Healthy soils lead to healthy food and added value for all

It’s been said that America has the most plentiful, safe and nutritious food supply in the world. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service reported that 89.9% of U.S. households were food secure throughout the year, with 11.1% of households reporting some food insecurity at least some time during the year, an improvement over the prior year.

On a global scale, the ERS published its annual International Food Security Assessment in November. Given projections for increasing per capita incomes and lower food prices, food security is expected to improve in all 76 low- and middle-income countries studied over the next 10 years. And the share of people unable to reach the nutritional target is projected to decline from 19% in 2019 to 9% over the next decade of the regional populations. That’s a decline of 45%.

With our vast natural resources and our breadth of food and agriculture research, American farmers can grow enough to feed our own nation and many others.

And yet, there is a slow rumbling in some circles that today’s food is less “nutrient-dense” than the food our grandmothers and great-grandmothers once put on their tables. It’s a case of quantity over quality, explained Dan Kittredge, farmer and founder of the Bionutrient Food Association. Kittredge spoke at “High Plains Journal’s” 2020 Soil Health U and Trade Show, Jan. 22 and 23 in Salina, Kansas.

Kittredge is executive director of BFA, a non-profit that is working to show how soil health practices not only benefit soils, but that, in turn, those healthier soils produce food crops that are more flavorful, aromatic, nutritious, pest- and disease-resistant, and in some cases more shelf-stable.

Nutrient density versus biofortification

Some people may have heard of “biofortification,” which is the technique of improving the micronutrients of crops using breeding, agronomic or genetic modification. Consider the crop breeding that gave us high oleic acid soybeans or Golden Rice with its added beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. In essence, no matter what production system these crops are grown in, organic or conventional, the genetics are carrying the weight of the nutritional content of the food.

Additionally, food like bread can be fortified with the addition of nutrients like folic acid in the manufacturing process.

Nutrient density, however, considers the health of the soils that are producing the crops. The thought is that healthier soils that use cover crops instead of chemical weed control, or no-till over conventional tillage, or other regenerative agriculture practices, will produce crops that contain more nutrients for humans to consume.

There’s some research to back this up, too.

The Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, has shown in its 40-year-long organic trials that organic oats grown in a system using legume cover crops have “significantly greater total protein concentration along with a suite of essential and non-essential amino acids.” The study also found significantly greater soil carbon and nitrogen in the organic systems compared to its conventional system.

In another trial, this time studying winter butternut squash, Rodale researchers, with assistance from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, showed that reduced-tillage management with a cover crop of wheat, hairy vetch and crimson clover, enhanced the nutrient concentration of beta-carotene, lutein, calcium and phosphorus in winter squash that was stored for 60 days. Those nutrients control the orange color and taste of the squash. To read more about the trial, visit

A choice at the store

Kittredge explained that animals and humans have a practical knowledge of foods that are better for them, based on sight, taste and smell. Consider a tomato from the store in January versus a tomato from your vine in August—there’s a big difference in the tomatoes, he said. And yet, USDA defines tomato nutrient content based on the average of all tomatoes on the shelf, he added.

Kittredge explained that his organization is working to prove the difference in nutrient density of foods. The “Real Food Campaign” is creating a tool that a consumer or a food buyer can use to get real-time information on the nutrient density of fruits and vegetables in the store. The thinking, he said, is that if you can measure the nutrient density of a food on the shelf, you’re more likely to purchase one item over another similar item—no matter what label is attached.

“The ideas is you flash a light at a carrot and get a reading back in real time that tells you if that is a poor quality carrot, or a mediocre carrot, or a carrot that has higher quality nutrient value,” Kittredge said.

The handheld tool that is currently in development uses spectroscopy, a noninvasive flash of light that can be analyzed to provide information on chemical composition, much like it’s currently used in space to tell astronomers the chemical components of distant stars.

The basic design of the meter is built and now the BFA is working to gather enough data so that the meter can be calibrated for different crops.

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Once the tool is calibrated and in use, then that data can also be passed back to farmers, whether organic or conventional production, as a decision-making tool to help them support their soil health practices on the farm.

“We want t support growers who want to change their practices to ensure that their crops are the most nutritious,” Kittredge said. “Those practices that build soils, reduce pest and disease pressure, are the same that increase nutrient density in food.

“If we can give consumers and buyers a tool to help them choose what they purchase in the store or at the farmers’ market, then there follows that there would be a price premium for growers that are practicing those methods,” he added. Kittredge said that the margins for premium quality nutrient dense foods could be 20 to 50%, which is a real incentive for farmers to align their interests for their soils, their farms, and their communities.

Interestingly, the research out of BFA has found that organic, locally grown, or other labels aren’t necessarily predictors of nutrient-density.

“As someone who grew up on an organic farm, whose parents have run an organic farming organization for 35 years, you would think I would have a certain perception,” Kittredge said. “But the reality is that a lot of farms carry the organic label and aren’t following good soil health practices and the nutrient value of their crops is very clear. There are also lot of farms that are not under the organic label and who have crops that are quite superior.”

From samples from grocery stores, farmers’ markets, organic and non-organic labels alike Kittredge said the real factor is the soil health, and this project aims to give growers and consumers the tools to put more nutrient-dense foods on the plates of more people.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or [email protected]. High Plains Journal’s Soil Health U will return to Salina, Kansas, January 2021.