Optimizing Human Health and Nutrition: From Soil to Society

Though we are what we eat, there is minimal research available on how different players within the food system interact to influence food availability and human health. Noted barriers to this research and to a broader understanding of agriculture’s role in societal health include a historical separation of the involved scientific disciplines, and an economic incentive to focus on crop yield rather than nutrition. Reducing those barriers not only improves future research, but also the robustness, affordability, and accessibility of our food system.

Close-up of green wheat in a field
Wheat is one of six crops the Soil to Society project will investigate for increased nutritional value. Photo: Dr. Clark Neely

In the fall of 2021, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Sustainable Agricultural Systems (SAS) program awarded $10 million in funding to Washington State University researchers to spearhead a novel Soil to Society pipeline project.  This pipeline addresses gaps in current knowledge and traces the flow of nutrients from agricultural systems and food production to human consumption.  This is a concept that has been utilized by Washington State University researchers since 2016, and further explored in projects supported by WSU’s Grand Challenge Initiative, CSANR’s BIOAg Program, and the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research. The SAS Soil to Society project expands this research by dedicating funding to increasing the nutritional value in food made from six crops—wheat, barley, peas, lentils, buckwheat, and quinoa.

The SAS Soil to Society project involves over 20 researchers from Washington State University and Johns Hopkins University, and evaluators from Kansas State University to improve the soil quality where these crops are grown, develop more nutritional varieties and products that can be brought to market, and evaluate the impact of these foods on human health. By bringing together soil scientists, plant breeders, food scientists, and health researchers, the Soil to Society grant will cross disciplines to develop holistic agricultural management strategies and healthy, affordable food products to meet the needs of diverse individuals and communities.

Multiple loaves of bread on a rack
The Approachable Bread Loaf developed by the Breadlab Collective and WSU Breadlab. Photo: WSU Breadlab

For many Americans, addressing food security is no longer about consuming enough calories in a given day, but meeting the nutritional recommendations set by health organizations. Few Americans receive adequate levels of zinc, iron, and fiber through the Standard American Diet. The Soil to Society strategy is necessary to reinvigorate our food system with higher quality, more nutritious whole grain-based foods.  By encouraging the consumption of whole grains, grain legumes, and pseudocereals, Soil to Society researchers are addressing these dietary imbalances, improving human health, and increasing the sustainability of our diets and the food system.

Soil to Society researchers are also working to address barriers preventing consumers from purchasing nutrient-rich, whole grain-based foods within the local food system by developing food products that are both affordable and approachable to eaters. Food scientists are engineering whole grain-based ready-to-eat foods for all income levels that have better color, aroma, and texture, with 20-50% less salt compared to their conventionally processed counterparts.  Additionally, WSU Breadlab will work with the Bread Lab Collective on the Approachable Loaf Project– “an affordable, approachable, accessible whole wheat sandwich loaf.” For a loaf to be considered an Approachable Loaf, it must be tin-baked and sliced, contain no more than seven ingredients, and be at least 60-100% whole wheat.  It must also be priced at under $8 a loaf, setting it apart from other whole grain, artisan loaves.

“The ultimate goal is to improve human health by increasing consumption of more nutritious, whole grain-based foods” said Kevin Murphy in a recent interview. Murphy serves as Soil to Society program director, WSU associate professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, and CSANR Leadership Team faculty.

To accomplish this goal, project personnel are split into six teams: the Soil and Cropping Systems Team, the Plant Breeding Team, the Food Science and Products Team, the Population Nutrition and Social Science Team, the Human Health and Nutrition Team, and the Education Team. Individually, each researcher on a given team is working to explore a question—whether it be how different food products affect the gut microbiome, or when to fertilize a wheat crop to encourage the highest rates of micronutrients in the wheat berries. These findings will then be analyzed within the context of other team members’ findings, and ultimately within the context of the project as a whole. Only then can conclusions be drawn regarding optimal grain and legume varieties to consume for greater health outcomes, and what products can be best made utilizing these varieties. All researchers will work collaboratively throughout the five-year grant period to produce agricultural, food science, and product development extension materials that summarize best crop and soil management practices and crop varietal options, enterprise budgets and economic decision support tools, and provide opportunities for food companies to gain hands-on experiences in learning how to prepare and process whole grain-based foods.

“The ultimate goal is to improve human health by increasing consumption of more nutritious, whole grain-based foods”

This article is part of a series on the Soil to Society project.  This series will explore the work of each project team, highlighting the different areas of collaboration across disciplines that work this project toward its common goal of creating a healthier food system and human population. Articles in this series will be released monthly- mark your calendars for Tuesday June 13th so you don’t miss the next one.

To learn more about the Soil to Society project and receive updates, go to their website, sign up for their quarterly newsletter, and follow @soiltosociety on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.