Monday, February 15, 2010

Healthy Foods, Healthy Farms, Healthy People with John Ikerd

"This is the second in a series of quest entries of the NSAS blog featuring speakers and presenters for the Healthy Farms Conference of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society"

Americas are the most obese people in the world. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, adult obesity has increased by 60% within the past twenty years. Trends for childhood obesity are even worse, having doubled for children and tripled for adolescents during the same time. One-third of American adults are now considered severely overweight or obese. Obesity is closely linked with other health problems, particularly diabetes and heart disease, and ranks second only to tobacco smoking as a cause of adult death. Americans are the most overfed yet undernourished people in the world.

The epidemic of obesity is obviously related to the American diet. It might be easy to blame these maladies on the sedentary but high-stress American lifestyle, which probably is a significant casual factor. But an even more important cause might be the lack of essential nutrients in many of today’s foods. A growing number of scientific studies are finding significant declines in the nutritional value of our foods. And dramatic drops in nutrient density have occurred during a period when American farms were under pressure to specialize, mechanize, get bigger – to produce more food cheaper.

Meanwhile the evidence continues to grow that cheap food is abundant in calories but deficient in nutrients. For example, problems of obesity and diabetes are more common among people with lower incomes who logically tend to seek foods providing the cheapest source of energy – meaning the most calories for the fewest dollars. Because of time constraints, many such people also rely heavily on highly processed and ready-to-eat foods, including “fast foods.” On such diets, people can easily end up eating far more calories than they need without getting enough nutrition to meet the minimum requirements of a healthy diet.

One prominent academic study compared nutrient levels in 43 garden crops in 1999 with levels documented in benchmark nutrient studies conducted by USDA in 1950. The scientists found declines in median concentrations of six important nutrients: protein –6%, calcium –16%, phosphorus –9%, iron –15%, riboflavin –38%, and vitamin C –2%. While these essential nutrients may be lacking in most foods today, they may be found in abundance in foods grown naturally and organically on healthy, productive soils. A 1993 study comparing conventional foods with organic foods, found that organically grown apples, potatoes, pears, wheat, and sweet corn, purchased over a two-year period, averaged 63% higher in calcium, 73% higher in iron, 118% higher in magnesium, 91% higher in phosphorus, 125% higher in potassium, and 60% higher in zinc than conventional foods purchased at the same times.

Other studies establish clear links between declining nutrient density and the industrialization of American agriculture. One such study found that yield-enhancing technologies – fertilizers, pesticides, plant density, and irrigation – reduce the nutrient content of field crops by amounts generally consistent with declines in nutrient density over the past 50-years and nutrient differences between conventional and organic crops. These results should come as no surprise to anyone who understands that industrial agriculture profits primarily from quantity factors: acres farmed, head produced, yields per acre, rates of gain, and the cost efficiency of large-scale production. Quality factors affecting prices typically are incidental to profits and often related to cosmetic appearance rather than nutrition. The profits are in producing quantity, not quality.

The food processing and distribution industry also must share the blame. The corporations that market our foods are concerned about profits – not diet or health. In fact, the managers of the multinational corporations that currently control the American food system have a legal fiduciary responsibility to maximize returns to their stockholders. They have no social or ethical commitment to protecting public health and instead do only those things required by law. Current laws are clearly inadequate to protect the public from diet related illnesses, as is evident in current trends in the diets and health of Americans.

Food industry marketers know that humans have a natural taste preference, probably a genetic predisposition, for foods that are high in fat and sugar. Preferences essential for the survival and health of our primitive ancestors may threaten our health today. Regardless, it’s easier to market foods that are higher in calories, particularly when those foods are cheaper to produce. The primary sources of those cheap calories are plants and animals from farms using modern yield-enhancing technologies and thus lacking in nutrient density and encouraging over consumption while enhancing food industry profits. Some logical health consequences of such diets are obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

The food security of our nation depends on keeping farmland in the trusted care of family farmers who are committed to maintaining the fertility and productivity of the land while producing safe and nutritious foods for all. Rather than subsidizing the industrialization of agriculture and promoting cheap food, public policies should be refocused on sustaining our smaller, independent family farmers, people who are personally committed to producing good food for their families, their neighbors, and providing food security for their nation. Our food may cost a bit more and we may consumer a bit less, but only then, will Americans be well nourished and well fed.

John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics, University of Missouri, Columbia will give a capstone lecture for the conference on Saturday, February 6th. John was raised on a small dairy farm in southwest Missouri and received his BS, MS, and Ph.D. degrees in agricultural economics from the University of Missouri. He worked in private industry for a time and spent thirty years in various professorial positions at North Carolina State University, Oklahoma State University, University of Georgia, and the University of Missouri before retiring in early 2000. Since retiring, he spends most of his time writing and speaking on issues related to sustainability with an emphasis on economics and agriculture. Ikerd is author of Sustainable Capitalism, A Return to Common Sense, Small Farms are Real Farms, and Crisis and Opportunity: Sustainability in American Agriculture.

For studies of health benefits of natural and organic foods, see The Organic Center, http://
W. M. Jarrell and R. B. Beverly, “The Dilution Effect in Plant Nutrient Studies,” Advances in Agronomy, 34:197–224, 1981.