Diseases as Deficiencies via the Soil

By Dr. William A. Albrecht

Summary: In this article world-renowned soil scientist Dr. William Albrecht, former Chairman of the Department of Soils at the University of Missouri, connects the dots between unhealthy soil created by unsustainable farming practices and deficiency-related disease. “The degenerative diseases of the modern world,” Dr. Albrecht says, “need to be traced not only to the supplies in the food and feed market where the family budget may provoke them but a bit farther and closer to their origin, namely the fertility of the soil, the point at which all agricultural production takes off.” From the Iowa State University Veterinarian, 1950. Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research reprint 37A.

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Diseases as Deficiencies via the Soil[spacer height=”20px”]

Editor’s note: Dr. Albrecht is now Professor of Soils and Chairman of the Department of Soils at the University of Missouri College of Agriculture. He holds four degrees, AB, BS, MS, and PhD, from the University of Illinois. Dr. Albrecht’s studies have dealt with the soil’s service in the nourishment of life.

The word “disease,” like its counterpart, the word “health,” still challenges our definition of it. Commonly, one of these terms is said to be the opposite of the other. But such a statement fails to give a definition of either. The discovery of “germs” and their presence [accompanying] irregularities in body physiology of animals and man has been consoling but not universally curing now for many years.

Unfortunately, we have not always established causal connection between the presence of the microorganisms and the disturbed function in the specific vital area. Contemporaneous association of two phenomena is by no means specific proof of causal connection between them. Whether microbes are the real cause of “disease” is still a doubtful matter in many cases so listed but not carefully examined for possible fallacious reasoning.

Now that vitamins have come into our knowledge “as something that will kill you if you don’t eat them,” there is a growing recognition of degenerative diseases. These are common in the absence of a positive agency and of all that is commonly included under microbes, parasites, and other materies morbi. There are growing signs that even the pathologist is clinging less tenaciously to those positive agencies as provocation of disease and that he is giving consideration to causation prefixed by the minus sign. While it has long been common belief that disease is an infliction visited on us from without, there is a growing recognition of its possible origin from within—because of deficiencies and failures to nourish ourselves completely.

Fuller knowledge of nutrition is revealing mounting numbers of cases of deficiency diseases. These deficiencies need to be traced not only to the supplies in the food and feed market, where the family budget may provoke them, but a bit farther and closer to their origin, namely, the fertility of the soil—the point at which all agricultural production takes off. These increasing cases classified as deficiencies are bolstering the truth of the old adage that tells us, “To be well fed is to be healthy.”

Higher Animals Make Demands for Their Good Nutrition and Thereby Good Health

Man, at the top of the biotic pyramid—with animals, plants, microbes, and soil, in that order, below him—has reveled in the loftiness and authority of that position. He is slowly realizing that it is a more and more hazardous one. It represents the extreme of complexities and numbers to which his foods must be chemically compounded and delivered by the coordinated and consecutive helps from the life forms below him. If they fail him, he suffers deficiencies.

He, like his supporting animals, cannot synthesize, for example, the necessary proteins from the elements. Animal life can only assemble them from the amino acids, provided that the necessary kinds and amounts of each of these can be collected from the plants and the microbes, still lower in the biotic pyramid. These are the lowly forms by which alone these essentials [proteins] are created from the simpler elements, including many from the soil.

Plants can synthesize carbohydrates rapidly from the air, rainfall, and sunshine with but little help from the soil. By this means crops pile up bulk and fattening food values rapidly. But before their life processes—those operating independently of direct sunshine power—can convert those carbohydrates into amino acids and proteins, they must have help from the soil fertility. They must burn a good share of these energy substances to give less bulk as a result of that conversion.

Protein-producing plants demand a long list of fertility elements from the soil. Nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus are required to make up part of the protein molecule. There are many other elements that may serve, seemingly in the main, as tools in this transformation. Calcium, or lime, has always been required as help for the protein-delivering activities by legumes. For too long a time, we thought it was needed only to fight off soil acidity from them.

Magnesium, manganese, boron, copper, zinc, molybdenum, and other trace elements are also necessary in connection with protein construction, even if in such small amounts as to be called a mere “trace.” We are just getting instruments and methods refined enough to recognize and evaluate, in part, the services of the so-called “trace” elements. Most of their behaviors in nutrition are not yet elucidated. If they function mainly in connection with protein, our lack of knowledge of protein then explains probably our shortage in knowledge concerning them.

Carbohydrates Values Are Well Known, but Protein Services in Nutrition Are Little Known

Nutrition has done much to interpret the fuel and energy values of feeds and foods. Plant physiology is interpreting plant nutrition for carbohydrate delivery as this registers changes in plant bulk—by more or less tons and bushels. Unfortunately, in the nutrition of both plants and animals, we know all too little about the roles played by the proteins, the foods that rebuild the body, that carry life, and that guarantee reproduction. They, in certain liquid forms as serum and in compounds of cellular dimensions as corpuscles—constitute the bloodstream.

It is those proteins that combat invading microbes, build antibodies, and give protection against so-called “disease,” “allergies,” etc., in biochemical ways and means yet unknown. The myriads of different kinds of proteins coming about by no more than just rearrangement and varied combinations of the constituent amino acids of that molecule are still in the realm of mystery.

Undergirding the bloodstream—through synthesis by the body of the special proteins for it—is now being considered a significant role of good nutrition when we speak of “protective” foods. Through the wider acceptance of that principle, a big step will be made toward the absence of disease and the presence of its counterpart, good health.

Some recent tests of alfalfa to determine its content of different essential amino acids as related to soil treatments with trace elements point to deficiencies in these components of protein [corresponding] to the trace elements as soil deficiencies. These demonstrations suggest the working hypothesis that possibly the declining and exhausted supplies of soil fertility are responsible for less synthesis by crops of proteins in total (so crudely measured in terms of total nitrogen multiplied by 6.25) and for less of, or the absence of, some specific amino acids. With total protein decreasing in our wheat, with a drop in it in corn from 9.5 percent to 8.5 percent over ten years, and with the specific deficient amino acids in corn low possibly because trace elements are deficient, should we not turn to considering some diseases as possible deficiencies coming by way of the soil?

When Ample Nutrition Is the Cure for Tuberculosis, Isn’t Deficient Nutrition Then Its Possible Cause?

Isn’t it good nutrition that is used as the “cure” for human tuberculosis? In that “disease” the effort is not given to the extermination of the microbes from the lungs and other body parts by means of antiseptics and other sterilizing agents. Instead, [the treatment] is nutrition—by milk, eggs, meat, and all else for a high-protein diet. Under such treatment the germs apparently recognize their premature anticipation of a task of disposition and literally move out.

Shall we emphasize the “cure” in this case, or shall we raise the question of whether deficient nutrition and defective physiology were in advance of, and an invitation to, the entrance by the microbes? Were the “germs” the cause, then, or merely an accompanying phenomenon of what is a deficiency but which we call tuberculosis? Might this not be the cause for some of our cattle diseases accompanied by microbes but yet so baffling that slaughter is still the “cure”?

In cases of undiagnosable animal ailments, the able veterinarian often recommends feeding good alfalfa hay, grown on the more fertile Midwestern soils, or he prescribes some extra amounts of other protein supplements as  accompaniments to his medication. When the animal recovers, a similar confusion as to the correct explanation of causes for the animal’s recovery is involved.

Animal Choices of Grazing Areas Are According to Soil Differences for Balanced Plant Nutrition

Wild-animal choices of fertilized crops in what is commonly called depredations and choices by domestic animals discriminating in favor of fertilized grazing areas point to the higher concentration of protein or of the inorganic elements associated with its production by plants as provocation of the particular choice. Unbalanced plant nutrition, however, such as that demonstrated by the tall grass on urine-treated spots in the pasture, is refused by the grazing cow. [In this] she testifies that, unlike us, she is not subscribing to big bulk and even luscious, green appearances. Instinctively, she selects good nutrition for good health by her own, nonveterinarian support. She points out, nevertheless, the soil fertility differences too little considered by us as her feeders.

Such manifestations of animal instincts in connection with their nutrition are gradually pointing to the need for more refined criteria for “feed.” The cow’s protests against our pastures when she breaks through the fence onto the virgin, unexploited highway fail to suggest to us that she may have been suffering for some time from deficiency disease of nonclinical severity [sufficient] to provoke her risking her neck in going through the barbed wire fence. With our limited knowledge of the physiological irregularities provoking her behavior, we do not bring up the question of her health or of some disease as feed deficiency. Instead, we look to a yoke for that neck.

Any Knowledge Seems to Come Slowly and That About the Soil Apparently More So

With the fattening of animals and its speculative aspects so prominent in agriculture, and with so little attention given to real production in terms of good nutrition because its failure is too commonly considered some “disease” or “bad luck,” it will take some time before we appreciate fully the simple fact that the soil fertility is the foundation of the pyramid of all life. We are slowly realizing that the soil is the source from which every branch in the assembly line of agricultural production is kept running full. As long as [maximum] crop bulk and animals [being] merely fattened for more weight are the major goals of our agricultural effort, our thinking to no greater depths will delay the day when we see the soil as support and in control of production.

That a soil may be speedily exploited of its protein-producing power while its capacity for delivery of carbohydrate bulk holds on long afterward is a potent fact that has not yet been recognized in our westward march. Under such circumstances we shall continue to talk about “buying” and rationing protein supplements instead of accepting the costs of soil treatments to grow them.

When a soil is not fertile enough to make the protein in a seed crop, as was the case for early trials with soybeans, we say, “This is a hay crop but not a seed crop.” In that remark we show our lack of appreciation of the consequences for the poor cow asked to live, reproduce, and give milk while feeding on that hay. When such a “legume” hay was fed to fattening steers, it was a surprise that some of them “went down” on their hocks as if hamstrung and others [went down] with paralysis of the rear quarters.

We are gradually coming to see that “poor health” is creeping into the animals even while in the fattening process, because poor feeds result from poor crops, and the poor crops could do no better in their creative effort than was permitted by the soil from which alone creative potentials spring forth. Unfortunately for our domestic animals, it may take a goodly number of their disasters and deaths to convince us generally that much that is classed as animal diseases may be no more than nutritional deficiencies, traceable to the low fertility of our soils that are growing the feeds.

By W.A. Albrecht, AB, BS, MS, PhD, University of Missouri. Reprinted from The Iowa State University Veterinarian, Vol. 12, No. 3, 1950, by the Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research. 

Reprint No. 37A
Reprinted by Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53201

Note: Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research is a nonprofit, public-service institution, chartered to investigate and disseminate nutritional information. The attached publication is not literature or labeling for any product, nor shall it be employed as such by anyone. In accordance with the right of freedom of the press guaranteed to the Foundation by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the attached publication is issued and distributed for informational purposes.


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