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The Nutritional Gap - Impact of Farming Methods

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

It is now thought that we need to be eating closer to 10 - 12 portions of fruit and vegetables rather than our 5-a-day. But why? There are many reasons, but one significant factor is the decline in the nutritional quality of our grown crops. Since the 1960s intensive farming has focused on maximising yields an an expense of quality and nutrition.

Farming Methods

In our old methods of farming the fields would be left fallow and crops would be rotated, with light tillage to support soil health. In

conventional farming our soils are planted continuously with single crops and machinery is used to deep till the soils. When the fields are deep tilled the microbiome gets disrupted and diversity of fungi, bacteria, earthworms are reduced. Yet, it is this organic system that has a symbiotic relationship with the plant, helping to suppress pathogens but also assimilate nutrients from the soil. There have been many studies to show how soil quality influences mineral uptake and phytochemical levels within food crops (Lambert et al., 1979; Adak et al., 2016). Overall, figures suggest that foods grown by intensive methods are at least 45-150% less nutritious compared to pre-1960s, which is a very sad state of affairs!

The United Nations and Conservation Agriculture Association in the UK, are recommending Conservation Agriculture Systems as a way to improve soil quality - a combination of no-till, cover crops, and diverse rotations. Remarkably these changes have increased the biomass of soil life (earthworms and arthropods) by 2-25 % and microorganisms (bacteria and fungi) increased by 30–70%, producing crops with higher levels of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals (the compounds that colour foods naturally). Even though science is not at the stage to recommend established daily requirements for phytonutrients, these changes are a step in the right direction as phytochemcials are now being recognised to have a protective effect on the body, with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties (Krzyzanowska et al., 2010);

The Use of Agro-chemicals

Agro-chemicals such as pesticides, fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides destroy weeds and pests but also our wildlife too; killing beneficial insects and contributing to biodiversity loss. And, there is uncertainly on how they effect our long term health.

In the US, Cocco (et al, 2000) looked at environmental exposure to DDT and suggested further investigation as lab animals developed hepatic neoplasms. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classified DDT and chlorothalonil as possibly carcinogenic to humans, and it was banned in America in the 1970s. It is still however used in Asia, Africa and South America.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) is the fifth most common cancer in America, with a yearly increase of 3%. Some epidemiological studies show a higher incidence of non-Hodgkin lymphoma with occupational exposure to certain pesticides (Baris and Zahm 2000); Bassig et al, 2012). Bradbury (2014), in a large prospective study, showed there was a possibility of a 21% increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma compared to those that ate organic foods.

Interestingly, the pesticides Henoxyacetic acids and chlorophenols have been banned in Sweden since 1978. Exposure was highest in the 1960s and 1970s and since then lymphoma rates have reduced (Hardell et al., 2003).

In a large prospective study, pesticide residues were detected on 30% of food sample and only 1% over the permitted values (The Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food, 2012). Yet, public health researchers have noticed a possible correlation with birth defects and cancers with agro-chemicals. Due to a lack of data many chemicals are possibly carcinogens but have not yet been classified. Given the uncertainty over our health and the damaged to our closed eco-system it makes sense to make organic choices where we can; and as consumers our buying choices really influence market trends.

Artificial Methods

Intensive farming uses unbalanced fertilisers focused on specific nutrients concerned with fast and large growth (Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium). affecting the nutritional status of the plant. What about the other nutrients? Many of our soils lack sulphur and magnesium causing reduced nitrogen uptake. Excessive nitrogen causes fruiting plants to produce more foliage and delays fruit maturity. Imbalanced nutrients are also bad for the environment, with phosphorus run offs increasing algae blooms.

Farmers artificially harvest to produce an all-year-round growing season. But nature provides the food we need at the time of year, we are deigned to nature. For example all the root vegetables and minerals see us through the winter when we need to nourish the body, while the fruits in Summer, with lots of antioxidants, to protect us from the sun and help the body to repair itself.

We fly foods all over the country, they are dehydrated and days old before they even reach our table. We harvest foodstuffs early, keep them in cold storage, ripen them artificially in ethene gas. Non-ripe fruits do not get to follow a natural growth pattern or nutritional development, again impacting on their nutritional status.

How we feed livestock makes a difference to the nutrients contained in the meats - feed animals inflammatory foods and get a more inflammatory food product. Grass-fed or grain-fed show differences, especially in terms of essential fatty acids. The ratios in grass-fed meats are in a closer natural balance of omega 3 and omega 6, rather than excessive omega six in grain-fed food produce.

And GMO, while it isn’t in our food chain directly, it is found in animal feeds and therefore sadly still consume GMO via the animals we eat. And worryingly, experimental GM crops can be grown in open fields in the UK with permission from Environmental Department. Our wheat has long been hybridised and it contains more gluten than standard wheats- and we see cases of gluten intolerance are on the rise.

This is a huge topic for those that are interested this is a good site

So you see, even if you think you eat a ‘healthy diet’ you could quite easily be below optimum ranges.While we need more scientific studies how these possible effects it does make sense to eat how your grandma would have eaten! And, eating extra vegetables and fruits to make up for the shortfall.

The goldfish bowl analogy is always important to remember. Do we heal the fish or change the water? We want to change the water! Thankfully some changes are taking place. We need to be focusing on looking after our soils, not manipulating plants or controlling the environment though chemicals.

Straightening out a river bend seems simple enough, but the effects of a simple man-made action burn through an ecosystem that has designed themselves around their environment. In nutritional therapy we fix the environment at a cellular level, rather than isolating body parts and band-aiding them with pharmaceuticals and why healing though food is effective long-term.


Anurup Adak, Radha Prasanna, Santosh Babu, Ngangom Bidyarani,Shikha Verma, Madan Pal, Yashbir Singh Shivay & Lata Nain (2016) Micronutrient enrichment mediated by plant-microbe interactions and rice cultivation practices, Journal of Plant Nutrition, 39:9, 1216-1232

Bradbury KE, Balkwill A, Spencer EA, Roddam AW, Reeves GK, Green J, Key TJ, Beral V, Pirie K (2014) Million Women Study Collaborators. Organic food consumption and the incidence of cancer in a large prospective study of women in the United Kingdom. Br J Cancer. 2014 Apr 29;110(9):2321-6.

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Lambert et al.

Meena, R.S.; Kumar, S.; Datta, R.; Lal, R.; Vijayakumar, V.; Brtnicky, M.; Sharma, M.P.; Yadav, G.S.; Jhariya, M.K.; Jangir, C.K.; Pathan, S.I.; Dokulilova, T.; Pecina, V.; Marfo, T.D. Impact of Agrochemicals on Soil Microbiota and Management: A Review. Land 2020, 9, 34.

Montgomery DR, Biklé A, Archuleta R, Brown P, Jordan J. (2022) Soil health and nutrient density: preliminary comparison of regenerative and conventional farming. PeerJ. 2022 Jan 27;10:e12848.

Pem D, Jeewon R. Fruit and Vegetable Intake: Benefits and Progress of Nutrition Education Interventions- Narrative Review Article. Iran J Public Health. 2015 Oct;44(10):1309-21. PMID: 26576343; PMCID: PMC4644575.

David R. Montgomery, Anne Bikle (2021) Review. Soil Health and Nutrient Density: Beyond Organic vs. Conventional Farming. Front. Sustain. Food Syst. 04 NovemberSec. Nutrition and Sustainable Diets Vol. 5.

Van Vliet, Stephan & Provenza, Frederick & Kronberg, Scott. (2021). Health-Promoting Phytonutrients Are Higher in Grass-Fed Meat and Milk. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems. 4. 555426.

Indian Journal of Natural Sciences Vol.12 / Issue 69 / December / 2021

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