The Food We Need to Fix Us: Part 2

The Food We Need to Fix Us: Part 2

“More than half of the world population suffers from undernourishment of nutrients critical for maintaining proper health.”

Quote from: The Power of the Plate: The Case for Regenerative Organic Agriculture in Improving Human Health

In Part 1 of this blog series, we looked at how our food system developed into prioritising crops that are low in nutritional value and rely on toxic inputs, causing negative impacts on human health and the proliferation of chronic disease. In this blog post, Part 2, we look in more detail at how industrialised agriculture is failing to provide the nutrition we need. 

Let’s consider the rise in obesity over the last few decades. Certainly, these people are being “fed”, but are they being “nourished”? The rise in chronic disease suggests not.

According to the paper, “more than half of the world today suffers from ‘hidden hunger’, a condition defined by a deficiency of micronutrients despite adequate daily caloric intake”.

As humans, we rely on the vitamins, minerals, protein, and bioactive compounds in our food to keep us healthy and prevent disease – not the calories. As we mentioned in our previous blog post, the focus on maximising crop yields in agriculture production in modern times has led to a significant decline in food nutrient concentrations over the last 50-70 years.

When the nutrient concentrations of 43 crops (mostly fruits and vegetables) were assessed from 1950 to 1999, researchers found a decline in most nutrients:

  • The concentration of six key nutrients (protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and vitamin C) significantly declined (between 6% to 38%).
  • The study also revealed higher concentrations of water and carbohydrates in our food.

In this time period, grain yields have more than doubled. However, the protein concentrations of these grains have declined significantly: 

  • Wheat: 30%
  • Rice: 18%
  • Barley: 50%. 

It’s almost as if the nutrient density is being “diluted” – the more crops that are produced, the less nutritious they become. And with grain products constituting a significant portion of the world’s diet, this is cause for concern.  

The figures above looked at crop nutrients from 1950 to 1999. Since 1999, we’ve also started to experience the effects of climate change more significantly. Climate change has also been implicated in driving crop nutritional declines. Increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have been shown to reduce the concentration of protein, iron, zinc and B vitamins in crops. We can thus assume that nutrient density will continue to worsen. 

These studies paint a bleak picture, but what is the solution?

Ultimately, agricultural production goals need to shift from only focusing on yield to a more integrated emphasis on crop quality. An emphasis on soil health and regenerative organic agriculture can support this shift.

“This link between soil health and human health is largely unexplored and must be advanced.” 

The secret is in the soil 

The soil is effectively a “factory” of bioactive compounds that are critical for human health:

  • Medically important compounds can be extracted directly:
    • 78% of antibacterial agents and 60% of new cancer drugs approved between 1983 and 1994 had their origins in the soil
    • 60% of all newly approved drugs between 1989 and 1995 originated in the soil.
  • Other compounds synthesised in the soil are transported to plants and consumed by humans.
  • Some compounds interact with plants in other ways, increasing the plant’s ability to produce bioactive phytochemicals:
    • When these phytochemicals are consumed, they have been shown to prevent – and even reverse – cancers, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and neurodegenerative diseases
    • Phytochemicals also play a critical role in immune function.

Healthy soil, that is….

Soils that are organically managed contain higher levels of microbial diversity. And foods that are produced organically have higher levels of bioactive phytochemicals than soils and foods that have been conventionally managed. 

Climate change is on the rise. Chronic conditions are on the rise. We have less arable land available to us. We can’t wait much longer to find new ways to feed the world and improve human health. Get in touch with the Zylem team to find out more about how we promote soil health, plant health for human health. Contact us on 033 347 2893 or send your enquiry to admin@zylemsa.co.za.

Read more about regenerative agriculture.

Look out for our next blog post as we continue to assess the impact of industrial agriculture on human health. 

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