From: Cheryl Long and Lynn Keiley
Published September 1, 2004 12:00 AM

Is Agribusiness Making Food Less Nutritious?

Growing


evidence


indicates


that today's


fruits,


vegetables,


meat and


dairy


products


have less


vitamins


and nutrients


than in


the past.


American


agribusiness


is producing


more food


than ever


before,


but the


evidence


is building


that the


vitamins


and minerals


in that


food are


declining.


For example,


take the


two eggs


shown


at right.


The one


with the


bright


orange


yolk is


from a


free-range


chicken


raised


by Mother


Earth


News managing


editor


Nancy


Smith,


while


the pale


one is


a supermarket


egg from


a hen


raised


indoors


on a “factory


farm.”


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.


And the


bright


orange


color


of the


yolk shows


higher


levels


of antioxidant


carotenes.


(Many


factory-farm


eggs are


so pale


that producers


feed the


hens expensive


marigold


flowers


to make


the yolks


brighter


in color.)


Once


upon a


time,


most of


us ate


eggs from


free-range


chickens


kept by


small,


local


producers.


But today,


agri- culture has


become


dominated


by agri- business .


Most of


our food


now comes


from large-scale


producers


who rely


on chemical


fertilizers,


pesticides


and animal


drugs,


and inhumane


confinement


animal


production.


In agribusiness,


the main


emphasis


is on


getting


the highest


possible


yields


and profits;


nutrient


content


(and flavor)


are, at


best,


second


thoughts.


This


shift


in production


methods


is clearly


giving


us less


nutritious


eggs and


meat.


Beef from


cattle


raised


in feedlots


on growth


hormones


and high-grain


diets


has lower


levels


of vitamins


E, A,


D and


betacarotene,


and twice


as much


fat, as


grass-fed


beef.


Health


writer


Jo Robinson


has done


groundbreaking


work on


this subject,


collecting


the evidence


on her


Web site, www.eatwild.com ,


and in


her book Pasture


Perfect .


Similar


nutrient


declines


can be


documented


in milk,


butter


and cheese.


As one


researcher


writing


in the Journal


of Dairy


Research explained,


“It follows


that continuing


breeding


and management


systems


that focus


solely


on increasing


milk yield


will result


in a steady


dilution


of vitamins


and antioxidants.”


(Today's


“super-cows”


are bred


and fed


to produce 20


times more


milk than


a cow


needs


to sustain


a healthy


calf.)


How much,


and why,


the nutrients


in vegetables


and fruits


may be


declining


is less


clear.


Comparisons


of 2004


data from


the USDA's


National


Nutrient


Database,


with numbers


from 1975,


show declines


in nutrients


in a number


of foods


(see Resources:


Signs


of Nutrient


Decline”)


as well


as some


increases.


When reports


of apparent


downward


trends


in nutrient


content


in vegetables


and fruits


appeared


in 1999,


we wrote


to then-U.S.


Secretary


of Agriculture


Dan Glickman


for an


explanation:


“Is the


drop 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?”


Writing


on Glickman's


behalf,


Phyllis


E. Johnson,


director


of the


USDA's


Agricultural


Research


Service


in Beltsville,


Md., confirmed


the findings.


“It is


true that


in many


(but not


all) cases,


the apparent


nutrient


content


of these


vegetables


decreased,”


Johnson


said.


She went


on to


list variables


that might


be related


to the


apparent


decline,


but she


offered


no indication


that anyone


at the


USDA would


be studying


the issue


further.


Recently,


we contacted


Johnson


again,


to find


out whether


there


had been


any new


developments


on the


matter.


Her office


referred


us back


to the


1999 letter


and told


us Johnson


had no


additional


comment


on the


subject.


What


the Experts


Say




Many


things


can impact


the nutrient


content


of a vegetable


or fruit.


Variety


type,


soil quality,


fertilizers,


crop rotations,


maturity


at harvest


time and


the distance


from farm


to table


all play


a role


in determining


the vitamins


and minerals


in our


food.


We asked


sustainable


agriculture


expert


Charles


Benbrook,


Ph.D.,


if reliance


on chemical


fertilizers


and emphasis


on high


yields


might


reduce


the nutrients


in fruits


and vegetables.


Benbrook


has been


studying


the pros


and cons


of conventional


and organic


agriculture


for more


than 15


years.


He explained


factors


that make


organic


foods


rich in


nutrients:


Fertilizers. Non-organic


farmers


use highly


soluble


nitrogen


fertilizers,


and keeping


this nutrient


in their


soils


is difficult.


To be


sure they


get high


yields,


they often


apply


more nitrogen


than the


crops


actually


need.


This


dependence


upon chemical


nitrogen


fertilizers


means


we're


getting


less for


our money,


says Benbrook.


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,”


Benbrook


says,


“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


says the


USDA has


a tacit


policy


to avoid


discussions


of differences


in food


quality


and safety


that may


be a function


of how


food is


grown


and processed.


“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 Johnson's


office.


What


it all


comes


down to,


Benbrook


says,


is that


you can't


buy soil


quality


in a bag


any more


than you


can buy


good nutrition


in a pill.


Organic


farmers


work to


support


the complex


natural


relationships


between


crop roots,


soil microbes


and minerals,


but “scientists


only understand


a few


of those


relationships.


Unless


we understand


much more


fully


what the


critical


balances


are, it's


very difficult


to import


them to


the farm


in a bag


or a bottle.”


Vitamin


C. High


nitrogen


levels


reduce


the


concentrations


of vitamin


C in


crops


such


as lettuce,


beets,


endive,


kale


and


Brussels


sprouts.


Similar


effects


have


been


detected


on fruits


such


as apples,


oranges,


lemons


and


cantaloupe.


Swiss


studies


have


shown


similar


impacts


on potatoes


and


tomatoes,


as well


as citrus


fruits


— which


are


major


sources


of this


important


vitamin.


Harvesting


and


storage. The


fact


that


the


average


supermarket


apple


travels


1,500


miles


from


farm


to table


only


adds


to the


problem.


“Most


fruits


reach


best


eating


quality


and


peak


nutrition


when


fully


ripened


on the


tree


or plant,”


explains


Julio


Loaiza,


Ph.D.,


a research


scientist


at Texas


A&M


University's


Vegetable


and


Fruit


Improvement


Center.


“However,


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.”


Breeding


for


high


yields. Plant


breeders


could


maintain


and


even


increase


the


nutrient


content


of most


crops,


if they


were


asked


to do


so.


But


this


goal


usually


takes


a back


seat


to economic


issues:


“Large-scale


growers


want


size


and


fast


growth


so they


can


harvest


early.


These


factors


feed


into


sacrifices


in nutritional


quality,”


Benbrook


says.


Why


Buy Organic




What


we need


is a more


holistic


approach


to our


food systems.


We need


to be


sure that


high yields


and maximum


profits


for producers


don't


come with


hidden


price


tags to


consumers


in terms


of nutritional


decline


or environmental


damage.


This approach


isn't


anything


new to


organic


farmers


— they've


been working


their


farms


as holistic


systems


all along,


and the


result


is a production


system


that is


better


for us,


domestic


animals


and the


environment.


The growing


evidence


that organic


foods


are more


nutritious


is summarized


in Resources:


Why


Organic


Food is


the Winner.”


Certified


organic


growers


are not


allowed


to use


chemical


nitrogen


fertilizers,


ever.


Instead


they build


soil fertility


using


cover


crops,


compost


and slow-release


natural


fertilizers.


Because


they aren't


grown


with chemical


nitrogen,


organic


fruits


and vegetables


tend to


be smaller,


and yields


seem lower


compared


to non-organic


crops.


But as


mentioned


above,


studies


have shown


that organic


crops


often


contain less


water ,


so in


terms


of actual


nutrient


value


(and flavor)


per bite


of food,


organic


often


is a better


buy than


non-organic


produce.


The higher


dry matter/lower


water


content


of organic


produce


also impacts


the levels


of health-promoting


antioxidants


such as


polyphenols


and flavonoids.


In a review


of the


scientific


literature,


Benbrook


discovered


that smaller


fruits


had up


to five


times


more of


these


antioxidants


per unit


of calories.


There's


more research


that must


be done


before


we can


know to


what extent


the overall


quality


of our


food is


declining,


and whether


the rapidly


expanding


organic


industry


will be


able to


consistently


produce


more nutritious


food than


chemical-based


agribusiness.


But Benbrook


says the


public


health


implications


are considerable:


“When


you think


about


the diseases


and long-term


health


problems


that are


caused


by poor


nutrition


— heart


disease,


diabetes,


cancer


— the


value


to society


of producing


more nutritious


crops


is enormous.”


Indeed,


a 1992


USDA report


estimated


the following


potential


health


benefits


if everyone


in the


United


States


could


be convinced


to eat


a diet


containing


the recommended


daily


amounts


of primary


nutrients


shown


in the


table:


”’ 20


percent


reduction


in cancer


”’ 25


percent


reduction


in heart


and vascular


conditions


”’ 50


percent


reduction


in arthritis


”’ 20


percent


reduction


in respiratory


and infectious


diseases


”’ 50


percent


reduction


in infant


and maternal


deaths


So, it


seems


to us


that the


government


should


be doing


more to


monitor


the nutrient


content


of our


food,


especially


organic


and pasture-based


products.


Currently,


the USDA's


National


Nutrient


Database,


which


is widely


used as


the “official”


source


for nutrient


levels,


includes


more than


6,600


food products,


including


meat;


fresh,


frozen


and canned


produce;


and processed


foods. They


even include


candy


bars,


gumdrops,


TV dinners


and hundreds


of fast


food items


in the


database.


But the


agency


has not


included


a single


organic


item ,


nor any


entries


for products


from pasture-based


meat or


dairy


systems.


If they


use our


tax dollars


to report


the nutrients


in candy


bars,


isn't


it time


they started


including


data on


these


healthier


“alternatives,”


too?


If you


agree


that the


government


needs


to do


more to


enhance


the quality


of our


food supply,


write


your congressional


representatives


and let


them know.


After


all, as


one USDA


secretary


whispered


while


giving


us the


mandated


brush


off, “It's


up to


the public.


If they


really


want to


know,


they have


to press


Congress


to appropriate


the funds.”


You also


can send


a message


every


time you


shop for


your groceries:


When you


choose


organic


or grass-fed


products,


you are


helping


support


farmers


and ranchers


who are


offering


high-quality


foods


from sustainable


production


systems.




ENN


would


like


to thank


Mother


Earth


News for


their


permission


to reprint


this


article.


Terms of Use | Privacy Policy

2014©. Copyright Environmental News Network