Soil, Food Procurement

The topics this week during MSc Gastronomy have been ‘The Evolution of Food Procurement’ and ‘Soil’. The content is rather well summed up by the topic titles. Food procurement has changed over the years, or ‘evolved’, with examples of every kind still in practice: hunting & gathering, foraging, and agriculture, all in various complementing or competing forms. Soil is in the context of ‘The Science of Food’ module. What is soil, why is it important generally, and what role does it play in growing food?

I grow food and have a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences so rather unsurprisingly am interested in soil. My research supervisor during honours year was a compost scientist – yes, these people exist and yes, they are doing really interesting research – so all around I have a good basic grasp of the issues regarding soil structure, microbial life, and plant nutrition. Let me emphasise the ‘basic grasp’. This stuff is seriously complicated.

Gastronauts test soil at the Queen Margaret University allotments, using the OPAL soil and earthworm survey.

But forget so-called basic research on soil. How did we link our morning lectures and soil testing into a more explicit gastronomical topic? Nutrition, of course. In this case ‘nutrition’ had the common meaning: food supplies your body with all the nutrients it needs to carry out normal functions.

The question is, are some foods more or less nutritious than others depending on the soil you grow them in? Put another way, are organic foods more nutritious than ‘conventional’ ones?

Answering this question is not easy. And actually, I would argue it cannot be answered in any meaningful way. There is such a divide in the published literature on this subject. There are important limitations to investigations that include the number of quality datasets available for analysis (‘quality’ itself being contentious), a large number of variable definitions for inclusion, and sometimes author agenda and bias.

Then there are the questions. Is the difference between crops nutritionally meaningful? Is nutrition really just what goes in your mouth? Did these ‘quality’ studies all compare like for like, by landrace or cultivar? Does that matter if you’re already comparing two different farming systems? Where does the tradeoff with pesticides come into it and anyway, do we know if the organic farmers did use pesticides under special exemption during the study period? What about fruit and veg in general, wouldn’t it be better for people just to eat more – regardless of origin?

Snapdragon ‘Canary Bird’. The gift that keeps on giving. Google the snapdragon seed pods.

That final point is what I want to focus on today. The class has been congratulated on our ability to see the bigger picture and to understand the general meaning and purpose of course material thus far. I’m not sure I should be included just yet. The overview of our readings on organic/conventional crop nutrition was to point out that sometimes, the answer is not clear. Why are these authors squabbling over such petty points, and why is their opinion so obvious within the text? Because the answer is not just unclear but cannot yet be obtained. Arguably our time would be better spent talking about why people eat barely ANY fruit or veg in ‘western’ society, if they don’t eat organic anyway.

I just need to remind myself not to get so hung up on detail. It was the same for my take on an article about chefs using foragers. We were asked to give our view in brief, but I got caught up in writing little bits of formal explanation that would have been suitable for actual text in an essay. In the lecture today that “a-ha!” regarding the bigger picture was spoon-fed to me by the lecturer. It is a bit frustrating because I feel like I ought to be beyond that at this point in my education. I see many of my colleagues are. So, it is something fundamental for me to work on, and will be important when considering dissertation topics and writing proposal outlines.

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