In honor of National Farmers Market Week,1 it’s time we discuss how our food has changed in the past 100 years.2 From soil degradation,3 to fertilizer use,4 to pesticides,5 to genetically modified organisms (GMOs),6 and to why “organic and local” is always the best option.7
Soil erosion is one of the most serious environmental and public health problems facing human society.8 Studies show soil is being lost from agricultural areas 10 to 40 times faster than the rate of soil formation,9 which could be consequentially disastrous for the human race.
Economically, soil erosion costs roughly $37.6 billion, annually.10 Another cause for concern is declining nutrient density. Three studies of historical food composition data found declines of 5% to 40% (or more) in minerals of vegetables.11
Fertilizers are made largely from nitrogen and hydrogen.12 These two elements are combined to make anhydrous ammonia.13 This is the basis for all synthetic nitrogen fertilizers.14 The hydrogen source in this process is natural gas, a non-renewable resource.15 The high cost of fertilizer production is also largely in part due to hydrogen.16 So, our current system, which allows us to produce enough food for our ever-expanding population,17 is reliant on a non-renewable fossil fuel.18 Currently, global hydrogen production is 48% from natural gas, 30% from oil, and 18% from coal.19
Food for a hungry world. Food grown with nitrogen fertilizers feeds an estimated 2 billion people worldwide. Areas including Asia are becoming increasingly dependent on such fertilizers, to the detriment of the environment.
We have all heard the adage “if a little is good, a lot more would be better.” Despite the documented negative effects of pesticide use,20 they continue to still be used in large amounts. The rampant use of these chemicals catastrophically affects humans, and other life forms.21
GMOs are still relatively new, in the grand scheme of science and agriculture,22 and while some skeptics question evidence of harm, people continue to fight tooth and nail to stop foods from being genetically altered, or at least labeled as such.23 In 2012, 17.3 million farmers grew genetically engineered crops across 170 million hectares.24 One of the best examples of harm, coming from GMOs, comes from regulators who discovered Gene VI, which has been posited as “unsafe for human consumption.”25, 26
54 out of 86 different transgenic events (unique insertions of foreign DNA) in the US food supply contain portions of this gene. Researchers themselves concluded that this “might result in unintended phenotypic changes.” The repercussions are undeniable.
So, what is the best option for consumers? Well, in the spirit of this celebratory week, local and organic will almost always produce the best results.27 Sadly, this is sometimes impacted by socioeconomic status.28 However, in a recent study researchers found the healthiest diets cost about $1.50 more per day than the least healthy diets.29 “Food deserts” are common, these days.30 Small, local, food stores can have a positive impact on vegetable intake, especially in urban areas.31
Adopting a Paleo Diet will help keep your food local, organic, and hopefully free of pesticides and GMOs. Try to celebrate the farmer’s market every week, not just one week out of the year. Real people, with good intentions, grow our best food. Voice your opinion with your hard-earned dollar, and support them.
1. Available at: http://blogs.usda.gov/2014/07/29/what-are-you-doing-for-national-farmers-market-week/. Accessed July 30, 2014.
2. Smith JL. Atwater to the present: what have we learned about our food supply?. J Nutr. 1994;124(9 Suppl):1780S-1782S.
3. Macías FA, Oliveros-bastidas A, Marín D, Castellano D, Simonet AM, Molinillo JM. Degradation studies on benzoxazinoids. Soil degradation dynamics of (2R)-2-O-beta-D-glucopyranosyl-4-hydroxy-(2H)- 1,4-benzoxazin-3(4H)-one (DIBOA-Glc) and its degradation products, phytotoxic allelochemicals from Gramineae. J Agric Food Chem. 2005;53(3):554-61.
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11. Davis, D. (2009). Declining fruit and vegetable nutrient composition: What is the evidence?. HortScience, 44(1), pp.15–19.
12. Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/the-fertilizer-bomb. Accessed July 30, 2014.
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15. Available at: http://www.soilassociation.org/motherearth/viewarticle/articleid/3205/the-problems-with-manufactured-nitrogen-fertilisers. Accessed July 30, 2014.
16. Available at: http://www.sfgate.com/homeandgarden/article/The-case-against-synthetic-fertilizers-2506802.php. Accessed July 30, 2014.
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22. Varzakas TH, Arvanitoyannis IS, Baltas H. The politics and science behind GMO acceptance. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2007;47(4):335-61.
23. Available at: http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/gmo-your-right-know. Accessed July 30, 2014.
24. Van eenennaam AL. GMOs in animal agriculture: time to consider both costs and benefits in regulatory evaluations. J Anim Sci Biotechnol. 2013;4(1):37.
25. Podevin N, Du jardin P. Possible consequences of the overlap between the CaMV 35S promoter regions in plant transformation vectors used and the viral gene VI in transgenic plants. GM Crops Food. 2012;3(4):296-300.
26. Available at: http://www.independentsciencenews.org/health/regulators-discover-a-hidden-viral-gene-in-commercial-gmo-crops/. Accessed July 30, 2014.
27. Crinnion WJ. Organic foods contain higher levels of certain nutrients, lower levels of pesticides, and may provide health benefits for the consumer. Altern Med Rev. 2010;15(1):4-12.
28. Curl CL, Beresford SA, Hajat A, et al. Associations of organic produce consumption with socioeconomic status and the local food environment: Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). PLoS ONE. 2013;8(7):e69778.
29. Rao, M., A. Afshin, G. Singh, and D. Mozaffarian. “Do Healthier Foods and Diet Patterns Cost More than Less Healthy Options? A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.” BMJ Open 3.12 (2013): E004277.
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