FFAR & Rodale Institute Enhance Soil Health to Increase Crop Nutrients

Kutztown, PA

Many modern agriculture technologies focus on increasing yield, while the nutrient quality of crops is often overlooked. To address this concern, the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) awarded Rodale Institute a $997,455 Seeding Solutions grant to explore the link between soil and human health. Matching funds and in-kind contributions were provided by collaborating institutions – Dickinson College Farm, Iowa State University, L&M Farms, Lakeview Organic Grain, the Pennsylvania State University, Quinn Farm & Ranch Rodale Institute, Stroud Water Research Center, the University of Delaware, and West Virginia University– for a $2,001,761 investment.

Despite greater production of whole foods like grains, beans, nuts and vegetables, the average diet may be nutritionally deficient. Soil is the basis for crop production and provides many of the nutrients that end up in plants and crops that humans ultimately consume. Developing agricultural practices that improve the quality of soil and increase the availability of nutrients in crops is essential to ultimately enhancing human health.

Rodale Institute is building on previous long-term research that measures nutrient concentrations of grains and vegetables to understand the link between soil health, crop nutritional quality and human health. These studies are evaluating various grains and vegetables to measure levels of minerals, proteins, vitamins and antioxidants, such as the nutraceutical ergothioneine. Ergothioneine (ERG), an amino acid with human health benefits, is produced by fungi and fungi-like bacteria and acquired in humans exclusively through diet. Researchers predict that soil microbiology may play an important role in producing and transporting ERG to crops but are unsure about the exact pathway from soil to plant.

Additionally, little is known about how farming practices such as tillage and fertility inputs (i.e.:  fertilizer and herbicides) impact the soil microbiology that is responsible for ERG production and transport to plants. The Rodale Institute collected preliminary data on wheat and oats that indicates no-till and reduced tillage systems have higher levels of ERG than full tillage systems, presumably since these farming practices cause less disruption to soil fungal populations.

This four-year study is investigating soil microbiology and crop nutrient levels, including ERG, in wheat and corn grown in long-term systems trials across the country that differ in their pest, fertility and tillage management. This data will be coupled with controlled field experiments and laboratory experiments that isolate and manipulate microorganisms from the soil to determine the link between soil microorganisms and protein, amino acids and ERG concentrations in the plant, and ultimately, in the food we eat.

“Soil and crop scientists have long known the positive link between soil health and the health of plants, and medical scientists have made advances in understanding the health benefits of diet and plant nutrients, including antioxidants and bioactive chemicals such as ergothioneine,” said Dr. Andrew Smith, Rodale Institute chief operating officer and project lead. “However, rarely do these disciplines cross, and making the link between how we manage soils to grow food and human health is not simple. We are grateful for FFAR for supporting this multi-disciplinary project that brings together farmers, microbiologists and soil and medical scientists to better understand how food production impacts human health.”

By linking existing soil health technologies and practices like no-till to improved nutritional quality of crops, this research is taking an innovative approach to sustainably enhancing human health and nutrition. Extensive application of these methods could result in a transformed U.S. food system and improved human health. Sally Rockey, Ph.D.
Executive Director Emeritus


Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research

The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) builds public-private partnerships to fund bold research addressing big food and agriculture challenges. FFAR was established in the 2014 Farm Bill to increase public agriculture research investments, fill knowledge gaps and complement the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research agenda. FFAR’s model matches federal funding from Congress with private funding, delivering a powerful return on taxpayer investment. Through collaboration and partnerships, FFAR advances actionable science benefiting farmers, consumers and the environment.

Connect: @FoundationFAR | @RockTalking

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