Disastrous mismanagement of our soil and intensive farming methods have created such poor food quality that high-dose supplements are not a luxury, but the bread and butter of robust good health. In 1992, the Earth Summit in Rio confirmed that the average US farm soils were 85 per cent depleted of minerals compared with a worldwide depletion of 75 per cent. But this is hardly a new story.
As far back as 1936, a US Senate report (Document 264) stated that American farms and ranges were depleted of minerals and so, therefore, was the food. The researchers who wrote the Senate document tested a large, representative sample of soils.
The implications of their report were staggering. It meant that some 99 per cent of the public were deficient in a vast array of minerals. Even at that time, it was recommended that the diets of farm animals and people should be supplemented with minerals.
The only thing that has changed since then is that the overall problem has worsened. Today's soils - even organic soils - contain very little of what humans need every day of their lives. Consequently, most 'food' that arrives on our tables has very little in the way of vitamins and minerals essential to human health.
The story of how our soil has become virtually devoid of essential minerals is one of commerce, commerce and greed. Although these details concern American farming conditions, their approach to fertilisation is now repeated in most countries in the West.
Early in the 19th century, families farming on America's prairies or high plains couldn't stay put a long time. These pioneering types weren't into refinements long used in Europe to restore fertility, such as cover crops, crop rotation and having fields lie fallow. Their soils yielded ample food for five to eight years. But soon after that, the corn grew only two feet high and couldn't make ears.
They weren't putting anything back onto the ground, and so the soil had 'played out'. If they made it through the first winter, the survivors trekked farther west to start over. This went on without end.
Late in the 19th century, NPK was introduced: a fertiliser consisting of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (K). For farmers who would have had to move west regularly, at first this appeared to be a great boon.
But carrying on this practice 100 years later is nothing less than a gigantic, harmful, worldwide fraud. The three numbers on fertiliser bags at any garden shop show their ratios. With those three minerals in proportions right for local conditions (plus water, warmth and light), plants look healthy and yield the maximum tons and bushels - the kind of yield that ensures the farmer gets paid.
Chemist Justus von Liebig (1803-1873) of Germany originated the absurd theory that N, P and K provide all the needed minerals for animals and humans. With his crude equipment, only those three showed up in the ash from burning plant material. The 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica indicates that, ultimately, he completely recanted the theory. More up-to-date technology revealed to him a long list of other minerals in the ash after incineration of plant tissues.
But submitting to pressure from chemical and fertiliser manufacturers, many publications omitted his long, detailed recantation. As a result of this commercial decision, horticulture in the West has continued to embrace NPK fertiliser, and hundreds of millions of people worldwide who consume the fruits of Western agriculture are eating foods that are dangerously deficient in nutrients.
Farmers grow crops, harvest them to feed us or to send abroad, and fertilise the soil with NPK; then they grow more crops, cut the plants down, and repeat NPK over and over. For nearly a century, we've been mining our farm soils and not replacing a full range of minerals.
NPK fertiliser yields large, plump vegetables and fruits that may taste like Kleenex due to a lack of minerals. And the use of only three nutrients weakens the plants in the fields, making them more susceptible to pests. Further, NPK fertiliser is highly acidic, so it disrupts the pH (acid-to-alkaline) balance of the soil.
The ability of soil to bind elements reaches its maximum under neutral or slightly alkaline conditions. Acidic conditions destroy soil microorganisms, whose function is to transmute soil minerals into a form that crop plants can use. Without these microbes, minerals are bound up and unavailable to the plants (Townsend Lett Docs, 1996; Aug/Sept: 114-8.
One study showed that more than a third of soils in the Great Plains - the agricultural centre of America - have a soil pH of less than 5.5, whereas soils should have a pH above 7 to be alkaline (Okla State Univ PT, 2000; 12: 1).
Acid soils are low in magnesium and usually in calcium, according to the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture and Food. Stimulated by NPK fertiliser, the plant grows, but is deficient in vital trace minerals. In their absence, plants take up heavy metals such as aluminium, mercury and lead from the soil. These are then passed on to us through the food chain, and are readily assimilated into our bodies if we are deficient in protective nutrient minerals.
Our bodies then hold on to toxic minerals, traces of agricultural chemicals, and a lot of chemical wastes purposely added to fertilisers, all of which cause long-term damage to our health (Wilson D, Fateful Harvest: The True Story of a Small Town, a Global Industry and a Toxic Secret, New York: HarperCollins, 2001).
According to an international study assessing the levels of micronutrients in various parts of the world: 'Current farming methods, particularly the excessive use of agrochemicals, cause severe manganese [and other] deficiencies, both in the soil and in the crop it yields. Manganese, zinc, and iron have been particularly low in samples studied' (FAO Soils Bull, 63: Rome, 1990).
Liming the soil
To counteract the huge overacidity of the soil, farmers will often resort to 'liming' the soil - that is, adding dolomite limestone. This practice adds calcium and magnesium, changes the soil pH, and greatly increases the foliage. But it also severely depletes soil of manganese and other trace minerals (Pfeiffer C, Zinc and Other Micronutrients, New Canaan, CT: Keats Publishing., 1978; J Orthomolec Psychiatr, 1980; 9: 37-249).
Manganese is further depleted by insecticides, which inactivate choline-containing enzymes which, in turn, prevent uptake of manganese and other minerals by the plants (J Orthomolec Med, 1996; 11: 69-79).
Modern 'hybridised' grains not only taste inferior and promote allergy much more than 'heirloom' grains, but they are also weak and unsturdy, requiring chemicals to protect them, which heirloom grains do not need (Earthletter, 1994; 4 [summer]: 12). Pesticide sprays further weaken plants. Then, like wolves culling out a deer herd, insects attack the weakened plants in a vicious cycle. More than 500 species of insects have become pesticide-resistant.
Unlike us, plants can make some amino acids, essential fatty acids and vitamins, yet nothing can make a mineral, which is considered the king of the nutrients. Vitamins, proteins, enzymes and amino acids as well as fats and carbohydrates need minerals to carry out their tasks.
When soils have been drained of the other 50-plus minerals that people and animals require, the food will lack them, too. Magnesium, chromium, vanadium and others that are equally essential to disease avoidance and to robust good health are much more deficient in our food supply than most vitamins. And so people develop mineral-deficiency diseases. Most Americans are clinically deficient in chromium, magnesium and manganese, especially teenage girls and the elderly (Am J Clin Nutr, 1969; 22: 1332-9).
A dietary analysis of vegans - vegetarians who eat nothing but plant material - found their food contained well above the Recommended Daily Allowance of various vitamins. But, among minerals, the percentages of zinc in food was only 96 per cent of the RDA and selenium was at a desperately low 46 per cent of its already low RDA (Bland JS, Prev Med Update, 1996). Even copious amounts of plant foods aren't enough to prevent deficiency diseases of a variety of minerals.
Low selenium is a risk factor for both cancer and heart attacks. Low selenium levels are also critically important in HIV/AIDS (Funct Med Update, April 1997; Funct Med Update, May1997).
The protein content of wheat and other grains is a reliable index of declining soil fertility (Price W, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, 6th edn, New Canaan, CT: Keats Publishng,, Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, 1997).
In 1900, wheat was 90 per cent protein; now it is down to 9 per cent. One would have to eat 10 slices of bread to gain the nutrients formerly available in one slice. In 1948, there were 158 mg of iron in 100 g of spinach. By 1965, 100 g of spinach contained only 27 mg of iron; by 1973, this had fallen to 2.2 mg. The level is now suspected not to exceed 1 mg.
So Popeye would have to eat some 200 cans of spinach to get the same rejuvenating effect he had 50 years ago from a single can (Gemmer E, 'Who stole America's health?' Lecture, 1995).
Nitrosamines in your food
Nitrogen-based fertilisers can affect plants in other ways. Conventionally managed soils present nitrogen to plants in large doses, affecting the overall protein content of the plant. But a large amount of nitrogen in the soil also produces other problems. When levels of nitrogen exceed what the plant can use for photosynthesis, the excess is stored away in the form of nitrates. When the nitrates in food are consumed, they can be converted to carcinogenic nitrosamines (the same carcinogens found in cigarette smoke and cured meats) during digestion (National Research Council, 'The health effects of nitrate, nitrite and N-nitroso compounds', Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1981).
Conventional fertilisers may increase nitrosamine formation in another way. There is evidence that they increase the number of bacteria on plants which, in turn, facilitates the conversion of nitrate to nitrite - a nitrosamine precursor (Ahrens E et al., 'Significance of fertilization for the post-harvest condition of vegetables, especially spinach', in Lockeretz W, ed, Environmentally Sound Agriculture, New York, NY: Praeget, 1983).
Studies also show that the fungicides used on foods while in storage can react with nitrates in the plant to form nitrosamines (Nutr Health, 1985; 217-39). Antioxidants in your food might normally protect you from harmful nitrosamines. Unfortunately, studies show that levels of vital antioxidants such as vitamin C and vitamin A in our food are also declining (see below).
Plummeting levels of vitamins
Minerals are not the only nutrients missing from conventionally farmed foods. Evidence suggests that the vitamin content of fruits, vegetable and grains has also seriously declined over the last 50 years.
In 1999, nutritionist Alex Jack compared nutrient values in the current US Department of Agriculture (USDA) handbook with those published in 1975. He discovered the decline in a number of minerals as well as the fact that cauliflower had 40 per cent less vitamin C in it than it did in 1975. He wrote to the USDA for an explanation, but they declined to comment.
The magazine Organic Gardening championed Jack's effort and published an open letter to the USDA demanding that they answer him. When an answer did come, it was full of bureaucratic doublespeak, mostly blaming unreliable methods of testing back in the dark ages of 1975.
In March 2001, Life Extension Magazine also took up Alex Jack's cause. With his help and the use of USDA nutrient tables (this time from 1963), the magazine ran its own comparison. The results? The vitamin C content of peppers had plummeted from 128 mg to 89 mg. The provitamin A in apples had dropped from 90 to 53 mg. Broccoli and collards (greens) had lost half their total provitamin A content, and cauliflower's vitamin C content had also declined by 50 per cent.
Besides being grown in depleted soil, the majority of today's fruits, vegetables and grains are stored for long periods of time before being sold. They may be stored for an even longer time after purchase before being eaten or used in cooking. One interesting study, which documented the historical decline in the mineral contents of fruits and vegetables between 1930 and 1987, came up with some startling conclusions (Br Food J, 1997; 99: 207-11).
Modern potatoes, for instance, were shown to have 40 per cent less potassium than potatoes grown 50 years earlier. Carrots now contain nearly half the calcium they once did and 75 per cent less magnesium. Tomatoes contain 90 per cent less copper. Among fruits, apples now have two-thirds less iron than they once had, as do oranges and apricots. In general, across 20 common fruits and vegetables, the trend was that foods were less nutritious than they once were.
The influence of pesticides
The reason that vegetables have so few vitamins is only partly explained by the fact that we are growing plants in depleted, artificially fertilised soil. The use of pesticides also affects the nutrient quality of food, both directly and indirectly.
The application of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides during growth and in storage undoubtedly allows farmers, retailers and consumers to continue with poor practices (such as storing produce for long periods of time) that encourage nutrient loss.
In addition, many classes of herbicide alter plant metabolism and, thus, nutrient composition. For example, herbicides that inhibit photosynthesis (triazine or phenylacetics) produce effects similar to low-light conditions. Under such conditions, the carbohydrate, alpha-tocopherol and beta-carotene content of a plant is reduced while protein, free amino acid and nitrate levels are increased (Z Naturforsch, 1979; 34C: 932-5). Bleaching herbicides can also reduce beta-carotene because they inhibit carotenoid production (Weed Sci, 1991; 39: 474-9). Sulphonylurea herbicides are known to inhibit the synthesis of branched-chain amino acids (Weed Sci, 1991; 39: 428-34).
Vitamin C, beta-carotene and vitamin E are, or course, important antioxidants and the implications of this decline are profound. Both nutrients are protective against the free radicals generated in our bodies not only by normal metabolism, but also by the wide range of toxins we encounter in our everyday environments.
In addition, they protect us from the many disorders we associate with 'normal' ageing. Men with the lowest intake of vitamin C have a 62 per cent increased risk of cancer and a 57 per cent increase of dying prematurely from any cause (Am J Clin Nutr, 2000; 72: 139-45). Flavonoids like beta-carotene have been found to protect against stroke (Arch Intern Med, 1996; 156: 637-42), while those with low levels of beta-carotene, retinol and vitamin E are at a higher risk of developing cancer (J Epidemiol, 1992; 135: 115-21).
Plunging scholastic scores and growing behavioural problems are also related to soil depletion. The human brain requires vitamins, minerals and amino acids to produce neurotransmitters and other important brain compounds. Altered brain chemistry due to the deficiency of even one nutrient can give rise to diminished mental capacity, and also to mental/emotional disturbances and behavioural disorders, eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia), drug and alcohol addiction, autism and violence (Int J Biosoc Res, 1981; 1: 21-41). Ample research confirms that children engaged in violent crime typically exhibit pronounced deficiencies of trace minerals such as lithium, chromium and vanadium. Surprising excesses of other minerals often accompany these deficiencies.
Some farmers remineralise the soil with rock dust and report greatly increased yields of more pest- and disease-resistant, nutrient-rich crops. Some regard this as the ultimate resolution of pandemic dietary mineral deficiencies.
'Remineralization causes a phenomenal growth of the microorganisms in the soil and increases the nutrient intake of plants. It counters the effects of soil acidity, prevents soil erosion, increases the water-storage capacity of the soil, contributes to the building of precious humus complexes, has antifungal properties, and when you spray it on plants it repels insects as well,' says one report (World Res Inst Bull, March 1995; Acres-USA, January, 2001: 22-3).
Remineralization with rock dust may also enhance and speed up the process of composting (Australas Health Healing, 1996; May-July: 55-6). Reports from Germany and Australia also tell of greatly improved forest growth where the soil was remineralised (World Res Inst Bull, March 1995).
Zinc is now regularly added to fertiliser in Middle Eastern countries, and selenium to fertilisers in Finland and China. American walnut farmers use a special fertiliser rich in manganese since walnut trees will not grow without it. In California, trace elements are added to the irrigation water for rice paddies according to the deficiencies found, leading to extremely rich harvests.
These may all offer solutions, but not ones that can be used wholesale. Soil remineralization hasn't yet been shown to be practical for large-scale agriculture, and it doesn't provide an immediate supply of absorbable minerals for consumers. The farmer and home gardener would need to repeat it regularly.
So, the second-best solution is to supplement with vitamins and minerals to give your body what the soil, depleted of minerals, and the food, depleted of vitamins, cannot.
Recently, the Journal of the American Medical Association reversed its long-standing position and declared that doctors should now recommend that all patients, even healthy ones, routinely take vitamins and mineral supplements (JAMA, 2002; 287: 3127-9).
So it's now official: vitamins and mineral supplements aren't a luxury to be consumed by the hypochondriac few or those in need of therapeutic doses. Vitamins and mineral supplements are essential to maintain basic levels of human health.
In the face of these long-standing conclusions, the effect of the recently passed Food Supplements Directive of the European Parliament could be catastrophic. This directive, passed last March, will ban many vitamins and minerals, and lower the levels allowable in many others. The premise of the directive is that high-dose supplements are an expensive exercise in overkill. The often-repeated rationale is that you get all the vitamins and minerals you need from food.
Food supplements are no longer a just-in-case insurance policy. They are quite literally tomorrow's bread and butter.