Tastes Like Climate Change: The Declining Nutritional Value of Food Food is losing its nutritional value, and humans are to blame
Ask anyone: what is the purpose of food? Some may dwell on the fleeting component of taste, but most would agree that we eat to nourish our bodies with the proper nutrients to keep them functioning. Today, unsustainable agricultural practices and climate change are putting that purpose under threat.
When it comes to issues of agriculture and food, quantity is typically the main concern. However, quality is rapidly becoming a problem as well. Noticeable nutrient decline began after the Green Revolution in the 1950s and 60s. Farmers were introduced to all types of practices to increase yields, namely planting monocultures and using chemical fertilizers. Sixty years later, these practices are ubiquitous. Three of the biggest crops in the U.S. – corn, soybeans, and wheat – are all mostly grown as monocultures, and American farmers spend over $23.5 billion year on fertilizer. As scientists have studied these practices, they have discovered that while these techniques increase the quantity of food grown, the increased yield also comes with a decrease in vital nutrients and minerals, a result commonly referred to in horticulture circles as the “dilution effect.” Scientists have found that over the past 50 years the nutrient content of soil has been depleted by these intensive practices, thus making the nutrient content of the plants grown also less nutritious.
Increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere further accelerates the process. The increase of CO2 in the atmosphere is not just warming the planet, it is also changing the chemical makeup and diluting vitamins and minerals in key crops. Rice is losing protein, iron, zinc and vitamins B1, B2, B5 and B9; vegetables like carrots and tomatoes are being depleted of magnesium, iron, copper, and potassium; and fruits such as raspberries and lemons have less calcium, magnesium, and sodium. The agriculture industry itself even further compounds this issue–the industry is estimated to be responsible for one third of the world’s carbon emissions.
The loss of nutrients will affect different countries in different ways. While most developing countries rely on subsistence farming instead of intensive monocultures or fertilizer use, increased levels of carbon dioxide have affected their plants in the same way as any developed country. The loss of nutritional value of rice is projected to be catastrophic in communities in Indonesia and Bangladesh; since rice is the majority of their diets, they rely on each grain to contain a host of nutrients.
Despite having an abundance of food, developed countries like the United States are facing a new problem: undernourishment. Americans are increasingly eating foods that are calorie dense but nutritionally poor, like fast-food restaurant meals and packaged food, resulting in around 85% of the population being undernourished. The salt and sugars added to these foods are not helping the nutritional value of the food, and if the basic ingredients included are less nutritious, Americans are in even greater trouble. Even though the quantity seems like enough to feed everyone, the food we are producing does not have enough nutrients to nourish and give bodies the fuel they need.
Yield should no longer be the only consideration in agriculture, and farmers, policymakers, and consumers alike must play a part in order to shift the industry’s priorities. Intercropping has been proven to produce food with better nutrient content than monoculture; it involves growing a diversity of plants on the same plot of land—the opposite of monoculture. Another approach could be small scale farming, which can be regenerative for soil.
One way to facilitate these changes would be to reduce the pressure on farmers to produce high outputs. On a policy level, subsidies encourage high yields for certain crops, especially corn and soy. The federal government must look to replace these subsidies with policies which discourage intensive, harmful agricultural practices. While this may seem outlandish, changes to agriculture must occur if humans want to continue getting the nutrients they need. As consumers, the use of fertilizer and monoculture is not up to us, but we can choose foods which are produced on farms that do not employ those methods for our own health and the health of the environment.
Reversing nutritional decline of food is possible if we support a change in agricultural practices, but the other cause of nutrient decline, climate change, must also be addressed. As emissions keep rising, the chemical makeup of our food will keep changing—for the worse.