Healthy Foods Require Healthy Soils
I recently saw a headline that shocked me: “Produce is less healthy than it was 70 years ago. These farmers are trying to change that,” declared USA Today. As someone who spends his days trying to convince Bay Area residents to consume more California-grown fresh produce directly from farmers, this claim was of great concern to me. This started me down a path of Googling various iterations of that phrase to determine if this was fact or fake news.
What I found is a growing concern among a small number of researchers that a combination of factors including farming methods and the changing global climate appear to be causing a shift in the micronutrients within plants. In 2004, a study published in The Journal of the American College of Nutrition found “43 foods show apparent, statistically reliable declines … for 6 nutrients.” The nutrients showing decline included protein, calcium, iron and vitamins C and B2. (For a good overview of this research, I recommend “The Great Nutrient Collapse,” by Helena Bottemiller Evich in Politico from September 2017.)
Because this is happening in the foods we eat, it is not visible to us as consumers. If this were happening in the multi-billion dollar supplement market, where manufacturers were reducing the amount of calcium and vitamin C in their multivitamins, that fact would be obvious on the label and there would be an outcry from their customers.
These changes are also not readily visible to the farmers who grow those crops. Farmers measure their yields in bushels or tons, not in the volume of micronutrients within their harvests. But farmers don’t need to be able to consistently measure the scope of this problem to be a part of the solution. These farmers, as the USA Today article explained, can improve the nutrient quality of the foods they produce by improving the nutrient quality of the soil in which they grow the food. Increasing cover crops and decreasing the use of chemical fertilizers can improve the health of soils and contribute to an increase in the healthfulness of the foods grown in those soils.
This same point was made in a recent opinion piece by Daniel Moss and Mark Bittman in The New York Times entitled “Bringing Farming Back to Nature.” The authors advocate for the increased adoption of agroecology by farmers worldwide: “Agroecology measures its success by a yardstick that includes not only bushels and calories but by how well food nourishes people while regenerating soil and water and helping more farmers make a good living.”
The end result of my morning of online research and reading on this subject is an ongoing concern about the hidden costs to our health from many past decisions that shaped our current food system. However, that concern is tempered by the knowledge that there are farmers throughout the nation who are already hard at work to shift that paradigm. I know many of them are farming in California and selling in PCFMA’s farmers’ markets. I have heard these farmers talk with equal pride about the compost that is produced and utilized on their farm and the food their farm produces and sells. My hope is that these farmers can continue to be evangelists for a better way of feeding our communities through farms that are focused on making their farm businesses economically sustainable by sustaining and improving the health of their soil.
I hope too that PCFMA can continue to be a partner in helping to encourage consumers to seek out the best and healthiest food they can, food that I believe comes from the responsible local farmers in their neighborhood farmers’ market.