Peak Soil: Why Nutrition Is Disappearing From Our Food

Nitrogen cycle-caThe secret to good health may start with dirt says Monica Nickelsburg, writing for The Week:

The fountain of youth may be made of dirt.

So supposes Steve Solomon in The Intelligent Gardner: Growing Nutrient-Dense FoodHe asserts that most people could “live past age 100, die with all their original teeth, up to their final weeks, and this could all happen if only we fertilize all our food crops differently.” It’s a bold statement, but mounting evidence suggests that remineralization could be the definitive solution to our nutrient-light diet.

Concerns about the quality of our food tend to focus on the many evils of modern industrial farming, but 10,000 years of agriculture have created a more insidious problem. The minerals and phytonutrients historically derived from rich soil are diminishing in our produce and meat. It takes 500 years for nature to build two centimeters of living soil and only seconds for us to destroy it. While pesticides, chemical-rich fertilizers, and agro-tech exacerbate the problem, even natural gardening can leach soil of vital minerals. When the same land is constantly re-cultivated without replenishing phytonutrients it yields more disappointing and nutrient-deficient crops.

Jo Robinson of The New York Times writes:

Studies published within the past 15 years show that much of our produce is relatively low in phytonutrients, which are the compounds with the potential to reduce the risk of four of our modern scourges: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. The loss of these beneficial nutrients did not begin 50 or 100 years ago, as many assume. Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers. [New York Times]

This is the same reason new gardeners often see generous harvests in their first few years, followed by diminishing results. The natural ecosystem is based on wild and diverse plant life, which creates more balanced and healthy soil. Agriculture, by nature, is designed to reap the maximum yield of crops, a process that has been honed and perfected over the centuries. It’s quantity at the expense of quality, in other words…

[continues at The Week]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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27 Comments on "Peak Soil: Why Nutrition Is Disappearing From Our Food"

  1. Not only have we been stripping nutrients from the soils (resulting in fewer phytonutrients in our foods), we tend to shy away from foods rich in phytonutrients in the first place. Particularly because of their bitter taste. From that Jo Robinson op-ed cited in the article:

    “Each fruit and vegetable in our stores has a unique history of nutrient loss, I’ve discovered, but there are two common themes. Throughout the ages, our farming ancestors have chosen the least bitter plants to grow in their gardens. It is now known that many of the most beneficial phytonutrients have a bitter, sour or astringent taste. Second, early farmers favored plants that were relatively low in fiber and high in sugar, starch and oil. These energy-dense plants were pleasurable to eat and provided the calories needed to fuel a strenuous lifestyle. The more palatable our fruits and vegetables became, however, the less advantageous they were for our health.”

    Tom Philpott had a great blog post on this awhile back (referencing the same Robinson article):

    How I Got Hooked on Weeds—and Why You Should, Too

    One more great resource on how important our soils are, and I think the title frames the issue perfectly:

    Soil – Our Financial Institution

    And a great movie to check out:

    Dirt! The Movie

    • atlanticus | Oct 9, 2013 at 7:49 pm |

      I’m so glad I developed a palate to include and even crave bitter, spicy and sour…I’m not sure what “astringent” is like, but the first thing that comes to mind is over-heated tea?

      • Cortacespedes | Oct 9, 2013 at 11:19 pm |

        Pomegranates and cranberries are astringent, green apples as well. Turmeric is both bitter and astringent. A lot of legumes fall in that category. “Bitter, spicy and sour” cravings will serve you well.

        • atlanticus | Oct 11, 2013 at 9:12 pm |

          Ah, yes. Not so mad about green apples, but I do love pomegranates and real cranberry juice (not that “cocktail” sugar-syrup crap)…although I do still mix it with blueberry juice.

  2. Pete Wagner | Oct 9, 2013 at 11:36 am |

    The story stops short of the easy solution: natural fertilizers supplemented with sea salt. Also, allow volunteer crops.

    • Ted Heistman | Oct 9, 2013 at 1:28 pm |

      I ate volunteers all summer.

    • ishmael2009 | Oct 9, 2013 at 5:54 pm |

      When you say “natural fertilizers” do you mean animal and / or human waste? Shit, in other words?

    • BuzzCoastin | Oct 10, 2013 at 4:17 pm |

      Dr. Murry notwithstanding
      large amounts of sea salt kill soil life
      the Romans used to scatter salt on the soil of their defeated enemies
      e.g Carthage
      Epsom salts provide magnesium and trace elements
      and what Murry discovered with his sea salt experiments
      lost trace elements due to irrigation
      were replaced by low concentrations of sea water

      • Pete Wagner | Oct 10, 2013 at 6:12 pm |

        Obviously concentrations need to be regulated. After sea-salt brining meats, which I do all the time, I dump the used brine into my compost pile. If the compost pile smells alive and good, it’s good to use. I get great results all the time.

  3. Rus Archer | Oct 9, 2013 at 1:01 pm |

    and remember, there’s no such thing as vegan soil

  4. Ted Heistman | Oct 9, 2013 at 1:27 pm |

    yeah I like dandelion greens, growing as a weed on organic soil. I think they do me some good.

  5. BuzzCoastin | Oct 9, 2013 at 1:49 pm |

    soil is pretty easy for humans to manufacture
    but it’s hard to maintain without aware diligence

    aMerkin farmers lived off the soil maintenance of the Native peoples
    and have pissed it away into the Gulf
    without a thought to the destruction of our soil resources

    wee allow the dull witted to be our food producers
    with disastrous consequences

    • the natives were not as environmentally friendly as some presume, especially the grander civilizations such as the Maya and Aztec. And there have been many Amerkin farmers who have thought of the soil fr a long time. Read Larding the Lean Earth for example. The problem could be a minority of farmers / large tracts of acreage and the loss of children wanting to learn from their farmer parents and instead buying into the corporations.

      • BuzzCoastin | Oct 9, 2013 at 7:15 pm |

        I was specifically referring to North America
        where the tribes of Planes managed the sod sustainably
        till the “sod busters” created the Okie dust bowl
        and the Northeastern part of North America
        which was a “food forest”
        till the white people plowed it under

        the problem is industrial farming
        which treat the earth with a callus disregard
        and a “scientific” bent on destruction for profit

        • kowalityjesus | Oct 10, 2013 at 8:49 am |

          I wonder what portion of this vaunted “American Spirit” that Europeans were enchanted by was due to higher nutrition quality i.e. better soil quality.

        • American farmers have a long history of caring for the soil. But there is also a long history of greed and those have been the victors who wrote history for te rest.

          • BuzzCoastin | Oct 10, 2013 at 2:23 pm |

            let’s consider at the Eco-disaters caused by
            European style (industrial) farming in North America:
            the destruction of the East Coast food forest
            that extended to the Mississippi
            by the “colonists” using plows

            the destruction of the grazing grass Plains
            by the plowing of “the settlers”
            which created a dust bowl

            the slaughtering of the buffalo
            for the railroads & farmers

            the “dead zone” in the Gulf of BP
            created by petrochemical farm products and
            enhanced by petro exploration
            that now extends up the East Coast

            and let’s not forget the GMO Round-up Raedy farmers
            who produce more than half the worlds GMO corn & soy

            there are hundreds more examples like those

    • Woobniggurath | Oct 10, 2013 at 11:04 am |

      …into the Gulf, where it kills and destroys biodiversity.

  6. ishmael2009 | Oct 9, 2013 at 5:47 pm |

    Reducing phytonutrient content in foods isn’t anything new. It’s been going on for hundreds, if not thousands of years as gardeners select the less bitter and more palatable strains of crops and veggies which are lower in phytonutrients.

    This isn’t about wicked modern farming versus the good fairy organic, or any other simplistic fairy tale. It’s about what tastes good and what is actually good for you. As everyone knows, the two aren’t always the same.

    • Woobniggurath | Oct 10, 2013 at 11:15 am |

      Yes, millenia of varietal selection has changed plants from tall grass that appeals only to ungulates into modern maize or wheat, but a mere 60-70 years ago the number of varieties of these human-influenced food crops in common usage was many time what we have today in America (standing for the culmination of the western cultural tendencies.) In addition, the “Green revolution”, i.e. industrialized agriculture, allows farmers to deplete soil for far longer, adding nothing to it but concentrated NPK. The microminerals are the missing component, used up, and they are the buildingblocks of the phytonutrients in question.

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