Friday, October 15, 2010

Modern agriculture: higher yields lower nutrition, for everyone.

Bees may be dealing with some of the same issues humans with respect to the nutrition that is coming from our orchards and fields.  As harvest yields have  been steadily increasing over the decades there has a decrease in the amount of vitamins and minerals in many fruits and vegetables.

From the National health foundation:

To get the same calcium content from fresh veggies today as when JFK was president, you'd have to eat twice as much broccoli. To get the same amount of iron as when the Beatles were singing "We All Live in a Yellow Submarine," you'd have to eat four times as many collard greens. To maintain your vitamin A and C levels under the next administration, it will take three times as much cauliflower and twice as much watercress as during the Nixon and Watergate era. These are a few of the conclusions gleaned from comparing the U.S. government's food composition tables from the 1960s and 1970s to the present day.
Similar studies in Europe have come to the same conclusion, and calls by scientists and journalists for any follow up data have inspired me to undertake research and analysis of several other food groups. For this article, I have investigated the nutrient loss in fresh fruits over the last 25 years. In a recent experiment, I compiled a "digital fruit basket" of twelve common fruits and compared their nutrient content today with that published in Handbook #8 issued by the USDA in 1975. Like the sample of twelve random vegetables I investigated earlier, I found that the fruits have lost a major share of their vitamins and minerals. Overall, vitamin C levels are off 1.9%, vitamin A levels are down 16.4%, phosphorus has diminished 23.9%, calcium content has fallen 28.9%, and iron levels have plunged 47.6%.
The vitamin A in apples, for example, dropped 41%, strawberries lost 55%, and that in grapefruit plunged 87.5%. Vitamin C fared better, with minor losses in a majority of the fruits, though that in cherries was off a hefty 30% and lemons dropped 31.2%. Grapefruit, also significantly down in calcium and iron, has particularly lost its vitality. This may be the result of pollution in the Everglades (caused primarily by run off from sugar refining). The vitamin levels in oranges, Florida's other top crop, remained constant, but its iron content fell 75%.
Over time much of our fresh food is losing its nutritional values.  Just as economist often tout that people respond to incentives, industrial farming has followed suit.  Large agriculture gets paid by the pound of produce not the milligram of vitamins and minerals.  This incentive has pushed yields per acre and farmers are continually looking to maximize tonnage to bring to market.   Hybrids, GMO's and chemical fertilizers have helped boost yields and continues to make America's farmland the most "productive" in the world.

What happens when you revert back to more traditional methods of agriculture like the organic movement?  The crop yields may go down but premium that organic farmers get can make up the difference.  In the study below it is shown that organic produce does contain more nutritional value than conventionally grown agriculture. 

Nutritional Superiority of Organic Foods                                                                                                                                   

Where does this all lead us?  It is difficult enough in our fast food culture to eat well and maintain a budget along with a waistline.   The prices of fresh fruits and vegetables and meat are rising almost twice as fast as other foods according to a recent University of Washington study.  Supporting organic agriculture especially through a CSA (community supported agriculture).  Find a CSA in your area here.

To bring this back to the decline of the bee population since the number of American hives peaked in 1980; conventional agriculture is heavily dependent on mono-cultures and use pollinators to increase crop yield.  I am not going to make the correlation means causation argument with CCD and the general decline in bees, but if nutrition is declining in conventionally grown produce why wouldn't other parts of the plant decline as well?  Specifically if fruits and vegetables have declining nutrients why wouldn't pollen and nectar from the flowers; the things that the bees depend upon.  Beekeepers using organic and natural methods are not being hit by colony collapse disorder in the magnitude that conventional beekeepers are in conventionally grown agricultural areas.  I am sure that there are many contributing factors to CCD and the general decline of bees but declining nutrition in pollen and nectar that the bees depend upon for survival sure can't help.  Studies need to be done to analyze the effect of nutrition on bees, but if you ever seen the movie "super size me" a diet of a single type of food (monoculture) doesn't lead to health out comes.  

The pendulum has begun to swing back towards sustainability but modern agriculture does have its benefits like being able to feed an ever growing world population: finding the right mix for people and the environment alike is the critical question. 

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