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January 26, 2023
Soil Fertility Now vs. 100 Years Ago (Plus 8 Ways It's Hurting Your Health)
Something is happening in the dirt—something that most of us don’t even know about: soil depletion.
Soil depletion is the loss of soil fertility due to the improper use or poor management of land (think: aggressive modern farming techniques, overgrazing, deforestation, and invasive construction work) (1).
This has been an issue stretching far back into human history. As far back as 1921, experts knew that soil fertility had a direct correlation to the number of nutrients in crops, but the problem has continued to spiral (2).
Experts estimate that around 95% of our food is grown directly or indirectly on soil (3). But unless we change our tune and develop new farming practices, the amount of functional farmland per person will drastically decrease in the next few decades (4).
So, why are we talking about dirt? Because while soil depletion is pretty concerning from an environmental perspective, that’s not where the problems stop. Soil depletion can also have a direct impact on your nutrition intake and overall health.
8 Ways Your Health Suffers When Soil Is Depleted
Because depleted soil has lower nutrient levels and higher levels of toxins, it could lead to negative health impacts in the long run. Here are some of the potential risks…
1. Possible Protein Deficiency
In an analysis of 43 garden crops, protein in crops decreased at a median of 6% from 1920 to 2001 (5). In corn, protein content declined a whopping 30 to 50% (6). As many as one billion people around the world aren’t able to get enough daily protein. In Central Africa and South Asia, it’s predicted that as many as 30% of children aren’t getting enough (7, 8). Without enough protein, you may experience a weakened immune system, loss of muscle mass, an increased risk of osteoporosis fractures, fatigue, and irritability (9, 10, 11, 12, 13).
2. Too Much Starch
From 1920 to 2001, starch content in corn—the United States’ largest crop—notably increased (14, 15). Starch is the most commonly eaten type of carbohydrate (the other two types are fiber and sugar). Starches are fine in moderation, especially when they take the form of potatoes or sweet potatoes. But unfortunately, many starches today are highly refined, which can cause rapid blood sugar spikes. Refined starches may cause a higher risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and weight gain (16, 17, 18, 19).
3. Not Enough Trace Minerals
Over the last few decades, vegetable crops have had lower levels of trace minerals like manganese, zinc, and copper (20). The body needs trace minerals in small amounts in order to function in a healthy manner (21). Manganese plays a role in brain and nervous system function (22). Copper also helps with brain and nervous system function, while playing a role in connective tissue formation (23). Zinc is vital to immunity, skin health, and protection against inflammation (24, 25). While you don’t need much of these trace minerals, it’s incredibly important to get enough to keep your body functioning smoothly (26).
4. Increased Exposure to Toxic Minerals like Lead
Many soil samples now include more toxic materials, including aluminum, cadmium, and lead (27).
Day-to-day low-level exposure to aluminum through cooking and food is common. It’s generally considered safe, but higher levels of aluminum exposure come with health concerns (28). Experts believe that excess aluminum exposure may be a potential factor in developing Alzheimer’s disease, though more research is needed to know for sure (29, 30, 31). Some researchers also believe that aluminum may be a risk factor for inflammatory bowel disease (32, 33).
As for cadmium, low levels of this heavy metal are found in many foods—especially shellfish, kidney meats, and liver. It can also be found in air, water, and cigarette smoke. Exposure to small amounts over time may create a build-up of cadmium in the kidneys. Ongoing cadmium exposure has been linked to kidney disease, bone fragility, lung damage, and increased risk of cancer (34, 35).
5. Not Enough Magnesium
In recent decades, magnesium levels in wheat and many vegetables have decreased by up to 25% (39). Magnesium is a powerful mineral that helps the body thrive by boosting energy and encouraging healthy muscle and nerve function. Chronically low levels of magnesium can increase your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis (40, 41).
6. Lower Levels of Vitamin C
From 1950 to 1999, many garden crops saw a decrease in vitamin C (also called ascorbic acid) (5). If you’re not getting enough vitamin C, your immune system could become weaker and your risk of infection could increase (42).
7. Not Enough Phosphorus
Crops have also seen a decrease in phosphorus over the last few decades (43). This mineral teams up with calcium to play a role in building your bones. It also helps your body produce energy (44). When your body is short on phosphorus, you may experience bone pain, bone weakness, anxiety, fatigue, and joint stiffness (45, 46).
8. Possible Iron Deficiency
Iron levels have decreased in many crops as well (5). This nutrient is important to blood health, helping to transport oxygen and carry red blood cells from your lungs to other parts of the body (47). If you don’t get enough iron, you might find yourself experiencing headaches, dizziness, anemia, and lower levels of energy (48).
How to Get Those Nutrients Back
Strategically chosen supplements can help you replenish the nutrients you may be losing.
A greens powder like Native Greens Superfood Powder is a great way to make up for lost veggie nutrients. Just one small scoop includes 21 organic vegetables, fruits, and superfoods so that you can load up on antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins that could be missing from modern crops. All you need to do is mix it into your water or smoothie!
If you’re worried about the protein decrease in crops, grass-fed collagen is a great protein source. You can take collagen daily in your favorite hot or cold beverage, or even in a food recipe.
If magnesium deficiency is your concern, you can try a collagen solution that combines magnesium into the mix! Nativepath Collagen PM can help you make up for lost magnesium each night before bed. This soothing blend of collagen, magnesium, GABA, L-theanine, and melatonin is a perfect nighttime beverage to help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
Another tip that may help you make up for lost nutrients is to reach for organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised food at the grocery store. Some experts believe that the soil used to grow organic crops may be less depleted, but more research is needed to know for sure.
Soil quality is declining due to soil depletion.
When soil is depleted, the microorganisms that make up its fertility and vitality are removed and can’t be replaced. In turn, the soil’s nutrient content goes down.
Crops from depleted soil may be lacking in protein, trace minerals, magnesium, vitamin C, phosphorus, and iron.
Many crops from depleted soil have seen an increase in starch, aluminum, lead, and cadmium levels.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is soil depletion?
Soil depletion is the loss of soil fertility caused by various factors, including natural erosion, overuse of fertilizers, and soil contamination. When this happens, the quality and nutrient content of soil significantly declines.
What nutrients are in soil?
Soil is loaded with phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen. It also includes calcium, sulfur, and magnesium (49). These nutrients enable the soil to support the growth of crops that are packed with all kinds of essential vitamins and minerals. However, when soil is depleted, these nutrients take a nosedive.
As a writer, editor, and wellness seeker, Claire has written for Self, Health, Prevention, CNN, Mic, Livestrong, and Greatist, just to name a few. When she's not writing, she specializes in traveling, getting lost in health-related research rabbit holes, and finding new ways to spoil her cat.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.