William Albrecht: Unhealthy Soil, Unhealthy People

By Jenny Beth Dyess

William Albrecht (1888–1974) cared about the link between soil health and people’s health. As he witnessed the rise of industrial agriculture, he became deeply concerned about the negative impacts of profit driven farming on the soil. Chairman of the Department of Soils at the University of Missouri in the 1950s, Albrecht desired, as a scientist, to understand the complexities of soil health and how that might impact humans.

William Albrecht was fascinated by the link between soil fertility and public health. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Fascinated by the link between the health of people and the soil, he reviewed the dental records of 70,000 U.S. sailors from the World War II era. Using cavities as indicators, he found that nutritional deficiencies, particularly in calcium and potassium, in the sailors’ dental health records correlated with insufficient fertility of the soil in the region of the U.S. they were from. For example, someone from the more weathered and nutrient deficient lands east of the Mississippi River had more cavities than someone from Hereford, Texas where soil nutrition was significantly higher.

While dental hygiene has drastically improved American teeth there are other health problems which may still be linked to the soil. In 2003, Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona stated that nearly two out of every three children are overweight or obese. Currently, 33.8 percent of American adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and numbers are on the rise. In 2000 no state had an obesity rate of 30 percent or more but by 2009, 9 states had obesity rates of 30 percent or more and in 2010 that number had risen to 12 states.

Compared with the early 1900s, not only has food per capita available to Americans increased, Americans are eating more nutrient dense foods. Meat consumption has quadrupled and cheese consumption is seven and a half times what it was in the early 1900s, but fresh fruit and home grown vegetable consumption have decreased. In 1919, about 25 percent of vegetables consumed were from a home garden, by 1998 that had dropped to less than 3 percent.

America’s obesity epidemic may not simply be the result of overeating but a result of the type of food we are consuming. John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus University of Missouri, believes that “many Americans may overeat because their food leaves them undernourished.”

More than 40 percent of Americans eat no fruits or vegetables on any given day, but that is not the only problem. It is also the nutritional content of those fruits and vegetables. Albrecht suggested that if humans lack essential nutrients in their diets, they may continue to feel hungry despite consuming more calories than is recommended.

Albrecht’s hypothesis has seen some scientific support in recent years. In 2004, the Journal of American College of Nutrition published a study that compared nutrient levels in 43 garden crops in 1999 with studies the USDA conducted in the 1950s. When measured in dry weight, they found declines in the average concentration of six important nutrients including protein by 6 percent, calcium by 16 percent, iron by 15 percent, and riboflavin by 38 percent. The study concludes that declines are most easily explained by changes in crop varieties, which trade-off nutrient content for a high yield.

In 2008, a review by The Organic Center of 97 published studies found that in 61 percent of cases, organic food was nutritionally superior to conventionally produced foods. This is in part due to higher levels of polyphenols and antioxidants, which are especially important since the average daily intake among consumers of these compounds is less than half of recommended levels. In three-fourths of the studies, potassium, phosphorous, and total protein levels were higher in conventional crops, but these nutrients are usually in adequate supply in the average American diet.

At the 2011 William A. Albrecht lecture at the University of Missouri, John Ikerd praised Albrecht for ignoring public criticism and working to bridge economics, agriculture, the environment, and society to seek a true understanding of how we live and eat in this world. While more scientific research is needed on the link between soil health and human health, overfed and undernourished Americans can make responsible eating choices to improve their health.

Jenny Beth Dyess is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

To read about organizations working towards healthy soil and healthy people see:  Mazingira Institute and NEFSALF: Training a New Breed of Farmers, Innovation of the Week: Delivering Lasting Change with a Backpack, and Small-scale farming holds key to cleaner future.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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