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FOOD POLITICS – September 2018

Art Contributing Writers FOOD POLITICS - September 2018 Tuisku "Snow" Kolu

The Real Cost of Industrial Agriculture

The Hungry Ghost

Written by Elizabeth Knight

It has been found that industrial agriculture produces only 30% of our food while using 70% of our resources. While on the other hand, small-scale farmers produce 70% of our food while using only 25% of our resources. This article will show that not only is the dominant method of food production pushed by our culture not efficient, but it actually has many hidden costs.

The Cost of Emissions

While conversations grow around greenhouse gas emissions and the damage that fossil fuels do to our environment, there are still some major players that aren’t being discussed enough. Namely, Industrial Agriculture. In a report done by GRAIN, an international non-profit that supports small farmers, around 44-55 % of greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to industrial agriculture.

Emissions come from several steps in food production. From the fertilizers and pesticides used to control crops. From machinery used to farm the land. From the cost of processing and packaging to transport and cooling of products. From the waste of products due to poor food waste management policies, both by governments as well as by grocery stores, restaurants, and consumers.

Then, of course, there is the growing awareness of how many greenhouse gas emissions come from the meat industry. Not only from the farms themselves but also from the destruction of forests and swampland either to house the CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), or to grow monocultures, like corn and soy, that are used to feed them.  

All of this adds up to quite a lot of fossil fuel use, most of which is not actually necessary, and some of which is detrimental, not only to the environment, but also to society.

How Industrial Agriculture Contributes to the Climate Crisis by Klimakollektivet

 

The Costs of Synthetic Fertilizer

The system of Industrial food production is based on specialization, or the establishment of monocultures. Monocultures are when huge areas of land are used to grow only one product, such as corn, wheat, or soy. This system is established because it is easier. A grower uses large farm equipment to plant one type of crop. Then this one crop is fertilized with synthetic, or chemical, fertilizers and maintained with the use of pesticides. While this may serve a short-term goal of producing said crop easier, there are several problems with an industrial approach to the natural ecosystem.

One of the first problems is the cost of fertilizing these types of manufactured ecosystems. The production of synthetic fertilizers relies heavily on the use of fossil fuels, as an ingredient of the fertilizer and as a resource needed to produce the fertilizer. The production of nitrogen fertilizers, for instance, accounts for 3-4% of the global use of fossil fuels. When NO2 fertilizers are put out they immediately release greenhouse gases, as it’s not possible for the soil to absorb all of it at once. This layer of nitrogen fertilizers also prevents the soil from absorbing any other GHGs.

Another side effect of synthetic fertilizer use is the run-off effect. The fertilizer that the soil can’t absorb, which is much of it, runs into nearby waterways. These fertilizers then keep on fertilizing, and in so doing create an imbalance in the growth of algae and seaweeds. This unnatural growth leads to a chain of events which cause oxygen deprivation in the water, killing off any animals who need oxygen to survive. These are appropriately called Dead Zones, and are entirely man-made phenomena.

The industrial agricultural process involves the use of pesticides. Unfortunately, these pesticides don’t only kill the insects which would harm the crops, they kill everything. Every small insect and animal that lives in that area – from the birds, bees, and worms – dies, creating a lifeless environment. This lack of biodiversity means that the soil doesn’t have a good mix of nutrients in it.

This lack of nutrients creates an addiction to, you guessed it, synthetic fertilizers, which contributes to creating the problem in the first place. Like with all addictions, the saddest part is that a tolerance is developed, so more and more fertilizers are required to get the same results. A huge cornfield essentially creates a huge patch of land that is functioning in a way that is entirely alien to how life on earth functions. In other words, this is not a naturally occurring system, and cannot be sustained in the long run.

The Costs of Monocultures

The next step in the fossil fuel heavy journey of food comes with the global dependency on import-export culture. If each region is growing one or two things, which must be shipped around the world to other regions which are growing a different one or two things, a dangerous system is created where no region has food sovereignty.  This is dangerous for a multitude of reasons.

First of all, it means that if something should happen to a particular crop, those growers are completely devastated. We all know the proverb about putting all your eggs in one basket, and that’s essentially what industrial agriculture is pushing. We’ve seen examples of how dangerous this can be in several instances since the onset of monoculture. From, the tragic Potato Famine in Ireland, to the citrus blights which occurred all over the Eastern Americas in the 1980’s. When growers rely on one crop they make themselves considerably more vulnerable.

Secondly, this means that in order for any one region to support itself it is dependent on imports from other regions. The cost of this creates food that is absolutely soaked in fossil fuels. From the cost of processing foods to make them last longer to the cost of packaging and refrigerating them for long journeys, it certainly adds up.  

Another cost is the loss of biodiversity in ways which also affect culture. When small growers must compete with huge operations it makes it much more difficult. This means that every year, around the world, small family farmers are kicked off of their land and displaced. Often these farmers must move to more metropolitan areas and then become purely consumers instead of producers of food. Farmer Displacement can also lead to the splitting up of families, a loss of sense of place or self and cultural identity.  

In the past decades, the world has gone from eating a varied diet, which changed according to region and season, to eating a much more narrow range of plants and animals. In every species of plant or animal that we eat we have reduced the varieties considerable. This means that all sorts of culture and heritage have been lost to monoculture farming. In so doing we have lost our autonomy. When we no longer know where our food really comes from and we cannot decide what we want to eat, we suffer. Both culturally and nutritionally. This year there have been studies citing the loss of nutritional value for crops grown in monoculture and using synthetic fertilizers. Below is a small example of how many species we’ve lost in only 100 years.

The Final Bill

There are plenty of arguments from industrial agriculture lobbyists stating that this method of production is necessary for feeding the world, for feeding our growing population. However, this method of production is short-sighted and unsustainable. It boasts higher yields at lower costs, and yet it still leaves one in eight to go hungry.

The current system of food production doesn’t include in its true costs: high greenhouse gas emissions, loss of soil health, loss of healthy ecosystems, addiction to resource intensive fertilizers and pesticides, loss of biodiversity and loss of food sovereignty.  

In conclusion, it’s time for us to genuinely consider the cost of how we eat. We should demand that our policymakers make policy that is based on science and not funded by multinational corporations that concern themselves more with profits than with consequences. We cannot continue to bend the earth to our industrial ideals. It’s not sustainable and we see more and more research to support this. The Industrial Agricultural system is a relatively new system, and it’s best for us to stop this system before we completely lose the resources to do so. There are viable answers to feeding the world to be found in all sorts of food sovereignty movements, from organizations like Grain to Via Campesina to The African Center for Biosafety. Let’s all educate ourselves about industrial agriculture and the real costs of what we eat so that we can make informed decisions and protect the world we share.  

FOOD POLITICS - September 2018 Sybrand Veeger

The Holy Grill: A Poem For Carne Asada

Written by Sybrand Veeger

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The Holy Grill

The Kingdom of Meat stretches from the southern Amazonic jungle,

West to the arid Andean range,

And south, profoundly, to the Antarctic precipice –

Where the world ends in fire and ice.

   

The Carneal Kingdom honors the holy method of nourishment:

Grilling, “Asado”, in Argentine.

Politics and commerce are circumstantial here,

Even superfluous; rather,

Gastronomics and aesthetics are the spheres of influence, in Argentina – the land of “argentum”,

The land of silver, of the silver grill.

   

Argentina’s meat obsession, or fetishism,

Can be explained

(Across space and time):

Geographically and genealogically.

   

The genealogy, the roots, of the holy grill are emphatically Mediterranean.

A gastronomical instinct, with an aesthetic accent,

Landed in “Argentina” –

Sometime in the last four centuries –

Spaniards first, Italians second,

Brought their food and music,

To make Asado and Tango! –

A double aesthetic movement I like to call

Silver Mediterraneanism…

   

The geography of the asado has three dimensions:

The Pampean plains, proclaimed the cow’s Eden garden;

The Andean mounts, where the blood of Christ is preserved;

And the Patagonian desert, where only Mosaic strength survives.

These three geographical dimensions produced a method

Of potential perfection – the silver grilling.

   

Silver, or Argentine, grilling requires:

Utmost respect for the produce,

The mastering of fire making,

And a musical sensitivity to detect the symphony of crackle.

Respect, mastering, and music – ontologically fundamental to the silver meat griller.

   

To the Mediterranean genealogy and privileged geography I must add genuinely Argentine genes:

The aristocratic landowners of Buenos Aires and La Pampa;

And the neo-nomads, the Pampean-patagonic gauchos.

A curious combination of aristocratic grandiosity and gaucho simplicity made way for a unique carneal spirit (from the fusion of agriculture and nomadism):

“EL ASADO”.

   

“El Asado” is no less than a cultural institution,

Nay, a religious institution, upon reflection:

It happens normally on Sundays,

Friends and family gather for a gastro-spiritual

Shared experience.

Pious and ritualistic for most –

The revered idols are:

Chorizo, blood sausage, chinchulines, tira, vacío, molleja, and mayba bondiola:

These are pork, chicken and cow meat cuts,

A priori categories I must say,

That give substance to a socially undiscriminating food religion.

   

Asado mass lasts around eight hours,

Come at four, leave at twelve –

In between you talk, eat, talk, drink wine, eat, drink fernet, talk, talk, laugh, have dessert, drink, leave.

   

Asados punctuate friendly and family ties,

El Asado is religiously spiritual

And institutionally concrete,

Requiring technique, wine, love and meat –

No wonder conventional politics fail in Argentina:

The silver Kingdom is but ruled by food…

FOOD POLITICS - September 2018 Max Muller

Food Solidarity in the Basque Country

Written by Max Muller

In this piece, we will show how the Basque Country’s former struggle for political independence is nowadays tied to the notion of food sovereignty. We will trace the historical origins of the Basque’s passion for autonomy and relate it to its contemporary reincarnation in the form of a reappreciation of the traditional peasant lifestyle and its accompanying vision of social-economic transformation towards a more just society.

Although strictly speaking it is not a state, the Basque Country sure seems like one. Straddling along the border between Spain and France, this region is home to a culture distinct from either. Akin to the case for Catalan, their language, Euskera, has acted as a catalyst for Basque nationalism, and thus, after a long struggle, they have gained many rights for self-governance. In Spain, the Basques currently dwell mainly in the Autonomous Regions of the (somewhat confusingly called) Basque Country and Navarre.

Today’s Basque Country (Euskal Herria) is home to the rich city of San Sebastián. Or, as the Basques themselves call it: Donostia. In terms of food, this coastal town has a lot to offer.  It has the second-highest amount of Michelin Stars awarded to restaurants per square meter of all the cities in the world. In addition, it features many private establishments that are an idiosyncratic feature of Basque culture called txokos. In these gastronomic societies, people from all social strata of Basque society come together to wine, dine, and cook on a regular basis.

Basque Country has a highly industrialized economy and some provinces like Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa are very urban. However, for many inhabitants, the rural areas are the more familiar territory. This is due to the fact that there is a horticultural and agricultural tradition in the region that is practiced by people who have small farms or gardens on the edges of small towns.

A history lesson

In order to discuss the notions of food sovereignty and re-peasantisation, however, we must leave these gastro-sociological rarities aside for a moment and delve a bit deeper into Basque history. As we remarked before, the people from Euskal Herria in times past are marked by struggle. Sometimes, as in the case of the separatist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, which means “Basque Homeland and Liberty”), the struggle was violent. At other moments these clashes did not involve any bullets, only symbolic action.

During the 19th century, there were a number of wars between the Basques, their allies, and their opponents. The Basques and Catalans sided with the so-called Carlists, who were supporters of Carlos V, a reactionary who claimed the throne. He was angry about the onset of Liberalism in Spain and the waning influence of Catholicism and nationalism on the Iberian Peninsula. These differences in political opinion split the whole country into two factions: the Carlists and the Liberals.

The Carlists always lost.

After their third war in 1876, the government abolished the Fueros, laws unique to the Basques that ensured them a certain degree of autonomy. Coupled with excessive industrialization and fast-paced immigration of Spanish-speaking people, the Basques quickly lost much of their cherished culture and their traditional way of life. This put them on the defensive and provided fuel for an ongoing sense of nationalism.

In 1895, Sabino de Arana established the Partido Nacionalista Vasco (Basque Nationalist Party). He was determined to re-establish Euskera as the sole language in the region and to reassert its declining culture. To that end, he created a flag, an ideology, and a myth to reinvigorate the Basque lands, which he named Euskadi.

The Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939 can be interpreted as the Fourth Carlist War, as this conflict erupted between the Republicans (which incorporated the former Liberal faction) and the Nationalists (which included the Carlists). The Nationalists won and one of their generals Francisco Franco became the autocratic ruler of Spain.

Although this time victory was on the Carlists’ side, Francisco Franco did not grant the Basques many favors. The Euskadi government was ousted and General Franco instated a Catholic dictatorship throughout Spain. He was particularly harsh on the Basques: he outlawed their language and tried to get rid of all forms of Basque nationalism. Furthermore, he was responsible for thousands of Basque deaths and imprisonments. Most notably, he supported the German-led bombing of the Basque town of Guernica. Picasso famously depicted this brutal slaughter of civilians in a painting that bears the town’s name.

Photo by stephane333/ CC BY

Guernica held a lot of symbolic significance. It was the place where the Basques once held the ceremony of the royal oath in which the kings of Castille had to swear to follow the Fueros. In doing so, they granted the Basques their autonomy. The bombing of this historical town fueled much anger and Arana’s fervent nationalism. It also later justified, in the eyes of many Basque people, ETA’s violence towards the Spanish state.  

ETA was established in 1959 and originated in the action-oriented efforts of a group of students from the Jesuit Deusto University in Bilbao. In Sabino de Arana’s spirit, it sought for the reinvigoration of Basque nationalism. The organization was committed to a re-establishment of the Basque language and the cultural ideals of its people. Often, it did so violently. During, but mostly after, the end of Franco’s regime — he died in 1975 — they killed more than 800 people through terrorist attacks.

Eventually, the ETA got what it sought: a reasonable degree of autonomy for the Basque provinces within the Spanish Kingdom and the recognition and affirmation of Euskera as an official language in the Autonomous Communities. Nowadays, ETA’s armed struggle is over. It agreed to a cease-fire in 2011 and disarmament in 2017.  

Back to Food

What the history lesson has hopefully shown is that the idea of a struggle for identity and political self-determination is of immense importance to the Basque people. While not violent anymore, the fighting continues symbolically and culturally through the efforts of the ikastolas (Basque language schools) and a commitment to self-governance. The Basque people are unusually engaged with political activities and are committed to taking part in public meetings of local municipalities to let their voices be heard.

Recently, however, the struggle has manifested itself in quite a different way. The Basque agrarian sector has suffered severe economic blows during the 2008 recession. In addition, the concurrent processes of industrialization, mechanization, and a subsequent rural exodus have intensified the malaise. Between 1999 and 2009, the number of farms in the Autonomous Basque Community fell by more than 33%.

In order to counteract this trend, there has been an explosion of processes and activities centered on the notion of food sovereignty. This concept is linked to political sovereignty that emerged as part of a struggle of baserritarras (small peasant farmers) to protect their traditional way of life. Furthermore, it takes a stand against the propagation of agrarian modernization and the imposition of neoliberal policies of the Basque Government, who favored large-scale food industry projects over the baserritarras, which operated on a much smaller scale. As such, it is also connected with the desire for a more equal society.

It is not a coincidence these efforts are focused on the baserritarras. The language survived Franco’s dictatorship largely thanks to the small farmers in the countryside, who usually hardly spoke any Spanish at all.

Food as a way of life  

It is in this socio-cultural environment that the food sovereignty movement has emerged, gaining momentum after the financial crisis. As mentioned above, it is especially geared towards baserritarras. The organization EHNE-Bizkaia aims to preserve and support their traditional lifestyle. It is a member of the worldwide overarching peasant organization called La Vía Campesina and has 800 paying members. They determine its politics, elect its board, and receive technical services. In 2007, EHNE-Bizkaia launched a community-supported agriculture scheme called Red Nekasarea.

Red Nekasarea strategically connects 80 baserritarras to 700 households. The households are divided into consumer groups of no more than 30 households. Each peasant is linked to one consumer group. The peasants provide these groups with food baskets that usually include vegetables, meat, milk, eggs, and pasta.

Photo by Elaine Casap

Before the initiation of this project, the peasants were in a predicament. The baserritarras would sell their products as faceless producers in the globalized market. In addition, they were forced to lower their prices substantially, understandably leading to much discontent. Through Red Nekasarea, they are always able to sell their vegetables for a fair price. In addition, they know their customers personally and are told how tasty and good their products are. Whereas being a baserritarra used to be seen as something derogatory, the project brings back a sense of pride among the peasants. This feeling is reinforced because people feel that they are participating in a project for social change.

Not only does EHNE-Bizkaia engage in helping existing farmers, it also actively seeks to recruit new ones. Currently, only 10% of farmers are under 40 years of age. As such, youth are a critical part of the food sovereignty movement in the Basque Country.

In order to rejuvenate the agricultural sector, EHNE-Bizkaia offers training courses in agroecology. These courses especially attract young people, as agroecology is advantageous for its low dependency on investment, technology, and external inputs. Furthermore, they aim to foster the urban youngsters’ resurgent enthusiasm regarding the way of life as a farmer by organizing gatherings and sharing information.

You may wonder why there’s such a renewed interest for agricultural living among these young people. In most cases, they aren’t born into the peasant lifestyle. They are usually brought up in affluent families, are socially well-integrated, and have a university degree. Although the economic crisis did lead to job loss, labor instability, and a lack of opportunities — conditions that may have motivated some to migrate to the countryside — the crisis does not seem to be the deciding factor.

To many, food production and agriculture are linked with a larger goal of social transformation. Their ideal is autonomy. It is linked to self-realization and the satisfaction that comes from control over one’s own life. Their choice represents a craving for self-sufficiency and a move away from large industries. They feel that by producing food themselves, control is taken away from multinationals. The re-peasantization process is intimately tied to a desire for social change in the overall socio-economic system.

As such, the Basque peoples’ fight for autonomy has changed to yet another front. It has moved successively from actual warfare to linguistics, and now to peasant food struggles. This last endeavor is tied to important questions: how do we reconcile local values and customs with an ever-spreading economic system that favors efficiency and uniformity? How can control be regained by people in a world dominated by an increasingly small set of conglomerates aiming solely at making more profits?

Thus, the Basque food movement is emblematic of the current socio-economic tensions between the local and the global, autonomy and dependency, and finally between heterogeneity and homogeneity. Whereas the Basques used to rebel against some Castilian King or Roman Emperor, by now they protest against economic rule. Although its efforts may have marginal effects, it offers guidance and prospects to those seeking to grow a different world.

FOOD POLITICS - September 2018 Laura Alexander

Anthony Bourdain, The Memory Magician

Written by Laura Alexander

I’m lousy at food, and as far as I know his show was never broadcast in the UK, so when Anthony Bourdain died this summer, it was more or less the first I’d heard of him. Over the week or so before the next big story, obituaries filled my newsfeed and the home pages of my standard news sites. Reading them, I was amazed by the outpouring of love on the screen. My head is firmly up my own arse at the best of times, but it seemed crazy that so much love could exist for a person in the public eye without a word having even vaguely trickled through to me – I couldn’t even remember having heard the name. Before I knew it, clips of Bourdain were making their way into my killing-time-on-youtube-when-I-should-be-doing-something fare. He seemed nice, this gangly, grey haired figure standing around on street corners getting excited about things, asking questions and bouncing with enthusiasm. I searched for clips of him in the cities I’d visited, and the cities I’d hoped to visit, and salivated every time the camera zoomed in on some cheese. And then, while I was explaining to him how to make a Negroni (clearly the most delicious of summer drinks, as Bourdain, it turns out, also knew) the editor of this magazine asked me to write him a piece on the guy. All of which is a convoluted way of saying that I’ve been thinking about mussels.

My mum doesn’t like them at all, and my dad will eat them if they’re there, but isn’t really fussed, and so I went my whole childhood and adolescence without ever tasting a mussel. I knew they existed, sometimes I saw them on menus, but it would never occur to me to order them. The same is true of most seafood, but it’s the mussels that stand out. As far as I was concerned, I just didn’t like mussels, right up until the moment after my first year of university that I went to Istanbul for a week. It was the farthest I’d ever been from home on my own, and I was planning on staying there a week or so and then meandering down the coast and entering Greece through the islands.

I was nineteen and ready to explode with excitement. I’d been put in touch with a friend of a friend who could give me a couch to sleep on, and as soon as I arrived he took me out to hang on a street corner with his friends, drinking gin and playing the guitar and spitting the husks of sunflower seeds out onto the street. All of them were much older than me, nobody I’d ever met knew where I was, the night air was warm and I didn’t understand what anyone was talking about, I was in heaven. Someone looked up and across the street suddenly, at a vendor setting up a tiny stall, and then ran off and came back with a couple for mussel shells.

If you’re new in town you have to try this, they said, or something like it. I would have said I didn’t like mussels, but I was scared of losing face so I didn’t, so I slurped it down.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

I found out later it was called midye, mussels stuffed with slightly spiced rice and served with a twist of lemon juice. Fresh, salty, ever-so-slightly spicy, smooth-mussel-texture against the slightly rougher rice. Down in one bite and swallow, you can just keep eating them without stopping until you’re full. Sold on every street corner, with judicious warnings from everyone that the street trade in them was totally unlicensed and possibly illegal, and if you happened to get a bad one the food poisoning would lay you out for days. I had at least ten every day for a week, and then I went away and I haven’t had them since.

That was four years ago, and yet I still find myself dreaming of them, in the nostalgic way a lost love is dreamt of, like remembering the look in someone’s eyes on a particular night, like the smell of jasmine. They’re still, probably, the best thing I’ve ever eaten (although I tried steak tartare for the first time a few months ago and that suddenly became a serious contender for the prize), but it’s more than that. Alone in a big new city for the first time, a romantic and impressionable teenager with no self-preservation instincts, they were the new, the unexpected, the opening of a door I hadn’t quite known was there.

Midye shows up in Bourdain’s work. Half an hour into an episode on Istanbul from 2010, there they were. Sampled fresh down by the water with the general lack of food safety highly emphasized.

“Nothing I like better,” quips Bourdain as he strolls along the waterfront, “than unlicensed seafood of indeterminate provenance”. They are favored with a quick these are in fact excellent before the camera moves on.

No matter. My magic doesn’t have to be his. But even a cursory glance at this guy’s output is enough to get you thinking of all those meals the memory of which locks into place with the right trigger. Neapolitan pizza out of a box on the steps of a church, whiskey old fashioned out of mugs in Paris, gyros in deep-fried pitta in Athens. So much food over the years since Istanbul, mostly eaten ad hoc, outdoors and in moments of such intense joy. I don’t know much about the guy Bourdain, and I probably never will, but this gift alone, to be able to share these little jolts of magic, is enough for me to mourn, just a little, that he’s gone.

FOOD POLITICS - September 2018 Jurek Wotzel

Will a modern apple a day keep the doctor away?

Written by Jurek Wötzel

Being conscious about the health effects of the foods you buy is exhausting. Meat gives you protein, but is often packed with hormones and antibiotics; fish contains so many beneficial omega-3s, but is contaminated with heavy metals; vitamin-stuffed fruits and vegetables come with a great deal of pesticides.

As though these problems aren’t enough, people have become worried about the depletion of vitamins and minerals in grains, vegetables, and fruits produced in industrial agriculture. Now, this is truly problematic. What if your apple a day isn’t going to keep the doctor away anymore?

Researchers such as David Thomas have been studying the composition of foods for decades and have found some alarming results. For instance, analyzing government food tables between 1940 and 1991, Thomas concluded that the calcium content of potatoes has dropped by roughly 35%, broccoli has lost 80% of its copper content and carrots lost 46% of their iron. A group of Canadian researchers found that between 1951 and 1999, potatoes lost 100% of their vitamin A and 57% of their vitamin C.

Nutrition scientist Donald R. Davis told the New York Times in 2015 that the decline in minerals in foods may be particularly present in crops that have a strongly increased yield today than, say, 50 years ago. This “dilution effect” means that there is an inverse relationship between crop quality and crop quantity. In his 2009 study, he added that the dilution effect is also present with regards to protein levels of broccoli and potatoes.

Irakli Loladze, a trained mathematician that turned to biology, reported to Politico in 2017 that the rising CO2 levels may be a reason for changes in the composition of plants. The increasing availability of CO2 for plants makes them store higher levels of carbohydrates, which crowds out other compounds such as minerals and vitamins. Thus, another dilution effect appears to take over; while rising CO2 levels are beneficial for plant growth, meaning that there is potential for higher food production, this will likely result in lower quality fruit and veg.

But is our diet really getting worse as a result of the decline in trace elements and vitamins?

Photo by Toa Heftiba

Robin Marles doesn’t think so. He acknowledges the dilution effect in some crops, like fruits and vegetables, but says that there are increases in other trace elements and vitamins. In addition, as broad groups, many fruits and vegetables naturally have wide ranges of variation in their mineral or vitamin content. Hence, different breeds of a plant may display different levels of certain compounds. Simply classing all breeds under the same category, as previous studies have done, skews the results because some breeds may be much more prevalent today than decades ago.

Richard Mithen from the UK Institute for Food Research says that our health is, in fact, largely unaffected by the changes in food composition. “We use different fertilizers now, we have different pollution which may have an effect. Some of these minerals may have gone down, others will have gone up. However, the health implications of this are not at all apparent”, he tells The Guardian. Slight mineral or vitamin deficiencies have been linked to chronic diseases of the cardiovascular system or diabetes, but it is unclear whether this cause-effect relationship holds. Nonetheless, Mithen, too, must admit that the dilution effect is real, and that many plants that have been bred for yield have not been able to take up trace elements and vitamins proportionally to their carbohydrate content.

So what’s the deal? For one, the composition of some of our foods is changing. Second, this may be due to a variety of reasons including climate change as well as industrialized agriculture. This does not mean that our diet has worsened to a concerning level, but it does mean that we have to be diligent in ensuring that we get enough of the right nutrients in our body.

It is worth considering reducing the amount of grains, fruits, and vegetables that one buys from large supermarket chains and, instead, switch to locally produced goods that aren’t affected by modern agronomic technology. Anthony Fardet and Edmond Rock from the French National Institute for Agricultural Research note in line with a great deal of other researchers that the reductionist view of food composition, as I have used it in this article so far, is insufficient to account for the true health effects of diet. The reductionist view presumes that we can isolate 1-1 cause and effect relationships when it comes to nutrition. Nutrition scientists such as Fardet and Rock think this is too simplistic. Rather, they support the view that the health effects of diet are nets of multicausal links.

Acknowledging this means adopting a holistic view of preventive nutrition. Vitamins and minerals cannot be isolated and simply be ascribed the same effects in different circumstances. For example, an apple may contain a range of different fibers and carbohydrates which ease vitamin C resorption, whereas a banana may lack those properties. Different foods have interaction effects with each other, enhancing or diminishing the benefits of their compounds. So the change in the composition of our foods can have long-lasting effects which cannot be measured by purely looking at the amount of mineral X or vitamin Y. Analysis needs to encompass a greater variety of variables.

Therefore, to take the safe route, one can buy the produce breeds people have been eating for hundreds of years. They are likely to be unaffected by modern production techniques that are thought to significantly alter dietary effects. In line with Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s philosophy, it is always a good idea to only expose your body to the foods that we have ancient wisdom about.

A great example of applying this principle is sticking to the Mediterranean diet, which has frequently been shown to reduce mortality and risk of chronic diseases. A holistic approach means that without yet knowing the concrete causal links, we know that something about this dietary pattern is good for us. Additionally, in Mediterranean countries, the degree of industrialization of agriculture is much lower than in the US, the Netherlands, or Germany, for instance. Foods are less subjected to intervention, and thus, their composition is not prone to quick changes.

All in all, if you generally eat well, your daily apple will probably still save you your trip to the doctor. Yet, if you want to be sure about what you eat or improve your diet even more, take a holistic approach and be aware that industrially produced foods may have different nutritional values and different compositions. In the end, it is difficult to know whether your otherwise healthy industrially produced diet has an immediate impact on your well-being; but given a choice, choosing the safe option is never a bad idea in itself, even if it is a little exhausting.