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May 2020: Farm Byline

Healthy soils, healthy food, healthy people

by Al Gustin

The familiar saying “you are what you eat” stems from the notion that to be fit and healthy, you need to eat good food. But is that more than just a notion? And what do you mean when you say, “eat good food?”

 An extensive, long-term research project has begun which aims to connect the dots between healthy soils, healthy food and healthy people. But what are healthy soils? I read somewhere that soil health is “the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans.”

Soil health has been a hot topic in agriculture in recent years. Science is showing that through practices like no-till, cover crops and diverse cropping mixes, soils can regenerate themselves. Organic matter contents increase. Soil microbiology increases.

That transformation is being documented at the Northern Great Plains Research Lab near Mandan. The lab is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS). The Mandan lab has studied a wide range of cropping systems over a number of years on its research plots and full-sized fields. The lab has documented that some fields are now healthier than others.

Samples of some of the crops being grown on those fields are being sent to another ARS lab, the Edward T. Schafer Agricultural Research Center in Fargo. There, they are being analyzed to see if crops harvested from the healthier soils are in some way different.

The third leg of this research effort will take the food ingredients from the Fargo lab to the third ARS lab in North Dakota, the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center in Grand Forks, where real people will eat the food to find out if the healthier soils produced food ingredients that are, in fact, healthier, and if the people who eat those foods become healthier, too.

 Some food companies are already making the claim that their food is healthier, better for you, because the ingredients were produced using sustainable farming methods. Long-term research like that just getting started in North Dakota may prove the connection between healthy soils, healthy food and healthy people.

Al Gustin is a retired farm broadcaster, active rancher and a member of Mor-Gran-Sou Electric Cooperative.