How to recognize existing connections between soil health, food quality and humans’ health from a systemic perspective?
We asked to some scientists and experts:
Franco Fassio of the University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo explains it; Giusto Giovannetti, , director for Research and Development at the Centre for Experimental Crops of Aosta. Sergio Capaldo, livestock sector manager for Slow Food; Marco Nuti, emeritus professor of the University of Pisa - Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies; Alberto Bruno, diabetologist of the national coordination of the SID-AMD interassociative group on the "Diabetic Neuropathy" of Turin.
The Circular Economy for Food Must be Regenerative
Is there a connection between soil health and bowel health? Microbial communities are the lynchpin around which a necessary dialogue amongst the system’s players should be opened: the food that we eat must be “alive” just as the soil where it was born. Such thought leads us to recognize the existing connections between soil health, food quality and mankind’s health.
Let’s start with the circular economy, an economic paradigm whose goal is to promote a regenerative development model and to reconnect humans to an ecosystem’s balance while rebuilding that ecological fabric that supports life on Earth and that mankind is jeopardizing with unbelievable greed. The mesh of such fabric is made of biodiversity – even microbial – characterized by micro and macro connections amongst ecological units and of crucial exchanges amongst several players in the ecosystem: matter, energy and information flows. The higher the number of players in the system, the more interconnected the ecological fabric will be and the heavier weight the ecosystem can support, thus increasing its resilience. We are faced with systems nestled into other systems, where food represents the basic connection unit.
The whole food system depends on such fabric and the economic growth based on a linear model (produce, consume, discard) is reducing its interconnections, weakening its mesh while generating homogenization and disparity.
But why have we come to this point of apparent no return? Analogies between humans and nature are impressive: physically, aesthetically, energetically, where we live, patterns, models and dynamics are replicated. And yet there is something that sets us apart: as humans, we constantly tend to break down the complexity around us into logical linear thoughts. Especially over the last centuries, mankind has built rational and analytic ways of thinking, resorting to linear calculation models, typical of the left hemisphere of the brain as the only tool for knowledge and evaluation, while losing almost entirely touch with intuition, analogy, circularity, interrelation, synchronicity, all of which are abilities of the right hemisphere.
Specialization took over the big picture, productivity over the quality of life, profit over wellbeing. Due to this linear way of thinking, for instance, environmental and social degradation has emerged as obvious mistakes of the devised system.
By analyzing the unsustainability of our production model, especially that of food, we realize that a real crisis of reason is occurring. While we amass products into landfills that cannot be metabolized by the system, the same thing happens more subtly into our bodies where we introduce several chemicals (microplastics, antibiotics, fungicides, insecticides, herbicides etc.) which modify our physiological balance. We are working to fuel economy itself, rather than to meet humans’ real primary needs. So, it is urgent to change the paradigm, enhance our abilities to understand all parties involved, see the interconnections, to apply this model to food, thus promoting change. Besides, it should not be too difficult to understand this, as “circularity” belongs to humans and the environment where we live. Mankind is an open system with circular dynamics in it such as that starting when we eat something. Indeed, food is the means through which the circular process of metabolism of matter starts in the human system and the ensuing transformation into energy for life: we are what we eat.
Therefore, we should not only reduce waste by finding it a new intended use. From the food we could develop a circular economic paradigm shift, thus focusing again on our community, quality of relationships and meaningful behaviour. It also means compromising relations with our best supplier of raw material that humans may know, going from a linear economy that seems to create abundance, in reality only an illusion, to a circular and regenerative one, thought out to open a dialogue with Nature. Certainly, the current geopolitical challenge of the “food system” is to revolutionize the production model from correct management of natural capital linked to the cultural one, while respecting Earth’s limits and offering fair space to civil society.
We should regenerate such awareness starting with preserving what we tread on every day: soil.
Microbial Biota and Soil Health
Since the dawn of agriculture up until the end of WW2, those cultivating the land have always favored organic fertilizers with a soil conditioner such as that provided by effluents from farmed animals, aptly composted for a few months with leaves, straw and other production scraps. Fertilization of farm land with such input of organic matter – and the microbial biota in it – has characterized the history of agriculture for millennia: Roman farms used to farm animals just for manure that would then be used to fertilize soils. Such soil conditioner gave soil not only the necessary elements for plants to grow but also its microbial biota, necessary to build the complex symbiotic system of plants grown with microorganisms as well as an added percentage of organic substance in the soil. The microbial biota would contribute regulating plants’ development, their resilience against pathogens and the production of secondary metabolites, of smells, of the aroma of the products obtained. In practice it would contribute to the quality of products and indirectly to the formation of the human intestinal microbial biota, which is currently and rightly thought as being responsible for our health.
Since the 50s, laws and regulations of the Ministry for Agriculture about fertilizers and conditioners have neglected the microbial component: it is not mandatory to state the number of microorganisms (units forming colonies) present in the soil conditioner.
Since the quantity of microorganisms has become a secondary element, it is hardly stated and farmers have forgotten about microbes and microbial biota which the soil conditioner could contain if during the production processes have not been eliminated.
A soil conditioner is perfectly legal even though it does not contain microbes, such as pelleted soil conditioner. To obtain it, almost all microorganisms are eliminated: strong pressure to form pellets sterilizes its biological life, thus annihilating microbial biota.
In the new 2019 European regulations of fertilizers, after almost 70 years, microbial biotas have come back. There is a new category of “microbial biostimulants”, even though no biotic effect on plants can be ascribed to them. This means that biostimulants can in no way combat pathogens nor improve plants’ resilience. Unfortunately, though, the new regulation does not provide for the fact that biotas have the ability to improve plants’ growth and at the same time to stimulate resistance. Such European regulation may only protect some strains of microorganisms that have been included in the register of pesticides (about 50 strains over the last few years), thus creating a monopoly in the ability to combat pathogens. In Asia, the United States and Latin America guidelines do not apply such distortions of scientific truths; only Europe was able to implement such discrimination.
Generally, biotas influencing plant growth also manage to activate resilience against pathogens: the regulation separates what in nature is inseparable, another offspring of linear thinking.
Healthy Soil, Healthy Plants, Healthy food
Over the last decade there has been a massive advance in the knowledge of the role of microbiomes in the human body, in the rhizosphere of crop and non crop plants, in caulosphere (endophytes in crop and non crop plants) and in soil. Experimental evidence, published also in scientific literature, is both direct and indirect. Direct: by establishing a cause-effect relation for the presence, quantity and quality of microbiomes; indirect: by assessing effects of alterations of microbiomes on the health of soil, plants and humans.
Let’s start with the latter. When dysbioses occur, i.e. changes in the microbiome, due to environmental stress both biological and abiological, including inappropriate diets, we can be affected by several diseases including obesity, anxiety, type 2 diabetes, alterations of the immune system and cognitive functions.
But we can rely on taking prebiotics (for instance phosphooligosaccarides and glucooligosaccharides) or on prebiotics (made with one-strain or multi strain microorganisms) relieving symptoms, tackling dysbioses and helping prevent them. When dysbioses affect plants, both in the food engine (rhizosphere) and in other parts (caulosphere or phyllosphere), the crop starts to show obvious signs of malnutrition and a decrease or disappearance of resilience to biotic and abiotic factors and the plant will be more prone to diseases and to plant pathogens.
In such cases, causes and contributing factors to dysbiosis will have to be analyzed, using a host of bio-effectors, bio-stimulants, bio-pesticides with a low environmental impact that have been developed over the last ten-fifteen years within smart agriculture and that are currently standardized to be marketed by EU Regulation 1107/2009 and EU 1009/2019.
The effect of the use of such products will be to relieve symptoms and restore plants’ resilience. In general, the use of healthy and vigorous plants, with no aflatoxins and mycotoxins and rich in nutrients (vitamins, antioxidants and antiradical compounds) will directly influence our nutrition and health.
Soil’s microbiome, too, can be affected by dysbioses with alterations that will be more serious the less amount of organic matter and the higher the content of synthetic pollutants that microorganisms are not able to degrade or of salinity. Over the last five years, due to the setup of adequate investigation tools, it has been demonstrated that agronomic practices such as cultivation (for example tillage or no-tillage), fertilization, use of composted soil conditioners, use of microbial inoculants (for instance mycorrhizal ones) can play a role on the balance and biodiversity of the soil’s microbiome. Even if at the moment it does not seem possible to redress the balance and health of the soil in the short term, the way has been paved to cure dysbioses and to re-establish healthy agricultural conditions. Healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy food.
Correlation between Microbiome and Diabetes
Diabetes is a chronic disease constantly on the rise all over the world interfering with the quality of life. The increase in the number of people affected by diabetes is certainly linked to the change in eating habits, but new scientific evaluations are emerging suggesting that such epidemics might be triggered not just by the quantity of food consumed but by its incorrect composition. Surely, an important role in the rise of new cases of diabetes and obesity should be seen in the relation between food and bowel.
Humans are animals able to feed on anything they can find and diets do vary considerably according to environmental conditions. For instance, it is high-protein for Inuit in Greenland who almost exclusively eat fish or high-sugar for the Japanese who feed on rice, although these two extremes do not cause variations in the onset of diseases.
Analyzing the evidence that might lead to the diabetes epidemic, the following might be worth noting: bacterial composition of food, epigenetics during pregnancy, extended maternal age, sleep alterations, reduction of variability of environmental temperatures, organization of the urban environment, reduction of leisure time, poverty and social unrest.
Microorganisms are present in our system since birth, passed down directly from mothers even before delivery, then newborns are colonized through direct contact with their mother’s body and breastfeeding. Within a normal microflora, the intestinal one plays a key role in the quantity and effect it has on the health of the host and it also represents humans’ most complex ecosystem. This bacterial system that lives in close proximity to the intestinal mucosa influences the “mucosal barrier”, an extremely important defense system against external factors. Such barrier separates the material in the intestinal lumen (food residue and secretions of the gastrointestinal tract) from the specific immune system and the bacterial content can condition all elements causing the onset of several diseases: type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, allergies, cancer and so forth.
Over the last years there has been a proliferation of notions on how the intestinal bacterial content may condition even our food choices by increasing the ingestion of substances they like most and how dysbioses of mothers may facilitate weight gain in their children. The intestinal bacterial component with its close family and ethnic associations can explain the increase in the prevalence of diabetes in some families or ethnic groups.
We are no longer responsible for the bacterial content of what we eat which is a consequence of the food supply chain. Due to production demands and to meet food demand, farmers have resorted to crops with low genetic content (monocultures), animal farmers supply selected fodder where such genetic poverty is passed onto food products and the food industry transforms such elements into end products where sterility and long life are pre-requisites. A chain that gives end consumers a product with very poor genetic variety and that depletes daily microbiological intake. Now, if the microbiota’s variable component linked to varied and untreated nutrition is reduced, in the bowel there may be a prevalence of bacteria from mothers at the time of delivery or breastfeeding. Such bacterial content is not derived from genetic damage but it may be fostered by epigenetic action that bacteria can take directly.
We know that embryonic development is not only conditioned mechanically by one’s genes but it also responds plastically to influences from the environment. In other terms, genes are not the only thing that matters, the way they express their activity also plays a role. Gene’s sensitivity in seeing their expression changed is at its peak during pregnancy when the embryo is most sensitive to variations of the intra-uterine environment. Such effects have been associated with epigenetic alterations.
Literally “epigenetics” means “above genetics”: it adds another level of information layered over information on the DNA sequence. Epigenetics is a young science able to explain a few mechanisms about predisposition and complications of type 2 diabetes, where medicine and genetics alone are not enough. As epigenetic mechanisms are subject to environmental influences, especially during development, there is a potential causal path where some environmental factors contribute to the metabolic disorder.
Many food substances in food have the potential to cause epigenetic changes in humans. They increasingly include substances from the pollution of water, air and soil defined as “endocrine disruptors.” Endocrine disruptors are synthetic compounds that when absorbed by the human body imitate the effects of hormones. The hazard of such substances is generally made obvious many years after their use and they do build up along the food chain reaching their peak in end consumer animals in the chain, including humans.
The causal report between food and diabetes is thus of paramount importance to the state of health of food from maternal nutrition which can influence the development of placenta and fetus. If the mother is obese or is affected by gestational diabetes, if mothers overeat or gain too much weight during pregnancy or they live in polluted environments, there is a higher risk that their children, in adulthood, will be affected by obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and correlated diseases.
While it is becoming increasingly difficult to make an effective food choice daily, there are some data that might help us see things more clearly. First: we spend little money on food because we don’t give it the right value and we prefer to use our money for things we deem more important. Second: some diseases – such as diabetes, obesity, allergies, dementia – have grown exponentially over the last 50 years and that may not be justified by generic higher food consumption. Third: pollution sources are ubiquitous; there is no Himalayan top or ice or sand desert that is uncontaminated. Lastly, to be aware of such a situation is the only weapon we may have.
Microbial biotas of CCS Aosta
Since 1999, CCS Aosta, Centre for Experimental Crops, has produced several microbial biotas for agriculture. This enterprise, taking part in the European research project “Simba” (Horizon 2020), whose main focus is researching into a microbial consortium to apply to eco-sustainable agriculture, has represented an exception in the international panorama for over 20 years. Indeed, thanks to CCS in 2005, the European regulation for fertilizers has recognized biotas and made them marketable. Utilizing microbial biotas in crops changes production protocols normally used, increasing yields, reducing costs and augmenting the quality of products obtained as well as reducing water, phosphate and nitrogen consumption.
An example of the use of microbial biota – named Micosat (www.micosat.it ) and produced by CCS Aosta – is at cooperative Nursery in Bronte. Here, every year, over 100 million seedlings are produced, 25% of all vegetables grown in Veneto, including the famous radicchio. Plants that are inoculated when sown carry along with their microbial biota until harvested. An imprinting effect strengthening the seedling against pathogens, improving production, quality and allowing consumers to benefit from food that has also a rich microbial component that in turn positively influences the intestinal microbial biota of humans. Farming correctly in respect of nature, the history of our agriculture and microbial biodiversity is possible. Such practice has indeed been successfully carried out for years and it is one of symbiotic agriculture’s leading methods (a cultivation and animal farming process envisaging the use of positive microbiology such as fungi, bacteria and yeasts, Editor’s note).
La Granda, an example of symbiotic agriculture
La Granda (www.lagranda.it ) is a new entity that interprets a new way to produce meat, right from the soil, because if the soil is “good” all the supply chain will benefit from it. Such association that to date boasts 85 farmers, is based on strict guidelines regulating not only farming and nutrition, but also land tillage which produces fodder.
The method of soil cultivation relies on symbiotic agriculture, an agri-food production system aiming at restoring soils maintaining and improving biodiversity and microbial functionality and improving the resilience of agri-ecosystems through the activity of soil microorganisms. Symbiotic agriculture employs “friendly bacteria”, essential for biodiversity, soil fertility and fodder quality. Soil balance is also possible thanks to mycorrhizae, a symbiotic association amongst plants and a good fungus, enriching and naturalizing soil, while gradually improving soil structure and making it much more suitable for vegetable crops for both human and animal consumption. Healthy soil is guaranteed through inoculation of microbial compounds and mycorrhizae in the soil and year after year fertility is also improved. Plants, thanks to good fungi and bacteria are stronger and more resistant to diseases and pests.
With such a system, the farm, from a simple product supplier at the mercy of a less and less profitable market can become a service supplier, with a direct role in the land, water, air and soil protection, which can be passed onto end consumers. In this way, productions can be enhanced both economically and qualitatively while allowing producers to obtain new advantages.
La Granda, in practice, took humans, animals and nature right back to the centre of the food supply chain, restoring social and economic value to the role of farmers, giving animals the opportunity to grow in a natural and healthy way and to nature the possibility to self regulate, self protect above and below the soil, all to the consumers’ advantage.