People having access are determined by the amount of food produced, so attention must be centered on productivity (besides other questions that are not included in this particular text). Safety refers to food which does not imply risk, as in if the food itself has been contaminated or if it is in bad condition. Quality points to how much capacity the food has to be nutritional - its makeup and bioavailability. All of these characteristics are directly linked to soil health.
How is soil related to people’s health?
We are going to look at the relationship between agricultural soils and our health, using the aspects set out by the FAO.
The relationship between the soil and the amount of food available
This is probably the easiest to understand: the health of the soil directly influences its productivity, as we saw previously. When we speak about soil health, we are referring to its quality as a productive substrate. Good or bad quality may come from its physical/chemical composition (pH, amount of organic material, number of salts), physical/structural makeup (clays, gravels, rocks, layout, drainage ability or the biological composition and activity it has), (the presence of beneficial or damaging organisms in the soil), among other factors. These characteristics are directly linked to ecological and bio production as well as the properties of the food produced.
Apart from this, and perhaps more importantly, it depends on the crop we are growing, as not all species have the same needs. The right, optimum soil health is necessary to ensure production in a world with an ever-increasing population. We also need to have healthy soils to be able to produce enough variety and enough food for the whole world.
The relationship between the soil and food safety
There are two main dangers to be taken into account when it comes to soil health and food ready for consumption. The first is the treatments used on plants. A poor soil means an unhealthy plant, which could lead to less production or leave the plant open to diseases. To avoid this, the grower may often feel the obligation to use protective products or growth promoters that may be harmful to people. There are strict measures to ensure that these products do not make it to our tables, but there is a possibility that they could.
The second of these dangers is almost completely out of the grower’s control: the presences of certain toxic substances in the soil, sometimes just because of the nature of the soil itself, and others because of contamination. These may be present in the food that we eat, because vegetal physiology sometimes leads to a buildup of these substances in the fruit and plant tissue. To prevent this from happening, the soil must be healthy.
What relationship is there between the soil, food quality and vegetal health?
The soil is itself is one of the main factors responsible for the development of the plant, as it is when it comes to production or safety. The healthier the plant, the more nutritious it is, although this is not a general rule. It also looks better, nicer and more appetizing. This is because when faced with stress, in the case of unhealthy soil, the plant activates a range of defense mechanisms, using up its resources trying to defend itself. Generally speaking, these defenses tend to work in the opposite direction to what we as humans consider to be acceptable in food.
Apart from this, in an unhealthy soil, diseases cause damage, which may be to more or less of a degree, which affect the quality of the food, especially to its physical aspect and what is visible to the eye. Not forgetting the possibility of undesirable secondary effects (bad taste, bad texture, bad appearance). In other words, a healthy soil is necessary to ensure vegetal health due to the nature of the physiology of the plant itself.
Having Healthy soil is the first step in ensuring people’s health
Food safety depends on social, legislative, agronomical, productive and logistical factors, and, of course, protecting our soils. This is the only way we have of guaranteeing the three points we have described previously.
If we cannot work towards healthy soil, it is impossible to reach the necessary objectives to feed everyone with enough quality food. This is why food safety and people’s health always start with the soils, together with the growers and the crops that sustain humanity.