Harmony on the plate: Unraveling the nexus of health, nutrition, and ecology in food and farming

Article

The reflections on health-nutrition-ecology relationships through food and farming bring us to never questioned before reality in organic farming as well as the accessibility of foods to those who grow them – the smallholder farmers, and the majority of consumers. This reflective journey sheds light on the pivotal role they play in forging a sustainable and interconnected future, urging us to reconsider our approach to food and agriculture.

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Why does food matter to resilient humans and ecologies? A reflection of the Nexus of Health-Nutrition-Ecology through food and farming.

The German word “Lebensmittel”, one of several words for food in German, literally means “means to life.” It illustrates the vitality aspect of food. Nourishing the body with nutritional, suitable foods should therefore be in the focus for maintaining vitality and overall well-being.

Food-health linkages are already recognised within scientific communities (cf. Schnitter and Berry, 2019; Song et al. 2019; Yambi et al. 2020). Adverse dietary patterns and food insecurity including micronutrient insufficiency represent food related health risks (IPES-Food, 2017). The food security concept, commonly used to measure sustained access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food intake especially in Global South regions, in effect insufficiently explains how food relates to better health (EC-FAO Food Security Programme, 2008). More adequate could be the nutrition security concept as it takes into account the nutritional quality of food intake beyond quantity, which is integral to the prevention of health conditions borne to malnutrition (cf: Ingram, 2020). Ideally, nutritious food should suit the individual metabolism of the person consuming it. Besides the nutritional quality, it is also the way how food is produced and prepared that matters to our body and mind and how we feel about a meal. Food should bring us vitality and not tire us.

Fresh vegetables being sold in a market.

The vehicle-body analogy

If we think of the human body as a vehicle for the mind and our entire being, what would food represent then? To use a metaphor, the body needs adequate food to operate vital functions, just like a car needs the right fuel to run properly and sustainably. The car engine will deteriorate and eventually quit operating when on an inadequate type of fuel. Figuratively, a body that is not provided nutritious foods develops symptoms of illness and might collapse precociously.

Our senses, if not clouded by continuous adverse eating habits or addictive substances that suppress selective body instincts – help us select foods before eating them (McCrickerd and Forde, 2015). The ability to sense is important, because exposing our body to substances uneasy to metabolise can unfold on physical and mental level through maldigestion, food intolerances, metabolic diseases, and stress (Chen et al., 2018). What we eat influences our mood and hormonal status, and eventually our intrinsic drive and social interaction with others. Studies even allude to links between diet and depression and cognitive decline (Rogers, 2001). Thereby, eating according to our individual metabolism has a share on preventive health. This is significant not only for our body, which functions as a vehicle, but also for nurturing a sound and robust mind within it.

Author with organic pomelo farmers and translator in Sanpatong, Chiang Mai, Thailand. The sisters cultivate the organic mixed orchard and house garden together.

Reflections on food provenance and the ecological basis for health

Relationships between healthy food and human health unfold along several axes, for example: food-body-mind, soil-food-health, biodiversity-health. These link to the matter of food production: food that is produced in a way that resonates with the natural growing conditions, rhythms, and soil capacities is likely to resonate with the body’s nutritional needs, too.

Life happens in alignment with the law of nature. In Thai language, the term “kaset thammachard”, literally “agriculture according to the law of nature”, is often used instead of organic agriculture. Organic agriculture is a holistic approach to agriculture meant to sustain ecological and human health while adhering to ecological cycles and biodiversity, and to be responsible of the overall ecosystem health and well-being (IFOAM Organics International, 2020).

To go further, one way of explaining relationships between healthy food and the human health is by analogies of the microbiomes in agricultural soils and the human gut (Ochoa-Hueso, 2017a). Root and gut microorganisms in effect operate under similar conditions, and host plants – food crops – source microorganisms from soils (Blum et al, 2019; Hirt,2020; Ochoa-Hueso, 2017b). A healthy gut system contains higher bacterial diversity to generate essential vitamins and hormones from food. Analogously, a healthy soil ecosystem means high microbial diversity which helps in processing biomass more easily and in improving the resistance to disturbances (Ochoa-Hueso 2017). Likewise, while unprocessed and organically grown foods favour microbial gut diversity, agrochemicals contribute to depletion of microbial diversity of soils. Metabolised by the human organism, chemical residues in foods can then affect biogeochemical cycles (Blum et al., 2019) and have adverse effects on health, such as dermatological, neurological, carcinogenic or respiratory (Nicolopoulou-Stamati et al., 2016).

This demonstrates how the food-health nexus extends to the quality of agricultural soils as the environment in which food is grown. Food and nutrition, individual health and ecological factors are therefore deeply entangled, calling for recognition of the “broader ecological basis for health” (IPES-Food, 2018).

River-adjacent mixed-bed vegetable garden in Maehong Son.

Supporting organic small-scale farmers, and why “good food must be expensive” is a myth

Small-scale farmers around the world are making a great contribution to nutrition security in their regions. In a February 2024 interview with a manager of an organic social enterprise in Bangkok, Thailand, it was revealed that many farmers cultivate vegetables and rice separately from the commercial fields. They are aware that their commercial produce is susceptible to contamination by continuously using agro-chemicals. It is commonly believed  that food is a key cause for increasing cancer rates. Most people assume that eating any vegetables is beneficial to their health, no matter their origin. However, vegetables e.g. grown in hydroponic production – a recent trend in Thailand – are likely contaminated due to the chemicals used in the water-based production. Furthermore, they also lack the soil’s essential microbial base.

Considering this reality, farmers who embrace organic farming and similar local, chemical-free methods are actually taking responsibility to provide wholesome, nutritious foods to their own families and to consumers, by that literally enacting food-health relationships. This is consistent with the author’s field work with organic farmers in Thailand between 2013 and 2016, showing that among these farmers, many actually follow the mindset that producing good food for themselves consistently entails producing good food for others as well. The field work not only showed farmers’ own reflection of health risks resulting from the use of agro-chemicals but also how organic farming can go beyond mere method to embrace an approach to life (Bopp, 2016).    

Three farmers cultivating edible forests: mushrooms for home-use; bee keeping for fruit tree fertilisation; flowers and herbs for farm biodiversity.

In turn, consumers can become critical supporters of the organic farming scenes around the world driven by their motivation to buy safe and healthy foods. This motivation increases as they become aware of the chemical contamination present in commercial food production. Moreover, their support of organic small-scale farmers is a validation of farmers’ valuable service to the society.

While more and more people in the cities in Thailand are looking for shops to source organic foods from, organic supermarkets nowadays offer a remarkable range of organic products and those considered healthy. Often coming with a commercial mindset, these supermarkets tend to significantly markup product prices making them too costly for most consumers (Uthai and Boonrahong, 2023a). Instead of being exclusive only to consumers able or willing to afford the higher price, healthy foods should be accessible to all. It is not surprising that the perception of organic food being expensive arose from that reality. However, alternative marketing initiatives of organic foods are disproving this myth. For instance, they operate on the basis of direct consumer-producer links (e.g. farmers markets, self-organised consumer circles sourcing from a farmer group, delivery schemes) or through social enterprises providing products through fair prices for both farmers and consumers.

While the organic certification process often drives the product end price up, it is often skipped in direct consumer-produce sale systems. This allows even organic products to be sold without a significant markup compared to regular foods (Uthai and Boonrahong, 2023b). In a February 2024 interview with an organic social enterprise manager in Bangkok, they agreed that consumers might even save on medical expenses when they eat more organic foods.

Organic restaurant in Bangkok with range of products from local farmers across Thailand.

Outlook: changing farming narratives for new agricultural discourses

Considering the desperate situation for small-scale farmers around the world, one cannot avoid finding answers in the current hegemonic productivist farming narratives which seem to fuel the crises that the small-scale farmers face. To acknowledge the alternative farming mindsets based on holistic agriculture responsible of human and ecosystem health, there is urgent need for a change in the agricultural discourses persisting on both local and global level. Changing the way we talk about food and farming can be a start. The way how food is produced and how it is consumed matters to ecology, health and nutrition. Organic farming along with a positive mindset towards life has potential to support the resilience of small-scale farmers through holistic health and livelihood, especially against the background of insecure livelihoods, indebtedness and illness increasing among Thai farmers due to the use of agro-chemicals, and degraded farm land. This extends to the resilience of biodiversity-rich ecological systems and ultimately of consumers. Thinking about food as connecting to health, nutrition, and ecology may help people realise the value of organically grown foods by their local small-scale farmers.   

A mindset shift among actors on several levels seems equally momentous. This also concerns the redistribution of agricultural subsidies towards more ecologically and socially oriented ways of farming. Agricultural subsidies, such as for land or farm inputs, originally aimed at food security and increasing agricultural production, have been distorting agricultural realities for decades worldwide.

One reality is that large-scale farmers often draw more benefits from the subsidies rather than small-scale farmers (NABU, n.d.). Also, subsidy cuts and redistributions are difficult to enact against the opposition of influential farmer lobbies. Just recently in Germany, a weeklong protest has gathered tens of thousands of farmers to block roads by their tractors in several cities across Germany. Their resentment targeted a recent government proposal to cut tax rebates for diesel fuel used in agriculture (Kinkartz, 2024). The proposal, being a measure towards renewable fuels used in agriculture produced on-site, is highly supported by the German Greens’ approach to sustainable transformation of agriculture (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, 2024), but has led to anti-Green sentiments, especially among conventional farmers.

Combining livestock and orchard on hilly forest land.

Understanding the status quo of agriculture and designing future paths for agriculture requires holistic perspectives. This implies new discourses away from mere productivist narratives.

Thinking food production as ultimately linking sound ecological environments with human health and nutrition* and as potentially stimulating human and ecosystem resilience might help promote new farming narratives. Enquiry into this human-ecology interface through farming can address current gaps in the global agricultural discourses.

*cf. health-nutrition-ecology nexus suggested in the author’s third-party research project: https://www.carsoncenter.uni-muenchen.de/outreach/third-party-projects/project_bopp/index.html).

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Dr. Judith Bopp is a Research Fellow at Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany. She is a human geographer with a particular interest in organic farming practices and the interrelations of food, health, and ecology.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.

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This article first appeared here: th.boell.org