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We need a return to healthy soil

The relationship between soil health and human health has been recognized throughout history

Back in 1400 BC Moses sent his scouts ahead to Canaan to see what the soil was like and bring back fruit. By 400 BC Hippocrates was relating soil health as part of the overall evaluation of patient health. Flash forward to 1940 and R.A. Hayne proclaimed that “only healthy soil can produce healthy people.” And so is the history and appreciation between soil health and human health.

As 99 per cent of all our food is directly or indirectly supported by soil, it only makes sense that the health of the soil be appreciated. Soil also serves as a filter, the carrier of pathogens, a place for chemical interaction and a responder to the climate around it and the waste it is trying to absorb. Throughout history it has been said that the health of the human is an image of the health of the soil.

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I think of my travels and the crops and animals I have seen (and eaten). Standing in Bryce’s field of canola in Australia, we talked about the importance of rotation for his cash crop of alfalfa. Rotation for soil health has been long practised and is a growing trend for human and animal feed, especially for export. My colleague Ryns from Holland has been travelling around the world looking for an affordable non-GMO protein other than soy for cattle feed in the Netherlands. In dairy, especially where the movement is toward all-natural feeding as a preventive to disease (called the salad bar), there is zero tolerance for GMO protein and close attention to soil health. The announcement in Canada from Hershey to go GMO ingredient free in candy is a major shift in corporate philosophy and product demand.

As I stood in the rice fields just outside Ludhiana, my friend Rajvinder explained that he shifted to organic because the soil was completely “burned out.” That was interesting because that patch had likely been farmed for thousands of years but in recent decades had collapsed. Rajvinder was searching for ways to return the soil to productivity and his choice was long-term investment of organic crop which garnered a 25 per cent premium. This is also one of Canada’s biggest growth areas in agriculture. Consumers may relate organic food to clean soil and plants, food safety and quality.

In the massive fields of forage in the desert of Qatar, I am amazed at the output of 48 dry tonnes to the hectare per cut with up to 11 harvests per year. Adding water to sand and lacing it with nutrients is all that is required for seed to grow. Again, with a focus on dairy, the purity of the forage and its nutrient value is of great importance to the quality of the milk. The variation we harvest in Canadian forages, be that in grazing or harvested feed, would not be acceptable in most countries.

Perennials are part of the solution and many annual plants of the day derive from a perennial past, such as wheat. We have evolved but the solutions for soil degradation do not lie solely with the farmer as all food faces a core issue and that is the demand for sameness from the customer. Wheat is mixed off so that large-scale bakeries can put out identical loaves of bread. Chickens, beef and pork are fed to growth and performance targets so the customer has the same size portion at every meal and in every box. Food grain seeds are sifted for sameness, apples for uniformity. It is the monotony of food. Farmers of all types are typically discounted for any product out of spec even if it tastes better or has higher nutrient quality.

Breaking the redundancy in food may lie not in the presentation of perceived perfection but in going back to the root of all we eat — the soil. Around the world, farmers and scientists are scrambling to reverse much of the damage to the soil with a repeated focus on performance and volume output. Applying more of the same is indeed the definition of insanity. Perhaps the solution for a hungry world and our domestic client is not in more — but in less — of greater nutrient density.

To offer nutrient-dense food, every food animal industry must revisit the models they have for crop production and animal feed. Not for the faint of heart, soil health like human health may require a healing period and an adjustment of old patterns to enrich the soil. Where do we start? For beef I would suggest that the day of antibiotic use outside of individual prescription, implants and muscle-enhancing products are coming to a close. Both the domestic consumer and non-tariff barriers will dictate this. Cattle feeding for Canada will then be redefined. Naturally, the quality of the feed and feed enhancements will be reflected by the quality of the soil in performance and quality of grade as well as the nutrient value of product.

Grabbing the attention of our customer, both domestically and internationally, starts from the ground up. Breaking out of volume and sameness paradigms must be supported by a collaborative scientific effort between disciplines and the creation of a value-based system of marketing. The relationship between soil health and human health has been recognized throughout history. It is a discussion worth having as we look to the future and send our scouts ahead. At some point we will return to healthy soil as our greatest competitive advantage.

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