Vegetables lose their nutrients. Can the decline be reversed?

<span>According to research, the calcium content in green beans decreased in the 20th century and the vitamin A content in asparagus dropped by almost half.</span><span>Photo: Oscar Wong/Getty Images</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 4757d54″ data-src= “–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ d54″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=According to research, the calcium content in green beans decreased in the 20th century and the vitamin A content in asparagus dropped by almost half.Photo: Oscar Wong/Getty Images

In 2004, Donald Davis and fellow scientists at the University of Texas made an alarming discovery: 43 foods, mostly vegetables, showed a marked decline in nutrients between the mid- and late 20th century.

According to that study, the calcium content in green beans decreased from 65 to 37 mg. The vitamin A content of asparagus dropped by almost half. Broccoli stems contain less iron.

Related: Pass the Yogurt: Can Probiotics Help Neutralize the Toxicity of Plastic in Our Stomach?

The loss of nutrients has continued since that study. More recent research has documented declining nutritional value in some staple crops due to rising CO2 emissions into the atmosphere2) levels; a 2018 study testing rice found that higher CO2 levels reduced protein, iron and zinc content.

While the climate crisis has only increased concerns about the nutritional value of crops, it has led to the emergence of a process called biofortification, as a strategy to replenish lost nutrients or nutrients that food never had in the first place had.

Biofortification involves multiple technologies. One of these involves genetically modifying a crop to increase its nutritional value, allowing the rapid introduction of new traits. Another, agronomic biofortification, uses nutrient-rich fertilizers or soil amendments to concentrate certain minerals in plants. Finally, selective plant breeding can produce new varieties, although it may take a decade or more for a single variety to emerge.

Biofortification is an alternative to fortification that has been part of the American industrial food system since the 1920s, when the country began fortifying table salt with iodine to reduce conditions associated with mineral deficiencies, such as goiter. Biofortification delivers nutrients directly into the seed, unlike fortification, which adds nutrients to the food once it has grown. On the global stage, international stakeholders such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) have considered the development of nutrient-enriched biofortified crops as one of their key objectives in achieving food security.

Prateek Uniyal, program leader at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), explained that “due to climate change, iron and zinc have decreased by 30-40% due to excessive rainfall, cold and physical damage.”

We are about twenty years into a forty-year program. We are trying to revolutionize basic food systems

Jenny Walton

HarvestPlus is an organization under IFPRI and provides global leadership in biofortification evidence and technology. It currently works with governments in more than 30 countries, and its biofortified varieties have been planted by more than 10 million farmers around the world, mainly in developing countries. The organization estimates that 1 billion people will benefit from biofortified foods by 2030. “We’re about 20 years into a 40-year program,” says Jenny Walton, head of commercialization and scale at HarvestPlus. “We are trying to revolutionize basic food systems.”

While malnutrition highlights the urgent need to increase the nutrient density of crops worldwide, Benjamin Cohen, professor of environmental studies at Lafayette College, points to biofortification as a band-aid, rather than a solution to the problem.

“My concerns are about funders, based on policymakers, choosing to invest in biofortification rather than supporting more sustainable agricultural models for smallholders that could be more efficient and resilient than large-scale systems,” says Cohen. “Promoting biofortification suggests solving a problem that would not exist without large-scale, capital-intensive agriculture. It is likely that these same agricultural processes will only be further entrenched by biofortification.”

HarvestPlus sees plant breeding as the most sustainable way of biofortification; it depends on existing plant genes. The organization works exclusively with commodity crops and develops them to contain higher amounts of vitamin A, iron and zinc, three micronutrients that the WHO has identified as the most deficient in diets worldwide. That approach means that in places like Pakistan, where diets are rich in wheat, fortifying that grain could trigger changes at the population level. HarvestPlus has already launched 400 varieties of staple crops; none of them are patented.

But there are other concerns that nutrients are being lost on a larger scale than biofortification can replace.

Davis, who led the original University of Texas study that showed declining nutritional value in crops, said: “One limitation of biofortification is that it focuses on one or possibly two nutrients per plant, while nutrient deterioration tends to influence many nutrients at the same time.”

And then there is the obstacle of accessibility. Walton noted that there is not yet a consistent supply of biofortified seeds. HarvestPlus also plans to make its biofortified seeds cost less than traditional seeds. But those lower costs are the result of government subsidies. For example, India is working with HarvestPlus to make biofortified food available to children, in a country where high levels of malnutrition stunt the growth of young people.

The government partnership model could pay off in low- to middle-income countries where malnutrition is common and companies work directly with the smallholder farmers who grow biofortified varieties, rather than on an industrial scale, because seed supplies cannot yet reach that volume.

Cohen pointed out that while the need may be greatest in less industrialized countries, such countries may have fewer mechanisms to resist policies emanating from countries with better resources. They may have fewer regulations on genetically modified, biofortified crops, such as the controversial golden rice, which was modified to produce beta-carotene and, as a result, vitamin A. While golden rice was bred to help alleviate vitamin A deficiencies, Cohen did that too. wrote that this strategy “provides technical solutions to problems that can be addressed in ways that are less dependent on mono-cropped environments.” If we plant diversified crops that contain the vitamins that a given population is lacking, the same nutritional outcome could be achieved.

Promoting biofortification suggests solving a problem that would not exist without large-scale, capital-intensive agriculture

Benjamin Cohen

He said: “Powerful nations dictated the shape of other countries’ food systems, leaving them in a position of even more malnutrition, and because those countries now do not have enough power to shape their policies in the global marketplace, the same powerful nations can do well. now go back and intervene in their food systems.”

Moreover, the industrial agricultural system also favors chemical fortification, says Peter Kelly, CEO of Grow Further, a philanthropic organization that invests in early-stage, scalable agricultural innovations in developing countries. He stated that “there is not much interest in biofortification for the US domestic market. Some U.S. food companies support international work to improve nutrition. But in our current times that is not really necessary [US] food system because it is possible with chemical enrichment.”

Kelly proposes combining biofortification with other seed amendments – and perhaps breeding them to be more drought tolerant – to further encourage stakeholders to invest in crops that better suit local growing conditions.

“All of our work is, in some sense, about climate change adaptation,” says Kelly. “Carbon dioxide levels can affect nutrient levels in plants; we have to do this plant breeding to keep up. Improving fruits, vegetables and beans is one approach, but if that is the only approach from a public policy perspective, it is quite idealistic.”

Leave a Comment