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Good Dirt = Good Health + a Stable Climate

By Madeline Davis

Beyond being citizens of this planet, how connected are we to the health of our earth? Does our own wellness extend to the air, the soil, and the plants around us? 

Emerging research on the human microbiome shows that our immediate environments are an extension of our internal environments; our internal microbiome—the diverse population of microorganisms that exist in our gut, our skin, and throughout our body—is directly correlated to the environments we come into contact with every day, and thus changes to these environments on a global scale have affected our collective wellbeing. 

Globally, and especially in developed countries, our gut microbiomes have become less diverse over time. More people live in urban areas than ever before, and life is often filled with processed foods, on-the-go living, and hand sanitizer rather than with fresh air, dirt, and good bacteria. As a society obsessed with cleanliness, many of us have been taught that bacteria is bad, that it is the cause of disease and unwellness, but modern research has shown that good bacteria is essential for maintaining human health!

Good bacteria also plays a key role in the health of our planet. Soil microbiomes make up the essential ecosystem of services necessary for supporting life and growing healthy food, plus, the power to maintain climate homeostasis. 

Can you guess the Earth’s most valuable ecosystem? According to this article in The Atlantic, it’s our living soil, which provides “ecological services such as climate regulation, mitigation of drought and floods, soil erosion prevention, and water filtration, worth trillions of dollars each year.” 

Around the world, soil microbiomes have become increasingly less diverse as monocrop farming practices and the use of agrochemicals have wiped out the unique bacterias that made up these unique microscopic habitats. So, in addition to risking our biodiversity and climate stability, our soil may not offer the same microbial benefit it once did to our bodies. 

Without direct contact with dirt and the beneficial microbiota it houses, our gut microbiome encounters some negative consequences. BUT what are these consequences, and can they be mitigated?

“The Gut” is now seen as a collective part of our body when for so long it was treated as merely the mechanism by which we digested our food. The gut not only acts as the epicenter of our immune system, but also plays a vital role in decision making and our emotional state via the Enteric Nervous System which is sometimes referred to as the “Gut Brain Connection.”  This is a brand new area of research in medicine that offers major potential impact in the ways we view human health and treat disease. For example, only five months ago, research published in the March 2020 Human Microbiome Journal shared evidence that linked sociability in humans with higher gut diversity, and anxiety and stress with reduced diversity. 

Without a doubt, the climate crisis and its associated changes have affected human health on a massive scale, and when we consider the key role that our gut health, and a diverse microbiome play in our overall well being, the decline in the diversity and health of our soil, and it’s associated effects are poised to cause a massive and problematic shift in our wellbeing as a society. 

Without our gut health, we have very little. And without the diverse array of bacteria picked up in nature, we lose our health and our bodily connection to the natural world.  It’s fair to say that the health of our soil, the way we treat the earth, and the way we farm are all deeply linked to our wellbeing. It’s up to us to support climate justice on a larger, political stage, but also to make small changes to our own habits that can help support biodiversity within our own personal ecosystems. 

Using our dollars to purchase organic foods from small-scale and local farmers helps to divert money away from the factory farms that are the cause of so much ecosystem toxicity. Small shifts in our spending and behavior can help promote the biodiversity that supports so many unique lifeforms, and our own health.

And DEFINITELY get your hands in the dirt when you can.