by Mary Lowther
(OMNS Dec 20, 2020) Why do we seldom hear about the deteriorating quality of nutrition in our food crops? A recent article, quoting from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2000 food tables, reports that between 1963 and 2000 the nutrient content in all types of fruits and vegetables had declined by up to 50% and continues to decline.  For example, the vitamin C content of peppers dropped from 128 milligrams per 100 grams to 89 milligrams per 100 grams. Broccoli lost half of its vitamin A and calcium, and collards lost much of its magnesium. Cauliflower lost half its vitamin C, thiamine, and riboflavin, and levels of many other nutrients fell as well. A century ago the magnesium content of our diet was about 500 mg/day, but that has dropped to 175-225 mg/day. Thus, up to 50% of the population in the US and Canada is magnesium-deficient. [2,3]
One reason for the deficit is likely that minerals in the soil that crops grew in were lost to the soil once the crops were harvested and left the farm.  Further, tilling of the soil often causes erosion of topsoil at a rate (several millimeters per year) that exceeds the rate of natural erosion or creation of topsoil by a factor of ten or more. [5,6] No-till farming methods that reduce soil erosion rely on herbicides and pesticides, often along with genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), raising havoc with the environment, and killing insects, worms, and soil microbes which are beneficial to a healthy soil ecosystem that nurtures healthy plants.  Herbicides such as Glyphosate (RoundUp) bind with magnesium, manganese and other ions, preventing them from being absorbed by plants. [7,8]
Widely used artificial fertilizers have high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK) but cannot replenish trace minerals because they do not contain them. The excess potassium and phosphorus are preferentially absorbed into plants, inhibiting magnesium absorption.  High-potassium fertilizer is widely used, readily absorbed by plants, and makes them look green and healthy. Plants tend to favor potassium uptake above calcium and magnesium, which are harder to absorb, so crops grown with excessive amounts of potassium fertilizer tend to have a high level of potassium and low levels of calcium and magnesium. Even in soils with adequate magnesium content, the use of high potassium fertilizer can prevent the absorption of magnesium and other minerals into the plant. But when buying your produce, you may not realize this, since minimum levels of minerals are not required to be present in our fruits, grains or vegetables. The level of minerals in produce is not routinely measured or labeled. 
Acid rain, caused by air pollution, also tends to deplete the magnesium in soil, because it often contains nitric acid, which can change the chemistry of the soil. This abnormal soil acidity creates a reaction with calcium and magnesium that neutralizes the excess nitric acid, which then leaches these minerals in the upper soil layers.  Thus, plants grown on soil contaminated by acid rain may be deficient in calcium and magnesium. Soil acidity is often tested on farms, and if the soil is too acid it is usually treated with lime, a calcium oxide product, which further depletes magnesium by competing with it for absorption. 
The loss of minerals in soil can affect the level of nutrients in plants. [10,11] Some in the artificial fertilizer business deny this, explaining that as plants can only grow when they get enough essential soil nutrients, fast-growing crops must be absorbing adequate minerals from the soil. But this seems unlikely, because the modern decline in nutrient content of crops came after the high-yielding semi-dwarf varieties were developed and widely grown. [10-12]
Steve Solomon recommends soil amendment with trace minerals from rock dust to produce robust crops, but many consumers won’t pay the extra cost. So large commercial farming operations don’t add these minerals, and crops become less and less nutritious. [13,14]
Crops will keep growing, albeit less tasty and nutritious, until the soil becomes so bereft of minerals that it will no longer sustain life. Some savvy consumers are willing to pay the extra cost for farmers to get their soils tested and amend them with minerals that are lacking, but they are few and far between.
What’s the solution?
You can buy food that has been certified organic, such as organic produce. It has more nutrients, including vitamin C and important minerals such as magnesium, and is not grown with pesticides or herbicides. [6,15] A variety of organically-grown products is widely available in several supermarket chains. Although organic food is generally more expensive, many families believe the higher levels of nutrients are worth the cost.
You can also grow your own food. If we have room to grow our own crops, we should get the soil tested and amend it appropriately. I add seaweed, a fermented fish supplement, and rock dust to my fertilizer mix, and bury all my food scraps, including meat, fish and dairy in the garden. To prevent animals from digging up the compost, I cover it with strong mesh and heavy rocks. Some East Coast maritime farmers re-mineralize their soils with ground-up shells of sea dwelling crustaceans. Many gardeners add egg shells to their compost. Although we can take supplements to augment our diets and at least fulfill our needs for most nutrients, likely some nutrients in plants and healthy soil are still undiscovered.
If you live in an apartment, you can still garden. You can even make an indoor compost heap with worms. Here’s one idea: How to Create and Maintain an Indoor Worm Composting Bin.  One’s own food scraps will decompose naturally into compost and add microorganisms to the potting soil. Purchased compost usually has been sterilized and bereft of life forms. Plants and these microorganisms form a symbiotic relationship. The micro organisms and worms digest compost materials, making nutrients available to plant roots.
You can irrigate the plants with room-temperature water, or diluted leftover coffee, tea, vegetable juice from cooking, leftover soup and the like. Don’t worry too much about creepy crawlies in the pots – just pick them up and put them back in if they fall out. Most of them are good for the soil. We want the soil to be alive.
Here’s a good potting soil mix that I have found works well:
|Thoroughly blend: |
1 part garden soil
1 part sifted compost
1 part coir (shredded coconut shells), a renewable resource that I use instead of peat moss which isn’t renewable.
Blend into each cubic foot of this:
1 cup Complete Organic Fertilizer (recipe follows)
1/4. cup agricultural lime
|Complete Organic Fertilizer (COF) from Solomon’s book Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades |
|3 to 4 quarts seed meal (I use alfalfa) |
1 quart kelp meal
1 pint gypsum
1 1/2 tsp. zinc sulphate
1 tsp. copper sulfate
|1 quart soft rock phosphate or bone meal |
1 pint agricultural lime
1 tsp. borax
2 tsp. manganese sulfate
2 T. ferrous sulfate
Mix all together. Since it’s pretty dusty, maybe do it on the balcony.
For growing inside, I put mine near a south facing window, but one could put the pot under a light with a 24-hour timer set for 16 hours of light. Several weeks after the plants have sprouted, add a sprinkling of fertilizer and scratch that in a bit.
As Solomon quotes in his book The Intelligent Gardener:  “Dr. William Albrecht, Head of the Soils Department at the University of Missouri between 1930 and 1960, wrote that sickness is rarely caused by ‘bad’ bacteria or ‘bad’ genes; and that the fundamental treatment for human (and animal) disease is not medicine, but better farming.”
(One of British Columbia resident Mary Lowther’s earliest memories is biting into a freshly picked tomato from a vine that was taller than she was. After reading compelling evidence explaining the loss of nutrients in our food and how we can replenish them, she could not keep the information to herself. Mary writes gardening columns for the Lake Cowichan Gazette https://www.lakecowichangazette.com .)
For further reading:
Lee N. (2006) Beginning Your Organic Food Garden. http://www.doctoryourself.com/organic_garden.html
Saul AW. (2003) The Produce Without the Poison: How to Avoid Pesticides http://www.doctoryourself.com/pesticides.html
1. Vegetables without Vitamins. (2001) Life Extension Magazine, March 2001. https://www.lifeextension.com/magazine/2001/3/report_vegetables
2. Dean C (2017) The Magnesium Miracle (2nd Ed), Ballantine Books. ISBN-13: 978-0399594441
3. Uwe Gröber U, Schmidt J, Kisters K. (2015) Magnesium in Prevention and Therapy. Nutrients 7:8199-8226. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26404370
4. Albrecht W. (2015) Soil Fertility and Animal Health. ISBN-13 : 978-1312921061
5. Montgomery DR. (2007) Soil Erosion and Agricultural Sustainability. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 104:13268-13272. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17686990
6. Poleszynski DV (2018) Seven Arguments for Taking Nutritional Supplements. Orthomolecular Medicine News Service. http://orthomolecular.org/resources/omns/v14n20.shtml
7. Samsel A, Seneff1 S. (2015) Glyphosate, pathways to modern diseases III: Manganese, neurological diseases, and associated pathologies. Surg Neurol Int. 6:45. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25883837
8. Cakmak I, Yazici A, Tutus Y, Ozturk L (2009) Glyphosate reduced seed and leaf concentrations of calcium, manganese, magnesium, and iron in non-glyphosate resistant soybean. European Journal of Agronomy 31:114-119. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1161030109000665
9. Grant WB (2019) Acid Rain And Deposition. Climate Policy Watcher. https://www.climate-policy-watcher.org/hydrology/acid-rain-and-deposition-1.html
10. Thomas D. (2007) The Mineral Depletion of Foods Available to Us as a Nation (1940-2002): A Review of the 6th Edition of McCance and Widdowson. Nutr Health 19:21-55. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18309763
11. Fan MS, Zhao FJ, Fairweather-Tait SJ, et al. (2008) Evidence of Decreasing Mineral Density in Wheat Grain Over the Last 160 Years. J. Trace Elem Med Biol 22:315-324. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19013359
12. Davis DR, Epp MD, Riordan HD. (2004) Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999. J. Am Coll Nutr 23:669-682. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15637215
13. Solomon S. (2015) Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, Sasquatch Books; 35th ed. ISBN-13 : 978-1570619724
14. Solomon S. (2012) The Intelligent Gardener. New Society Publishers. ISBN-13 : 978-0865717183
15. Crinnion WJ (2010) Organic Foods Contain Higher Levels of Certain Nutrients, Lower Levels of Pesticides, and May Provide Health Benefits for the Consumer. Alternative Medicine Review, 15(1):4-12. http://archive.foundationalmedicinereview.com/publications/15/1/4.pdf
16. EPA (2020) How to Create and Maintain an Indoor Worm Composting Bin. https://www.epa.gov/recycle/how-create-and-maintain-indoor-worm-composting-bin