12 August 2005

Food, Notorious Food

By Rusty Rockets

Ever gone to the supermarket only to find that none of the fruit is ripe? Or bit into a floury apple or flavorless cantaloupe? As if shopping wasn't excruciating enough, we now have to make do with green bananas to accommodate the transport costs of large food conglomerates. This is just one of the increasing number of problems that has put a dampener on our enjoyment of food. The trade-off of giving up ripe, flavorsome, nutritious food for the sake of convenience is becoming increasingly unsatisfactory. Other factors like the growing number of GM products found on supermarket shelves, and their lack of clear labeling, make buying the weekly shopping a matter of potluck. But where there's fear and uncertainty, there's usually someone trying to turn a buck. The dietary supplement industry is one such example, profiting from health conscious individuals seeking their next mineral supplement fix. It seems that some things never change. Hunting for food will always be a laborious task fraught with hidden dangers and unexpected consequences.

One of the most worrying aspects of modern food production is the steadily falling nutrient value. Factors believed to contribute to nutritional depletion in food involve poor farming techniques, resource depletion and erosion. There is some sound reasoning behind the arguments put forward by organic farming advocates. In an article written for the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), Cheryl Long and Lynn Kelley argue the case that agribusiness today is producing foods with less vitamins and nutrients than in the past. In one example, the authors say that eggs from free-range hens "contain up to 30 percent more vitamin E, 50 percent more folic acid and 30 percent more vitamin B-12 than factory eggs." According to the authors, the difference can be attributed to the way farming methods have evolved. "Most of our food now comes from large-scale producers who rely on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, animal drugs and inhumane confinement. In agribusiness, the main emphasis is on getting the highest possible yields and profits; nutrient content and flavor are, at best, second thoughts." And it's not just the poultry industry. Decreases in nutrient value have also been documented in agribusiness produced dairy products and crops.

A question asked of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1999 by Dan Glickman, the then Secretary of Agriculture, read as follows: "Is the drop [in nutritional values] linked to preventable factors, such as American agriculture's dependence on acidic nitrogen fertilizers and the effects of acid rain? Will you ask your top scientists to give us some direct answers?" The question was met with what amounted to passive resistance, with "no indication that anyone at the USDA would be studying the issue further," say Long and Kelley. Long and Kelley then followed up their own leads, and asked sustainable agriculture expert Charles Benbrook, "if reliance on chemical fertilizers and emphasis on high yields might reduce the nutrients in fruits and vegetables."

Benbrook replied that high nitrogen levels are one of the chief reasons for the decreased nutritional value in foods today. "Numerous studies have demonstrated that high levels of nitrogen stimulate quick growth and increase crop yields because the fruits and vegetables take up more water. In effect, this means consumers pay more for produce diluted with water. High nitrogen levels make plants grow fast and bulk up with carbohydrates and water. While the fruits these plants produce may be big, they suffer in nutritional quality. Whereas organic production systems (which use slow-release forms of nitrogen) produce foods that usually yield denser concentrations of nutrients and deliver consumers a better nutritional bargain per calorie consumed," Benbrook explained.

The issue of nutritional value in food touches all corners of society. Encompassing science, politics, business, and of course, the consumer. It's a complex chain, and it's little wonder that the government doesn't want to get involved. Benbrook, Long and Kelley's own assessment is that: "The Department made a political decision when they finalized the national organic rule; they declared that organic food was not nutritionally superior or safer than conventional food, even though there is solid evidence suggesting otherwise. This would certainly explain the response we got from the [USDA] office."

Questions about nutrient values aren't just a modern-day concern. Back in 1936, at the 74th U.S. Congress, a Florida Senator had placed on the Congressional record the following statement: "[Poor farming methods] have led to mineral-depleted soils resulting in mineral-deficient plants, livestock, and people.. the alarming fact is that foods now being raised on millions of acres of land, that no longer contain enough of certain minerals, are starving us - no matter how much of them we eat. No man of today can eat enough fruits and vegetables to supply his system with the minerals he requires for perfect health because his stomach isn't big enough to hold them. Laboratory tests prove that the fruit, vegetables, grains, eggs, and even the milk and meats of today are not what they were a few generations ago. It is bad news to learn from our leading authorities that 99 percent of the American people are deficient in these minerals." What is most striking about the statement is how much it resembles similar arguments today. It may very well be true that our fruit and vegetables are of a much poorer standard, but the data is inconclusive so long as governments procrastinate over conducting appropriate testing.

According to a report by the American Academy of Microbiology entitled Research Opportunities in Food and Agriculture Microbiology, released this month, the government is shirking its responsibility to the population at large by not conducting appropriate studies into food related issues. "The constant spread and evolution of agricultural pathogens provides a continually renewed source of challenges to productivity and food safety. However, research support over the last few decades has been lean and is, in fact, decreasing," says Michael Doyle of the University of Georgia, a co-author of the report. The report demonstrates the possibilities, subject to more research, how organic means can be used to improve farming techniques. This is especially so in the areas of beneficial microbes in place of insecticides, and spoilage prevention (no more green bananas!). As Lynn and Kelley state: "fully ripened fruit may not withstand the harsh handling typically involved for travel to distant markets, which leads to a compromise in optimum maturity and nutritional quality."

There is another reason why more research should be conducted. There are an increasing number of businesses making significant sums of money based on the lack of robust data concerning declining nutritional values. Health food and supplement suppliers are benefiting from the lack of consumer knowledge at hand, and are exploiting a niche created by the idea that our foods are less nutritious. Much of the marketing of supplements relies on pseudoscience designed to impress the gullible. The lack of regulatory control over the health supplement industry makes the issue of nutritional values in food even more pressing. There does seem to be some validity to the claims made by people such as Benbrook, but until something is done, agribusiness won't change their methods one bit. It is not as though there are no alternatives, either. Plenty of initiatives are just waiting in the wings, ready to be tested so as to improve our food quality and farming methods. It is irresponsible that there should be such a hold up on an issue that affects us in such fundamental ways. Wherefore art thou nutrients?

Further Reading:

  • Cheryl Long and Lynn Kelley on agribusiness

  • The USDA website on nutrition levels