Soil quality has long been defined by measurable physical and chemical attributes. Recent advances in technologies and methods for soil biology have allowed the field of soil health to become increasingly meaningful. In fact, we know that food security, achieved when people have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2003), is inextricably linked to the health of soil.

Soil health is defined as the “continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans.” Healthy soils contribute to ecosystem functions sustaining plant and animal productivity and biodiversity, filtering contaminants and thus maintaining or enhancing air and water quality, and supporting human health.

The phrase “supporting human health” offers a hopeful connection to feeding the growing world population. Experts in the agriculture, food, human and veterinary medicine sciences see major benefits from an improved understanding of connections between soil health (and the farming practices that promote it) and human health. These connections may occur through the impact of land management, crop and livestock production and commodity processing on nutritional and environmental quality, food safety and the human microbiome.

This topic is addressed in brief during broad conferences, symposia, and meetings centered on soil science. At least one book addresses these connections (Brevik, E.C., and Burgess, L.C. (eds). 2013. Soils and Human Health. CRC Press. 391 p.). The Interagency Strategic Plan for Microbiome Research FY 2018-2022, released in April, serves as part of the overall guidance for federal government agencies on aspects of microbiome research that are relevant to this issue.

Yet progress on this issue of how improved soil health may improve food security, sustainability and nutrition/health care remains hindered by a lack of connection between two separate communities, namely, those focusing on agriculture/food science and policies, and those focusing on human health science and policies. With the interest in sustainable agriculture, feeding the world and improving human health around the globe, why is that so? 

One big reason rests in the sciences. The fact that medical and agricultural experts rarely interact is a large obstacle. Few are qualified to conduct research that bridges the fields. Barriers in language, funding, research priorities, and even locations of departments on college campuses stand in the way of progress.

But just as big a reason rests in resource allocation and policy making.  For the most part at the federal level, science and policy for agriculture (including soil science) are handled in different Cabinet departments than for human health, and these agencies’ budgets are developed by different appropriations subcommittees on the Hill.  The opportunities for mutually reinforcing science and policies bridging agricultural, food, conservation, and health interests are rare indeed, and the outcomes may be counter-productive when one side proceeds in setting research priorities and policies while remaining unaware of what the other is doing.

What’s more, extending interdisciplinary interaction beyond federal government agencies should serve to accelerate progress and foster a more robust, innovative research capability.

On October 16-17, a planning committee coordinated by the Soil Health Institute will host a national conference in Silver Spring, Maryland, to identify opportunities to bridge soil health and human health. Attendees will suggest a roadmap that will lead to increased attention among researchers, funding agencies, and policy makers regarding potential benefits from active collaboration among fields.

We hope that experts introduced to new ideas and skilled colleagues will start to form new collaborations that move in innovative directions. Eventually, working together, policy leaders and scientific communities that interact all too infrequently can connect their different communities and lead to more comprehensive planning, policy development and wise results-driven funding.

About the author: Steven Shafer, Ph.D. is Interim Chief Scientific Officer of the Soil Health Institute (SHI). He is responsible for developing and establishing scientific priorities, direction and strategy of SHI research programs.