Our Soil Sucks & Carbon Dioxide’s Impact On Nutrients

As I study for my permaculture design certification, I’ve discovered shocking details about the shortcomings of our industrial agriculture system.

Our routine plowing of soil destroys microorganisms that nourish the land. Plowing introduces oxygen to the soil. The oxygen temporarily fuels the growth of the microorganism populations. The spike in population leads to a spike in consumption of the organic material in the soil. Within a few years, the organic material is depleted and the microorganisms no longer have food to survive.

Farmers are forced to add fertilizers and chemicals to the soil. They also need pesticides, herbicides and fungicides to control the unwanted effects of the fertilizers. When we sacrifice the quality of soil this way, the quality of our food declines. There are fewer nutrients in the soil for the food to absorb.

Other folks point out to our selective breeding practices. For generations, farmers have selected the breeds of produce that look the most attractive and grow with the best yields. They select the breeds without any attention to the nutritional profile of the plant. Over time, the plants look better in a grocery store, but may not provide the best nutrition to customers.

Politico recently published a fascinating article that adds a new wrinkle to the challenges in our food supply. The Great Nutrient Collapse: The atmosphere is literally changing the food we eat, for the worse. And almost nobody is paying attention. For 17 years, Irakli Loladze collected compelling data that suggests the increase in carbon dioxide is driving an increase in glucose (sugar) in our plants. The extra glucose means less room in the plants for vital minerals and nutrients. We are essentially growing junk food.

You need to read the entire article here, but here are some of the cliff notes:

  • “What Loladze found is that scientists simply didn’t know. It was already well documented that CO2 levels were rising in the atmosphere, but he was astonished at how little research had been done on how it affected the quality of the plants we eat.”
  • “Every leaf and every grass blade on earth makes more and more sugars as CO2 levels keep rising,” Loladze said. “We are witnessing the greatest injection of carbohydrates into the biosphere in human history―[an] injection that dilutes other nutrients in our food supply.”
  • “IN AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH, it’s been understood for some time that many of our most important foods have been getting less nutritious. Measurements of fruits and vegetables show that their minerals, vitamin and protein content has measurably dropped over the past 50 to 70 years. Researchers have generally assumed the reason is fairly straightforward: We’ve been breeding and choosing crops for higher yields, rather than nutrition, and higher-yielding crops—whether broccoli, tomatoes, or wheat—tend to be less nutrient-packed.”
  • “Plants need carbon dioxide to live like humans need oxygen. And in the increasingly polarized debate about climate science, one thing that isn’t up for debate is that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is rising. Before the industrial revolution, the earth’s atmosphere had about 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Last year, the planet crossed over the 400 parts per million threshold; scientists predict we will likely reach 550 parts per million within the next half-century—essentially twice the amount that was in the air when Americans started farming with tractors.”
  • “As best scientists can tell, this is what happens: Rising CO2 revs up photosynthesis, the process that helps plants transform sunlight to food. This makes plants grow, but it also leads them to pack in more carbohydrates like glucose at the expense of other nutrients that we depend on, like protein, iron and zinc”
  • “What he found is that his 2002 theory—or, rather, the strong suspicion he had articulated back then—appeared to be borne out. Across nearly 130 varieties of plants and more than 15,000 samples collected from experiments over the past three decades, the overall concentration of minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc and iron had dropped by 8 percent on average. The ratio of carbohydrates to minerals was going up. The plants, like the algae, were becoming junk food.”

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