By Mary-Howell Martens, Lakeview Organic Grain
Originally posted December 2004
Okay, I admit it; I’m a “foodie.” I can hardly help it, coming from a family where cookbooks were considered appropriate leisure reading, where Julia Child joined us regularly during dinner from her TV kitchen, and where the women find much purpose and pleasure in feeding people and showing off their culinary skills.
Our long family Thanksgiving table was always spread with bountiful abundance of wonderful food, far more than all the members of the extended family could possibly eat. I do remember one memorable year when the turkey slipped off the pan as my grandmother was taking it out of the oven and slid greasily across the kitchen floor. She calmly picked it up, brushed it off, and carried it proudly past the astonished faces of my mother and aunts into the dining room to the waiting family with a big smile on her face. It was delicious!
Talking about and eating good food has always been a primary activity in our lives. As an adult, the responsibility of feeding my own young family coincided with our conversion to organic farming, so growing and eating high-quality feed took on a vast new meaning and importance. To me, food is an offering of love, a common language between generations; food is art, comfort, chore, responsibility, a gift, an investment—and always we have had far more than enough.
At a recent dinner at Cornell University, I had the good fortune to sit next to Cuthberto Garza, Ph.D., professor of nutritional sciences. We were lavishly fed the finest that American agricultural and culinary bounty can provide, tender baby salad greens, artisan breads, three different meats and a truly exquisite tiramisu. But our conversation did not concern the wonderful food before us, it centered instead on the topic of the seminar we were both attending that evening: Ethics, Globalization and World Hunger.
In addition to being a professor, Dr. Garza is a physician specializing in prenatal and perinatal nutrition. In explaining his research, he gave a very interesting analogy. Mother Nature, he says, is like the toughest banker out there. She demands that the bank accounts contain certain values at different critical times, and if there isn’t sufficient iron, zinc, folic acid, and many other critical nutrients available at precise points during gestation and early development, there may be no going back, no second chance. The damage is permanent. But if she is provided with all the correct items when needed, she is most generous and the results are truly amazing.
Dr. Garza wasn’t just talking about the type of Third World malnutrition that makes the headlines. He sees the results of malnutrition, especially of micronutrients, as pervasive throughout our culture. Much of his recent work has been on what he calls ‘metabolic imprinting.’ Data from human epidemiological studies and animal models strongly suggest that nutrition during pregnancy and infancy can give a significant long-term predispositions to adult obesity, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes. This ‘imprinting’ may only occur during a critical narrowly-defined period in the individual's life; once that time is past, the imprinted behavior is permanent.
What are we imprinting our children with these days? The answer: fat, salt and sugar. Our bin-busting agricultural policy rewards high-yield conventional farming, churning out vast quantities of cheap corn and soybeans readily converted into vast quantities of cheap high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated fats. Dr. Garza thinks that since fat, sugar and salt were extremely limited but much needed for survival during most of our evolution, we humans have a biologically hardwired ‘reward system’ that makes us desire more, even when we have enough. Our bodies crave fat and sugar, which in nature would come accompanied with valuable vitamins, minerals and fiber, but instead we eat artificial sweeteners and hydrogenated trans fats that are chemically akin to plastic. In the early 1900s, the average American consumed about 4 pounds of white sugar each year. Today, our sugar annual intake has increased by 2,500 percent to over 120 pounds, mostly through processed foods!
As our society today constantly hurls these products at kids, is it any wonder that childhood obesity and its accompanying long-term health problems are rampant? This is truly an affluent version of micronutrient malnutrition, courtesy of a typical McDonald’s diet. We have done it to ourselves, and we will reap the enormous cost to society for generations to come. But will we recognize it then for what it is?
After dinner, we attended a fascinating lecture by the Hon. Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and U.N. High Commissioner for Hunger and Human Rights. She took a wider view of the world hunger and malnutrition crisis. The World Health Organization estimates that one-third of the world population is well fed, one-third is underfed, and one-third is starving. More than four million people will die from preventable starvation this year. Worldwide, one in twelve people is malnourished, including 160 million children under the age of five. Every seven seconds, one of these children die. Malnutrition is implicated in more than half of all childhood deaths worldwide, a proportion unmatched by any infectious disease since the Black Death.
Ms. Robinson says that these most visible symptoms of the world hunger problem are only the tip of the iceberg. We are now facing a world population starving both from calorie deprivation and from more hidden nutrient deficiencies.
Micronutrient malnutrition takes many forms and it is estimated to affect more than 40 percent of the world population. Symptoms of this condition include blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency, scurvy from by vitamin C deficiency, anemia from lack of iron, and spinal cord birth defects from lack of folic acid in early pregnancy. But deficiencies of other micronutrients and vitamins are more subtle and insidious, causing depressed growth, problems with reproductive and mental development, impaired absorption and usage of other essential nutrients, and impaired immune functioning among other things. The common scourges of developing countries—such as diarrhea, malaria, respiratory infections—are most severe in people who are malnourished.
Indeed, Ms. Robinson says the biggest challenge (and the most preventable) with the AIDS crisis in Africa is malnutrition. Having an adequate supply of nutrient-dense foods and vitamins would do much more to prolong productive life for people infected with HIV than the current tactic of supplying antiviral drugs and condoms. Because so much of the adult population is unable to farm due to illness and social dislocation, coupled with the depleted, eroded soils typical of many parts of Africa, food is often scarce and of poor quality. Hunger makes people very vulnerable to exploitation and secondary infections.
Feeding the world
Organic critics love to claim that organic agriculture could not feed the world, but it is useful to turn the question around and ask, “How well is high input agriculture feeding the current and growing world population now?”
The answer to that, most will agree, is “not well at all” due to political unrest, poverty, poor distribution, storage loss, soil degradation and the unfortunate fact that adequate nutrition is not the same thing as sheer calorie count. A diverse diet provides the best nutrition, but high input monoculture agriculture discourages dietary diversity and self-sufficiency. High input agriculture is also marked by a serious ‘leakiness’ as soil, fertilizer, and pesticides move out of the fields, polluting the streams and ground water. Massive outputs of manure are produced thousands of miles from where the crops are grown for animal feed. This results in salinization, eutrophication, pesticide and nitrate contamination, depletion of water, high fossil fuel consumption for farm machinery and transportation, and destruction of biodiversity. This is not a sustainable situation.
Most world relief agencies agree that there is enough food to feed everyone in the world. If the total food grown worldwide was divided in equal portions for the world’s population, there would be plenty for everyone with some to spare. In fact, there would be about 10 percent more food than is needed. Even if the world’s population continues to rise as predicted, there should still be sufficient quantity of food produced for the foreseeable future.
Hunger is simply not a matter of absolute worldwide pounds of food. The huge surpluses of grain produced in developed countries make their way slowly, if at all, to developing countries where food is needed. International trade does not reap profits from providing grain to poor people; in some places, such as the Sudan, hunger is being used as a cruel but highly effective political tool.
In many hungry countries, it is not unusual to find the best agricultural land devoted to growing cotton, coffee, tobacco, soybeans or other export commodities, while only the poorer land is used to grow food to feed the local people. Marginal and fragile lands cleared for export crop production rapidly become infertile and erosion prone. Although it may make political and economic sense to encourage the production of cash crops, especially in countries carrying crushing national debt, a balance must be found to ensure that a country’s food needs are not sacrificed for export income.
In the United States, we see another perhaps even more disturbing trend. A new study, conducted by Timothy Jones, Ph.D. at the University of Arizona, has found that between 40 percent and 50 percent of all food suitable for consumption in the U.S. never gets eaten. Under a grant from the USDA, Dr. Jones has traced the food distribution chain for the past 10 years from farms, through warehouses, retail outlets, restaurants and finally landfills. Capturing this loss, even if only partially, could provide a massive amount of food to combat hunger…and could also reduce environmental degradation and save U.S. consumers and corporations tens of billions of dollars annually. But you never hear politicians talking about this, do you? Perhaps in a way, we Westerners are proud of being affluent enough to be able to afford to waste.
Was it really a Green Revolution?
In the 1950s and 1960s, agricultural scientists and agribusinesses actively spread ‘modern agriculture’ throughout the world. High yielding grain varieties, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and massive irrigation all contributed to a dramatic rise in worldwide grain yields (including a 200-percent yield increase in rice and a 400 percent yield increase in wheat). This marvel of American agricultural ingenuity that came to be known as the Green Revolution looked like a major miracle.
Unfortunately, the costs of this “miracle” are now becoming very apparent. The new grain cropping systems were accompanied with a decrease in the production of traditional foods that have a higher micronutrient and protein density, particularly vegetables and legumes. Even though grain yields were increasing, the quality of many people’s diets actually declined. Studies now show that, throughout the developing world, the adoption of Green Revolution techniques has directly paralleled the rising anemia and other nutritional diseases.
Use of heavy irrigation has resulted in soil salinization, erosion, and the depletion of soil organic matter and minerals. The use of pesticides and fertilizers have resulted in contaminated water supplies and microbially dead soil, which in turn leads to more erosion, more runoff, more salt buildup and the tying up of soil nutrients. Many environmentalists are cautioning that the next big world crisis will be a shortage of clean drinkable water, as so much of the world’s fresh water is now contaminated.
Regional biodiversity has plummeted, with seeds from multinational corporations routinely replacing traditional varieties. It is estimated that just 12 crops and 14 animal species now provide most of the world's food, and these are not particularly nutrient-rich. The traditional foods and practices that provided a varied diet are rapidly becoming extinct in the wake of modern agriculture, leaving behind the debris of a shattered environment and hungry people.
Soil + Plant + Animal = Health . . . or Disease
We organic farmers have a very important mission. We know something that most of the most vocal agricultural experts do not. We know that soil matters. The quality and health of the soil directly affects the quality and health of the plants, which in turn directly affects the health of the animals (including us) eating those plants. We organic farmers know that the practices we use to improve soil—crop rotation, increasing organic matter, adding deficient minerals like calcium, wisely and responsibly using animal manure for fertility, and avoiding devastating practices like using pesticides and synthetic fertilizers—also improve the nutritional quality of the crops and the health of animals.
While this may sound revolutionary, it isn’t rocket science, nor is it exactly new news. As early as the 1930s, a few daring scientists—including William Albrecht Charles Northern and Carey Reams—warned that the nutritional value of food and feed crops were plummeting, and they showed what must to be done to improve crop quality and human and animal health.
In 1947, Sir Albert Howard developed a philosophy that directly speaks to us today. In “The Soil and Health (Faber and Faber, 1945),” he wrote that real security against want and ill health can only be assured by an abundant supply of fresh food properly grown in a healthy living soil. This book is an examination of history, showing that declining soil health was frequently accompanied by political unrest and widespread disease. He concluded that “no one generation has a right to exhaust the soil from which humanity must draw its sustenance.”
In 1943, Lady Eve Balfour noted that pigs fed soil from a field rich in humus where no chemicals had been used were cured of white scour disease within 48 hours, while soil from exhausted land or land treated with chemicals had no effect in curing the illness.
Also in 1943, William Albrecht, Ph.D., a soil scientist at the University of Missouri writing about micronutrient malnutrition said: “These hidden hungers originate in the soil and reach us by way of plants that also suffer hidden hungers. So also animals that feed on the plants suffer their hidden hungers and so humans, in their turn, consuming the products of plants and animals suffer. The whole series of torments is caused by nutrient shortages in the soil.”
In the ensuing 60 years, the soil and crop nutritional levels have continued to dive and agricultural scientists are scratching their heads looking for answers. Animal nutritionists have constantly needed to reformulate feed rations, raising the level of protein concentrates and adding additional minerals as grain and forage nutrient content has dropped. In 1997, Dr. Anne-Marie Mayer compared the copper, sodium, calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium levels in 20 fruits and 20 vegetables from 1940 to 1991 using data from the UK Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF). Her study, "Historical Changes in the Mineral Content of Fruits and Vegetables," was presented at the Agricultural Production and Nutrition conference held at Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She found that most fruits and vegetables have dropped dramatically in nutrients, with fruit losing on average 20 percent of mineral density while vegetables lost nearly 40 percent. Specifically, the average content of calcium in vegetables has declined to 81 percent of the original level, while the magnesium level in the fruit declined by 89 percent.”
Selection criteria used in modern plant breeding also contribute to this nutritional decline. Crops are more often selected for high yields and storability than for their nutritional value. Selection for such non-nutritional qualities usually reduces nutrient content. One of the easiest ways to increase the productivity of a vegetable is to increase its ability to retain water. Some of our increased productivity of vegetables actually reflects our ability to sell water to people.
In a terrific article in the November 23, 2004 New York Times entitled “Food without Fear,” Chef Dan Barber wrote, “A serving of broccoli is naturally rich in vitamins A and B, and has more vitamin C than citrus fruit. But raised in an industrial farm monoculture, shipped over a long distance and stored before and after being delivered to your supermarket, it loses up to 80 percent of its vitamin C and 95 percent of its calcium, iron and potassium. Fruits and vegetables grown organically, however, have higher levels of antioxidants. That's largely because a plant's natural defense system produces phenolic compounds, chemicals that act as a plant's defense against pests and bugs. These compounds are beneficial to our health, too. When plants are grown with herbicides and pesticides, they slow down their production of these compounds.”
What can we do?
World hunger statistics tend to be so staggering and numbing that most of us feel impotent to make any significant difference. However, we must remember the words of that great piece of cultural literacy and wisdom, the song “Alice’s Restaurant”: “If one person comes in, they’ll think he’s crazy…But if 50 people come in, they’ll think its a movement, and folks, that’s just what it is.” One person alone usually can’t make much of change to such huge problem, but together we can indeed accomplish remarkable things.
First, we must be proud of what we are trying to accomplish on our own organic farms. We are doing the right thing. We have a responsibility to do organic farming the very best we know how. We are indeed feeding the world, both with nutrition and with hope. Remember and share what you intuitively know: We humans can’t be healthy unless the food we eat is healthy. Healthy nutrient-rich food comes from healthy nutrient-rich soil. We might be fooled in the short run, but sustainably there can’t be any other way.
Recently, my high school son came home from school commenting that they had served nachos and processed cheese for school lunch, and my middle-school daughter added that all the kids really lit into the brownies and Cool Whip on the salad bar that day. Malnutrition is not unique to developing countries, but people there don’t have the choices we do. Affluent malnutrition is due to sheer laziness and ignorance. We have absolutely no excuse for feeding our children junk, and yet, as a society, we do so aggressively.
Medical science is now making the link between nutrition and physical health, but even more chilling is the emerging link between nutrition and mental health. Biochemical evidence is mounting that diets high in sugar and fat, or low in vitamins and essential amino acids can affect rational thought, learning, and moral and social behavior and can predispose us to allergies, depression, anxiety, and more serious psychiatric symptoms. A recent study from Denmark showed that even moderate intake of caffeinated beverages can significantly raise blood pressure. We need to start at home first, making sure that our own kids get the best quality food possible. The initial cost is minimal, the costs of not doing so are enormous, and we will see the results before our own eyes. This is a choice we must make.
We all make other choices everyday with our wallets. But, if you’re like me, sometimes it is easy to forget what those choices really mean. Personally, I am trying to choose to spend our money on Fair Exchange coffee, farm market vegetables and pastured meats instead of corn chips, Hamburger Helper and McDonalds. This is both for the health of my family and for the farmers producing the food. Although it can be remarkably difficult, I am trying to use our money to reward farmers around the world who are seeking better ways instead of rewarding those companies that foster globalization and its ensuing agricultural, personal and environmental disasters.
We should contact our agricultural colleges to offer our expertise with soils and organic production. Here is one area that, without a doubt, we organic farmers know much more about than the so-called experts. Our experience is a valuable gift we can give to the future. We have to put aside bitter feelings from previous slights, look beyond the biotech and other offensive technologies that command an inordinate proportion of research dollars, and be there to help when the researchers ask for alternatives. Because they will ask eventually. Chemical agriculture is in its twilight, the experts know that, and the honest ones know that biotech is merely a Band-Aid that solves none of the inherent problems and failures. Chemical agriculture will not feed the world, even at its current rate of failure.
Can we grow enough food with organic agriculture techniques throughout the world now? It is well documented that organic agriculture works well on healthy, sound soils in temperate areas, producing yields equal or better than conventional. However, there is much we do not yet know, especially how to optimize and sustain an organic system on depleted and fragile soil. If the huge amount of money and brilliance that has been invested in researching and promoting conventional agriculture for the past 50 years had been spent on organic agriculture, then I do not doubt that the answer would be “yes.” If similar research and development could be done now on all soil types, especially those in tropical areas, then I do not doubt that improved, modern, intentional organic agriculture would become the norm. We organic farmers must lead the way with our expertise and experience to achieve that goal as quickly as possible.
A couple of years ago, our friends Mike and Maria decided to take a sabbatical from their farm and volunteer in Central America with Mercy Ships International. Mike’s organic agriculture skills and Maria’s nursing skills make them uniquely valuable, but from their incandescent emails it sounds like they really believe that they are the most fortunate recipients. Another friend, Terry, has taken her organic vegetable growing skills to India, where she is helping to organize urban community gardens. These people, and so many others, are true inspirations to a changing world.
On Christmas morning, my family will find goats, chickens, sheep and manure in their Christmas stockings – along with the hope and health that these things bring. But the barnyard smell will not disrupt our bountiful Christmas breakfast. My family will find cards giving contributions in their names to Heifer Project International, a fine organization that recognizes that sustainable help provides food production, not just food, and that giving a poor village a flock of chickens, a cow, or a herd of goats feeds more than just the people and the soil, it also fosters health, hope, peace, education, pride, community and independence. There are other fine organizations like Heifer Project that need our support, now more than ever. Groups like these put readily our help to good use, and even better, giving to Heifer Project (http://www.heifer.org/) is so easy. No muss, no fuss. We don’t even have to get our hands dirty. All you need is a telephone and our trusty ubiquitous plastic money!
We can all do a better job, here at home and worldwide. But first, all of us have to truly want to do it. That is our challenge.
Thanks to Per Pinstrup-Andersen, Mary Robinson, Cuthberto Garza, Klaas Martens, Nancy Roberts and Dennis Avery for information and inspiration on this article.