Plants bred to produce higher yields tend to devote less energy to other factors, like sinking deep roots and generating health-promoting compounds known as phytochemicals. Farming practices have worked hand-in-hand with plant breeding in setting the stage for nutrient decline. Modern conventional agriculture production practices, such as close plant spacing, heavy use of chemical fertilizers, and reliance on pesticides, tend to produce fast-growing, high-yielding crops, but also plants that do not absorb a comparable quantity of many nutrients, and often have poorly developed and unhealthy root systems.
Efforts to breed new varieties of crops that provide greater yield, pest resistance and climate adaptability have allowed crops to grow bigger and more rapidly, but their ability to manufacture or uptake nutrients has not kept pace with their rapid growth. Yield increases produced by fertilization, irrigation, and other environmental means used in industrial farming tend to decrease the concentrations of minerals in those plants. These techniques give growers higher yields, and consumers get less expensive food. But now it appears there’s a hidden long-term cost: food quality.
The commercially grown vegetables, fruits, and grains that we are eating today have significantly lower nutritional content than these foods had 100 years ago, or even just 30 years ago. We now have solid, scientific evidence of this troubling trend. For example:
- In wheat and barley, protein concentrations declined by 30 to 50 percent between the years 1938 and 1990.
- Likewise, a study of 45 corn varieties developed from 1920 to 2001, grown side by side, found that the concentrations of protein, oil, and three amino acids have all declined in the newer varieties.
- Six minerals have declined by 22 to 39 percent in 14 widely grown wheat varieties developed over the past 100 years.
In fruits, vegetables, and grains, usually 80 to 90 percent of the dry weight yield is carbohydrates — sugars and starches, the last things we need more of in our diet. When breeders and growers specifically choose varieties for high yields, they are selecting mostly for the highest amounts of carbohydrates.
Future Farming ?
Agroecology – a farming approach that mimics natural ecosystems, is an alternative method that can produce more food using fewer resources.
Permaculture – a contraction of permanent agriculture, is a promising design system for the application of agroecology. In practice, permaculture farms are organic, low-input, and biodiverse, and use techniques like intercropping trees, planting perennials, water harvesting, and resource recycling.
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