Decades of intensive farming have depleted the soil. As a result, crops lack up to 40% of their essential nutrients, according to a previously published study from University of Texas and a more recent one from Switzerland. Even if you stick to the official dietary guidelines, you may have difficulty with getting enough calcium, selenium, zinc, iron, vitamin B2, vitamin C, and other essential micronutrients that are required for good health.
Intensive farming methods aim at producing the largest yield per acre. Over the past decades, farmers have fertilized crops with single minerals that speed up the growth rate. At the same time, the farming industry has developed crops that are sweeter and more resistant to climate change and other variables. Put differently, many crops have been refined, and in order to meet the growing demand for fast-growing produce, farmers have had to sow more plants in the same space, which limits the amount of nutrition available to each plant.
Studies demonstrate a negative correlation between crop yield and mineral concentrations in the plants. Because of this, crops today generally contain fewer bitter compounds and less vitamins, minerals, and secondary compounds than they used to. The problem is only made worse by the additional loss of nutrients that happens when we refine the crops or expose them to cooking, baking, frying etc.
Malnutrition is a global problem
An estimated three billion people worldwide are believed to lack vitamins and minerals. These deficiencies even occur in industrialized countries
(Welch and Graham, 2004)
The loss of nutrients in fruit and vegetables
In 2004, researchers from the University of Texas carried out a study where they compared data from the period 1950-1999 that listed the content of 13 different nutrients in fruit and vegetables. What they found was a notable drop in levels of calcium, phosphorous, iron, vitamin B2, and vitamin C. The decrease ranged from six to 38 percent.
According to Donald Davis, who headed the study, it is even relevant to look at the nutrient content in other foods. He points out that it had not been possible to compare levels of magnesium, zinc, vitamin B6, vitamin E, selenium, and secondary immune compounds in the foods, because no data was available from 1950. Secondary immune compounds determine how well the plants thrive, and a compound like sulforaphane is known to have anti-cancer properties.
The larger the crops, the lower their content of magnesium, calcium, and other nutrients
In more recent studies that are mentioned in HortScience 2009, scientists have measured the nutrient content in broccoli, wheat, and corn. Based on an analysis of 27 different broccoli plants, the scientists found that there was a negative correlation between the size of the broccoli heads and their content of minerals like calcium and magnesium. The same was the case with wheat and corn. Apparently, the concentration of nutrients in fruit and vegetables also decreases with increasing water content in the crops.
Our soil is selenium-depleted, especially in Europe
In the period 1994-2016, a team of Swiss scientists gathered 33,241 top soil samples from different parts of the world and analyzed the selenium concentration. Their calculations predict that farming methods and climate change could be responsible for additional selenium deplete of 66% of the arable soil. This, most likely, will especially affect Europe, which is low in selenium, in the first place.
Selenium supports around 30 different selenium-dependent proteins (selenoproteins) that are important for cardiovascular health, fertility, thyroid health, and cancer prevention. The question is whether our selenium-depleted soils and the widespread lack of selenium may be part of the explanation to the increasing problems with infertility, metabolic diseases, and cancer.
Since the early 1970s, Danish farmers have fed extra selenium to their livestock as a way of avoiding deficiency diseases. However, we humans belong to the same food chain, and that is why, in 1984, the Finnish authorities introduced mandatory selenium enrichment of fertilizers as a natural way of avoiding deficiency symptoms, not only in animals but also in humans.
Zinc deficiency is common
In many countries, people eat a refined diet consisting mainly of white rice or white flour and corn. These staples contain empty calories and not the essential vitamins and minerals such as e.g. zinc. This nutrient alone is involved in over 300 different enzymatic reactions. An estimated 25% of the world’s population is zinc-deficient. Zinc deficiencies are categorized as “minor”, “moderate”, and “severe”. Severe zinc deficiencies are rare in our part of the world, whereas moderate and minor zinc deficiencies are rather common and can easily occur among people who for even short periods fail to get enough zinc from their diets or from supplements.
|When plants grow faster, they have a tendency to become filled with water and sweet carbohydrates such as glucose that displaces proteins, bitter compounds, enzymes, and more vulnerable nutrients such as vitamins, iron, zinc, selenium and other essential trace elements and secondary immune compounds.|
Even the microflora of the earth and the plants is affected
Intensive farming methods, including deforestation, fertilization, use of pesticides, and heavy farm machinery affect animal life and the enormous microflora of the soil. One gram of soil may contain as many as 100 million bacteria, 100,000 different fungi, and thousands of other microorganisms, most of which pose no threat to humans. Science News recently published a study where Australian scientists discussed microorganisms and their role in plant health. For more than 400 million years, plants have developed an intricate coexistence with bacteria and fungi that is relevant for the root system, leaves, flowers, and fruits of the plants. This necessary coexistence is called symbiosis and compares with the enormous microflora that is so important for both animal and human health. Scientists are interested in finding out how plants and microbes complement one another. It is a very delicate balance that we need to study in detail in order to find out how it may help us improve organic farming methods. The important interplay between plants and microorganisms is already known from wine manufacturing and the production of fermented foods such as sauerkraut.
Nutrient density and ecology
Organic products that grow at a natural rate and are able to mature in natural surroundings absorb and produce far more nutrients than plants, which have been manufactured by conventional methods. This is especially true with minerals, trace elements, and secondary immune compounds, and even small amounts from the diet are highly important for proper functioning of the immune defense, the cardiovascular system, and a host of other functions.
Nutrient density indicates the amount of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients in foods in relation to their calorific value. Garlic, ginger, sprouts, broccoli, green beans, spinach, berries, and herbs rank the highest. Because fruit, tomatoes, and cucumber contain quite a lot of water, they are less nutrient-dense.
As mentioned, the agricultural soil, farming methods, and the way in which it is prepared also affect the nutrient density of food.
At the bottom of the list are the empty calories such as white flour and white rice that has already lost around 80% of its original nutrients. White sugar has lost around 100%.
Declining Fruit and Vegetable Nutrient Composition: What is the Evidence? HortScience February 2009
The University of Texas at Austin. Study suggest nutrient decline in garden crops over past 50 years. UTNews. 2004
Jones GD et al. Selenium deficiency risk predicted to increase under future climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2017
Editorial team. Selenium deficiency promoted by climate change. ETHzüric 2017
Pernille Lund. Immunforsvarets nye ABC. Hovedland 2012
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