By Roger Blobaum, exact date unknown – written in the 1970s
We think of nutrition as a personal responsibility. Or, perhaps more accurately, as the responsibility of the mothers of the family. We might assume, then, that bad nutrition is simply the result of bad mothering and that it can be corrected by the education of mothers.
I want to question this common assumption and to suggest that problems of bad nutrition reflect bad public policy rather than uninformed individuals. All of us eat and all of us have little chance, as individuals, to improve the nutritional quality of the food available to us.
The nutrition issue is fast becoming one of the major public policy issues of our time. It is finally becoming clear that a nutrition gap exists in our food system. The health costs due to this neglect have not all been added up—but we know they are significant.
Surveys show that the level of awareness of the importance and value of good nutrition is very high. Knowledge and practice of good eating habits, however, lag far behind public awareness.
The political commitment to providing resources for research and other work in the nutrition field do not match the rapid increase in public interest.
For example, the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs chaired by Senator McGovern, was a casualty of the recent Senate reorganization and will soon go out of business. It is assumed that whatever is done in the future in the Senate on nutrition will be done in the agriculture committee.
The record of support for work on nutrition by the agriculture-related committees in Congress is not good. A recent report to the House Agriculture Committee, for example, showed that less than 3% of the research budget of the Department of Agriculture goes for nutrition work. This is much less than it spends on studying livestock and poultry nutrition.
This pretty well sums it up for the federal government’s commitment because USDA is the only federal agency with a mandate to conduct human nutrition research. It is obvious that we know too little about this and that much more needs to be done.
Most of the recent emphasis on nutrition has dealt with what is in food and what its long-range effect will be on all of us.
We are concerned about cholesterol, sodium nitrate, saccharin, fats, sugar, additives, and preservatives. It is suggested that our diet is clearly associated with epidemic rates of cardio-vascular failure, cancer, stroke, high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries cirrhosis, and diabetes.
I want to explore another area with you—one that gets little attention now but is becoming an emerging nutrition issue area. That is the relationship between nutrition and how food is grown. One bushel of corn is not just like another bushel grown someplace else, even though it looks the same.
The first suggestion of a link between nutrition and health occurred to me when I was gathering data in interviews with organic farmers in the Midwest. Their veterinary bills were much below average and it was not uncommon to have one of these farmers report that they had not had a veterinary out for a year or more at a stretch. This was reported despite the fact that they avoided medicated feeds and other so-called healthful approaches to livestock and poultry feeding. I became convinced that something important was going on here.
Another thing that organic farmers will comment on is the lack of problems of livestock reproduction, particularly with bulls. They say they rarely have a bull returned because he is not a reliable performer. These returns are rather common, however, throughout the livestock industry. Because this involves an economic sector of the livestock industry—and the question of how much money purebred breeders and the artificial insemination industry make—it has been researched to some extent. There seems to be somewhat less interest in relating nutrition to fertility for people. Scientists in Germany and Austria, who are exploring reproduction problems associated with bulls at several artificial insemination stations, were able to establish a relationship between the quality of the sperm of the bull, the health of the bull, and the management of the farm. In tests comparing mobility of sperm from bulls fed hay and grass from fields with different fertilizer programs, the bulls fed hay and grass that had been fertilized with manure compost had sperm mobility of 75% and 74% after four days. The comparable rate of /nobility for hay and grass from fields where chemical fertilizer was applied was 67% and 42%.
This research was suggested after it was found that at least 20% of the culling of cows in one area in 1964 was due to reproduction failure.
Dr. Herbert Koepf of Emerson College in England, who reported on this research at a meeting in Omaha, noted that it is not easy to demonstrate inferior or superior nutritional quality by calculating rate of gain.
Koepf also reported on experiments with rabbits fed hay produced under different farming systems, one was a fertilizer program with a fairly heavy commercial fertilizer application, another was similar with much less chemical fertilizer, and the third was a biological system utilizing compost for fertilizer.
After the feeding trial, the rabbits were killed. The average weight of the ovaries, for example, was 156 milligrams for the heavy commercial fertilizer application, 227 mg. for the light application, and 271 mg. for the compost-fertilized hay. Three times as many eggs on an average came from the fallopian tubes in rabbits fed hay from compost-fertilized fields as from those with the heavy fertilizer application. When the eggs were fertilized artificially, the success rate was 96% for compost group and no success with the heavy fertilizer group. “In the reproduction of animals,” Dr. Koepf reported, “we have an appropriate and good yardstick to test what the type of fertilizing, the management of the soils, and the management of the coops, especially the organic management, can do to improve the quality of the feed.”
In another test with white mice, it was observed that the average number in litters fed organically produced feed was 6.7, compared to 6.2 in those of mice fed grain produced with chemical fertilizer. These tests also showed that 16.9% of the mice in the litters from mothers fed chemically-fertilized feed died compared to 8.6% for those fed organically-fertilized feed.
Regarding the cause of death, it was noted that no sickness arose during the experiments but that the deaths were due rather to the number of weaklings in the litters, which being retarded in their development, died off.
I will not attempt to draw any sweeping conclusions from this and other similar research, most of which has been done in Europe. I think it is suggestive, and that it should be followed up here. So far, agricultural science has ignored these bits of evidence and the same can be said for the medical profession. The main conclusion we might draw is that scientific uncertainty, and much disagreement between scientists, is an important constraint on nutrition research. It reflects how much remains unknown.
There is more and better evidence linking certain types of farming with the quality of grain and other crops. This touches on the ability of plants to take in minerals and other elements needed for good human nutrition. A study in 1974 turned up a staking increase in vitamin content in test plots where fertilization was achieved with compost rather than chemical fertilizer. It involved work on nutritional value and yields of spinach, savoy, carrots, and potatoes over a 12-year period. It also involved 4 types of annual fertilization. Except for potatoes, the yields from the fields using compost or manure were down.
But the lower yields were to a large extent compensated for by increased nutrient content, particularly higher useable protein, potassium, Vitamin C. Phosphorus and iron—which were in many cases over 50% higher. Sodium and nitrate levels were comparatively low in the organic produce, which is considered a positive nutritional factor. Organically-grown produce also had a relatively higher percentage of roughage.
Dr. Mark Cowan, in a paper published in the Journal of Applied Nutrition, reports a strong indication that the activity of microorganisms in the vicinity of what roots can lead to changes in structures associated with the selective uptake of mineral elements by the plant.
The implications are that some soils – those with high organic content, for example – that have high levels of microbial activity might bring about anatomical changes in the roots of cereals growing in these soils, to such an extent that the physiological response to nutrient levels (especially heavy applications of nitrogen) is altered. Furthermore, changes in the pattern of nutrient uptake by the plant might be associated with difference is the nutritional quality of the grain. This would include such things as mineral content as Well as the amount and type of protein present in the food khpk crop.
This evidence of a positive relationship between biological farming–or at least farming with manure or compost as the fertilizer input—and good nutrition suggests that more attention should be given to supporting this kind of farming. It also is interesting that organic farmers themselves associate health with their production system.
A recent survey showed 55% of the organic farmers responding listed “healthier for the farmer and his family” as one of the 3 most important advantages of this kind of farming. Forty-eight percent listed “healthier for livestock” as one of their 3 most important advantages.
Twelve percent listed “Higher quality product” as one of the 3 main advantages.
The motives these farmers cited for converting from conventional to organic management tended to be practical, rather than theoretical; that is, they were related to specific problems with conventional farming. More important to you, the rewards they reported emphasized health and safety.
It is not clear whether these farmers felt it was healthier because they no longer handled farm chemicals or because they also were careful to eat only organically-produced food.
The presence of chemicals in food is extremely difficult to detect, mainly because more sensitive instruments are needed.
Experience with allergenics is suggestive; however, of possible adverse effects on health of chemicals in food.
One organic farmer near Kansas City, for example, has a farm on top of a hill that produces food for some of the area’s most sensitive allergenics. Individuals who cannot eat supermarket food—not even seafood—without getting bad reactions are able to eat the food produced on this farm. He takes orders in February for gardens, and allergenics pick and can or freeze this produce—usually a whole year’s supply. They certainly are convinced that organic farming produces chemically-free and healthful food.
It is surprising, then, that this kind of agriculture is neither recognized nor supposed by either USDA or the agricultural Extension Service even though congress has directed these institutions to do more research on it.
Former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, in a speech a few years ago, suggested that we should determine which 50 million Americans should starve before we decide to go ahead and promote biological farming. It is obvious that he was merely passing on information provided by the chemical and fertilizer companies that have a giant stake in today’s farming methods. There is growing evidence that Earl Butz was wrong.
The best study dealing with this is the Washington University study comparing 16 matched pairs of commercial-size farms in the Midwest. Half farmed with conventional methods, half use biological methods.
The main objective was to determine whether biological agriculture when adopted on full-size commercial farms, is economically feasible. The evidence shows that it is possible on farms of this size and crop» livestock mix in 5 Midwest states. Three years of data shows the conventional farm had slightly higher yields (mainly for corn), that the organic farms spent considerably less for production inputs (mainly because they did not use commercial fertilizer); that the conventional farms had somewhat higher gross sales (partly because they produced more cash crops like corn and soybeans and less hay), and that the organic farms used only 1/3 as much energy. But the bottom line, the one involving economics, showed the profit per farm was almost identical*
Other studies generally support the assumption that biological agriculture is a viable economic alternative.
One would assume that agricultural research would begin to recognize and support this alternative that is profitable, energy saving and may offer nutritional benefits.
But this hasn’t happened, with the result that we are actually making policy while doing nothing.
The issue of greatest importance in the debate between organic and conventional fertilization is the effect on human health. There is some suggestive evidence but it is not conclusive.
Enough questions have been raised about the possible nutritional superiority of organically-raised food to avoid dismissing such contentions out of hand.
It is time to allocate some research resources to find out more about this. I would hope that you would join in supporting this approach, It would be most appropriate having support for this from people in health professions.