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.)