by Dr. Lawrence Wilson
© February 2012, L.D. Wilson Consultants, Inc.
All information in this article is for educational purposes only. It is not for the diagnosis, treatment, prescription or cure of any disease or health condition.
The impact of twentieth century changes in agriculture on our health is at least as profound as the effects of such inventions as cars, television and computers. One hundred years ago, all of our food was:
Į Organically grown. That is, it was grown without toxic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Modern farm chemicals simply had not been developed.
Į Fairly locally grown, as the means to transport it thousands of miles did not exist.
Į Minimally processed compared to today.
Į Not genetically modified, as this technology had not even been dreamed about.
Į Not grown with NPK or “superphosphate” fertilizers.
Į Not nearly as hybridized, as most food is today.
Į Not sprayed with wax or MAP (modified atmospheric packaging).
Į Not irradiated, as some of it is today.
Many more people lived close to the land on small, family-owned farms. The average life span was shorter than it is today. However, that was due to the prevalence of infectious diseases that caused many to die in childhood. If one lived to adulthood, the life span was the same as today or better, without the need for operations and modern drugs. Cancer and heart disease were minor problems - and people ate plenty of red meat, and fat.
Today, our health situation has improved in some ways with modern medical care, the ability to airlift people to hospitals, and modern surgery and drugs. But in other ways, the health picture is far worse. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, ADD, autism, birth defects and other conditions that were much less prevalent are today major problems. Much more money is spent on disease care, with very poor results.
Changes in agriculture have a lot to do with these changes, and this is the subject of this article.
WHAT IS ORGANIC, SUSTAINABLE AND BIODYNAMIC AGRICULTURE?
Basically, these are methods of growing food and raising livestock, to some degree, that do not depend the use of toxic chemical pesticides, basically. Instead, less toxic pesticides and other means are used to combat insects and other pests. These include innovative means of fertilizing the soil, crop rotation techniques, composting methods, and many other techniques. Some are older methods, while others use cutting edge technology to help improve the fertility of the soil and to combat plant diseases and insect and other pests that routinely destroy crops around the world.
Some organic or sustainable agriculture is also done without the use of superphosphate fertilizers. These are more modern fertilizers that stimulate the soil and the crops, and definitely produce higher yields in some cases. One problem is that the superphosphate fertilizers, of themselves, do not replenish the trace minerals on the soil. This becomes a serious issue when one is removing more minerals due to highter crop yields. Also, like many symptomatic healing methods, superphosphates tend to deplete the soil to a degree and can definitely damage it. For more on this topic, read Superphosphates on this website.
Biodynamic agriculture is a European variant of organic agriculture that is based on the work of Dr. Rudolf Steiner. It is a more involved way of using various mineral preparations, enzymes to break down compost, and other methods to enhance the soil and the crops grown on that soil.
Organic agriculture is once again on the rise. It is one of, if not the fastest growing sectors of the food market in America, in particular, but also in Europe and some parts of Asia. Many supermarkets are now offering organic products, for example, along with health food stores and other outlets. While the quality is not always consistent at all, this I view as a life-saving trend for everyone on planet earth. The reasons for returning to scientific organic agriculture are:
1. To stop the horrendous pesticide pollution of the soil, water and air of the entire planet earth. This pollution is affecting the soil, livestock, wildlife, fish and the oceans, as well as human life on planet earth.
2. To improve the quality of our food. Organic food generally has much higher levels of vital nutrients than commercially grown food, although not in every case. The food, of course, is also much less toxic for the farmers, their families, and for those who eat it. This has been proven in numerous studies. Do not believe anyone who says there is no difference between organic and non-organic food.
3. Organic soil is rich in humus and other compounds that absorbs radiation much better from nuclear disasters such as is occurring in Japan (see Acres USA Magazine, Vol. 41, #5, 2011, page 5).
5. Organic methods also tend to preserve the topsoil and prevent soil erosion, a very serious problem in some areas of the world.
6. Organic farming methods tend to make the soil more porous, so that when it rains it absorbs a lot more water. This helps reduce water runoff, flooding, and topsoil erosion.
Let us now discuss a number of aspects of the agriculture question, one of the most important on planet earth at this time.
ARE PESTICIDES A BAD IDEA?
Yes, as a general rule they are a horror. They have now contaminated most water supplies on planet earth, killed thousands of people, polluted the air, killed animal species, and continue to persist in the environment because most do not break down quickly. They have also damaged the soil micro-organisms, worsening the quality of the soil in most nations of the world. Pesticides are discussed in more detail later in this article.
IS ORGANIC FOOD BETTER FOR YOUR HEALTH?
Real organically grown food is far better! To begin with, it is generally much more nutritious. This has been proven in a number of studies, one of which is mentioned later in this article. Also, you will be exposed to far fewer toxic chemicals, pesticides, insecticides, growth hormones, drugs and other harmful items. Also, by choosing to eat only organically grown food you will be helping to clean up planet earth far more than you might imagine.
The only problem is that not all food labeled organic is wonderful. This is because the standards are still being established and some large companies are fighting to have them lowered. So always shop at places you trust. Also, look for labels that tell you where food was grown and avoid the long-distance food sources like China, if at all possible.
THE GREEN REVOLUTION
The green revolution is the name given to the changes that revolutionized agriculture in the twentieth century. Scientists discovered that fertilizing plants with superphosphate fertilizers, sometimes called N-P-K fertilizers, stimulated plant growth and increased crop yields. Hybrid crops were also developed that enhanced crop yields. The combination increased food production per acre up to 10 times or even more!
The mineral content of the soil remained the same, however. So the mineral content of each plant declined dramatically. The new crops were also weaker and more vulnerable to pests and diseases. Scientists then developed modern pesticides to kill the bugs.
Along with high-yield crops and chemical sprays, mechanization was introduced to agriculture. Because a large acreage of one crop is easier for a machine to plant and harvest, monoculture or one-crop farming became more common. This also made crops more vulnerable to pests, which increased the use of the toxic sprays. With heavy equipment, one farmer could cultivate thousands of acres. Many fewer people were needed on farms. The mechanized farms were more efficient, so small farmers began to go out of business by the thousands and the industry consolidated.
Thus was born what is called agribusiness. These are large multinational companies that own or control huge farms and expensive equipment, produce the pesticides and fertilizers, and distribute food worldwide. Combined with other twentieth century inventions such as refrigeration and high-speed travel, the Green Revolution radically changed food production and distribution in the world.
While the family farmer is still around in a few nations, in most nations agribusiness has bought up the land, replaced the old crops with the new hybrids, sprayed the land over and over, and depleted the soils even more in many instances. In a way, it is a total shame. However, thanks to capitalism, the land and crops are valuable, so the agribusinesses cannot afford to totally destroy the land, as some of the farmer of old did when they had lots of extra land to farm, as occurred in the early history of America for example. Here farmers would just plant the same crop until they wore out or demineralized the soil, and then they would just move on to a new area.
Those days are over, mainly, so now farmers must rotate crops and rejuvenate the soil as much as they can to maintain production. Even so, the land is quite demineralized in most places on earth from poor farming practices. Farming is actually a very exact science and not one that lends itself to random experimentation. Farming has become much more scientific, and this is good. The identical test to the hair mineral analysis is used by all larger farmers to check their land before planting to determine what they are missing and what the soil has too much of.
The really wise farmers can also interpret the test somewhat like Dr. Eck interprets a hair analysis. This is more advanced, however, than most farmers are capable of. Fortunately, the mineral system in the soil is also simpler, so less studying is required to know how to alter the soil minerals to produce the best crops.
THE COMPLEXITY OF AGRICULTURE TODAY
Another complication is there are a dizzying number of seeds available now to farmers. This is new and it the result of research and genetic alteration, though farmers have been doing this forever, practically. This complicates the soil-seed-food connection, as it is often a hit or miss process, at least with certain crops.
All this lends complexity to agriculture, something that is not appreciated by the consumer of the food in most cases, who is mainly concerned with how it looks and how it tastes. Agriculture, however, is one of the most important subjects, if not the most important next to water, for human health. So it is a very important area, even though it is a very specialized one as well.
GREEN REVOLUTION A MIXED SUCCESS
The ‘green revolution’ succeeded in drastically increasing the amount of food grown. American farms feed millions more people around the world. Our government pays farmers millions each year not to grow certain crops to keep the prices up. We also have access to fresh pineapples from Hawaii or Malaysia, tomatoes from Colombia, even rain forest herbs. Fresh food can be shipped virtually anywhere on earth in a few days.
The green revolution also succeeded in increasing the efficiency of farming, if that is measured in human labor required to grow food. It also succeeded in reducing human drudgery - the hard, relentless manual labor required for non-mechanized farming.
However, not all changes have been positive. Modern agriculture requires huge investments in machinery, fuel, chemical sprays and fertilizers. Other difficulties and costs to society may be far greater.
Chemical Poisoning. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers pesticide poisoning the worst environmental problem in the world. Pesticides have contaminated almost all water supplies in most nations, decimated dozens of animal species, and polluted every aspect of our environment. Most are cumulative poisons and carcinogenic. Cumulative means they do not leave the body and they just build up more and more.
The American Cancer Society estimates that 85% of cancers are environmentally caused. The cost of this epidemic is enormous. Some pesticides cause genetic damage similar to the effects of atomic fallout. This may contribute to a doubling or the birth defect rate in America since 1950. Other pesticides mimic estrogen, which may contribute to many cancers and other health problems. By killing soil microorganisms, herbicides and pesticides contribute to massive soil erosion and loss of precious topsoil around the world, even creating deserts in some areas.
Nutritional Depletion. Few people realize how devastating chemical agriculture has been to the nutrient content of our food. The average supermarket apple or tomato today bears little resemblance to one grown 100 years ago. This was the subject of a book written in the 1980's called Food For Naught, The Decline in Nutrition by Ross Hume Hall. A more recent book on the same subject is called Empty Harvest (1995) by Bernard Jensen and Mark Anderson.
According to the USDA, the calcium content of an apple has declined from 13.5 mg in 1914 to 7 mg in 1992. The iron content has declined from 4.6 mg in 1914 to 0.18 mg in 1992. Some nutrition books written 50 or 60 years ago simply do not apply to today's food.
For example, some people think they can live comfortably on the protein in pasta or other wheat products because they read this in books. However, today's wheat has about half the protein content of wheat grown just 80 years ago. The use of pesticides and stimulant fertilizers has allowed poor-quality crops that would otherwise have been destroyed by pests to make it to market.
Mass production of chicken, beef, pork and other products often results in unhealthy animals who receive over half the antibiotics used in America. Residues of these and other drugs used in food production find their way into our meat, eggs, and dairy products.
A study published in the Journal of Applied Nutrition, Vol. 45, #1, 1993, pp. 35-39 compared the nutrient content of supermarket food versus organically grown food from food stores in the Chicago area. The organic produce averaged twice the mineral content of the supermarket food! Fortunately, the organic food industry is growing rapidly, as the truth about our nutritionally-depleted food becomes more widely known.
Health Disasters and even more world starvation. Along with the green revolution has come "the diseases of civilization". Authorities are realizing that costly epidemics of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, AIDS, mental illness and even violence are related to the nutritional content of the food, and toxic substances in the food, water and air. Also, the advent of agribusiness has upset the social fabric of many traditional societies. Today they cannot feed themselves and their land has often been sold out from under them to the large companies that ruin the land and ship the crops back to America and Europe while the local people do not have enough to eat.
Social Displacement. Factory farming has also forced millions of people off their land and into the cities seeking work. Life on the farm was not easy, but living on the land provided a source of security, and a far healthier environment than many city environments. Many people today cannot even afford the food that is grown on what was their land. Living on the land has been replaced by ghetto tenements in many nations including America.
This is not a total indictment of factory farming and agribusiness. However, it is important to understand that any movement or revolution of this magnitude and nature, as has occurred in agriculture just in the past 50 to 100 years, has had far reaching consequences in many nations on the globe. If one wishes to evaluate the green revolution, one must consider all of these consequences, and it is a very complex picture. While millions have been displaced, millions have also been relieved of a life of drudgery and given educational opportunities to work in the factories and at the computers that were literally impossible 50 years ago. This is especially the case in nations such as China where most of the people still live on family farms and barely eke out a living, while the wealthy live so much better and live so much longer, as a result. So the agribusiness revolution that is sweeping the world is having a powerful leveling effect as well, and this is decidedly positive. The worst aspect, from my perspective, is the destruction of the old seeds and the fertile land. It is being sprayed and sprayed until everything is contaminated with chemicals that are quite toxic. America is way ahead of the rest of the world in setting up laws to prevent wholesale destruction of the environment with agricultural chemicals, but even here, farmers are among the most ill people, which is new, because they work with all these chemicals. Organic farms are better, but the organic movement is still very small, though it is growing fast as people wake up to the reality of the health and environmental disaster that is modern chemical agriculture.
On one hand, the green revolution continues in full swing, with ever newer technologies to produce more and cheaper food. Genetically engineered foods and food irradiation are two of the newer technologies. New drugs are developed to handle the new plant, animal and human diseases that result from consuming the chemically-grown foods. .
The other trend is the growth of organic, sustainable, or ecological agriculture, the environmental movement, the locally grown movement, land trusts, and seed banking. Sometimes I feel it is a race to see which will win. Of course, the answer is the organic movement, as it is the more sustainable and it is what the people want. However, the “food scientists” keep trying to come up with newer seeds and plants that can withstand more pesticides and can grow in more depleted soils. The food is a mix, therefore, of old technology and new. As a result, you never know what you will get these days in the supermarkets or even the health food stores. This is just one problem with today’s food.
GENETICALLY ENGINEERED (GE or GMO) FOODS
Genetic engineering involves adding, deleting or changing specific genes in a plant to produce certain qualities in the plant. Genetic modification is not new. Crops have always been crossbred to produce tastier, hardier, more nutritious varieties of food. Indeed, our present foods were bred from wild plants by generations of farmers who carefully picked the best of their crop to produce the next year's crop.
The new genetic methods are more specific, work much faster, and for the first time companies are patenting their new varieties to give them control over who grows the crops. They are also, for the first time, combining the genes of pigs or fish with those of plants. This is radical new technology – and very unproven in its long-term effects.
As with any new technology, there are potential problems with GE. For example, some G-E plants make their own toxic pesticides. In a recent incident, Bt corn, bred to produce a pesticide to kill corn borers, also killed monarch butterflies that ate the pollen. It won't kill humans outright, but what are the health effects? Thirty percent of the corn grown in America in 1999 was genetically engineered Bt corn.
Roundup Ready soybeans are bred to withstand more of the pesticide called Roundup. This means more pesticide can be sprayed. This is excellent for the pesticide producer. However, what does the pesticide do to our bodies, water supplies, wildlife, and soil microorganisms?
Another controversial area of GE is called "terminator genes". These are genes that are added to the plant so that it will not reproduce. This way, the farmer must buy new patented seeds from the company each year, instead of saving seeds for next year, a common practice especially in poorer nations. In summary, there are potential benefits of GE, such as improved drought-resistance or nutrition of crops. In practice, however, the focus of GE is often on greater production and continued dependence on chemical methods of agriculture.
Most European nations, where more small farms remain, prohibit the importation of GE foods or seeds. There is less concern in America, although recently two large natural food retailers decided to stop selling GE foods. Americans tend to embrace new technology more readily, and in America chemical companies have more influence.
Most likely, GMO or GE foods should be banned, as we simply don’t know enough about its long-term effects. As a first step, there is a campaign to insist on labeling of genetically engineered foods. This is the only way people will have a choice regarding what they are eating. Time will tell if any of the GMO foods are really better foods for our health, and not just ways to enhance crop yields or fight bugs that attack poor quality crops.
As food is grown and shipped globally, avoiding spoilage is of great importance. Food grown with pesticides and chemical fertilizers often does not keep as well as the older, hardier varieties. This has spawned interest in newer methods of food preservation. Irradiation of plant and animal products kills bacteria that can cause spoilage.
Problems with food irradiation are the danger of damaging sensitive components of the food, harm to workers, and disposing of spent radioactive material. Ionizing radiation is very harmful to living matter. Also, food that spoils easily is often of lesser quality. Preserving it with irradiation to make it edible does not make it healthful to eat. The nutritional and vitality of the food take a back seat to the desires of the processors to avoid spoilage.
Irradiated food in America is supposed to be labeled, although processed food often contains irradiated ingredients that are not labeled. Labeling of GE foods and irradiated food is a critical issue so that people have a choice. I believe irradiated food should be outlawed completely, as it is a method of food processing that just further reduces the nutritional and safety of our food, even if it kills harmful germs.
MAP OR MODIFIED ATMOSPHERIC PACKAGING OF ORGANIC PRODUCE
Another newer insult to the food supply – including food that is labeled organic - is called MAP. It is the spraying of produce – fruits and some vegetables, too – with various ‘natural’ chemicals to preserve the food. This puts a sort of bio-film on the surface of the fruit that helps retard spoilage.
As a result of this technology, food can be grown in China or India, for example, and shipped to the United States on a slow-moving boat. The trip takes two weeks, at times, and the food is miraculously still fresh-looking. This outsourcing of our agriculture is great for China, and very bad for our health and for our farmers.
Problems with this technology are that food begins to lose some of its nutrients as soon as it is picked, so “preserving it” with MAP, while it may not spoil, it still loses nutrients. Also, the chemicals used to create the bio-film or atmospheric packaging, as it is euphemistically called, are often slightly toxic. They can cause allergic reaction, and often there are outbreaks of disease because the food is not clean and fresh, even if it looks like it.
This may be one reason to eat good quality frozen produce instead of fresh produce “made in China”. The frozen vegetables are often frozen at the farm, and freezing, or even canning them, preserves them better than many of the chemicals used in the modified atmospheric packaging. This is a difficult question to answer simply, as it will vary among different crops. I will be researching it more in the future and will report upon it in this article.
I am opposed to all MAP technology at this time, as I do not think it is necessary or helpful for our health. Yes, it makes for slightly cheaper food grown in China, but the unintended consequences or ‘side effects’ of ingesting many unknown and odd chemicals is not worth it. At least, it should be absolutely labeled with any chemicals that are sprayed on it, even if they are “natural”. Here is a link to a longer article on this subject:
organic, sustainable and biodynamic agriculture movements in America and around
the world are the fastest growing area of agriculture. A recent study revealed one can grow
equal amounts of food without toxic pesticides and herbicides.
One can also raise animals without massive use of antibiotics, female hormones and other drugs used on farm animals and farm fish. An excellent, simple study in the Journal of Applied Nutrition (45:1, pp.35-39, 1993) indicated that commercial food bought randomly at Chicago supermarkets had an average of less than half the mineral content of organic food, also bought randomly at Chicago area food stores.
The organic methods build up the soil, produce hardier crops that resist pests, preserve the environment, and provide more nutritious food. The food may not look different, but it has a longer shelf life and is nutritionally superior, as revealed in several studies.
A final word on organic agriculture. Recently the US Department of Agriculture took over mandating standards for organic agriculture. This was probably inevitable, but it has resulted in a definite decline in the quality of some organic food. They allow a certain amount of pesticides and residues in the food, no doubt a perk for certain large companies that want to be in on the organic profits.
Therefore, be wary of organic food, especially if you don’t know the source. It is still far preferable, in general, to standard commercial food, but not always.
clothing and more. Offshoots of
the organic movement that are still in their infancy include the use of organic
cotton and hemp clothing. Half of
all the pesticides are applied to cotton.
Hemp requires no pesticides as it is a hardier crop. It was a major crop in America until it was banned in 1937. Hemp is an excellent source of fiber for clothing, alcohol for fuel, and protein and oils for nutrition and industrial applications.
Hemp is not the same variety as marijuana, and was not banned in America because of drug abuse. It was banned because it competed with the nylon industry for clothing manufacture. It also competed with oil for fuel, and with the timber industry for paper-making. Hemp is grown commercially almost everywhere except the United States.
Land trusts are agreements made by individual land owners to prevent future development on their land. The trusts contain strict covenants for the land use, to prevent its use for parking lots and shopping centers, for example. Buyers or renters of the land must agree to abide by the contract. Though still a small movement, land trusts now exist in every part of America. They are helping to save farmland, wildlife habitats and old-growth forests from destruction.
As new hybrid plants are used more widely, some of the older seed varieties are in danger of being lost. Several groups have taken on the task of saving and banking precious seeds. They could be useful or even life-saving if weather changes or new crop diseases destroy the hybrid or GE plants. Also, the genetic material in the older seeds may be needed at some time to enhance our crops. For research and for disaster preparedness, the movement to save traditional seed varieties is an important trend.
More small farmers are finding a niche catering to the needs of the local community. Farmer's markets and local buying clubs helps address the problem of the loss of the family farm. Communities are reaping the benefits of supporting local farmers by getting fresher and often better quality produce. Often the local farmers grow food organically, helping preserve the land, the wildlife and the local environment. The locally grown movement also fosters a greater sense of community, and contributes to local self-sufficiency and sovereignty.
However, do not be misled into thinking that locally grown food is always best. This is not the case. It may well be the freshest, but sometimes a farm far away is able to produce better quality food.
We are not going to go back to farming as it was done a century ago. However, it is possible to use modern technology wisely to produce pure, nutritionally superior food without damaging the environment. This is the challenge for agriculture in the 21st century.
1. www.thecampaign.org (excellent site for labeling of genetically engineered food.
2. Bergner, P., The Healing Power of Minerals, Special Nutrients and Trace Elements, Prima Publishing, CA, 1997.
3. Hall, R., Food For Naught, The Decline in Nutrition, Keats Publishing, New Canaan, CT, 1979.
4. Price, W., Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, La Mesa, CA. 1945, 1970.
5. J. Applied Nut., 1993, 45:1, pp. 35-39. (study of the mineral content of organic versus commercial food in the Chicago area)
6. Wilson, L., Nutritional Balancing And Hair Mineral Analysis, LD Wilson Consultants, Inc., 2010.