When I was growing up in North Dakota I started driving trucks in grain harvest when I was 14. It was a special farm kids exemption license. I wasn’t allowed to drive a car but I could drive a loaded truck into town to the grain elevator. When I was finally allowed to drive a car it was like playing with a toy.
When we brought grain to an elevator they would do a protein test. If it was 15% protein or greater there was a premium paid on the price per bushel.
We eventually starting growing bearded wheats, dwarf hybrids. The protein on them was more like 12-13% but the increase in yields outweighed the loss of the premium.
As farming is very competitive, it was basically start growing the hybrid wheats or go out of business.
The commercially grown vegetables, fruits and grains that we are eating today are significantly less nutritious than these foods were 100 years ago, or even just 30 years ago.
By Cheryl Long
Plant breeders have increased yields in most crops, but this is causing our food’s nutrient content to decline.
ISTOCK PHOTO/WOJTEK KRYCZKA
We now have solid, scientific evidence of this troubling trend. For example:
- In wheat and barley, protein concentrations declined by 30 to 50 percent between the years 1938 and 1990.
- Likewise, a study of 45 corn varieties developed from 1920 to 2001, grown side by side, found that the concentrations of protein, oil and three amino acids have all declined in the newer varieties.
- Six minerals have declined by 22 to 39 percent in 14 widely grown wheat varieties developed over the past 100 years.
- Official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data shows that the calcium content of broccoli averaged 12.9 milligrams per gram of dry weight in 1950, but only 4.4 mg/g dry weight in 2003.
All of this evidence has been assembled and rigorously reviewed by Dr. Donald R. Davis, a now (mostly) retired chemist from the University of Texas.
So what’s causing these declines? The evidence indicates there are at least two forces at work. The first is what agriculture researchers call the environmental “dilution effect.” Davis notes that researchers have known since the 1940s that yield increases produced by fertilization, irrigation and other environmental means used in industrial farming tend to decrease the concentrations of minerals in those plants. These techniques give growers higher yields, and consumers get less expensive food. But now it appears there’s a hidden long-term cost — lowered food quality.
For example, a study of phosphorous fertilizer on raspberries found that applying high levels of phosphorus caused the yield to double and concentrations of phosphorus to increase in the plants, but meanwhile levels of eight other minerals declined by 20 to 55 percent!
The other force at work is what Davis calls the genetic dilution effect — the decline in nutrient concentration that results when plant breeders develop high-yielding varieties without a primary focus on broad nutrient content. That’s what the studies of wheat, corn and broccoli confirm.