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Everything connected: Unique Dutch research links food, biodiversity, human health

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Everything connected: Unique Dutch research links food, biodiversity, human health The power of bringing nature indoors (Pexels, Darcy Lawrey)

Are naturally-grown fruits and vegetables essentially healthier than those grown conventionally? And what is the connection with the soil and the bacteria that eventually end up in our gut? Not much scientific research seems to have been done in this area. But that is about to change. With its latest and unique research, called Bac2food, a Dutch foundation is taking a step further in science. The whole picture is also being looked at, since everything plays a role.

 

With the research, which has been running since 2019 in collaboration with Maastricht University and VU Amsterdam, the Bac2nature foundation is trying to find out whether fruit and vegetables are healthier when grown in what researchers call a 'microbial- rich environment.' This type of soil is more prevalent when it is natural, unprocessed, and no pesticides have been added. 

To find out, Bac2nature has been comparing organically-grown tomato, cucumber, pepper and lettuce (i.e. grown in the open without the protection of a greenhouse) with conventionally grown (also called hydroponics; growing plants in water with added nutrients).

The research is called Bac2food and its researchers are building on previous scientific findings. Not much has been conducted in this area, but recent research in both Austria and another in Poland, did show us that the more natural, organically-grown apples and strawberries, contain a significantly higher microbial biodiversity than those grown conventionally.

A lot of attention

That search for a link between the microbiological biodiversity of the soil, the crops we eat; and our digestion and health, turns out to be quite unique in the world, according to Marco van Es, the pioneer of the Bac2nature foundation. Although that seems to be changing since his research has started, and he says: "There's been a lot of scientific attention to investigate things further."

Since Bac2nature started the research, funding has not only been released for Bac2food itself, but also for more general experiments into the relationship between soil, crop and human health in the Netherlands by the Dutch Research Council NWO.

In addition to the organic agriculture sector, the conventional sector too has shown great interest in the research, says Marco. The latter is also on the lookout for even healthier fruit and vegetables for its customers. Because in essence, we are all looking for ways to start living better and healthier, for ourselves and also for the earth.

A new step in science: Are naturally-grown crops even healthier for us and what is the link with (the) earth? (Pexels, Eva Bronzini)

Not just any old microbiome

Especially since those little probiotic drinks entered our supermarkets and lives, we have come to realise more and more that apart from bad, there are also good bacteria.

Volkert Engelsman, Director of the international organic fruit and vegetable distributor Eosta, which supports the Bac2food research, explains: "In the past, bacteria have always been regarded as enemies, as pathogens. In recent years it has become rapidly clear that bacteria in the first and foremost partners, are indispensable helpers to balance the health of people and the planet.”

But what more and more health experts and scientists are talking about in particular is the microbiome, that soup of 'microbes, such as bacteria, fungi and viruses'...of which bacteria are a part. All of this lives mainly in our intestines, but also on our skin and in our lungs and has a major impact on our health.

What matters most is the diversity of the microbiome that lives in our body. The importance of this has also become clear in his own research, and Marco explains: "One of the things that is becoming more and more prominent in science, is that diversity of bacterial compositions an indicator is of healthy gut microbiota. The more diverse the bacteria are; the healthier, and the more resilient that person is."

The fact that a healthy system requires exposure to a range of microbes that is rich in diversity, has been researched a lot, explains Marco. For example, links have been made with better protection against allergies, chronic and inflammatory diseases; malnutrition and obesity; and all kinds of important body systems such as the nervous system.

In addition, it is increasingly apparent that if we turn things around, when we have a disturbed, or less diverse gut microbiome in our body, we can become unhealthy.

Turns out that can happen quite quickly, and Volkert from Eosta explains: "Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology in London, wrote in his book The Diet Myth that the diversity of microbes in our body is now 30% less than it was 50 years ago," he says, adding add that the book further indicates that a diet of junk food can reduce the healthy microbiome in the gut in two days.

“The more diverse the bacteria are; the healthier, and the more resilient that person is"

It's more than our junk food

When as humans, we found ways to increase the shelf life of our food all those years ago during our industrialisation of life, there were not only many advantages, there were also disadvantages. Since then, most of our food that enters our intestines is quite 'depleted,' explains Marco: "Nearly everything we eat has a long shelf life; it has been pasteurised or sterilised. Not only the micro-organisms that can cause food going off have been removed, but all micro-organisms."

Before our food is factory processed, we grow it in a way that is less natural, and by the time it has reached us it is less fresh. Even fermented products, which do contain a lot of bacteria, are often less diverse than we think because they are usually made with industrial bacterial cultures, explains Marco.

The composition of the microbiome of the soil in which our fruit and vegetables grow also plays a major role, and Volkert adds: "Intensive farming has long been known to deplete the diversity of the soil microbiome… which may not be as beneficial to health."

“Nearly everything we eat has a long shelf life. Not only the micro-organisms that can cause food going off have been removed, but all micro-organisms"

How it all plays a role: The whole picture (Pexels, Pixabay)

The whole picture

Once we start to look at the type of soil in which we grow our fruit and vegetables, we begin to look at the whole picture. Because we are also starting to realise that everything plays a role.

In addition to the aspect of nutrition, according to experts such as Marco, Western urbanisation in particular has had a negative impact on the microbiome in our body. Particularly in children's playgrounds, cities and buildings, which all have their own microbiome.

There too has been a lot of research in this area and Marco points to for example, an experiment in day-care centres in Finland that showed that children became healthier by exposing them to soil and bacteria. In other words: if we take steps to create more biodiversity in these types of living environments, we could become healthier as humans.

Similarly, researchers in South Australia have showed us that urban green management can have predictable positive effects on the diversity of the local microbiome and the health of residents.

There are also more reports about how the low microdiversity that is found in buildings and offices can be linked to the poor health of the people that work in them.

That nature has a lot to offer is becoming clearer and clearer (Pexels, Guillaume Hankenne)

Nature? What nature

"The fact that we, in our Western society, have less and less variety of bacteria in our gut, seems to be more and more connected with the fact that we have started living further and further away from nature," says Marco. "In contrast, people who live in close contact with nature, and that lack autoimmune diseases, have been found to have about twice the different types of bacteria compared to us," he explains.

There aren’t many examples left, but there are a few, says Marco. For example, we can look at the hunter-gatherer life of the Hadzas in Tanzania. Or people that live in the so-called 'blue zones', areas on earth where the average person grows old in a healthy way, and where a high proportion of fresh, local and home-grown products are consumed.

Because, says Marco, people that still live in close contact with nature all seem to have about the highest biodiversity in the world in their gut.

Volkert agrees: "According to Tim Spector, the only common factor of a healthy diet, healthy gut and a healthy body is diversity."

“The fact that we, in our Western society, have less and less variety of bacteria in our gut, seems to be more and more connected with the fact that we have started living further and further away from nature"

Back to square one?

All in all, scientists are now increasingly saying that biodiversity is crucial to humanity's survival, Marco explains, giving an example from a movie on netflix.

A number of American universities showed us for example in 2016 that the influence of the microbiome is of great importance in all human challenges in the fields of nutrition, energy, clean water, health and ecosystems.

But how can we best do this? According to Marco, we don't have to start living in ancient types of settlements again. We can, however, look at how we can reintroduce and support microbial diversity and our exposure to it in modern ways. For example in the domain of food and agriculture, but also our living environment.

So, we can take plants inside our homes, grow our own vegetables for more hands-on contact with the soil, or take more trips to the forest or our local city park. Turns out that even our dogs and cats take a rich microbiome from the forest into our homes.

On a larger scale, we can also make our playgrounds, cities and buildings greener. The latter is happening in cities, for example, in the heart of the Netherlands in urban Utrecht with the special apartment towers of Wonderwoods and its abseiling gardeners.

"To make a building healthier, stop sanitising everything and ventilate more. If you want people to be healthy and productive, tend the microbiome," argues Bloomberg too in an article.

Some scientists are even saying that there is a lot of opportunity in existing buildings to make them healthier, and that it would pay for architects, building engineers, chemists, immunologists, epidemiologists, physicians, to work together in creative ways.

According to Marco, it is also important that we maintain targeted hygiene in certain areas: "It has brought us a lot," he says, and explains further: "We can do that by continuing to use it in the right way: That is, keep avoiding contact with pathogens as much as possible, but also make sure you get the [good] natural bacteria in some way."

"How strong are the substantiations that this decrease in contact with nature is also related to the fact that as humans ware becoming more fragile? Well, this is starting to become clearer and clearer," he adds.

Exposure to a wide variety of micro-organisms is therefore key; for us, for nature, for animals, and this something that more and more experts agree on. Bac2food's fruit and vegetable research is set to contribute to this statement. Or, as the site puts it, "Our initiative adds the health perspective to the need to improve our planet's biodiversity."

“That our decrease in contact with nature is related to the fact that as humans are becoming more fragile is starting to become clearer and clearer"


Pexels, Karolina Grabowska

Bac2nature

Bac2nature is a Dutch foundation that makes the connection between biodiversity and human health. When you look at that relationship, it becomes clear that our health is directly linked to that of our planet, the organisation says. Central to this is the belief that people's resilient health is enhanced when they come into more contact with natural micro-organisms.

It is Bac2nature's mission to make the available scientific knowledge in this area accessible to companies, healthcare professionals, policymakers, knowledge institutions and the public with health-promoting lifestyle ambitions.

In addition, Bac2nature initiates research where further knowledge is desirable.

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Brand new, international Life Mindstyle magazine, reflecting a variety of perspectives in different aspects of our daily lives. Are our perspectives our own? Are they good for us, for others, for the world? They might be, they might not be. Either way, wouldn't it be good to know? Be curious and see where it may take you. 

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