I was in high school when I read that vitamin A deficiency was the leading cause of preventable blindness in children worldwide, a deficiency that led to premature death from ridiculously preventable diseases in Africa, Asia, anywhere poverty and malnutrition had settled comfortably.
A subsequent journey through nutrition education left me armed with the blunt instrument of very little knowledge from a very young field of study. Vitamin A! Vision health worldwide! How hard could it be? I was Bill Gates with a bag of carrots.
In fact and of course, the restoration of health through food turned out (is turning out) to be much more complicated than Vitamin A + knowledge = well being of the earth. In my defense, I wasn’t the only one looking for food solutions. Diet for a Small Planet author Frances Moore Lappe argued in 1971 that wholesale vegetarianism could feed the hungry, spread the wealth and help the environment, only to spend decades hence urging the understanding of power structures that keep people poor.
The last century and this one finds us following linear thinking about nutrition’s contribution to health. With each discovery, we latch on to the next, latest, single solution to illnesses that decimate populations, whether it’s vitamin A deficiency or our own “too many calories.” From neighborhood gardens to reduced salt in school lunch, we identify straight line solutions to complicated problems. Michael Pollan adds some sanity with his advice to “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
And yet that, too, is a straight-line strategy that begins and ends with individual volition. It ignores much – our environment, our politics, our agricultural practices. What of the 90-pound 8-year-old diabetic and his decision-making process? Food is the subject of 50 percent of advertising he’ll see watching Cartoon Network, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, and most of the food is junk. Tax dollars support low corn prices so soft drinks and chips are among the cheapest foods available. In addition, there is a “conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive,” says Michael Moss author of “Salt, Sugar, Fat,” Willpower has its limits.
Even the “mostly plants” advice should be viewed with at least a little caution. Farmer Joel Salatin can put on a pretty good rant about meat eaters vs vegetarians, pointing out that herbivores (cows) grazing on perennials (like pasture) created all the deep soil environments. Further, studies show that grassfed animals produce the omega 3 fatty acids that can keep Midwesterners as healthy as fish eaters on the coast. In contrast, the soybeans used to create vegetarian proteins are annuals that require tilled ground, with its attending issues of water loss, erosion, and microbe disruption. So some meat can result in healthy soil and healthy people.
And what if we do eat “mostly plants?” They aren’t as good for us as they used to be. Studies show that many nutrients – calcium, iron, vitamin C and more – have declined in vegetables since 1930. Plant breeders want species that grow faster and bigger, and nutrients can’t keep up. Bigger is not better, according to studies from the University of Texas. Think of supermarket strawberries vs strawberries from the farmers market. Smaller, ephemeral, local berries taste better than berries grown to be big and sturdy and shippable. They are probably better for us too. And we like them better, so we’re more likely to eat them!
In addition, recent studies reveal that produce grown organically apparently does have more nutrients than those grown conventionally. “Monoculture farming practices — another hallmark of the Big Ag industry — have also led to soil-mineral depletion, which, in turn, affects the nutrient content of crops,” reported TIME regarding the Texas studies.
What strikes me in particular is that the bigger, better, faster mentality is also straight-line thinking that seems ultimately as ill-conceived as my young adult fantasy of saving the poor through carrots. Faster production + increased size = bigger profits is a universally accepted approach to business. Feeding corn to confined cattle and administering prophylactic antibiotics makes them grow bigger, faster, and, as a result, cheaper. The better to feed 9 billion people that will inhabit the planet, according to conventional thinking.
But the Centers for Disease Control says overuse of antibiotics is one of our “most serious health threats” (80% of antibiotics are used in livestock production). Meat from confined production contains fat of dubious value. Modern fruit and vegetable varieties bred to grow faster have fewer nutrients. The fertilizer used on them pollutes water, kills ocean wildlife and kills microbes in the soil that some people say are the next frontier of good nutrition and environmental health. If we grow animals on grass and grow produce organically, we’re likely to be healthier.
That is, we’re likely to suffer less from heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes. The big four killers in our country are all related to what we eat. Yet faster, better, cheaper is the agriculture we want to export to countries with exploding populations. Will we export, too, our healthcare costs, now 17 percent of GDP and predicted to rise to 22 percent by 2039? Will we export our obesity rates to the darkest corners of Africa. Here in Kentucky, obesity afflicts more than a third of our citizens, many of them children.
If our goal is to live better, longer, perhaps citizens should consider what “cheap” means. The average American spends $8745 per year on health care. That’s not cheap. If we stayed only as healthy as the average Italian ($3200), we’d have more than $100 per week to spend on food that was good for us, good for the earth and tasted good. Imagine: springing for strawberries that don’t crunch.
The simple equation provides a simplistic solution for a short term goal that provides health to only a few. We need to do the harder math.