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How dead soil and toxins reduce food nutrients

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

how dead soil toxins reduce food nutrients

Story at-a-glance -

  • The sad state of nutrient levels in food may be the result of a lack of microbial diversity in the soil, genetically engineered plants and multiple applications of pesticides and insecticides resulting in plants bred to increase yield rather than nutritional content
  • The nutritional content of produce grown over 50 years was compared to current food products and researchers found a significant reduction in minerals; another comparison between 1975 and 1997 found significant declines in a number of nutrients including vitamin C, vitamin A, riboflavin and calcium
  • Researchers hypothesize that the eroding nutritional content in food may be the result of soil erosion, air and water pollution, a decline in seed quality and GMO contamination. Each of these contributes to the killing of microbial life in soil that is essential to supporting plant nutrition
  • Suboptimal vitamin and mineral deficiencies are a widespread problem contributing to poor health. The key to good health is consuming nutrient dense, organically produced food from a farm that uses regenerative techniques, protects pollinators and grows a diverse set of crops that act as natural fertilizers to build soil biodiversity and improve the nutrients in your food

While agrochemical companies work hard to convince you their toxic chemicals are necessary in order to grow enough food to feed the world, this is not the case. One of the greatest treasures we have is healthy soil, without which humanity will not survive.

Soil is the mother of nearly all plant life and, ultimately, all animal life. Soils that have taken hundreds and even thousands of years to fully develop are being destroyed at a disturbingly rapid pace. Monocultural farming systems based on genetically engineered foods are coated with toxins. Operations such as these are quickly destroying the soil microbiome responsible for the growth of nutritious food.

It's estimated that healthy soil may contain between 100 million and 1 billion bacteria.1 However, chemical farming has rendered the soil susceptible to erosion, resulting in one-third of the world's arable land lost to erosion.2 In addition to this and the loss of soil biodiversity, modern farming practices have depleted food nutrients.3

Food without the same nutrients as one generation ago

A recent article in Scientific American4 laments the sad state of nutrition in food, pointing to a lack of microbial soil diversity, likely an effect of genetically engineered plants bred to withstand multiple applications of insecticides and pesticides. However, the information is not new.

In 2011, the publication covered this topic and discussed the landmark study of Donald Davis from the University of Texas. It was published in 2004 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition.5

Davis looked at 43 vegetables and fruits and found regular declines in nutritional value, which his team attributed to agricultural practices designed to improve yield as opposed to nutrition. Davis is quoted in Scientific American as saying:6

“Efforts to breed new varieties of crops that provide greater yield, pest resistance and climate adaptability have allowed crops to grow bigger and more rapidly, but their ability to manufacture or uptake nutrients has not kept pace with their rapid growth.”

Another analysis7 based on data over 50 years, from 1930 to 1980, found significant reductions in calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and potassium. The only mineral with no difference was phosphorus.

Journalist, author and past editor of the East West Journal, Alex Jack,8 writes9 of the differences he found in nutrients when comparing those from printed U.S. Department of Agriculture documents in 1975 against an online database from the USDA.

While comparing the differences between 1975 and 1997 he analyzed a number of nutrients, including vitamin C, vitamin A, riboflavin, thiamine and niacin. He found that all the analyzed nutrients in broccoli declined, from 17.5% for vitamin C to a whopping 53.4% for calcium. Following this discovery, he examined 12 common vegetables he picked at random and discovered the results were comparable.10

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Nutrient decline a complex problem with a simple answer

Following his study in 2004, Davis11 continued to analyze nutrients in food, finding evidence of decline, including an inverse relationship between plant yield and mineral concentration, a decline in historical food composition and a reduction in nutrient density. This was based on studies in which side-by-side comparisons of high and low yield cultivars were conducted. Davis wrote:12

“In fruits, vegetables, and grains, usually 80% to 90% of the dry weight yield is carbohydrate. Thus, when breeders select for high yield, they are, in effect, selecting mostly for high carbohydrate with no assurance that dozens of other nutrients and thousands of phytochemicals will all increase in proportion to yield. Thus, genetic dilution effects seem unsurprising.”

In the 2018 Real Food Campaign survey of food across the Northeast and Midwest U.S., the results showed significant variation in the nutrient value of foods across sources from farms, farmers markets and stores. This campaign was undertaken with the mission of identifying the best ways to improve the nutrients in the food supply by better understanding the connection between soil health, food quality and human health.13

Yet another condition affecting plant growth and nutrient density was inadvertently discovered in a biology lab in 1998 when Irakli Loladze, Ph.D., learned zooplankton that fed on algae, struggled to survive when the algae grew faster than normal.

After years of investigation and research, Loladze found nearly 130 varieties of plants experienced a reduction in minerals by 8%, likely for the same reason the algae had become junk food to the zooplankton — as the rate of growth increased, the food became less nutritious.14

In other words, the decline in the nutrient content of food found in your grocery store is likely a complex issue related to a number of conditions. The majority of those conditions boil down to farming practices destroying soil health, polluting your environment and producing poor quality food grown from genetically modified seeds.

Bacteria play an important role in soil health

Soil bacteria 15 produce compounds that coat the surface of dirt particles and play a unique role in holding it all together. Some also produce nitrogen, which the plants use for nutrition. However, with higher pH and nitrogen available as nitrate, it's the perfect scenario for weed growth.16 When there is less disturbance and greater plant diversity the soil becomes more balanced, increasing the nutrients available to plant life.

EcoFarming Daily reported on17 the five core principles involved in soil restoration, including improving microbial life and nutrient density. The goal of restoration is to provide plants with living soil that can significantly improve the mineral cycle. One strategy to maintaining healthy soil requires the reduction of synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals.18

Kristine Nichols, Ph.D., who served at the Rodale Institute as chief scientist and at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, explained how soil microbes affect crop yield and nutrition.19 Some microbes improve pore space in the soil allowing for greater water holding capacity and root growth. Others reduce the prevalence of disease and still others are involved in decomposition.20

Insecticides kill both visible and microscopic insects that begin the process of decomposition by shredding organic matter.21 Without this population of microarthropods, populations of bacteria and fungi in the soil begin to decline, thus impacting the nutrition your food is able to absorb from the soil.

This cascading effect negatively impacts diversity and function of soil life. For instance, glyphosate is known to be a strong metal chelator, ultimately impacting the functions of microorganisms.22 Synthetic fertilizers, often salt-based, essentially absorb water away from microbes and change the acidity of the soil which becomes toxic to living organisms.

Although some scientists believe they will improve on nature by manipulating microbial growth,23 there is recognition microbes and their metabolites enhance nutrient uptake in plants, increase yield, control pests and mitigate plant stress response.

Soil death results in sick food and rising disease

The death of soil microbial diversity often sparks the perceived need for greater amounts of synthetic fertilizer, insecticides and genetically modified seeds to make it possible for food to grow in soil that’s been stripped of its nutritional promise.

Although sparked by a “green revolution”24 in the hope of increasing food production, modern farming practices are not the answer to health and wellness. They are instead a means of lining the pockets of agribusiness.

The prevalent use of biocides, insecticides, pesticides and chemicals designed to kill living organisms have changed the landscape of soil microbial growth.25 This has negatively impacted the land’s ability to produce food with the same nutrient value it had just one generation ago.26

In addition to pesticides, genetically altered seeds can pose serious health risks. The Center for Food Safety27 wrote that 92% of U.S. corn, 94% of soybeans and 94% of cotton is genetically engineered. It is important to note corn, soybeans and cottonseed oil are used in many processed foods.28 The name Crisco, as an example, originated from crystallized cottonseed oil.

As agribusiness promotes the use of pesticides that reduce the nutritional content in your food, the National Institutes of Health29 says that eating too much of one type of nutrient and not enough nutrient-dense foods overall could raise the risk of dying by heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and stroke.

The World Health Organization stated that30 “Eating nutrient-dense foods and balancing energy intake with a necessary physical activity to maintain a healthy weight is essential at all stages of life.”

One study31 published in Nature found that while acute vitamin and mineral deficiencies are rare in developed countries, suboptimal intake is a widespread problem. The researchers believe the solution may require the fortifying of foods and provision of multivitamin and mineral supplements to have a significant impact on public health.

In other words, while researchers have found that the nutritional value in food has declined, others are finding that suboptimal intake is a widespread problem affecting large populations. The lack of good nutrition is leading to a rising number of people suffering from disease.

Plant-incorporated protectants toxic to humans and pets

In addition to being manipulated to withstand the application of pesticides, GE corn also includes genetic material that allows it to produce insecticide in every cell. The EPA calls this “plant-incorporated protectants,”32 or substances the plant produces to control the population of an insect that feeds on the plant.

In addition to ingesting insecticides bred into the plant, scientists have also found neonicotinoids are likely a primary cause of declining populations of pollinating insects such as bees.33 Despite growing evidence that neonics have significantly contributed to the collapsing bee population with no likelihood of improved crop yields,34 the insecticide continues to be used.

This is indicative of an overwhelming information campaign agrichemical companies have used to convince farmers and Americans that their chemicals, toxins and genetically altered plants are necessary. But, when you look at the statistics, the only conclusion is that the only “benefit” is increased company profits.

In an evaluation of the distribution of agricultural land using figures from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations,35 researchers found 76.8% of small farmers own just 26.1% of arable land in North America.36

With less than 25% of all farmland globally, small farmers are providing food for 70% of consumers with almost no fossil fuels or chemicals. Larger, industrial farms are using 75% of the land and feeding 30% of the world’s population.37 Small farmers around the world are proving you truly can feed large numbers using regenerative farming practices.

You are what you eat

In addition to lower nutrient values reducing the ability to fight off diseases, researchers have found the application of glyphosate is strongly correlated with several health conditions including high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.38

The key to finding nutrient-dense foods is to purchase organic produce grown on farms that use regenerative techniques. Regenerative farmers work with nature to protect pollinators and grow a diverse set of crops. These crops act as natural fertilizers to build soil biodiversity and improve the nutrients in your food.

One recent study39 highlighted the importance of eating organically grown foods. Investigators analyzed urine samples from a diverse set of families across the U.S. before and after they had eaten organically produced food during a period of just six days.

Before making the diet change, the researchers detected 14 pesticides and pesticide metabolites representing a potential exposure to 14 different pesticides. After the intervention, the urine levels of all but one pesticide decreased significantly.40 This indicates that in just six days your body can begin detoxifying from the chemicals in your diet. However, with consistent exposure, the toxins remain.

By purchasing food from local farmers who use organic, regenerative practices, you can help support them and your overall health. Consider stopping the use of agricultural chemicals in your own backyard in favor of regenerative practices.

By creating your own garden, you help improve soil microbiology on a small scale and you’re rewarded with nutrient-rich food. One of the insidious aspects of industrial food systems is the vicious cycle in which farmers become increasingly dependent on chemical technology.

In the end I've discovered you cannot optimize your health without including nutritious food. The time to act is now. Adopt preventive strategies that help reduce chemical pollution in your body and remember — you hold the power to choose foods that provide optimal nutrition for you and your family.