UCSF Sustainability Stories

Ana Toepel, Green Impact, April 2020

Soil Health Is Human Health Says UCSF’s Dr. Rupa Marya

Image Credit: Tinnakorn Jorruang on iStock

You may have heard that healthy soil is essential to growing food and to the sustainability of our planet—but did you know it is also essential to our health?

The current pandemic has brought health issues front and center, and we are now more than ever focused on how to stay healthy. According to UCSF’s Rupa Marya, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, there is a profound connection between soil health and human health—and it’s all in the gut. When Dr. Marya started practicing medicine, she would see a lot of inflammatory bowel patients, and she started to see a rise in drug resistance as well, which led her to wonder whether conventional farming using pesticides was impacting what they were seeing in the gut. After she married a regenerative farmer, she became intrigued by the connections between his soil microbiology reports and the reports on her patients’ gut microbiomes. It’s now clear to her that there is a parallel between what is happening to the Earth and what’s happening to our bodies.

soil and gut health are related

“Earth can be looked at as a body, and the Earth’s gut is the soil,” Marya explains. “Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides have the effect of sterilizing our soils and that is impacting the food we put into our gut. What does it mean to kill the web of life in the soil, the complex microbiology? The more soil complexity and biodiversity, the more efficiently plants can cycle nutrients, making them healthier and more nutrient-dense. And the more biodiverse your gut microbiome is, the more ability you have to counteract inflammation.”

Collaborations with UCSF Feature Regenerative Farming as Key to Health

Dr. Marya says we can leverage the biological processes in the soil to support human health and counteract inflammation. Regenerative farming practices rebuild organic matter and living biodiversity in soil, which produces increasingly nutrient-dense food year after year. In a January New York Times Story Dr. Marya expressed that it’s not just doctors that impact our health, but also farmers, who hold a key to keeping us healthier—and that key is soil. Farmers are actually critical stewards of our health.

Currently, Dr. Marya is involved in a research project in its initial stages on the topic of “Food as Medicine, Inflammation, and Soil Health as Human Health.” The team includes UCSF’s Tammy Nicastro, researcher with the Institute for Global Health Sciences; Susan Lynch, Professor of Medicine and a Director of Human Microbiome Research; and Shari Weiser, Professor of Medicine and Internist at UCSF’s Division of HIV, Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine at SF General Hospital. The study attempts to recreate the Shamba Maisha study in Kenya that is employing sustainable farming practices to improve the health of people living with HIV, and it will look at how regenerative farming impacts inflammation and mental health in people in the Bay Area who have been oppressed by poverty and homelessness.

Another exciting collaboration of Dr. Marya’s is called “Soil Health is Human Health,” a coalition of farmers, doctors, nurses, policy workers, scientists, and government agencies with an initiative to move our land management system to one that prioritizes soil health, improves human health, and uplifts farmers in our state. Dr. Marya is one of just eight people appointed by Governor Newsom to his Healthy California for All Commission, and this could open some doors for the initiative. Already the coalition has been invited to submit a proposal to the Governor for a nutrition and health initiative. Dr. Marya would like to see the UC system get behind this initiative to move our state to regenerative farming practices and just this January she addressed the UC Regents about moving away from toxic pesticides and fertilizers. She is also in conversation with the Office of the President about how UC can do more sourcing from farms using these practices.

Here at UCSF, Facilities Services avoids the use of pesticides and herbicides to control weeds on its grounds and in February introduced an innovative new tool for weed control—a Weedtechnics saturated steam machine. Using steam to get rid of weeds is both environmentally-friendly and more efficient than weeding by hand. This new addition is yet another way UCSF aims to keep its landscaping practices chemical-free.

What You Can Do

Dr. Marya suggests the following actions:

  • Visit the Soil Health is Human Health website and sign on to the initiative. Encourage UC Leadership to sign on, too.
  • Purchase food products from local organic and regenerative farmers. Find them at Farmers’ Markets around the Bay and or join a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program to support these farmers even more.
  • Participate in CalPirg’s toxic free movement, Zero Out Toxics, to ban Roundup and other harmful pesticides and chemicals. 

Resources for Learning More