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   Wednesday, October 24, 2018
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Plants have become less healthy, and so have you
By Devinder Sharma


You must be wondering as to what has happened to your food. You eat a lot or at least you eat enough and yet your body does not get the required nutrition, minerals and vitamins. You try to make it up with food supplements, and other nutritional foods that are available off the shelf, and you knowingly or unknowingly fall into health-related problems. The food in your food has simply disappeared.

The food equation has gone topsy turvy after the 2nd World War. Believe it or not, it is the intensive farming system that the Green Revolution promoted that has actually sapped the nutrients from your food. Your food is not only tasteless but is also devoid of nutrients. You fill your belly, but your body remains deprived of the building elements. Your body is like a tall building with a weak foundation, and you know what can happen to it.

The other day I was listening to an interesting radio programme called The Food Chain (http://www.metrofarm.com/). I have been off and on listening to it on the web ever since I was invited to be on the show some years back while I was travelling in California. I still recall how wonderful it was to be on this live radio show with Michael Olson, and with a number of callers asking you meaningful questions. Coming back, this programme entitled "The Missing Food in Your Food" made me go back to my university days, when we were taught that the high-yielding varieties (HYVs) that were being developed in the agricultural universities actually reduced the nutritional content in these varieties.

We were told that this was a small price to be paid for feeding the nation. The challenge before agricultural scientists was to increase crop productivity, which as you know is a genetic character and is directly proportionate to a fall in nutrition. In simple words, it means that the more productive a plant is, there is a proportionate decline in nutrients, minerals and vitamins.

In the past six decades, after the 2nd world War, of the 12 important nutrients that scientists studied, there has been a visible decline in six of them. The decline varies from 15 to 40 per cent on an average, with an high of 80 per cent decline in the availability of copper mineral. A shortfall in copper intake results in elevated cholesterol levels. There is a general decline in the availability of calcium and phosphorous in vegetables. The tragedy is that not many nutritionists know of this linkage.

In the radio programme it was told that in case of proteins in wheat, the decline is around 30 per cent. And that reminds me, when I was doing my post-graduation in plant breeding, I had collected some local wheat cultivars from Himachal Pradesh to understand the genotype-environment interaction. One wheat strain that I had picked up from the higher reaches of Chamba actually contained 14 per cent protein. The wheat that we eat today has an average protein content of about 9-10 per cent.

It is quite apparent that the development of HYVs took away the nutrition.

Now let us look at how it happened. It was sometimes in the 1940s and 1950s that scientists began to see the correlation between yield and nutrition. Post 1945, several improved varieties were released globally and when evaluated what emerged was a decrease in the concentration of minerals. Later, with the advent of HYVs in the mid-1960s, and spread in the developing world, the application of chemical fertilisers also went up. Scientists say that fertiliser intake also showed a tendency for certain nutrients and mineral content to decline. Last week, another study showed that the increase in fertiliser application has also resulted in the disappearance of biodiversity.

As the soil became unhealthy, so did the plants. In fact, unhealthy soil means that the concentration of adequate minerals declines sharply. This is the primary reason for declining germination in case of wheat seeds. The seeds and the saplings do not get the minerals needed for germination. Soil nutrient deficiency has in any case reached appalling levels in the last few decades.

Anyway, the radio programme also referred to some studies done in UK at a research station in Rothamsted. I had visited this 160-year-old Rothamsted Research station ( http://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/) some years back. This is the largest agricultural research centre in England and is considered to be the oldest agricultural research centre in the world. I think visiting Rothamsted (for any agricultural scientist or a student in agricultural research) is like going on a pilgrimage to Mecca. What it can teach you can for ever change your perception about modern agriculture, and the inherent destructive power of the intensive farming systems. You just have to see the 160-year-old experiments in sustainability, and you get your answers.

In the radio programme it was mentioned that between 1845 to 1960, studies at Rothamsted showed that the minerals and nutrients in soil as well as in wheat plants had remained stable. The amount of minerals in soils actually increased in some cases between this period because of the build up in organic manure. Which means, the sharp decline in plant nutrients actually came after 1960s. If only we had followed the wisdom of traditional farming system, the food we eat today would have been healthy.

Are we willing to draw any lesson? I doubt it.

 
Disclaimer:
The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.
 

Devinder Sharma  |  hunger55@gmail.com

Devinder Sharma is an award-winning journalist, writer, and researcher globally recognised for his analysis on food, agriculture and trade policy. 

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