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You Are What You Eat

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Photo by Lisa Fotios.

The decline in nutrient-rich foods

As plant-based diets are being encouraged for a variety of reasons from environmental sustainability to improved cardiovascular health, it is disturbing to learn that the fruits, vegetables, and grains we eat now are significantly lower in vital nutrients such as iron, calcium, vitamin C, vitamin B2, phosphorus, and protein than those our parents and grandparents ate.

Impact of high-yield crops and climate change

Estimates are that, in general, plant foods are between 5 and 40 percent lower in nutrients.

With the food-growing industry focused on profit-maximizing yields, crops get bigger faster on the same amount of nutrients in the soil, so those nutrients are spread thinner in the resulting harvest and the foods carry fewer of them. Down the line, this affects carnivores as well because the feed given to meat animals is also depleted of nutrients. Estimates are that, in general, plant foods are between 5 and 40 percent lower in nutrients. More specifically for crucial micronutrients, zinc is down 27-59 percent, iron 24-27 percent, magnesium 16-24 percent, copper 20-76 percent, calcium 16-46 percent, and potassium 16-19 percent.

This issue is compounded by the effect of higher levels of carbon dioxide in the climate-changed atmosphere. Plants exposed to more carbon dioxide draw less water up from the soil, further diluting nutrition. Studies published in 2018 showed that 18 types of rice had lower concentrations of zinc, iron, protein, and B vitamins with increased exposure to carbon dioxide.

Soil depletion caused by high-yield crops also compromises a crucial relationship between food plants and naturally occurring fungi in the soil that act as a partner in nutrient uptake. Naturally occurring mycorrhizae have a symbiotic relationship with many food plants by which the plant supplies essential foods to the fungus, and the fungus helps the plant’s root systems bring in important nutrients.

The taste of food is also changed by the lower proportions of micronutrients present in produce. Bland-tasting fruits and veggies are yet another sign of soil damage and less nutritious crops.

Consequences for low-income populations

This is no longer just a third-world problem.

Low-income populations who rely on grains such as rice and wheat for 30% or more of their caloric intake are at risk of increased susceptibility to disease as well as nutrient deficiencies like anemia. Hidden hunger is the term already being applied to those affected by nutrient deficiencies even though adequate calories are consumed. Epidemic obesity is often blamed on this empty-calorie effect. This is no longer just a third-world problem.

The effects of nutrient deficiency are exaggerated in populations where food insecurity is already the norm, with estimates that up to 3 billion people face a severe public health crisis.

As we in the West remain less affected so far by some of these disturbing global trends, it is also true that rising food prices are forcing many of us to choose less nutritious calories to fill our stomachs. Climate change isn’t going away, and agricultural practices are still rewarding growers by weight of crops produced rather than nutritional quality.

Efforts to reform agricultural practices

Seed saving, cover crops, and crop rotation practices produce more nutrient-rich crops.

The World Food Programme is one of several organizations dedicated to reforming agriculture worldwide through soil-regenerative practices and conventional (often, but not always non-GMO) breeding to put specific crucial nutrients back into crops. In areas where millet crops have become severely depleted of iron, an essential micronutrient, a new iron-rich millet has been introduced and has already reduced anemia levels in populations eating it. Similar programs exist for zinc, protein, and B vitamins in other crops.

Additionally, inoculation of mycorrhizal fungus into soils is being trialed in the US and other countries to restore the beneficial relationship that makes plants more efficient at bringing nutrients on board as they grow.

Seed saving, cover crops, and crop rotation practices as old as farming itself have also been shown to produce more nutrient-rich crops. Movements all over the world, many inspired by Indian food activist Vandana Shiva, are rejecting Big Ag and encouraging a return to ancient, sustainable practices.

While some of these reform measures appear costly on the surface, far more costly is an unhealthy world population suffering from preventable disease. We in rural settings most likely already know the difference in taste and vitality of homegrown food. As awareness of inferior nutrition spreads, it is hoped that global agricultural practices take a hint from home gardeners and other sustainable movements to both reduce big-picture costs and improve human health. After all, we are all in this together.

Ann Constantino, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.