Poor nutrition harms the health of more than one-half of the people on the planet. Two billion suffer from malnutrition. It drives poverty that entrenches inequality across generations, and is the underlying cause of 45 percent of child deaths worldwide. Another 1.9 billion people suffer from over-nutrition by virtue of eating too much of the wrong stuff—calories that overwhelm rather than sustain our bodies.
Given that unhealthy diets fuel chronic disease worldwide, the U.S. government is engaging every federal agency with a hand in nutrition to develop a global nutrition strategy. A coordinated strategy could help to reverse the biggest global health crisis of our time. But with the strategy outline finally available for public comment, I am struck by one glaring and fundamental omission: soil.
You may wonder why soil should be in a global nutrition strategy. After all, we don’t eat soil, we eat food. But every food we eat, whether plant- or animal-based, depends on the soil. The minerals and nutrients that support human health originate in the ground. Calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, nitrogen, iron, zinc, and more are all required for human health–and are all found in soil where they are taken up by the roots of plants.
Malnutrition can arise from reliance on foods grown in nutrient-deficient soils – and 40 percent of the world’s agricultural land is degraded. In Africa, where malnutrition is rampant, 65 percent of agricultural soils are unhealthy. The economic and human costs are staggering. The annual cash value loss due to lowered yields in unhealthy soils in sub-Saharan Africa is $68 billion.