Linking healthy soil, crops and people

Better understanding the phenomes in soil, crops and people will help all three, a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist says.

lentil - ndsu photo.jpeg
Lentils are a common pulse crop, along with dry beans, lentils, dried peas and chickpeas. (NDSU photo)
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"Phenomes" isn't a term in most Americans' working vocabularies. But connecting healthy phenomes in soil, crops and people can benefit all three, an agricultural scientist says.

"If we can link the phenomes in soil and foods and people, we're going to allow for enhanced agricultural and food production practices. We're going to have enhanced nutritional quality of foods. And we'll have enhanced health and prevention of disease for all Americans," said Matt Picklo, a research leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service in the Grand Forks (N.D.) Human Nutrition Research Center.

Picklo was among the speakers at the Farming and Ranching for the Bottom Line Conference on Feb. 23. The two-day online event, which ended Feb. 24, was hosted by the Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory in Mandan, N.D. The research lab is part of USDA's Agricultural Research Service.

A phenome — which has differing pronunciations but often goes by "fee nome" (rhymes with home) — is the set of all phenotypes (observable traits) expressed by a cell, tissue, organ, organism or species.


Matt Picklo is research leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service in the Grand Forks (N.D.) Human Nutrition Research Center. (USDA photo)

Picklo seeks ultimately to prevent disease and improve health. His work focuses on the roles that dietary fats play in maintaining good health and preventing disease and identifying how agricultural practices modify fatty acids in foods.

"We all know (good health) comes from healthy food. And how do we get there? That comes from healthy growing practices, the types of crops we're growing and how food is processed," he said.

The question is, "How do all those things work together to eventually lead us to a food type that has characteristic we want to provide a helpful diet, and how do those things work to provide a healthy diet?" Picklo said.

The characteristics of good health can be viewed differently for different people. For example, some people might have genetic risks that cause them to be at elevated risk for heart disease or cancer, said Picklo, who has a doctorate in pharmacology from Vanderbilt University.

Relevant scientific data is growing rapidly, and it's important to use the information to "essentially give us an idea of what a healthy human phenome is," Picklo said.

"You might ask yourself, 'What does that have to do with healthy food?'" he said. But there's strong evidence that substances such as fiber and certain oils (such as sunflower, olive and soybean oil) contribute to better health.

At the same time, he said, consumers value "food that looks good to eat and is flavorable," which must be considered when developing healthy food.


Pulse crop focus

Picklo looked in particular at pulse crops; North Dakota is the leading producer of dry beans. Legumes are a huge family of plants whose fruit is enclosed in a pod. Pulses are part of the legume family, but are grown for their dried seed. Dry beans, lentils, dried peas and chickpeas are among the common kinds of pulses.

Though dry beans are highly nutritious, Americans on average consume only 7.5 pounds per person per year, he said.

Dry beans and other pulses contribute to healthy soil, too, he said.

Picklo's research includes looking at ways to make dry beans more appealing to consumers. Goals include "specific methods of producing and or processing pulses that lead to greater improvements in health outcome and market acceptability like flavor and taste," he said.

Picklo's organization is involved in other research, too, including dairy quality.

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