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From Food Security to Nutrient Security

I profess to being a kelp collector, a leaf lover, and a compostophile! Autumn weather here on the West Coast has deposited seaweed onto the beach and blown the leaves off the trees, and so it’s time for an annual ritual. The other day I gathered up some of this bounty, added glacial rock dust and Activated EM and started a new compost in a large round wire bin.

Fresh seaweed can also be used directly for mulch, especially under berries and fruit trees, and across the vegetable garden. Easy to break down and with a pleasant look and smell, it is a superb source for plant growth hormone-like substances, and supplies a host of vital micronutrients in the form of trace elements.

As I collect my seaweed into pails, curious beachgoers walking by will invariably ask, “But what about the salt?” As patient as a vegan being asked, "but how do you get your protein?', I always explain how the salt content in sea water is not an issue at these low amounts, and that I never rinse off my seaweed before using it. If anything, it’s a benefit (and, there is lots of protein in plant based foods)! Sea water, as well as rock dust, transfers numerous vital trace elements back into the soil.

Replenishing our soils with trace elements is one of the most important things to remember as we harvest fruit and veggies. This is true for backyard food growers, and even more urgently for large scale industrial food producers. Over the summer, I came across several articles, both very recent and from the past, discussing the dwindling nutritional qualities of the food we eat. It appears there is broad consensus about this: A carrot or apple today has significantly less nutritional value than the produce consumed by our grandparents or even our parents.

How come? What got me started was a brief 2011 article in Scientific American titled: Dirt Poor: Have Fruits and Vegetables Become Less Nutritious?, pointing to soil nutrient depletion due to intensifying modern agriculture methods. Referring back to landmark research published in 2004 at The University of Texas in Austin, the authors also make the connection to size and growth rate:

“Efforts to breed new varieties of crops that provide greater yield, pest resistance and climate adaptability have allowed crops to grow bigger and more rapidly, […] but their ability to manufacture or uptake nutrients has not kept pace with their rapid growth.”

Proponents of conventional agriculture will point to modern mineral and synthetic “complete fertilizers” to close the gap. I too was educated under this outdated paradigm, back in the 1980s and 90s. The assumption that plants only require a standard sixteen “essential nutrients” is not entirely untrue (they do take up that nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and some thirteen more), but it is terribly incomplete — for in order to thrive, and yield not only maximum harvest but also maximum nutrition, plants require far more diverse food themselves. They have been shown to take up, or trade with microorganisms, dozens and dozens of elements. In fact, if given the chance, plants will eat almost everything on the table… the periodic table of elements, that is!

Under the headline, The Great Nutrient Collapse, a September 2017 Politico article reiterates a main finding from the above mentioned 2004 study:

“We’ve been breeding […] crops for higher yields, rather than nutrition, and higher-yielding crops […] tend to be less nutrient-packed.”

But then the researchers go one step further, examining a possible link between diminishing food plant quality and rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. As you probably know, CO2 is required for photosynthesis, so you might be tempted to conclude that more of it must be good for plant growth. And on the surface, it is… however,

“[…] greater volume and better quality might not go hand-in-hand. In fact, they might be inversely linked. As best scientists can tell, this is what happens: Rising CO2 revs up photosynthesis, the process that helps plants transform sunlight to food. This makes plants grow, but it also leads them to pack in more carbohydrates like glucose at the expense of other nutrients that we depend on, like protein, iron and zinc.”

The long article goes on to explain details of this very new and perplexing thought (“To say that it’s little known that key crops are getting less nutritious due to rising CO2 is an understatement. It is simply not discussed in the agriculture, public health or nutrition communities. At all.”). At the same time, many new questions are popping up. We do not yet know if and how this will impact human (or animal, or ecosystem) health. If you are interested in how the researchers continued, and what significant conclusion they reached regarding plant protein content, I highly recommend you treat yourself to the whole article.

To sum up, there are multiple factors at play when it comes to decreased nutrient density of modern foods. Depletion of soil minerals and organic matter is one. Plant breeding is another, including the ongoing and inadequately regulated public health experiment called Genetic Engineering. Rising atmospheric CO2 levels are emerging as a new factor.

There is the whole issue of monocultures, the liberal use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and the absence of plant symbionts in biologically impoverished soils. Climate change-related phenomena such as extreme weather conditions contribute to plant stress. And then there is under-ripe harvesting, long-distance transportation, conditions and duration of storage, and finally modern food processing. Now that I look at it, it seems a miracle we are getting any nutrition at all!

What, then, do we do about it? As Michael Pollan puts it, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I would like to add: Eat local and in-season. Support small organic farmers and fair trade. Grow your own at whatever capacity possible. In your garden, re-mineralize the soil: Practice organic matter recycling in situ (compost, sheet mulch, chop-and-drop), and employ cover crops. Look after your microbes. These measures are cheap or free and can be done by anyone, anywhere. If you can, also use rock dusts, seaweed and ocean water products.

Watching the movie What the Health recently got me thinking again about going vegan; I’m not quite there yet but inching closer… I’m mentioning it here to suggest a correction to one significant error in the otherwise smart and thought-provoking movie’s narrative: Plants do not, in fact, take up nitrogen (a major protein building block) in gaseous form from the atmosphere — they obtain it in solid form through trade with bacteria, and/or directly as elemental ions or as part of larger organic molecules, courtesy of decomposers who break down fresh organic matter into plant food.

The link between nutrition and human health is plain to see. A few points I found very revealing in “What the Health” were:

  • how little dietary education North American medical professionals receive
  • how many charitable foundations, purporting to support those who face serious illness such as diabetes or cancer, make either no recommendations for dietary change or their recommendations don’t make sense, and finally,
  • how many of these same organizations receive funding from large agri-food businesses.

I am hopeful that more and more people are waking up to join a discussion about the misunderstandings, broken promises, and outright scandals surrounding profit-driven industrial agriculture. Is it time to start talking about “food and nutrient security”?

Keep calm and garden on!