Better food, not just more

We recently bought a Ford Focus turbo diesel hatchback as the family car. It’s a surprisingly nimble drive, with remarkable grunt; in sixth gear it powers away up the steepest hills that New England can offer.

The best bit? Doing 900-plus km on a 53-litre fuel tank.

Our decision to go with diesel was made partly on the assumption that oil prices are going to climb as economic recovery kicks in, and because of the fundamentals of supply, will probably stay high.

The equation is pretty simple: less oil, so make more efficient use of it.

Why isn’t this the case with food?

Listen carefully and you’re bound to hear someone, somewhere, saying that an increase in agricultural productivity is needed to feed the world’s burgeoning human population.

“Productivity” tends to be shorthand for yield: productivity per hectare. We’re looking for more of what the Green Revolution gave us.

There doesn’t seem to be a conversation about productivity per gram, or producing more nutrient per hectare as distinct from more volume.

Getting more nutrient into food should be relatively easy, because there seems to be good evidence that we have lost some of what we once had.

For instance, a 2004 study by the University of Texas's Biochemical Institute found that between 1950 and 1999, six key nutrients found in 43 vegetables had fallen significantly—20 per cent for Vitamin C, 16 per cent for calcium, 38 per cent for riboflavin.

Similar findings have been made in Australia and Britain, although admittedly it is an area that comes in for some strong debate over methodology.

Even while science brawls over the validity of nutrition tables, there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence that food isn’t what it used to be. Like agriculture’s decades-long obsession with NPK to the exclusion of nearly everything else.

If farming depletes NPK and it needs to be replaced, it follows that the 10 other important macro- and micro-nutrients and a constellation of minor elements have been depleted and need replacing too. If they aren’t in the soil, they aren’t in the food.

Studies like CSIRO’s 2007 investigation of mycorrhizal fungi broaden the issue from chemistry to biology. Broadacre agriculture isn’t hydroponics, or shouldn’t be. How plants interact with soil biology is important for uptake of nutrition, but we’ve developed some methods that aren’t friendly to biology.

And then there’s the work from the US and UK that suggests that plant breeders, pushing for yield and disease resistance, have inadvertently created crop varieties that pump substantially less nutrient into their grain.

The US Department of Agriculture in 2006 compared grain nutrients in historical varieties compared with modern types. Researchers found that compared to 130 years ago, US wheat delivered 36 per cent less selenium, 34 per cent less zinc and 28 per cent less iron.

Last year Rothamsted Research Station did a similar analysis across 130 years of data and found that on average, modern grain contains 20-30 per cent less zinc, iron, copper and magnesium.

This is all before food leaves the farm. Then the trouble really starts.

Unfortified white wheat flour - which is the wheat endorsperm, stripped of the bran and germ - has only a quarter of the grain's original protein, and has lost 17 key nutrients.

Processors may return some of the nutrients they've stripped out, according to the "healthiness" of the product they are selling, but refined products seldom have either the nutrient levels, or the nutrient balance, of natural foods.

So it’s reasonable to believe that in many cases, each bite of food you take today has less nutrients than in the same bite of the same food that your grandfather ate. The same cold meat and salad sandwich packs less nutritional punch—and don’t even think about the empty volume in a pre-packaged television meal or fast food hamburger.

Because our bodies still want the same nutrients, we eat more to make up the difference.

"The foods we eat these days send you on a rollercoaster ride and make you feel hungry; people are often hungrier when they've eaten more," nutritionist Professor Jennie Brand Miller said in a recent Sydney Alumini Magazine.

"I really think obesity comes down to appetite, which is a very primitive instinct. In the past we could rely on it to keep us at the right weight; nowadays it doesn't."

In pushing so hard for yield increases, agriculture has been responding to market signals that value volume above all else. A novel approach to improving productivity might be to switch those signals from volume to nutrient density.

What if we restored, say, that 16 per cent in lost calcium to US veg? Nutritionally speaking, that's a 16 per cent jump in productivity in our use of calcium.

And then if we swing into the production of nutrient-dense food, supported by healthy soils, and add 16 per cent on those mid-20th Century figures? That's a 32 per cent jump in productivity.

Maybe more, if you buy the argument that people are eating too much because they 'ain't getting no satisfaction' from nutrient-poor food. More nutrient+less consumption=greater productivity.

Yes, it’s a naive and simplistic ideal, but in its naivety it’s also a worthwhile aspiration.

Feeding the soil a more rounded diet offers a host of positive agronomic outcomes—better soil structure, better moisture holding capacity, healthier crops and pastures.

Feeding ourselves a more balanced diet would have incalculable benefits. The basis of most of the chronic diseases tearing our health system apart is arguably nutritional deficiency or excess.

(In a forthcoming story, I’ll report on an interview with a US researcher who has found a strong link between over-use of nitrogen fertilisers and what she describes as the “epidemic” of diseases related to insulin resistance, including Alzheimers, Parkinsons and Type 2 diabetes. If you’re an 85-year-old US citizen, you’re 150 per cent more likely to contract Alzheimers than an 85 year old was in 1968. Nitrogen fertiliser use has increased 230 per cent since 1955. There’s more to it, and it’s interesting.)

There’s also the intriguing possibility that if we all ate better, we might be nicer, too.

While we’re being innovative about the energy that powers our economies, it would also pay handsomely to be innovative about the energy that powers us.

As anyone who mounts a podium these days will tell you, we need greater agricultural productivity. Let’s see some focus on productivity per gram, as well as per hectare.

(Some will dismiss this whole issue as an old chestnut from the organic sector. The short answer to this is that GM crop researchers think it's a pretty big deal, too. The organic sector wants to remedy the situation through the soil, the GM industry via the lab. Either way, stacking more nutrient into the same quantity of food seems to be a productivity sum worth doing.)

Date: Newest first | Oldest first


31/08/2009 9:01:58 AM

Thank you Matt for bringing this up. I have been saying the same thing for years. In this day and age we should be shopping for ingredients and cooking our own rather than prepared garbage with no nutrition. It would be nice to grow just 'heirloom seeds' but how old are the genetics of those you can buy?
Richard Woolley
31/08/2009 11:51:14 AM

To date every attempt man has made to better nature has been a complete failure. The philosophy of this article is not new as any true agriculturalist would concur. There are many that have forgone the propaganda of the dollar-driven sales dogma to successfully produce quality rather than chase quantity and they have reaped the benefits of healthier soils, plants and animals. Study nature and if that fails perhaps reading some of the right books could help. Start with Acres Primer and the Albrecht papers.
Robert Stewart
1/09/2009 5:12:06 AM

Th Food Challenge to grow more on land already being farmed is a much larger dimension. And farm and food sciences need positive political correction to achieve just a fraction of what will become necessary. Britain has recently pledged more than US$150 to support high-tech food crops for the world’s poorest countries—primarily through genetic engineering. The irony? Britain does not allow any biotech foods to be grown commercially within its borders but does not restrict the importation. Not even allowed to develop a new potato that is resistant to the new strain of potato blight that is ravaging British potato fields as this is written. The situation is often touted by the activists as proof, but if the eco-activists hadn’t pledged to rip out test plantings, the world would already have blight-resistant potatoes—a huge step forward in Third World food security. In the '50s Britain had a problem with Maythorpe, the beer barley. The grain was so heavy and the stem so light that it fell over and was very difficult to harvest. The Atomic Energy Commission zapped it with radiation and field trials produced a stronger type. The Brits drank irradiated beer for the next 35 years!
1/09/2009 5:32:52 AM

What a refreshing story, even if the content has been known for a long time by informed individuals. I fully concur with Pops and Richard Woolley's comments. Without being ridiculous, quality always wins out over quantity when it comes to nutrition. As an example, one bale of prime lucerne is better than 10 bales of straw. One of the problems with "modern hybrid" seeds is that, on many occasions, they have lost the ability to take up certain nutrients, even if those particular nutrients are available in the soil. One of the problems with non-organic food is that it is more often than not, laced with a cocktail of toxic chemicals.
1/09/2009 5:47:41 AM

Higher nutrient food is definitely a great step forward for human health. However research has focused on one plant or one fungus or one insect etc for a long time now and focusing on wheat or broccoli to bring its nutrient level up by 15% is a good idea but does go down the same road. It seem about time that the research departments start to look at whole farming systems and come up with some solutions to soil health and plant disease problems that are not driven by companies trying to sell NPK, super potash, glyphosate, atrazine, simazine, diquat, paraquat, diuron or logran (and the many more I am happy to not be able to think of right now). Maybe the ‘Alzheimers, Parkinsons and Type 2 diabetes’ is related to poison as well as Nitrogen fertiliser. What did farmers do before they had to poison or food to be able to remain economically viable?
John Homan
1/09/2009 6:02:18 AM

When it is cheaper to buy a new toaster than repairing the old one; when it is easier to build a large home than using space better in a smaller one, the 'do more with less' philosophy is under serious threat. I have some optimism that with the global financial crisis, threat of global warming - crisis precipitates change (but does not maintain it) - and resource depletion, we may develop a quality approach. Critical to this will be developing the Gross Progress Indicator (GPI) or similar, as an indicator of 'wellness', rather than the GDP which doesn't and was never designed to do so. John Homan Yeppoon
deb Newell
1/09/2009 6:40:37 AM

As the inaugurator of The Hunter Gatherer Dinner Club I couldn't agree more. This is the core tenet of the HGD Club that if the human population is to reach plague proportions we owe it to our ultimate benefactor, the soils of the Earth, to use their investment in our food as effectively as possible. This means maximum nourishment per gram of food that comes with the least damage to the soils and biodiversity that supported this supply. It means diet diversity, the essential use of animal products in our diet and avoidance of soil-exhaustive empty foods. That means the old fashioned hunter gatherer diet (when humans last lived in sync with nature) which is based on what you can grow, catch or buy at your butchershop, green grocer and dairy shop. The Hunter Gatherer Dinner Club's Australian launch featuring the food of some of Sydney's top chefs will be a moving feast staged as part of The Sydney International Food Festival, Oct 16.
Gerhard Grasser
1/09/2009 8:58:36 AM

Yes, you have captured some of the wrongs in the human pre-occupation of quantity over quality. Of course seeing is believing and if we see a piece of fruit that looks good, then we expect it to be good. But just how often are we disappointed!? Now we need to bring the health sector into the discussion so that the links between the pressures of a stressed 'health' system with soil health are drawn. Only then can we make a difference to the future of human health - once the ecology on which we depend is once again made healthy and not under stress can we build a human population not increasingly dependent on medical intervention. Instead of funding programs to deal with issues such as cancer, the causal factors stemming from deficient soil, unbalanced growing systems and the stressed environment in which we live should be researched. The challenge is ahead of us to take our focus beyond the obvious to deal with the cause and not just the symptom.
1/09/2009 10:01:22 AM

You don't get paid for nutritional content, you get paid for volume. All the bleeding heart utopian dreaming won't change the facts: the only way to profit in farming, when costs are going up and prices paid are flat at best, is to produce more. The rest is just agrarian socialism.

Agreed that volume is always going to be important, but the economic scenario you describe is what farmers have been doing forever. "Get bigger or get out" is an inevitable result.

It's also unsustainable for a high-cost producer like Australia to try and compete in export markets only on volume. Interesting to see what might happen to both ends of the supply chain if there was a nutritional angle to Australian produce, as well.

Utopian? Maybe. But as they say, do what you always do and you'll get what you always get.

Posted by moderator: Matt Cawood on 1/09/2009 12:00:18 PM
1/09/2009 4:33:07 PM

If consumers were prepared to pay the price that would cover the cost of production of real food, we would see a refreshing change in the health of the food produced. The spin doctors are alive and well as the time strapped society in which we race with our constitution to a chemically flavoured snack on the run to the next job to pay for the new toaster that we can't buy parts for to repair (even if we had time to). Subsidise healthy food production not the stuffed health system that perpetuates the myth.
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Out HereOut here, with Matt Cawood, wondering how it all works.


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