You Are What You Eat—And What It Eats Too

Liz Carlisle
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UCS | January 22, 2015, 3:00 pm EST
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A dozen years ago, a New York Times Magazine article titled “Power Steer” changed the way Americans thought about meat. “We are what we eat, it is often said,” wrote author Michael Pollan, “but of course that is only part of the story. We are what what we eat eats too.”

A bit of an awkward phrase, perhaps, but a salient point, not lost on the thousands of Americans who collectively plunk down $380 million a year for grass-fed beef. When we eat animals, we are inheriting their diet—as well as several other aspects of their lives.

But what about when we eat plants? Plants don’t, strictly speaking, eat, but they are no less embedded in their ecological relationships than animals are. Perhaps most importantly, plants take up nutrients from the soil in which they grow, and the meal on offer varies tremendously depending on how that soil is managed. So does it matter, for human nutrition, what our plant-based foods eat?

Organic farmers Doug Crabtree and Anna Jones-Crabtree grow a diverse rotation of 21 different crops at Vilicus Farms in Havre, MT

Organic farmers Doug Crabtree and Anna Jones-Crabtree grow a diverse rotation of 21 different crops at Vilicus Farms in Havre, MT

Healthy soils –> healthy plants –> healthy people?

Recent research from a team of authors led by Newcastle University professor Carlos Leifert suggests it does matter what our plants “eat.” Analyzing 343 studies that compared the nutrient content of organic and conventional food, Leifert and his colleagues found that the organic crops contained an average of 17 percent more antioxidants than the conventional ones and that the effect was particularly pronounced in certain crops, for which organic management offered as much as a 60 percent antioxidant boost. Flavanones, associated with a lower risk of stroke, were an average of 69 percent higher in organic foods tested. Data on pesticide residues varied across the studies, but showed a clear trend: overall levels of pesticides were ten to 100 times lower in organic food.

This study offers some of the best evidence yet that healthy soils lead to healthier plants, and, very likely, healthier people. And here’s the kicker: it’s probably a gross underestimation. Here’s why:

Next generation organics: Beyond the no-no approach

From the plant’s eye view, the certified organic diet is rather like the old-school crash diet you might have tried before prom: it’s all about what you don’t eat. While organic certifiers encourage proactive soil management practices like composting, cover cropping, and soil-building crop rotations, the segment of our organic laws and standards with legal teeth is the list of no-nos: the chemicals that organic producers are not allowed to use. Observing these no-nos is critical for human health—not just to reduce pesticide residue on food, but to reduce chemical exposure for farmworkers and rural communities, and to reduce the carbon footprint of our food system.

And yet, to truly reap the potential of paying attention to what our food plants eat, we need to put them on a more comprehensive diet: the kind that emphasizes eating the good stuff, rather than just avoiding the bad stuff. We don’t have a widely-used system of standards to track which plants are eating good stuff, so this is where knowing your farmer comes in handy.

Meet the Lentil Underground

As part of my dissertation research at UC Berkeley, I got to know a group of farmers in Montana who’ve been assiduously paying attention to their plants’ diets since the late 1980s. At that time,

Jerry Habets, an organic farmer in Conrad, MT, is experimenting with a triple intercrop of buckwheat, Black Kabuli chickpeas, and Petite Crimson lentils. Photo credit: Su Evers.

Jerry Habets, an organic farmer in Conrad, MT, is experimenting with a triple intercrop of buckwheat, Black Kabuli chickpeas, and Petite Crimson lentils. Photo credit: Su Evers.

Montana agriculture was dominated by chemically supported wheat monoculture, and the result was soil erosion and rural bankruptcy. So a handful of farmers decided to revamp their farms to provide a better base of soil nutrients. Instead of just planting one crop that was designed to draw nutrients out of the soil, they developed a rotation of crops that would also contribute nutrients back: a community of plants that would feed one another.

Because most of these farmers eat their own crops, they understand on a visceral, anecdotal level that better plant nutrition translates into better human nutrition. I’ve mentioned the Leifert et al. study to a few of them, and they weren’t surprised to learn that organic crops came out 17% ahead of conventional ones in terms of antioxidants. They wondered how much higher that number could be if organic certification standards were explicitly focused on improving plant nutrition, instead of just eliminating the most toxic chemicals. They’d love to partner with researchers to improve the nutritional performance of their systems and pack their lentils and grains full of micronutrients, and they’ve been working with Dr. Alison Harmon, Associate Professor of Food and Nutrition at Montana State University, to educate the public about how to cook and eat lentils.

Of course, this isn’t how American land grant universities have traditionally approached nutrition (of either soil, ecosystems, or humans), so the researchers and the funding needed to do these studies are extremely scarce. But, a growing number of scientists are pushing for change and the USDA is considering taking environmental sustainability into account in our national dietary guidelines–for the first time ever. We may be getting closer to integrating the science of agroecology and the science of nutrition, toward a holistic approach that would follow nutrients from the soil, to plants and animals, to human bodies. As Sir Albert Howard famously wrote in his Agricultural Testament, it’s all one subject.

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  • Okc Dave

    This article is potentially misleading because it ignores the produce
    per acre, labor and cost. You can’t just say an organic food s
    healthier, you have to look at the total production. For example if you
    have 20% more antioxidants but 30% less yield per acre or 30% higher
    cost there is a glaring problem with the assumption that organic is
    better.

    Never mind that this only fixates on certain things like
    antioxidants, not the very real macronutrient dietary needs met from
    greater yield per acre and dollar.

    My point is it is a common
    misconception that organic is automatically an improvement. Yes you
    should certainly rotate crops, amend soil with organic matter as
    compost, but that does not eliminate the benefits of also using
    synthetic fertilizer, though sparingly to mitigate the impact on
    waterways.

    • Well put. There is an ideology that organic (and/or permaculture) is superior in every way and sufficient to meet the needs of the 7+ billion people on earth. Not all organic producers have the ideology, but I know enough to know it is fairly widespread (I took an introductory course on organic production from our certifying agency MOFGA last spring–our instructor was clear on the point that with regard to soil health, there are some bad organic producers and some good conventional producers).

      Organic producers can’t compete on yields for most crops. And it is understandable why: they explicitly place great value on other aspects of production than yield. This is fine for a niche crop strategy. But to move it to mainstream and displace non-organic production means plowing millions more acres under to accommodate the loss of yields. That takes away habitat from wildlife that I know UCS wants to see left wild.

      There are definitely problems with conventional agriculture I’d like to see addressed. I think ethanol is a mistake. I’d like to see those subsidies redirected back to the Conservation Reserve Program. The adoption of no-till may be leading to more surface run-off of nutrients in some place (this is the best explanation for the toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie last summer). But that doesn’t mean I’d advocate a return to tilling as much as refinements. No farmer wants fertilizer (or pesticides) washing off their field and there are economic incentives to do better.

      Here’s a couple interesting charts on the yield trends for corn. I don’t think organic can show anything like this (especially locking out some key technologies that enable it by design, such as biotech which could co-exist quite well if it weren’t for philosophical objections)

    • Kimb

      Using synthetic fertilizers, even a small amount, destroys the little critters that make organic soil what it is. Not only the little bugs that help make soil leave, but the mycelium no longer grows. Mycelium is needed to move around nutrients and break down rocks to be used by plants, as well as feed the bugs and store water so watering is not as often and more water goes back into the aquifers (which is a growing concern). A great film about all of this is called symphony of the soil. Check it out if you get a chance.
      Also, yes maybe it’s more work, but arnt there a lot of people without jobs? Just saying…

  • There’s an unstated assumption here that antioxidants are beneficial which bears closer examination.

    We have some understanding of the role they play in our health, which first requires understanding the harms caused by reactive oxygen species (ROS) which are molecules like hydrogen peroxide and oxygen ions generated by normal cell metabolism.

    It’s estimated that every cell in our body with a nucleus repairs on the order of 20,000 mutations to the DNA per day caused by ROS from normal cell metabolism. On average, no matter what your diet is, your body is generating and repairing around 218 quadrillion mutations per day (10.9 trillion cells in the average human with DNA).

    But here’s the catch – those ROS also play a role in destroying nascent cancer cells that haven’t spread or grown into tumors yet. There is some evidence that taking antioxidants (which neutralize ROS and other free radicals) can interfere with the destruction of cancer cells.

    So this is the antioxidant paradox then: ROS both prevent and cause disease, and altering the balance with antioxidants may prevent some diseases while promoting others.

    For example, see: “The antioxidant paradox: less paradoxical now?”

    From the abstract: The body’s ‘total antioxidant capacity’ seems unresponsive to high doses of dietary antioxidants, so that the amount of oxidative damage to key biomolecules is rarely changed.

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2125.2012.04272.x/full

  • Caroline Thompson

    I did a report in university on more agro-ecological farming, and I was pleased–and surprised!–to learn that Canadian legal definitions of organic do include practices like cover cropping, crop rotation, etc.

    Feeling a little Canadian pride over here!