Understanding the Relationship between Soil Health and Human Health

Research Project:

Understanding the Relationship Between Soil Health and Human Health

Brief Summary: Product developers and agencies are encouraging the adoption of soil health practices. However, the impact of these changes in food production practices on the safety and nutritional value of crops is not yet well understood. This ILSI proposal aims to identify the research gaps and priorities, as well as establish an active network with agricultural research stations and nutrition/safety experts to address these knowledge gaps. Presented by Shawna Lemke.

Rationale and Approach: The importance of maintaining the health of soils used in food production is growing in recognition as a field of study (1). The 1920’s Dust Bowl demonstrated this integral relationship through a combination of prolonged drought, the abandonment of soil conservation practices and the use of marginal lands for agriculture resulting in wind erosion, economic hardship and hunger for the period (2). At present scientists are finding that soil nutrients are in decline globally. Nitrogen stores are down by 42%, and phosphorus content has decreased by 27% with sulfur pools down by 33% (3). Decline in iron and potassium in soil content has been attributed to an increase in anemia and hypokalemia (4-5). Recently the impact of agricultural practices on soil health has also been of interest but to date there have not been many controlled studies. The relationship of soil health to nutritional value and the safety of foods has sparked interest but often they are not connected to agricultural research programs. To date most policies have focused on food safety, with primary focus being on setting action limits and best practices to limit contamination of foods with heavy metals or microbes found in the soil.

The aim of this proposal is to create a transdisciplinary research, funding, and outreach program to forward the knowledge and practices of soil science and public health. The study is anticipated to have a global impact on the marketing of individual products, the standard ranges of nutrient and other components of crops in composition databases, and evaluation of overall public health.  The project is intended to have a global outreach and serve as a lead to establish international collaborations with other ILSI entities and other parties.


  • Establish a committee of public and private sector scientists.
  • Identify the relevant crop systems; identify research gaps and priorities.
  • Create a network within the tripartite model and civil societies, and across disciplines to promote debate and support in addressing identified gaps.


  • Focus on 1 or 2 areas of greatest interest to create hypotheses for study in the crop systems.
  • Conduct literature review and synthesis.
  • Create active connections with ag research stations and nutrition/safety experts to address these gaps.


  1. Brevik, E.C., et al. (2020) Soil and Human Health: Current status and future needs. Air, Soil and Water Research 13: 1-23.
  2. National Drought Mitigation Center. University of Nebraska. The Dust Bowl.
  3. Kopittke, P.M., Dalal, R.C., Finn, D., Menzies, NW. (2017) Global changes in soil stocks of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulphur as influenced by long-term agricultural production. Glob Chang Biol 23(6): 2509-2519.
  4. Sun H., Weaver CM. (2021) Decreased Iron Intake Parallels Rising Iron Deficiency Anemia and Related Mortality Rates in the US Population. J Nutr 151: 1947-55.
  5. Sun H, Weave,r C.M. (2020) Rise in potassium deficiency in the U.S. population links to agriculture practices and dietary potassium deficits. J Ag Food Chem 68(40): 11121-11127.

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