Food Quality and The Health Crisis

From Chapter Two, THE QUALITY CRISIS: Foodles Foods of the "World Crisis in Agriculture" booklet by the Ambassador Agricultural Research Dept, 1974

Something is basically wrong with the quality of American health.

        More than half of all Americans die of cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) diseases -- double the rate in European nations, and seven times the rate of Japan. In 1900, cancer accounted for only 3.7 percent of deaths in America, but that rate has jumped fivefold, to 18% by 1970. Degenerative diseases, diabetes, arthritis and autoimmune disorders are increasing at an unprecedented rate.

        Between 1950 and 1970, the nation's health expenses rose from $12 billion to over $70 billion, yet life expectancy during that time actually declined. A logical question arises: Why can't affluent America buy better health?

        A majority of America's poor have woefully inadequate diets, yet astonishingly, facts reveal that three out of eight (37%) of the upper-class also have nutritionally deficient diets.

        Another question is: How does agriculture affect our health?

Health Begins in the Soil

        The great majority of our foods come directly or indirectly from the soil. Healthy soils produce healthy crops. Sick soils produce sick crops. But what does the health of the soil have to do with the quality of the food?

        Dr. Louise F. Gray, a biochemist and member of the staff of the U.S. Plant, Soil and Nutrition Laboratory wrote: "The soil is the source of all the minerals the plant contains. With these and with water, carbon dioxide from the air and energy from sunlight, the plant synthesizes the organic components -- carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and vitamins -- that man and animals need for life." (FOOD, 1959 Yearbook of Agriculture, p 390).

        But soils vary widely in composition. Healthy fertile soils are alive. They are "a highly dynamic combination of rock and mineral particles, organic matter and humus with a structure of large and small air and water pores and a vast array of living breathing small animal and plant organisms."

        The organic matter of the soil serves as an available storehouse or exchange for important plant nutrients. Over 95% of the soil's nitrogen, 98% of the sulfur, and up to 60% of the phosphorus reserve may be stored there. Humus, a product of organic matter decomposition, is important as a soil conditioner and colloid, which makes the soil suitable for plant growth.

        Humus-rich land absorbs heavy rain into the soil, while humus-poor soil allows rapid runoff and soil erosion in even a light rain. Centuries of soil formation and favorable weather have given virgin soils in America an abundance of humus, nitrogen and organic matter. The single most important responsibility of agriculture today is to replenish, rebuild and maintain that soil fertility.

Soil Depletion

        Many of today's deserts, jungles, and wastelands are the farmlands of yesteryear. They were ruined through improper agricultural management. Early Americans, for instance, "mined" this virgin American soil until it lost much of its fertility. Then they moved on to "rape" yet more acres of virgin soil.

        In 1860, there was one American for every 60 acres of land, most of it untouched and "undeveloped." By 1900, the average was 25 acres per person; by 1930 it was 15; and less than 10 acres by 1970. Just one-fifth of American soil is devoted to cropland, so, in effect each American has two acres from which to wrest enough food and nutrients to live.

        Most American land is eroded, in need of immediate conservation and care, according to the U.S. soil Conservation Service. The fertility of the remaining soil is declining, since more plant nutrients are taken out each year than are added back. The health of a nation's citizens is proportional to the nutrients in the soil, and in America both have been declining.

        Between 1950 and 1970, the vast increase in use of chemical fertilizers increased yield per acre by 53%, although it took 700% more fertilizer to accomplish this increase. But fertilizers mainly increased the quantity of crops, not the quality. In the Asian "Green Revolution." beginning in 1965, the quality and edibility of crops also declined although quantity increased.

        To be honest, because of extensive soil exploitation and depletion, the development and use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides -- originally developed as war explosives and chemicals -- has greatly increased farm productivity. But their excessive and imbalanced use, especially of nitrogen fertilizers, lowers food and feed quality and resistance to diseases and has caused extensive pollution of well water, lakes and streams in many areas.

Toxic Foods

        Excessive and imbalanced use of nitrogen fertilizers including manures can result in toxic levels of nitrates and nitrites in animal feeds and fresh, canned and frozen vegetables -- a major cause of "blue baby syndrone" and death. Though nitrate itself is not highly toxic, it readily converts to highly toxic nitrites and carcinogenic nitrosamines. Acutely toxic levels block the bloods ability to carry oxygen to body tissues (blue baby effect) resulting in rapid death. But research also implicates nitrates and especially nitrites and related compounds, which are potent "free radicals" or oxidizers, in disrupting the immune system and causing damage to our genetic DNA and the formation of viruses and cancer. Because of these concerns the U.S. Public Health Service and Environmental Protection Agency set allowable limits of 10 parts per million (ppm) for nitrates in drinking water.

        Government tests on green vegetables from supermarket shelves in 1949 and 1971 found an increase in nitrate levels in some vegetables (especially spinach) from 70 ppm to over 400 ppm. And when high rates of nitrogen fertilizers are applied before harvest, as is often done to increase their size and green succulent appearance, levels as high as 6,900 ppm have been found. (ERRL Publ. No. 3786, USDA, ARS, 1972, p. 18). Why haven't limits have been set on them?

        Many soils have been loaded with too much of the wrong types of fertilizer, while the right balance of available minerals and organic matter are needed to replenish and build up soil fertility and produce healtful crops.

        A beginning solution to the soil fertility problem, as developed by the soil conservation programs in the 30's and 40's is to include the judicious use of crop rotations, cover crops, crop residues and animal manures as fertilizer and to improve soils. But today's chemicals, mechanism, specialization and high production and labor costs make it difficult for farmers to do. In most areas the animals and crops are segregated and the costs and labor of recycling animal wastes is economically unfeasible.

Variations in Food Quality

        Ecologists like to look at the earth as a large space capsule -- a limited biosphere with its own self-contained life-support system. The "biosphere" is the thin sheet, extending five miles above sea level and, in places, five miles below, and covering the 200 million square miles of the earth surface. Within that thin lacquer layer of you desk globe, virtually all life forms thrive and interrelate in dozens of recycling ecological systems.

        The cycle of food nutrients is just one of many such systems. The nutrients in food depend on the soil, the weather, the seed and soil management. Those nutrients which are taken away by harvest can be returned through composting of food "waste," thus completing the cycle. America's nutrient cycle, however, is like an "open" sewer system -- commercial fertilizer alone does not complete the cycle. Consequently, soils become depleted or imbalanced, causing foods to vary widely in nutritional value.

        As an example of the variation in food nutrients, the National Canners Association tested various fruits and vegetables for consistency of vitamin C. For the same amount (100 grams) of orange juice, vitamin-C content ranged from 11.1 to 52.2 milligrams (mg), a 470 % variation; spinach varied from 3.4 to 35.5 mg, more than 1,000% variation; and tomato juice varied from 1.8 to 45.5 mg, over 2,500% variation.

        The variation in trace minerals was even more extreme. Processed milk has run from 362 parts per million (ppm) of iodine down to zero ppm, and vegetables grown on soil in one part of the country assay 1,100 ppb (parts per billion) iodine, against only 20 ppb elsewhere. This has severely affected human health; especially before iodine was added to table salt.

        Minerals such as iron and zinc are very important for soil fertility and human health, yet iron is spinach has varied from 10 ppm to 1,584 ppm, and iron in tomatoes has varied from 1 ppm to 1,938 ppm. Zinc, though less publicized, is also vital to health, but has become deficient in many of the major fruit and vegetable growing areas of the U.S.

        Climate affects nutritive qualities of crops in several ways. The protein content of small grains, such as wheat, is higher in hot, dry climates and lower in moist, cold climates. The nitrogen and mineral content of soils in dry, hot regions is generally higher because less leaching of these nutrients occurs than in wet regions. A limited moisture supply means that less vegetative growth takes place, and more nitrogen is available for crop production. High protein grain is produced in dry years and lower protein grain in wet years.

        Studies in North Carolina showed calcium and vitamin C content of crops to be 35% and 39% higher, respectively, in the spring than in the fall. This was attributed to differences in weather. Vitamin C in tomatoes and turnip greens was also directly correlated with exposure of the tomato fruit or the turnip leaf to sunlight during the period just before harvesting. Vitamin C in turnip greens varied directly with light intensity, with 28.2 mg under lowest light intensity, and 235.5 mg under highest light intensity. Fertilizer treatments such as nitrogen have been associated with reduced levels of vitamin C in the fruits.

        Weather factors such as temperature and rainfall affect plant composition indirectly through their effect on soil formation and mineral availability. Soils that have a high content of organic matter absorb and hold more moisture and tend to be drought resistant. Organic matter in the soil also tends to stabilize soil temperature, keeping it cooler in the hot summer and warmer in the winter.

        Soil fertility, weather and climate all affect the nutritive quality of plants and the types of crops that can be grown in a given area.

Genetic Quality and Vulnerability

        In the first chapter, seed varieties were shown to be, on the whole, monocultured hybrids more vulnerable to blight and disease. The reason is that seeds are generally chosen for their yield potential and uniformity of crop, rather than quality. The public has apparently not been interested in paying extra for higher nutritive quality.

        According to the USDA (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture) Plant, Soil, and Nutrition Lab in Ithaca, New York, "different plant species exhibit marked variation in their ability to extract required nutrient elements from...the soil. Different varieties of the same crop species grown on the same soil contain different levels of mineral elements."

        All links in the agricultural chain -- consumers, processors, farmers, government agencies, agricultural colleges, plant breeders and the food industry -- have demanded, encouraged, and promoted genetic uniformity at the lowest price.

        We have already described the 1970 corn blight as an example of genetic vulnerability. Another example is the potato blight that triggered the tragic famine of Ireland in 1845, which wiped out one-third of the population of Ireland and caused another third to emigrate to America and Europe. Genetic uniformity and crop monoculture provide the ideal invitation to famine or plague.

        Genetic diversity is the best insurance against such vulnerability. Educated farmers can do their own breeding and selection of seed varieties best adapted to their local soil and weather conditions.

The Purpose of "Pests"

        The USDA estimates crop loss due to weeds at $5 billion per year in the U.S., and a similar $5 billion loss due to insects. This represents almost a one-third loss of potential crops. To combat these twin ravages, three-fourths of all fruits and two-thirds of all vegetables are treated with insecticides (to kill bugs), and one-fourth of all crops are treated with herbicides (to kill weeds). These pesticides are of course toxic to animal and plant life because that is their purpose.

        More than a billion pounds of pesticides are known to have already accumulated in the earth's air, water, soil and life forms, and each link in the food chain multiplies the poison's toxicity. Researchers have found that pesticide concentrations can increase an astounding ten million times from levels in sea water to that in birds eating the fish living in the water.

        Despite this insecticide saturation, the distressing fact is that insects on plants still abound. One reason is because their predator insects are also killed, while mutated pesticide resistant pest strains survive and increase.

        Less than one percent of insect species are considered "pests." The other 99% (including beneficial bees, wasps and other plant pollinating species) are also wiped out. Some of these "innocent bystanders" serve as aerators of the soil, predators of pest insects, and scavengers of animal and plant wastes. Yet they too are killed.

        Sir Albert Howard, British mycobiologist and agricultural researcher, observed that even the pests are valuable, and should not be indiscriminately killed:

        "Insects and fungi are not the real cause of plant disease but [they] only attack unsuitable varieties or crops imperfectly grown. Their true role is that of censors for pointing out the crops that are improperly nourished and so help in keeping our agriculture and our nutrition and health up to the mark. In other words, the pests must be looked upon as Nature's quality inspectors of agriculture and as an integral portion of any rational system of farming. Truly the Scripture is right when it said, "And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good" (Gen 1:31).

(Photo caption) Two-thirds of all vegetable crops in the U.S. are sprayed with insecticides. Here, in the San Joaquin Valley near Bakersfield, nearly half of the nation's vegetable crops are grown.

        As agricultural scientist Sir Albert Howard said, "The policy of protecting crops from pests by means of sprays, powders, and so forth is unscientific and unsound as, even when successful, such procedure merely preserves the unfit and obscures the real problem -- how to grow healthy crops" (An Agriculture Testament, p 161).

Overfed and Undernourished

        "You are what you eat," has become a cliché, but it's still true. your body's 50 to 70 trillion cells must be replaced by the billions of new cells each day from the food you take in. More than 50 known nutrients in proper balance are the building blocks of these new cells. All of your red blood cells, for example, must be replaced every four months within the bone marrow.

        According to the USDA surveys, each year people ate nutritionally better until 1960. But between 1960 and 1970, the trend was toward "empty calories" (candy, chips, liquor, sweets and fats). The average overfed and undernourished American now eats 115 pounds of refined sugar each year.

        An increasing amount of our food is processed and packaged before it reaches our plate. In 1940, only 10% of food was processed, but today fully half of all food is highly processed. Transportation, storage, handling and processing of food often leads to a reduction in nutrients at each stage.

"Enriched and Fortified"

        According to Dr. Jean Mayer, a leading American nutritionist, "vitamin-enriched junk is still junk. If you start out with no nutrition, or if you take out 20 nutrients and you add 3 or 4, you still don't have anything very remarkable." Nutritional biochemist Dr. Roger Williams noted that rats fed on commercially "enriched" flour died from malnutrition!

        Dr. Mayer added that "enrichment is no substitute for eating enough unprocessed foods and vegetables," yet food companies spend well over $1 billion annually to advertise what are the least nutritious, and most highly processed, foods. If your tissues could talk or your cells could advertise, you would be buying and eating the opposite of what is pushed in most "food" ads!

        Government regulations and controls, while grading foods for price and safety, make little mention of nutritive value. "Generally speaking," said one, "our standards of quality are based on appearance, texture, uniformity, marbling, and so on." In fact, "prime" grade beef contains 18 percent less protein and 46 percent more fat per pound than the cheaper "good" grade.

        The only solution is for each citizen to study and understand the principles of nutrition. The medical and scientific professions should be leading this study, but "until very recently it [nutrition] was not taught at all in medical schools, and even now it is not taught in the vast majority of them" (U.S. Nutrition Policies in the Seventies, Jean Mayer, ed., 1973, p. 9).

The World's Quality Crisis

        The world at large presently suffers both in quantity (the "eternal compulsory fast," as Mahatma Gandhi called it) and quality. While ten thousand starve to death each day due to lack of quantity, more than 50,000 die each day due to diseases of malnutrition a (lack of food quality).

        Protein deficiency is a major problem. In Africa this disease is called kwashiorkor, or literally, "the disease the older baby gets when the new baby comes." Since mother's milk is the only protein available to such children, the older (age 2-4) child begins to swell in the belly, his hair turns gray, his skin cracks, and he slowly dies in mute misery.

        Nutritional diseases also plague the poor in America, especially the elderly and the poor children of broken families. The greatest irony is among the migrant laborers who actually harvest America's bumper crops. They see the food each day, but can afford to buy little.

        "Quality of life," however, means more than money or wealth. Many poor people make nutritional ends meet, but the life-style and eating habits of the rich often make their dietary habits worse than some of the poor. Many poor tribes of the world routinely live to be 100 years old, due to natural foods and a peaceful life-style: the Mabaans of the Sudan, the Hunza's of Kashmir, the Abkhasians of Georgian Russia, the Andeans of Ecuador, and other small tribes. Their rate of centenarians (those living beyond age 100) is up to 20 times that of the U.S.

        There is no gene or magic medicine that is a modern "fountain of youth." Physically, you are what you eat; and mentally, you are what you think. It is time to put quality back in both.

Cause of the Quality Crisis
        With today's advances in scientific knowledge and technology, why should there be a crisis in food quality and health. Knowledge has increased greatly in recent times including knowledge of soils, plants, genetics, nutrition, medicine, etc., but even with that increased knolwedge problems are increasing. Major reasons or causes have to to with the subjects of the next two topics, The Economic Crisis on the Farm and the Political and Governmental Crisis.

Allen Stout, DVM

Last Update: 10/17/01

Copyright ©: July 2001, Serf Publishing, Inc.