Chances are, you rarely think about soil during dinner time. Yet, soil provides 98.8% of our food (1). Just think about it, plants grow from the soil. Many of these plants either end up on our plates or are consumed by animals we eat. Soil is clearly vital for our survival. Soil quality is critical for us to thrive. Healthy soil will help nutritious plants to grow. Unhealthy soil lacking nutrients cannot provide what’s needed for a healthy diet. So what’s the problem with soil nutrient depletion? How can it harm our health and environment? And what harmful industrial and agricultural practices can lead to soil nutrient depletion? Let’s talk about it. In Part 2 of this soil health series, I will discuss the benefits of soil regeneration practices. But first, let’s talk about soil nutrient depletion.


soil Nutrient Depletion

The Problem with Soil Nutrient Depletion

Even though soil quality is so important for our health and vitality, modern farming and agricultural practices are destroying the soil we once had, leading to devastating consequences around the world. Globally, up to 20% of our land is already degraded. About 52% of agricultural land is moderately or severely affected by soil degradation and nutrient depletion (2).

Unfortunately, this problem is only growing. At this rate, soon, most of our soil will be depleted of nutrients, seriously affecting our food quality, health, and well-being.

Signs of Poor Agricultural Practices

We are already seeing signs of poor agricultural practices, mismanaged farming, soil degradation, and soil nutrient depletion. According to a meta-analysis that looked at 102 studies on changes in soil stock, nutrient depletion may be serious. They found that nutrient stores have declined by 42%. Sulfur content has declined by 33% and phosphorus by 27% roughly in the past 45-60 years. (3). Our plants need these nutrients for photosynthesis, protein synthesis, enzyme action, and overall optimal growth. If they can’t do that, it will affect not only the health of our plants but our health too.

Decreased Soil Fertility and Selective Breeding

With the decrease in soil fertility and selective breeding, the nutrient content of our greens, vegetables, fruits, and grains has also been compromised in recent decades. One study looked at the nutrient content of 43 garden crops between 1950 and 1999. They found a serious 6% to 38% decline in certain micronutrients, including calcium, riboflavin, phosphorus, iron, and vitamin C, in their crops (4).

Other research found that the protein content in corn has decreased from 30 to 50%, and the starch (carbohydrate) content significantly increased within only 80 years from 1920 to 2001 (5). The level of magnesium present in our vegetables and wheat has also decreased by 25% (6). Important mineral levels, including zinc, copper, manganese, and nickel, have also decreased, while levels of aluminum, cadmium, lead, and other toxic minerals have increased in our vegetable and fruit crops due to soil quality and farming practices (7).

Since nearly 99% of the daily caloric consumption of the world’s population can be attributed to the soil, increased soil nutrient depletion is a serious, potentially even life-threatening issue if we continue on the trajectory we are currently on. I’ve already written about the serious effects of sulfur depletion and sulfur deficiency here. I’ve also discussed the importance of supplementing with certain micronutrients in this article.


Nutrient Depletion

The Problem with Industrial Agriculture and Modern Farming Practices

Industrial agriculture has one main goal: increased crop yield. In theory, this may sound good: more crops mean more food. Unfortunately, in practice, focusing only on increased crop yields without caring about soil quality and food quality results in soil erosion, soil nutrient depletion, and nutrient-deficient food.

Industrial agriculture is causing soil degradation at a rate that is 100 to 1,000 times faster than it can be replenished (8). In some farming regions, our capacity to grow and harvest crops may only last for about 60 years because our soils may be completely stripped of all nutrients (9).


Industrial Agriculture and Climate Change

Soil depletion may also contribute to climate change. Besides growing food, the other main role of soil is to serve as a reservoir for carbon. Left undisturbed, the soil has the capacity to retain its carbon stores for hundreds to thousands of years. Soil may store about 1,325 gigatons of carbon (GtC) in the top few feet and up to 3,000 gigatons of carbon in deeper layers (10).

Nutrient Leaching

Storing carbon in the soil and higher soil organic carbon helps to improve soil structure and soil productivity. It may improve oxygen levels in the solid (soil aeration), water drainage, and water retention. It may increase the resilience of soil against floods, droughts, erosion, and nutrient leaching.

Nutrient leaching refers to the downward movement of dissolved nutrients in the soil due to rainfall, irrigation, or other causes of percolating water in the soil. Nutrient leaching may lead to loss of nutrients from the crops, as they drain down below the rooting zone. Though this may be only temporary, as nutrients may still be recycled and used if the roots grow deeper, it is still not ideal for growing nutrient-dense food all season.

Unfortunately, modern agricultural practices can disrupt the soil, leading to the release of stored carbon into our atmosphere. According to the UN, without making significant efforts to protect our land and restore our soil, about 70 (GtC) may be emitted by 2050 as a result of current land use, industrial agriculture, and soil degradation (11).

Polar Regions

This can become a particular issue in the polar regions of our planet. Overall temperatures are increasing at a fast rate in the northern latitudes. You can think about these areas as your freezer. When you unplug your freezers but leave food in there, it will become a feast for bacteria and rotten food.

The same thing happens in these polar regions in our soil. It’s like pulling the plug on the frozen soil, which can unleash stored carbon. Microbes will readily appear to start converting the released carbon into CO2 and methane gasses. As CO2 and other greenhouse gasses trap heat, they will raise the Earth’s atmosphere, raising the planet’s temperature, our ice caps will melt further, contributing to climate change.


The carbon cycle is nature’s way of reusing carbon atoms. Carbon atoms move from our atmosphere into organisms and then back to the atmosphere, repeating this cycle endlessly. Releasing too much CO2 and other gasses into the atmosphere will throw off this balance and contribute to climate change and related issues. Improving our soil health and the long-term storage of carbon in our soil may help to lessen the ongoing fossil fuel emissions of greenhouse gas.


Nutrient Depletion

Harmful Practices of Industrial Agriculture and Modern Farming Practices

Now that you understand the problem with industrial agriculture and the risk of soil nutrient depletion, I want to go over some modern farming methods and industrial agriculture practices that may contribute to soil erosion and soil nutrient depletion.


Synthetic Fertilizers

In industrial agriculture, farmers use synthetic fertilizers over natural, soil-friendly options, such as covering crops, crop rotation, manure, and compost. Their food production load requires a large amount of synthetic fertilizers. In fact, the production of nitrogen-based fertilizers has skyrocketed 9.5-fold since 1960 and only increasing (12).

This can have serious environmental and health consequences. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers deplete soil nutrients because they kill microbes in the soil (13). This is not great news for growing nutrient-dense foods. Foods treated with synthetic fertilizers may also disrupt your gut flora. They may impact your nervous system health, immune health, and reproductive function, and may increase your risk of cancer (14).

Moreover, farmers apply so much synthetic fertilizers that crops can’t take them all. At least half of the nitrogen drains into our environment. These inorganic, synthetic fertilizers can obliterate soil microbes, which are critical for soil homeostasis and soil nutrient content (15).

Nitrates, ammonia, and other nitrogen residues may also make their way to our water sources, including rivers, groundwater, lakes, and oceans. This may also lead to an increase in the growth of algae, damage or kill aquatic life, and decrease oxygen levels (16, 17).


Pesticides, Herbicides, and Fungicides

Besides synthetic fertilizers, modern farming practices also heavily rely on the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to reduce and control the growth of unwanted organisms and support the increased growth of crop yield. Unfortunately, the use of these unnatural, toxic materials can have serious consequences.

Pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides don’t only kill harmful microbes. They may also impact the population of beneficial microbes that are instrumental to soil health. They may also negatively affect the behavior and health of honeybees and butterflies and disrupt pollination (18, 19).

Residue from pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides may also make its way into our water systems, the food we eat, and of course, our air. Exposure to these agricultural toxins through food, water, or air can lead to chronic inflammation, chronic symptoms, and chronic health issues, including asthma, respiratory issues, neurological problems, and even cancer (20, 21).

Glyphosate is probably one of the most well-known herbicides. Though it’s used in hundreds of millions of crops each year, it can have serious environmental and health consequences, including gut microbiome imbalance, hormonal imbalance, endocrine issues, diabetes, autoimmune issues, oxidative stress, and cancer (22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27. 28).



Modern industrial farming has forgotten about the wisdom of historic farming practices, which focused on soil health through diversity. Instead, they use monocropping and monoculture. This means they grow only one single crop, year after year, in the same area. If an area is a cornfield, it is only a cornfield and will always be a cornfield every year.

Monocropping is one of the biggest issues I see in industrial agriculture. This practice can make our farms more vulnerable to disease. And if one type of disease shows up, it could potentially seriously impact or even wipe out millions of acres of crops of the same single species grown in the area. Monocropping practices can seriously impact the nutrient content of our soil and our crops and threaten our food system and food security (30, 31).

A healthier practice is crop rotation, which involves changing up what is planted in fields, by season or year by year. This practice can be done on a larger scale on farmlands, as well as in small personal gardens. It can help to reduce soil erosion, return organic matter to the soil, and replenish nutrient levels for next year’s crops without relying on synthetic fertilizers (29). I will discuss the benefits of rotating crops in my next article on regenerative agriculture.


Tillage-Based Farming

Tillage refers to the mechanical modification of soil structure. It may include cutting, crushing, milling, breathing, rebounding, and other tillage tools to modify soil structure, flatten the land, remove crop residue, control weeds, and mix up the topsoil. Industrial agriculture heavily relies on tillage. However, this is not good for our soil and food production.

Using crop rotations, compost, manures, and other organic farming practices may decrease or eliminate the need for pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides and lead to less soil disturbance and better soil. Tilling may decrease the microbe population of our soil. It may also promote soil erosion, cause soil nutrient depletion, and release greenhouse gasses (32, 33). Yet about 49% of corn, cotton, soybean, and wheat producers use full-width tillage every year, which means that they use one or more tillage trips before and/or during planting, according to the Agricultural Resources Management Survey (34).


Mismanaged Grazing

Last but not least, mismanaged grazing may also increase soil nutrient depletion. Cows and other ruminants are incredibly important in agriculture. As they graze, they convert grasses and other plants into nutrients, creating nutrient-dense animal products.

Ideally, these animals shouldn’t be grazing on the same land continuously but rotate among different sections of grass. Rotating their location will allow certain sections of the grass to rest and regrow. Grazing on the same land month after month, year after year, will contribute to soil erosion, decrease soil carbon reserves, and decrease soil nutrient content. The impact of overgrazing has caused significant damage, leading to the loss of roughly 20% of the world’s grasslands (35).

Even though the use of ruminant animals and grazing practices could significantly support soil health and food production, the importance of these practices is nearly forgotten (36). Animal food production is mostly limited to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where cows are fed on grain residues with limited to no grazing (37). They are also usually treated with antibiotics and hormones for more meat production (38).

These practices mean that it isn’t just our plant-based foods that are at risk of low nutrient content due to soil nutrient depletion. Our animal products will be low-quality and low in nutrients due to the lack of grazing, lack of quality feed, hormone treatment, antibiotic use, and distressing conditions.


Person holding bowl of fresh vegetables

How to Improve Our Soil and Our Food

Fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, monocropping, tilling, and the lack of grazing practices can lead to soil erosion, soil nutrient depletion, and the release of greenhouse gasses. It can lead to serious health and environmental consequences (26).

Common Practices To Save Soil and Improve Its Nutrient Content

So what can we do about it? In my next article, I want to discuss the importance and benefits of regenerative agriculture. But in short, here are some main practices to remember if we want to save our soil, improve the nutrient content of our soil and food, and support our environment. This is what us, the customers, can expect and should demand from our farmers and agricultural regulations,

  • Use compost.
  • Ditch synthetic fertilizers and use natural strategies, such as manures, composts, covering crops, and crop rotation.
  • Go without pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.
  • Forget about monocropping and use crop rotation instead.
  • Say no to tilling.
  • Use cows and ruminants and allow them to graze.
  • Support agroforestry and silvopasture (You will learn more on these in my article on soil regeneration!)

You can remember these practices as you are working on your own garden. If you don’t have a big garden space or are new to gardening, I recommend starting with a small raised bed or even just a container garden. If you live in a city, you can join a community garden. Use these principles and practice gardening without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, and use compost, manure, and flowers to attract pollinators. If you do have a bigger property, you may even introduce a few chickens to the mix.

My Recommendation

I recommend that you visit your local farmer’s market or join a CSA and get to know your farmers. Join the conversation and have informed conversations with them about their farming practices. Learn how and why they do what they do. You, as a customer, can be part of the difference by joining the conversation and supporting those farmers with your dollars that are using regenerative principles.


Organic raw vegetables

Next Steps

If you don’t know how to start making different food choices, or just want some guidance on how to eat a more nutrient-dense diet, I welcome you to schedule a functional nutrition consultation with my nutritionist, Sarah. Visit our store for products.

And stay tuned for more information to help you uncover the root cause of your health issues, improve your nutrition, repair your body, and regain your health naturally.

You can schedule your consultation with Sarah here.