Microbes, Human Health, Animal Health, Plant Health and Environmental Health
The One Health movement proposes that there is a connection between human, animal, plant, soil and ecosystem health. At the heart of this is the idea that the health of all organisms in an ecosystem are interconnected via the microbial communities in the environment, in particular the soil.
Lady Eve Balfour, who founded the Soil Association in 1946 said, ‘The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible’.
Despite this being written over 70 years ago and the fact that 2015 was the International Year of Soils in order to “increase awareness and understanding of the importance of soil for food security and essential ecosystem functions”, we are yet to fully take on board the relationship between the health of soils, plants, animals and people (1).
Poor health or disease states in the plants and animals, including humans may be associated with the health of the soil and the microbial composition within the ecosystem in which they live. The health of the soil is, in turn, affected by human activities, particularly agricultural and industrial practices.
There is no doubt that we need a better understanding of this interconnectedness in order to stimulate a healthy, diverse microbiome throughout human-dominated ecosystems.
A research paper on this matter states: “In the spirit of an expanding version of “One health” that includes environmental health and its relation to human cultures and habits (EcoHealth), we urge that the lifestyle-microbiota-human health nexus be taken into account in societal decision making” (2).
The Role of Soil in Life and Health
Many of us are largely oblivious to the wide ranging benefits of soil for life on earth. Here are just a few roles that soil plays in human health:
- Soil fertility determines the nutrient content of the crops that grow in it. Any nutrient imbalances in the soil can lead to nutrient deficiencies within the population that feeds on that soil.
- The plants that feed livestock also grow in the soil. The fertility of the soil will impact the nutrient content of the of the meat, milk and eggs that we consume.
- Soils sequester excess carbon thus helping to ameliorate the effects of climate change.
- Trees grow in soil – these provide us with building materials, paper, foods and pharmaceuticals.
- Spending time in forests has been shown to relieve stress and improve mental health.
- Soil removes contaminants from our water supply.
- The soil, landscape and vegetation combined have a major effect on the distribution of rainwater thus playing a key role in the water supply. Water is essential to every aspect of life.
- Many medicines come from the soil. Antibiotics were first isolated from soil microbes in the 1940s. Since then many different types of antibiotics have been discovered, largely from soil organisms (2).
The Need for Sustainable Agriculture
Over the past few decades soils across the world have been degraded and eroded at a faster rate than they can be replaced. If agricultural food systems are to be sustainable into the future, they must minimise the risk of disease and meet the food requirements of the rising global population, whilst protecting biodiversity, soil health and the wider environment. Looking after the soil could improve resilience in food production and is fundamental for human, animal and ecosystem health (3).
The monoculture system favoured by modern agriculture, with large tracts of land covered in one crop, needs to be replaced with more sustainable farming practices that prioritise soil health and biodiversity. Practices to reduce soil loss include promoting reforestation, protecting ecosystems in danger of desertification, farming methods such as no-till agriculture and permaculture, and increasing biodiversity of plants and insects (4).
As consumers we can play our part by making conscious choices about what we buy and who we buy from. Where possible go for organic foods from small producers who respect the land on which they farm. Farmers markets, local independent shops, pick-your-own and farm shops are all positive ways of feeding ourselves whilst not damaging the ecosystem in which we live. And best of all – try growing some of your own food.
See blog post on Microbes, Immunity and Health for more information about the role of microbes in health and see blog on Benefits of Exercise and COVID-19 to find out about an antioxidant stimulated by exercise and its particular benefits for health in the present time.
1. 3 Nov 2016, How soil health is integral to One Health, Cunniff J.
2. Sci Total Environ 2018 Jun 15;627:1018-1038. The Impact of Human Activities and Lifestyles on the Interlinked Microbiota and Health of Humans and of Ecosystems. Flandroy L et al.
3. Ecosystem Services Soil stewardship as a nexus between Ecosystem Services and One Health. Keith AM, Schmidt O, McMahon BJ,
4. Sci Total Environ. 2019 May 10;664:927-937. One Health – Cycling of Diverse Microbial Communities as a Connecting Force for Soil, Plant, Animal, Human and Ecosystem Health. Bruggen A et al.