Assessing health in agriculture – towards a common research framework for soils, plants, animals, humans and ecosystems



In agriculture and food systems, health-related research includes a vast diversity of topics. Nutritional, toxicological, pharmacological, epidemiological, behavioural, sociological, economic and political methods are used to study health in the five domains of soils, plants, livestock, humans and ecosystems. An idea developed in the early founding days of organic agriculture stated that the health of all domains is one and indivisible. Here we show that recent research reveals the existence and complex nature of such health links among domains. However, studies of health aspects in agriculture are often separated by disciplinary boundaries. This restrains the understanding of health in agricultural systems. Therefore we explore the opportunities and limitations of bringing perspectives together from the different domains. We review current approaches to define and assess health in agricultural contexts, comparing the state of the art of commonly used approaches and bringing together the presently disconnected debates in soil science, plant science, veterinary science and human medicine. Based on a qualitative literature analysis, we suggest that many health criteria fall into two paradigms: (1) the Growth Paradigm, where terms are primarily oriented towards continued growth; (2) the Boundary Paradigm, where terms focus on maintaining or coming back to a status quo, recognising system boundaries. Scientific health assessments in agricultural and food systems need to be explicit in terms of their position on the continuum between Growth Paradigm and Boundary Paradigm. Finally, we identify areas and concepts for a future direction of health assessment and research in agricultural and food systems. © 2014 Society of Chemical Industry