You might be what you eat, but you’re also what your food grows in! An often overlooked element to growing and eating healthy food is the soil quality. There is such a thing as good soil and it impacts your crops, ecology, and yourself. Today, we’re going to dive into the connection between soil quality, sustainability, and your health as well as review some of the ways you can improve your soil’s quality.
Soil and Your Health
You probably have never considered the relationship between soil and human health. After all, you don’t eat soil! But just because you don’t eat soil doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. Many productivity experts, such as James Clear, discuss how our environment impacts who we are and how we act. The environment food is grown in does the same!
Food that is grown in high-quality soil is more nutrient dense than food grown in weaker soil. It offers more healthy benefits and a richer eating experience when grown in good soil. This can lead to a variety of benefits for those of us who eat that food grown in the better soil properties, including a stronger immune system.
A 2020 study looked at the link between human health and soil structure. It found that while we don’t have a good grasp on how environmental factors and soil impact our health, they do have an overwhelming impact. In fact, those who eat food grown in nutrient-rich soil have a better immune system.
There are two main ways to improve the soil quality in your life. The first, to find food grown in quality soil in grocery stores or at farmer’s markets, is for those who don’t grow their own food. For those who grow their own food, composting is an even better option to improve soil quality.
Soil and Grocery Stores
Indicators of soil quality include the soil fertility, soil texture, the soil pH, the salinity of the soil, and the microbial biomass. To determine these soil characteristics, test soil samples. Look out for soil degradation as well. Checking the other natural resources, especially the water quality, runoff infiltration, and earthworms and other insects in the soil. Soil water and crop production methods can have a big impact on the quality.
Local ecosystem services can help you take soil concentrations or conduct a soil quality assessment. They also might have resources on aggregate stability and other practices from the field of agronomy to improve soil quality in croplands and gardens.
The Soil Science Society of America has a land management farming game which reviews other elements which impact soil quality, such as soil organisms, microorganisms, tillage, phosphorus levels, and the bulk density of the soil. The NRCS also has resources on soil management.
For more advanced research on soil quality, check out the dataset developed by Karlen, a famous research in the field.
Soil and Grocery Stores
The easiest way to make sure the soil your food is grown in is high quality is to maintain the quality of the soil yourself through composting. To maximize soil health try crop rotation, buying organic topsoil, and other sustainable agriculture practices.
If you don’t grow your own food, your next best option is to buy your food from someone you personally know. Network with farmers or attend farmer’s markets. When you know who grows your food, you’re able to better understand the soil quality they’re using.
However, not all of us have the privilege of being able to grow your own food or know someone with agricultural land. If you buy food in a grocery store, you can still choose options grown in nutrient dense soil and synthetic pesticides weren’t used.
If this isn’t possible, look for usda certified organic food at the grocery store. You could even do research on different organic brands in your grocery store to understand where your food is coming from, what they’re doing to ensure it’s organic, and the quality of the soil the food is grown in. Making sure you have soil organic matter is important for healthier crop yields, more plant growth, and the environmental quality of your garden.
Composting and Soil Quality
The best way to ensure soil quality is to grow your own food, but that doesn’t mean you should use store-bought fertilizers in your garden. Along with soil management, try composting.
Composting is good for the soil because it fertilizes your soil with high quality ingredients. It also gets rid of buffering materials which harm the soil or residues of pesticides. When you compost food scraps and other biodegradable matter, you are investing in your health because you aren’t using fertilizers which weaken the soil quality.
Composting is the process of recycling organic matter into high-grade fertilizer that feeds soil and plants. Anything that grows will decompose eventually in any ecosystem. Composting helps speed up the process by providing ideal conditions for beneficial bacteria, fungi, and organisms (worms, nematodes and others) to do their work. If you understand that soil is living matter, with as many as 50 billion microscopic plants and organisms, you can easily see the important role that composting plays in the lifecycle of a healthy garden.
You can compost a variety of ingredients, such as wood chips, tea bags, and egg shells. Don’t compost any animal droppings, cat litter, grease, lard, oil, or anything else which contains harmful artificial substances. Just make sure you have good management practices in place to preserve any composting ingredients—and to improve the soil health.
How to Compost At Home
So, now you know healthy soil can impact your health and that composting leads to healthier soil functions, but how exactly do you compost? You should choose your composting method based on the available space to set up a compost pile. It’s also important to take into account your local weather, amount of time you can commit, and organic waste you can collect.
In general, a fairly simple approach to composting is explained by the National Resources Defense Council, summarized below:
- Set Up a Collection Area. A collection bin can be set up outdoors, in a garage, or even under the kitchen sink. The composting container has to be in a dry and shady area with stable conditions (temperature, moisture) in order for matter to decompose.
- Be a Mix Master. The contents of your bin need to have biodiversity. This means a mix of carbon-heavy “browns” and nitrogen-centric “greens.” “Browns” include shredded paper, dead leaves, and food-soiled paper napkins. “Greens” include plant matter, tea leaves, fruit skins, vegetable and yard clippings
- Churn the Rot. You want rot to set in. To encourage this, use a shovel (for outdoors) or a garden fork (for a bin) to churn the contents of your bin. In warmer weather, do this weekly. In the colder weather, once per month is sufficient. Sprinkle organic dirt in with each churn. If it is dry, dampen it with a little water (don’t make it soggy), churn, and seal.
- The Dirty Payoff. When the contents of your bin looks like rich, dark soil, you’ve got feed for your garden! It should have an earthy scent.
- Feed Your Garden. When you have a dark, moist, and woodsy compost, sprinkle it around existing plants and mix it into organic soil upon planting. There are many approaches to using compost.
- Try practicing nutrient cycling so you aren’t always putting compost with the same physical properties on your soil.
You are not only what you eat, but also what your food grows in. When you buy food that has been grown in organically composted material or better yet, grow your own food and compost yourself, you are choosing a healthier lifestyle. You are making a commitment to your overall health.