Ask the USDA, which is helping to create an agricultural system that degrades the soil, our food, and human health—which is why we need access to supplements. Action Alert!
The nutrient content of our food is markedly decreasing, in large part due to industrial farming practices and the government policies that support them. We can’t have a healthy population without healthy food, and it is ridiculous that the Department of Agriculture (USDA) is helping Big Ag get rich while the rest of us get sick. The declining nutrient content of our food underscores the need for us to have access to quality supplements, access which is threatened by policies being worked out in Congress right now.
1 of Grandma’s Oranges = 8 Present-Day Oranges
That our food is less nutritious today than it was a few years ago is by now a well-established fact. A landmark study in 2004 compared nutritional data from 1950 and 1999 for 43 different fruits and vegetables, finding a “reliable decline” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin B2 (riboflavin), and vitamin C. The study’s lead author also noted that there are also likely declines in magnesium, zinc and vitamins B-6 and E. These declines have been confirmed by other analyses. One study found the following declines in nutrients in 12 vegetables between 1975 and 1997: calcium dropped 27 percent, iron dropped 37 percent, vitamin A dropped 21 percent, and vitamin C dropped 30 percent. Another analysis concluded that you would need to eat eight oranges today to get the same amount of vitamin A as our grandparents would have gotten from one.
This drop in nutrients is a result of degraded soil health. Just as human health relies on our gut microbiota, so a plant’s health and its nutrient content rely on the innumerable microbes that occupy the plant’s root microbiome, called the rhizosphere. The complex interactions between the rhizosphere, the soil, and the plant account for a plant’s nutrient levels; assaults that damage the rhizosphere will lead to less nutritious food.
Nutrient-depleted food is also why we need access to a wide variety of dietary supplements. Just as our food is low in key nutrients, so are humans. Government surveys have found that wide swaths of the American population do not get enough nutrients like magnesium vitamins D, E, and K, potassium, and choline, to name just a few examples. Supplements can help fill these nutritional gaps, but government policies are threatening our access to these health-promoting products.
Why Does It Matter That Today’s Oranges Have Less Vitamin A?
Plant health has profound impacts on human health. According to the government’s own figures, millions of Americans are deficient in a variety of key micronutrients. Research shows that micronutrient inadequacies predispose us to many chronic diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and yes, COVID. Certain populations are even more vulnerable to micronutrient deficiencies, including people of low socioeconomic status that experience food insecurity, women, African Americans, indigenous people, and older Americans, to name a few. Long term users of pharmaceutical drugs may also have an impaired ability to absorb nutrients from food. For example, long term use of acid blockers is known to affect magnesium absorption (you can check out coverage of our petition to get the FDA to warn about the danger of pneumonia with acid blocker use here).
The degraded nature of our food is surely connected to the chronic disease epidemic that has exploded in this country. About one half of Americans have at least one preventable chronic disease; one third of adults and 17 percent of children and adolescents are obese. When only one in ten Americans meet government recommendations for daily fruit and vegetable intake, and when those fruits and vegetables are not giving us the amount of micronutrients we need, it is no wonder that we are such a sick nation. Never has there been a more dire reminder that food is medicine—which is why government policies threatening our supplement access are so unconscionable, particularly from agencies that are supposed to be committed to protecting public health. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) is leading an effort to create a new requirement for the supplement industry called mandatory product listing—you can read about the many problems with this policy in our previous coverage.
Government Policies Causing the Problem
The reasons behind the decline of soil health and the nutrient content of our food can be traced to a few federal policies.
First, agricultural subsidies encourage monocropping that diminishes soil health and encourages growing wheat, corn, and soy over healthy fruits and vegetables. Every year, the government spends billions on agricultural subsidies to support commodity crops like corn, wheat, cotton, and soy. Incentivizing the cultivation of these crops supports degenerative farming practices including the application of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides and tillage. All these practices harm the soil and lead to less nutritious food.
Subsidies discourage crop rotation in favor of planting only a subsidized crop, which in turn can lead to increased use of fertilizers, which negatively affect the rhizosphere and degrade soil. Tillage involves agitating the soil to prepare for seeding, but it also rips apart plant roots that feed soil microbes, once again disrupting the rhizosphere so crucial to healthy plant development.
Agricultural subsidies are enriching large agribusinesses. Between 1995 and 2019, the top 10 percent of subsidy recipients received 78 percent of the $223 billion handed out. Fifty people on the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans received farm subsidies; 62 percent of US farms did not receive any subsidies.
USDA Fails to Enforce Organic Standards
While the government works to make large agribusinesses rich, the USDA fails to support farmers who are growing healthy food because it does not properly enforce organic standards.
Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are able to game the system in a variety of ways to pass off their products as “organic” and sell them for a fraction of the price of real organic food. This is driving small, organic farmers who care deeply for the principles of organic farming out of business. For example, government inspectors found 14 “willful violations” of organic standards at Aurora Organic Dairy, one of the largest “organic” dairy operations. Usually just one violation is enough to lose organic certification, but politicians stepped in to make sure Aurora could continue taking advantage of the USDA’s organic label. Not only do CAFOs themselves harm soil health; most of the commodity crops grown in the US referenced above are used for animal feeds to support these massive operations.
Under the USDA’s watch, CAFOs are becoming the standard in agriculture. In 1990, small and medium-sized farms accounted for half of all agricultural production; now it is less than a quarter.
Another example of USDA capitulation is allowing hydroponically-grown food to be considered organic. Hydroponics is a technology for growing plants in water with dissolved fertilizers rather than actual soil. Produce grown hydroponically is often produced in massive warehouses under artificial lighting. The liquid fertilizers used to feed the plants can come from a variety of sources, including highly processed GMO soybeans. This is a betrayal of organic principles because soil is at the heart of organic production and healthy food, as explained above. It is also another way in which the government is helping large companies get richer. These companies can afford to build massive greenhouse complexes to grow hydroponic tomatoes and berries, and then charge less for them than organic produce from small farmers being good stewards of the land.
Cronyism Undermining Soil Health and Human Health
Why does the federal government support CAFOs and large agribusinesses over small, organic farmers? Big Ag is a powerful player on Capitol Hill represented by over a thousand lobbyists. In 2019 Big Ag spent a total of $143,344,380 lobbying members of Congress. Faced with this influx of money, it is easy for Congress and the USDA to hand out gifts to these special interests and to turn a blind eye when organic standards are subverted—small farmers aren’t writing them big checks!
Then, of course, there is the revolving door, when individuals move between government posts and lucrative industry jobs. We’ve written about how this undermines the ability of the FDA to protect the public, but it is also a factor at the USDA. A Chief Economist at the USDA recently left to fill a leadership role at the American Sugar Alliance; Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsask, who was also USDA chief under President Obama, was president and CEO of the US Dairy Export Council representing Big Dairy. This revolving door between regulator and industry is the very definition of the “fox guarding the henhouse”: can we really expect industry-friendly regulators to enforce the law against the large businesses they want to work for after their tenure in government?
All of this is an example of cronyism, when special interests work with their friends in the government to achieve outcomes that enrich their bottom line at the expense of the public, and government agencies captured by these same special interests create unlevel playing fields to their benefit.
It is our poor diet and food grown in nutrient depleted soil, in addition to our exposure to chemical toxins and pollutants, that has helped create an epidemic of chronic disease. Our healthcare system is overburdened trying to address these chronic ailments with pharmaceutical drugs that are dangerous, expensive, and often don’t work. At the same time, our food system relies on dangerous chemicals that degrade human health and prioritizes subsidizing mono crops like corn and wheat with low nutritional value. We need to shift to a regenerative approach to human health as well as agriculture. This means reducing toxic inputs into our soil, water and air, and increasing the availability of nutrient-dense foods. Healthy food can support a regenerative approach to healthcare where diet, proper supplementation, and the avoidance of toxins and pollutants address key sources of our chronic disease epidemic. Until we make this transition, we will continue to pay more and more for healthcare that doesn’t optimize our health.
Action Alert! To better support our health in light of the depleted nutrient content of our food, write to Congress and urge them to protect your access to supplements by opposing the FDA’s mandatory filing requirements. Please send your message immediately.