Soil health, plant health and human health: A proposal for research


Soil health, plant health and human health: A proposal for research

Soon after the onset of green revolution, scientists had become aware that increase in the production was taking place due to mining of nutrients from the soil.   When even the macro nutrients were not being given in balanced proportion, the supply of macro nutrients [dozens of them] did not take place adequately.  It is a different matter that constrained supply of micro nutrients affected the efficiency of even the macro nutrients.   Once the mining of minerals/other micro nutrients led to limited supply of the same to the crop/food, the adverse effect on the human health started becoming apparent.   Zinc was first such nutrient which started playing role in the metabolic disorders and supplementation of the zinc to the patients became an accepted practice.  However, for majority of the common people, who cannot afford basic health needs and are often short of even calorie consumption, the possibility of nutrient supplementation at mass scale is very low [except through mid day meal scheme for the children].  The restoration of soil health and thus the micro nutrient profile seems to be most cost effective way of overcoming health disorders caused by deficiency of nutrients.  It is well known that change in the food habits and nutrient uptake has made some of the diseases almost of epidemic order.  The widespread incidence of arthritic pain possibly influenced by the baron deficiency may be a case in point.

The supply of nutrients through soil to food might be more democratic and cost effective than other routes in the long run.   In the short run, we should be able to anticipate the sites at which persistent deficiency of nutrients might lead to health disorders and thus focus on nutrient supplementation in those locations on priority.  Inclusive health care for the poor will have to give priority to preventive care rather than only curative.  The cost of providing nutrient based health care such as in Siddha system of medicine may be much lesser and more effective than providing only inorganic minerals and salts without processing them to make them available more to the body.

There is a need to rethink the health paradigm and generate empirical evidence to substantiate the role of nutrients through food and other amendments as derived from soil in human health.


1.               To review available studies of soil nutrient profiles in different parts of the country and match them with the available health information for the same sites.  In case we do not have similar village to village matching of such data, we may use the closest approximates for generating tentative hypothesis.

2.               To review the available literature on the contribution of different nutrients derived from various foods [crops and crop varieties, livestock breeds and their products] and their role in causing or exacerbating or suppressing the adverse effects on health.

3.               To develop protocol for measuring soil, crop and human health parameters such that the relationship can be established in a statistically significant manner.

4.               To take up a pilot study for systematic benchmarking of soil, crop nutrient profile and match it with the human nutritional levels through monitoring studies round the year in different parts of the country.

5.               To take up special visits to certain sites known for significantly higher level of certain chronic diseases to develop case studies of the relationships under study.

6.               To convene a focus group discussion of eminent scientists to critique the findings of the study and suggest follow up measures.


In a recent report submitted to Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, on establishing Village Knowledge Management System for alleviating rural distress in the suicide prone regions, I have identified several gaps in the available knowledge. For instance, “there are very few studies, which show empirical connection between soil health, crop and livestock health and human health[1] (Albrecht, 1966; Masironi et al., 1973; Schrauzer, 2002; Nair, 2007, Campbell,1995, Williamson and Wyandt, 2000, Paustenbach, Rinehart and Sheehan, 1991, Audibert, Mathonnat, and henry, 2002). The systematic variation in short term nutritional gaps[2],[3],[4] at different growth stages and their long term impact on human productivity and ability to take risks has not been studied adequately (Dorin, 1999; Bamji, 2003; Bamji and Bhat, 2003; Sivakumar, 2003; Vijayaraghavan, 2003; NIN, 2003; Radhakrishna  and Ravi, 2004; Shanti, 2006; Tarun, 2006; Shivakumar, 2007).”  Accordingly, several recommendations were made[5].

  1. National Institute of Nutrition, ICMR, National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning besides several other experts will be invited by SRISTI (Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions) to join this pioneering research programme.  Some private labs as well as organization like Public Health Foundation may also be involved.

  1. The selection of the villages will be made on the basis of established base line of health indicators if possible.  Alternatively, we may take up sites which are otherwise known from public health surveys to fall in chronic disease regions.

  1. A systematic sampling plan in consultation with Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata will be developed to collect data on physical, chemical and microbial data from each farm plot.  GPS readings will be taken to ensure spatial mapping of the sampling sites.

  1. The food samples will be collected both grown in the local regions as well as sourced from outside through public or private channels and samples of the same will be kept in reserve for any follow up testing.  The analysis of the samples will also include anti-nutritive factors as well as pesticidal residues which might interfere with the nutritional availability or utilization in the body.

  1. After meeting all the ethical requirements, the blood samples will be taken from the participants in this study at relevant frequency and the data will be fed back to the participants.  The other diagnostic tests will also be performed at the project costs for all the participants.  Since the feedback of various tests may warrant remedial action, the participants will be covered by a health insurance system linked to nearby reputed medical facilities.   In view of this being a benchmark study, no control group is expected.

  1. Wherever animal products constitute important food items, similar samples will be taken from animal population for analysis of nutrient levels in the body as well as in the products [such as milk, meat, eggs, etc.].

Analysis and implications:

The study is expected to establish a prima facie case for a larger survey in different parts of the country to advise appropriate policy changes.  The traditional systems of medicine have considered many of these linkages between environment, food and health.  This study will provide empirical evidence for such conceptutal frameworks and also generate specific policy implications.

a.                If it is established that soil health contributes directly and significantly towards the human health performance at least in certain disease groups than enriching soils in the regions affected by those diseases would make sense.

b.               The plant breeding for certain nutritional characteristics has been pursued only sporadically.  Several international expert groups had resolved that if enough calories are provided, the accompanying protein and other nutrients will invariably follow.  Time has come to question this consensus.

c.                In an accompanying study, the germplasm collections of NBPGR will be taken up for nutritional screening along with some samples collected from field where local varieties of crop/livestock are bred.  The findings of this study will be matched with the accompanying study to recommend changes in the plant breeding policies.

d.               The case for nutrient supplementation will become much stronger in the short term till soil health is restored and through that the nutrient balance in the human consumption.

e.                The protocols for all India survey of soil, crop, food samples and human health will need to be modified so that the state human health report for the country can generate debate on various health policies of preventive versus curative health systems.   Today nutritional surveys cannot be mapped on the soil nutrition profiles because of the sampling designs.

[1]     In a global meet on zinc “Zinc Crops 2007” at Istanbul, Turkey, agronomists, soil scientists, physiologists and plant and human nutritionalists and medical experts debated the crucial role zinc plays in human nutrition vis-à-vis agriculture, focusing on the developing countries. On the high alert list is India that has among the most Zn deficient soils in the world (91 million hectare). Role of lithium in populations prone to suicides has also been studied.

[2]      The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)’s in its 2008 Global Hunger Index put India into alarming serious state in terms of hunger and malnutrition. In this report Madhya Pradesh is the only state that falls in the extremely alarming category corresponding to that of Chad and Ethiopia, twelve states fall in the alarming category, and Punjab, Kerala, Haryana and Assam falling in the serious category.

[3]  ‘Extent of Chronic Hunger and Malnutrition’ report of United Nations in 2006 criticised the Indian government for the rising number of farmer suicides. According to the latest report by National Crime Record Bureau, New Delhi, Fourty-six farmers commit suicide every day in this country even as packages were rolled out in a bid to bailout the debt-ridden community from crisis.

[4]      Survey were carried out by National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad in 2002-03 in nine drought affected states to assess the impact of drought on diet and nutritional status of the community. A large scale, eight-state community based survey was carried out to study the prevalence of micronutrient deficiency disorders involving both clinical and biochemical forms of vitamin A deficiency, iodine deficiency disorders and iron deficiency anaemia. Food Security was not found encouraging and mean intakes of foodstuffs in almost all the states were low and the households in all these states were not consuming  the recommended levels of cereals and millets.


[5] Recommendations on education, health and nutrition [Gupta, 2009]:

1.                Monitoring educational and health status of various family members, particularly under economic stress, outside formal institutional lending or under default to the moneylenders.

2.                Developing linkage between soil, crop and human health, anticipating implications of changing food habits because of grains distributed through PDS or otherwise.

3.                Monitoring chronic nutritionally deficit regions and households: Special measures to be initiated for providing relief in such regions in a manner that women and children do not suffer excessively contributing to the family distress.

4.                Providing emergency health response in case of attempted suicide or other socio-psychological indicators of depression:  In the post crop failure and other such disasters, special counselling would be needed to avoid distress becoming despair. It is understood that mere counselling may not help.  But, it might create room for manoeuvre for absorbing institutional slackness or inertia in responding to household level critical situations.

5.                Monitoring special health indicators in 31 or 40 districts from where maximum suicides have been reported.


Anil K Gupta