By Joe Romano,
The more we pour the big machines, the fuel, the pesticides, the herbicides, the fertilizer and chemicals into farming, the more we knock out the mechanism that made it all work in the first place.
— David R. Brower, founder of the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth
For most Americans, February is the month of the heart and February 14th, in particular, is the day we express our love for one another by purchasing over a billion dollars' worth of candy and over five billion dollars' worth of cut flowers, mostly roses. But just where is the love in those gifts?
The vast majority of the candy sold is non-fair trade chocolate, made with high-fructose corn syrup and other sugars. These sugars make up well over half of the weight of a conventional chocolate bar. And if 300 calories in a 60 gram bar weren't bad enough, over half of those calories show up in the form of fat.
"It's a holiday!" "What about the antioxidants?" "Studies show that dark chocolate is good for you!" "Why do you have to be such a jerk?"
Yes, if we ate nutritionally dense foods all the time and only splurged on holidays, then, of course, no one would need to be a jerk about this. But we don't eat that way. More often than not, Americans indulge in high-calorie, low-nutrient foods. As a result, our children have become, for the first time in our history, likely to live shorter lives than their parents did.
Actually, if the flowers weren't soaked in pesticides, they might be better for our loved ones to eat, and throwing the candy bar in a vase of water may be the smarter move. That is, if our flowers weren't grown in third-world countries and then shipped around the world without a thought for fair-trading and miles traveled. Millions of acres of flowers are being grown for this one day on perfectly good farmland, using chemical pesticides and fungicides that permanently degrade the soil. If there was love left in those poor flowers, it probably got lost flying over the Arctic Circle.
"OK then," you rightly ask, "now that you have sucked the joy out of Valentine's Day, what do you suggest as an appropriate gift for the ones I love?" "I suppose you're going to suggest I buy organic and fair trade chocolate and sustainably grown local flowers at GreenStar!"
That would be fine, but what if you gave the people you love some dirt instead?
Maybe the best thing you can give to someone you love is rich, fertile, nutrient-rich topsoil. You see, ultimately, that's where all nutritious food comes from. Americans are so obsessed with the macronutrients that make up calories, namely, the fat, carbs, and proteins, that they don't understand how important the density of micronutrients in their food is. That is a point articles like the recent Time magazine piece and, to a lesser extent, the new movie, In Organic We Trust are missing when they say that conventional is just as good as organic.
It is this approach to our food that keeps most Americans overfed and undernourished. The situation is so bad that even the United States Department of Agriculture knows about it. Since 2005, when they published a report saying that we consume too many calories and not enough micronutrients, they have instituted recommended daily intake amounts for these micronutrients.
So what are they? Micronutrients are vitamins, minerals, trace minerals, carotenoids, antioxidants, and other phytonutrients. While they have no caloric content, according to the World Health Organization they are the "magic wands" that enable the body to produce the building blocks like enzymes and hormones that promote healthy growth and development. All food has calories and thus macronutrients of some kind, but there is no guarantee that any food you eat will contain these micronutrients. The nutritional density of the food depends on the quality of the soil and the conditions under which the food was grown.
In his new book, Thrive Foods, Brendan Brazier, the professional triathlete and formulator of the Vega whole food and vegan product line, points out how important organic methods are to the level of nutrition found in food:
Interestingly, plants grown with herbicides and pesticides — rendering them non-organic — no longer need to develop compounds to defend themselves from weeds, insects, and other pests, because added chemicals now fill that role. The disadvantage of this development — besides the synthetic chemical residue on our food — is that the self-protecting compounds plants would have naturally produced to make them undesirable to insects are in fact powerful phytonutrients.
Other processes interfere with these important nutrients as well. Remember when you asked, "What about the antioxidants?" Actually, much conventional (and even organic) chocolate is "dutch chocolate" that is processed with alkali, which strips the helpful antioxidants from the cocoa beans, leaving behind only the caffeine and the calories and no antioxidants at all.
See? The dirt is looking better all the time. Because, it isn't just dirt, it's where all the minerals and other elements of nutrition are hiding in decaying plant matter, fungi, bacteria, and microorganisms. According to Brazier, "Just one acre can be home to 900 pounds of earthworms, 2400 pounds of fungi, 1500 pounds of bacteria, 133 pounds of protozoa, and 890 pounds of arthropods and algae." How romantic is that?
Seriously though, we can't eat the dirt, but the plants become the medium through which we can digest all these goodies. The plants draw the minerals from rich soil into their stalks and stems and into their leaves, roots, and flowers so we can then ingest them.
Other factors that can affect the nutritional content of food mostly involve how much stress is put on the plant as it grows. In an effort to make more food for more people (and to make more money) conventional farmers will often overplant or allow for other stressors simply to ensure larger yields. But since there is still the same amount of micronutrients available in any given field, planting more crops only reduces the nutritional density of each plant harvested. If the plant has been stressed by a lack of water or inhospitable temperatures, this too will have an effect on how nutrient-dense it is.
The message Brendan Brazier is trying to get across is the same one we at GreenStar have been promoting for lo, these forty years. The most powerful way to get the nutrition we need is to eat as much nutrient-dense, plant-based food as we can, in as natural a state as possible.
So rather than lay out a lot of cash on candy and flowers, give the gift of dirt this year to those you love, in the form of healthy, nutritious, organically and sustainably grown food. After all, that is where nature put the love — you crazy romantic, you.