Industrial agriculture has been depleting our soils for decades. Do “organic” products truly contain more nutrients? There are many factors behind the quality of the foods we eat.
Overfed and undernourished doesn’t apply just to people anymore. It is occurring in the animals we raise for food, and even in the plants and crops we grow. Plants require a variety of nutrients in diverse quantities to grow, just as we do. We take in nutrients from our diets, with plants as the base of the food chain. And without the nutrients in the soil, the plants will be lacking as well.
After all, soil is not just dirt underneath your feet. It includes a potpourri of decayed plant matter and manure from animal droppings. Worms and beetles also turn up in the soil, leaving behind their own organic matter in these biological processes. Everything lives and dies in this cycle, and everything used is re-cycled and returned to the earth.
With modern scientific and technological advances, we can harvest a greater yield of produce from the same amount of land than we ever could in the past, but the pressure to produce more and more is increasing. This pressure is felt by the farmers and especially the soil itself.
Soil depletion refers to the decrease of minerals and nutrients in the soil itself. Macronutrients are those that are required in greater quantities and whose deficiency is more apparent in the appearance of the leaves and stems. These are the main constituents of synthetic fertilizers — Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium. Micronutrients play more limited roles and are required in smaller quantities, but are no less important for the overall growth and health of the plant. Micronutrients are primarily returned to the soil through plant matter.
The maturation time of plants can be drastically reduced through the use of synthetic fertilizers and additives. This pushes them to grow bigger and faster, but plants realistically only absorb half the fertilizers applied to the soil. The excess follows the path of the erosion of the topsoil into the water and the air. Erosion of the topsoil only accentuates the growing problem of soil depletion.
Without the essential micronutrients within the soil itself and the time required to absorb these minerals from their soil, crops grown for higher yields results in produce that is high in water content and low in nutritional value.
Some studies suggest that the nutritional content of “organic” produce is higher and some scientists claim that it has 15% more solid matter than its conventional counterpart; that is to say, less water weight.
Studies over the past few decades have compared new data to the old. This reveals nutrition loss in produce ranging between 25% to 50% in nutrients including calcium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin B.
In a 22 year period, broccoli has lost over 50% of its calcium and nearly 40% of its vitamin A, while onions have lost 100% of their vitamin A content. And it would take eight oranges to get the same amount of vitamin C as one had in the 1950’s.
So what’s really going on here? What could be causing this drop in nutrient content? Prospective causes include:
Intensive industrial farming practices that strip the soil of necessary nutrients that feed the plants.
Agriculture practices over thousands of years that select varieties purely for taste.
Length of time in storage and on transport: A freshly dug potato lost nearly 60% of its Vitamin C content after just three months in storage.
Breeding for maximum yield, diluting the nutrient content of the produce.
Produce picked too soon to avoid spoilage during transport, leaving less time for maturation on the mother plant. Also, breeding for ability to withstand transport.
Flaws in the data, like outdated measurement processes in the 1940’s and other variables not considered, such as specimen size, country of origin and excess dirt on the produce; unrepresentative long cooking times in earlier studies.
Excessive use of pesticides that prevent plants from producing the vitamins and antioxidants that act as their natural defences.
Or is it possible these factors are outweighed by the amount and abundance of the produce we eat, with the decline in nutritional value negligible to our overall health?
The answer? All of the above.
The truth is, no one’s really sure what’s causing the decline, and it’s hard to get a consensus that there’s even a problem. Sample size and growing season can vary the quantity of some nutrients by as much as 11%, but does that account for the vast differences observed?
With so much uncertainty, we have to be proactive in our own health. We must choose the healthiest options possible. Educate yourself on the best options. Go with what feels right to you. And if all else fails, supplement with nutrients that are lacking in our modern diet.