The Loss of Nutrients in Soil, Plants and Food
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The Loss of Nutrients in Soil, Plants and Food

Our soil, plants, vegetables and food are losing nutrients. This means the food we eat is not as nutritious as it used to be years ago. Learn why our soil, plants and food are losing nutrients and what you can do to make sure you eat more nutrients in your daily diet.

The nutrients in our soil, plants and food have been decreasing over the past 50 years. Farming is important to our lives and health, but farming is also big business. We all want lower food prices and with a growing population, we need more food grown. More food can also mean lower nutrients in the soil and our food.

We hear about food all of the time on the nightly news or in the business section of the newspaper. Bad weather like hail or flooding can ruin a portion of the wheat crop and the price of bread and everything else that wheat is part of will go up in price. That is what supply and demand is about. A shortage of something will cause the price to rise of that product. Farmers need to grow more plants for food and faster. These fast growing higher yielding plants deplete the soil of healthy nutrients.

There are actually people who think a loaf of bread at the grocery store is just that, a loaf of bread that is somehow manufactured that way. They have no idea that the loaf of bread has to be grown first as wheat on a farm. During a recent newscast about wheat shortages, they actually talked to some grocery store customers that said, “well just put more loafs of bread on the shelves”, having no idea of the process of how bread has to be grown first.

Causes of Lost Nutrients in Soil, Plants and Food

There a number of reasons for the loss of nutrients in the soil, plants and food. Plants get much of their nutrients from the soil, so the loss of nutrients in plants starts with the loss of nutrients in the soil. And of course there are arguments about these reasons, depending on who has the most to gain from these arguments. The fertilizer companies, the huge corporate farms, GMO seed manufacturers, the use of ethanol and the politicians. Some might even argue it is all about global warming  or climate change.

If the soil has no nutrients, then the plants growing in that soil can have no nutrients, especially minerals, plants do make some of their own vitamins. The main reasons for the loss of nutrients in the soil are:

  • Runoff
  • Erosion
  • Failure to rotate crops
  • Harvesting of crops without replacing the lost nutrients.
  • Leaching
  • The use of pesticides on crops and soil reduce can kill the beneficial living bacteria in the soil.
  • Acid rain causes a low pH level of the soil, or a more acidic soil which causes more leaching of the nutrients in the soil [1].

Corn depletes the soil of nutrients faster than other plants. With the demand for more corn for ethanol, some farmers are planting only corn year after year without crop rotation. Corn takes more nitrogen than most other crops which means heavy use of nitrogen fertilizers. The University of Illinois has been studying soil for decades and found that soil that received the most nitrogen fertilizer yielded fewer crops [2].

According to Duane Sand, a consultant to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation says that 20 pounds of soil washes away for every gallon of ethanol that is produced. [3].

Loss of Nutrients in Plants and Food

Studying the loss of nutrients in plants and our food supply is not easy to understand, since there are different varieties of seeds and plants grown since the 1950s. When a hybrid is selected for plants and food, they are usually selected for their ability to grow fast and resistant to weather and insects. Rarely if ever are they selected for their nutrient value.

A University of Texas at Austin 2004 study of 43 plants found that nutrient values have decreased in the last 50 years. This study found nutrient losses ranged from 6% for protein and a 38% loss of riboflavin. A USDA (United Stated Department of Agriculture) report suggested an “alarming decline in food quality in 12 common vegetables” [4]. This study found losses in the following nutrients:

  • Protein -6% loss
  • Phosphorus had a 9% loss
  • Iron -15%
  • Calcium -16%
  • Vitamin C -20%
  • Riboflavin -28%

The study’s conclusion is that the nutrient loss is a result of changes of cultivated varieties. The trade-off is between higher yields and lower nutrients. Faster growing and higher yielding seeds and plants do not develop the root systems that plants used to have. A shorter and shallower root system does not allow the plants to absorb as much nutrients from the soil as they used to.

Another cause of lower nutrient values in our food is the picking fruits and vegetables before they have had time to fully ripen, which can cause lower nutrient values.

Humans are Depleted of Nutrients

We can see that our food is losing nutrients for various reasons over the decades but there are other reasons that we are becoming nutrient depleted as well. One reason is the loss of nutrients in the plants and vegetables we eat, but another larger problem is the advent of processed foods. Processed Foods  like white flour and white rice are refined foods. Refined white flour loses a great deal of the nutrients compared to the unrefined grain.  Refined and processed white flour has 60% less calcium, 85% less magnesium, 77% less zinc, 86% less manganese and 98% loss of chromium.

Manufacturers of refined and processed white flour products add or enrich these foods with a few of these lost minerals and nutrients, but not all of them. And the minerals, vitamins and nutrients they add back are of an inferior quality as compared to what was originally in the whole grain. You can see when they add in some of the lost nutrients when usually the first ingredient listed is enriched white flour.

What You Can Do to Eat More Nutrients

  • Eat more nutrient dense whole foods, which is simply to eat more healthy foods.
  • Eat less junk foods and processed foods which are not nutrient dense foods.
  • Eat more organic foods. Organic farmers usually take better care of their soil but don’t get the higher yields. This is one reason organic foods cost more.
  • Eat more locally grown fruits and vegetables. These plant foods are usually picked fully ripened and do not have to sit on docks or in trucks for weeks before getting to your store. Buying at farmers markets is a great way to eat organic and locally grown foods and also helps your local farmer stay in business.
  • Grow some of your food and try to use heirloom seeds and organic fertilizer.

Conclusion of Nutrient Loss in our Foods

It is a dilemma for farmers and consumers, more food equals lower prices and possibly lower nutrient values. Or will we pay higher food prices and face possible food shortages for higher nutrient values. As a consumer you do have a choice to eat higher nutrient foods. You can eat the most nutrient dense foods only and forgo the processed foods and buy from organic and local farmers.

Copyright © February 2012 Sam Montana

References and Resources

[1] Acid rain and soil. Can J Physiol Pharmacol. 1984 Aug;62(8):991-7

[2] University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (2007, October 29). Nitrogen Fertilizers Deplete Soil Organic Carbon. ScienceDaily

[3] Erosion: Drive to increase corn acres could damage soil. Des Moines Register

[4] Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999. Journal of the AmericanCollege of Nutrition



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Comments (7)

Yes, and this all reflects humanity's ever-present short-sightedness.

100% with you on this one. As we add more people we put cities on farm land and force farmers to produce more food in less time. We demand good looking food - big red strawberries that are grown with no nutrition and a ton of water. We are truly stupid.

Thank heavens that we still have some choices that we can make. Good article!

Ranked #45 in Nutrition

Well said for a complex subject.If the soil's not working, then we're not working--my thoughts!

Excellent, Sam and this is one reason why I built a raised-bed veggie garden last year.

An excellent article with very valuable contents.Thanks for sharing.

Ranked #1 in Nutrition

Very informative.