“While the farmer holds the title to the land, actually it belongs to all the people because civilization itself rests upon the soil.” - Thomas Jefferson
Perhaps you’ve heard the complaints about how produce tastes these days: That it’s dull and lacks the flavor it had back when your grandparents were growing up. Or perhaps from Europeans who state that the US has such lackluster produce compared to what they have back home. Or the more obvious one: that the tomato you grow in your backyard is infinitely tastier than the one you buy at the supermarket or even at your organic grocer. More importantly, from a health perspective, the lack of flavor actually translates to a lack of nutritional quality. The soil in your backyard where you grow food, typically, has not been over farmed, over fertilized or over-sprayed with fungicides and herbicides. Most of our conventional farmland has had all of these insults without a method of remineralizing the soil. This surprisingly applies to some organically grown crops. Organic simply means that synthetic chemicals are not used or genetically modified crops are not grown, but there is generally very little attention given to nutritionally managing the soil. The clear issue here is the state of our soil because that is the medium for which all of life, as we know it, is derived from. If we improve our soil, we improved our food, and from that we improve our health. What are the steps that we can take to remediate our soil, our food and our bodies? An understanding of what soil is would be the first step.
There is a common thought in alternative agriculture that states that if we were to eliminate our topsoil (the first 6-8” of the ground) then our civilization would fall. John Jeavons, ecology and food activist, estimates in his book, How To Grow More Vegetables, that worldwide only about 42-84 years worth of topsoil remain. In one handful of soil, you will find the most complex systems on earth containing trillions of organisms. Some soil scientists speculate that there are more species of organisms in a shovel full of soil than can be found above ground in the entire Amazon rainforest. And Scientists are beginning to create a genomic catalog of the earth's microbes. These organisms are comprised of bacteria, nematodes, fungi, algae, protozoa and large macroscopic insects like earthworms and millipedes. In order for this complex world to function, these organisms need to be present and they rely on minerals for their own function but also to impart that nutrition into the plant that eventually feeds you or feeds livestock that then becomes food for you. Agriculture relies primarily on “N-P-K” feeding which you may have seen in different ratios on fertilizers. All that stands for is Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potash (Potassium). But there are 60-80 nutrients that are often ignored that are needed for an optimally functioning system to be in place. It’s like taking a general multi-vitamin. You get some basic nutrients but the body needs a greater and more diverse nutrient pool than what a multi-vitamin can give you. It’s not something that I advise my patients to rely on. For example, one multi-vitamin can contain the antioxidant beta-carotene as a pre-source of vitamin A. What about the rest of the carotenoid family of lutein, zeaxanthin, lycopene, gamma and alpha carotenoids? A multi-vitamin is a reductionistic approach. Eating whole food feeds you full-spectrum nutrition. The caveat is that the food you eat hopefully is grown in soil that enables the plant to produce the full-spectrum nutrients it was designed to have.
Improving Our Soil
If you think about which areas in this world are teeming with life, we think of the Nile or Amazon Rivers. These are bodies of water that flood during certain seasons. What happens with the flood is that silt is brought up from the river laid down on the earth after the flood and causes the soil to be remineralized regularly. Life then grows abundantly from that soil. In our agricultural system, we take and take from the soil and we try to give it a multi-vitamin from time to time but it isn’t enough to produce the healthiest plants. So we need pesticides to kill off what’s attacking these unhealthy plants and herbicides to kill off the weeds that are choking the plants. And that makes it on to your dinner plate. The fact is, that an invasion of insects is a scientific index of unhealthy plants and similarly disease and illness in humans is a scientific index of a human with poor nutrition or a poor immune system. Ensure the plant has what it needs and that plant will not succumb to disease. Ensure the human has truly proper nutrition and a well-functioning immune system, they will be less likely to succumb to disease. Of course, it’s more complex than this when we factor in genetics and environmental exposures but that’s for another blog entry.
A great case in point - we grew San Marzano tomatoes, the famed tomatoes from Southern Italy that are thought to be the best tomato for making sauce according to many chefs and foodies. The few that survived blight last year were tasty but not mind-blowing. When you look further into where in Southern Italy these tomatoes are typically grown, they are grown at the base of Mount Vesuvius. The volcanic soil is one that is rich in minerals and nutrients! The rich mineralized soil is the key factor in the legendary taste of the San Marzano tomato.
Growing Nutrient Dense Crops
After learning about this “new” science we signed up for a year long course with Dan Kittridge, a farmer and researcher, to bring these techniques to the food that we grow to consume and to the seedlings that we grow and sell to our community. I say “new” because there is more research that we need to coordinate and gather so that this can eventually become mainstream sustainable agriculture. The “brix” measurement which I alluded to in December’s blog is a method to quickly ascertain the nutritional quality of a vegetable or fruit. This brix measurement correlates with a longer shelf life because the fruit has more vitality and it also correlates with it's flavor.
To illustrate this point, we took a brix measurement of an apple which was cut at 11AM. We all know that apples, when cut, turn brown because of an oxidative process that converts phenolic compounds which are beneficial substances found in certain foods, for example, resveratrol in grapes or catechins in green tea. The less phenolic compounds present, the quicker the oxidative process happens converting those phenols to secondary metabolites that take on a brown appearance. We can then say that a highly nutritious apple, has high phenolic compounds and will take a much longer time to turn brown than the regular run of the mill apple. This is a photo 3 hours later compared with a freshly sliced section of the apple. Brix measurement of this apple was measured at 11 and an average apple should be at 10, a good apple should measure at 14 and an excellent apple at 18. If this apple was just above average in terms of nutrition, what is that apple you’re eating that turns brown in less than 10 minutes?
Stay tuned to the next blog in this 6 part series to find out more about soil and what you can do about ensuring the maximum biological vitality in your food through nutrient dense growing techniques. In the meantime, be sure to visit Dan Kittredge’s website “Real Food Campaign” and the non-profit organization “Remineralize the Earth” to understand more.
Farmer Pam, MD