Decreasing Nutrient Levels in Our Food - RegenZ

Uncovering the Alarming Trend of Decreasing Nutrient Levels in Our Food

A recent article in the Daily Maverick warns that “food we consume is becoming less nutritious – and it’s set to get worse”. The article highlights the disturbing trend of decreasing nutrient levels in our food based on a study conducted by a team of scientists who analysed data from nearly 400 studies spanning over 60 years. Their findings indicate that the nutrient levels in fruits and vegetables have declined significantly over the past six decades, and the trend is set to continue. Levels of key vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C, calcium, and iron, have declined by up to 38% in some fruits and vegetables.

Why is our food becoming less nutritious? 

As humans, we rely on the vitamins, minerals, protein, and bioactive compounds in our food to keep us healthy and prevent disease—not the calories. The focus on maximising crop yields in agriculture production in modern times has led to a significant decline in food nutrient concentrations over the last 50-70 years.

The primary cause of this decline in nutrient levels is attributed to modern farming practices. In the quest to increase yields and profitability, farmers are relying more and more on synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, which have been shown to degrade soil health and the nutrient content of crops. Additionally, monoculture farming practices, which involve planting the same crops in the same fields year after year, further deplete the soil of essential nutrients. 

The declining nutrient levels in our food have far-reaching implications for public health, particularly for vulnerable populations such as pregnant women and children. The nutrient content of our food is directly linked to our overall health and well-being, and it is crucial that we take action to address this issue.

The impact of modern farming on food nutrition

The Power of the Plate: The Case for Regenerative Organic Agriculture in Improving Human Health is a paper that posits that our health and farming are intertwined, and that regenerative agriculture is key to improving human health. It also provides a compelling case for the connection between our health and the way we farm. The paper argues that regenerative agriculture and the power of the plate are two inter-connected solutions that can help to address the global crisis of non-communicable, lifestyle-related diseases.

The Power of the Plate reports that when the nutrient concentrations of 43 crops (mostly fruits and vegetables) were assessed from 1950 to 1999, researchers found a decline in most nutrients:

  • The concentration of six key nutrients (protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and vitamin C) significantly declined (between 6% to 38%).
  • The study also revealed higher concentrations of water and carbohydrates in our food.

In this time period, grain yields have more than doubled. However, the protein concentrations of these grains have declined significantly: 

  • Wheat: 30%
  • Rice: 18%
  • Barley: 50%

It’s almost as if the nutrient density is being “diluted”—the more crops that are produced, the less nutritious they become. And with grain products constituting a significant portion of the world’s diet, this is cause for concern.  

The figures above looked at crop nutrients from 1950 to 1999. Since 1999, we’ve also started to experience the effects of climate change more significantly. Climate change has also been implicated in driving crop nutritional declines. Increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have been shown to reduce the concentration of protein, iron, zinc and B vitamins in crops. We can thus assume that nutrient density will continue to worsen. 

What does eating better look like?

Eating better means shifting to a predominantly organic, whole foods, plant-based diet, which can have a range of health benefits. For example, research from the Imperial College of London found that approximately 7.8 million premature deaths around the world could be prevented if people consumed ten servings of vegetables and fruits every day. 

Shifting to a predominantly organic, whole foods, plant-based diet can have the following effects:

  • Provide the body with all necessary vitamins, minerals, fibre, micronutrients and antioxidants.
    • These compounds maintain health, build immunity, and prevent (and even reverse) lifestyle-related diseases.
  • Reverse the epidemic of chronic, non-communicable diseases, including:
    • Cardiovascular disease (which is the number one cause of death globally)
    • Type 2 diabetes, which improves rapidly with diet changes
    • Significantly reducing the risk of colon and other cancers
    • Reducing arthritic pain
    • Improving kidney and chronic kidney disease impairment
    • Improving autoimmune diseases 
    • Preventing dementia.
  • Other health benefits include:
    • Cultivating a diverse gut microbiome
    • Reducing inflammation 
    • Reducing weight 
    • Enhancing mood
    • Optimising immune function.
Research behind these solutions (as published in The Power of the Plate)

Reduction in chest pain in randomised trials utilising a whole-food, plant-based lifestyle treatment intervention.

82% – 91%
Trend toward regression in artery narrowing, and reperfusion of heart muscle was seen in three weeks.

Patients on insulin that were able to discontinue medication in just four weeks on a whole-food plant-based diet.

What does farming better look like? 

Farming better means adopting regenerative agriculture, which is a holistic approach to farming that encourages continuous innovation and improvement of environmental, social, and economic measures. Crucially, the secret is in the soil. 

Understanding the connection between soil degradation and nutrient decline

The soil is effectively a factory of bioactive compounds that are critical for human health:

  • Medically important compounds can be extracted directly:
    • 78% of antibacterial agents and 60% of new cancer drugs approved between 1983 and 1994 had their origins in the soil
    • 60% of all newly approved drugs between 1989 and 1995 originated in the soil.
  • Other compounds synthesised in the soil are transported to plants and consumed by humans.
  • Some compounds interact with plants in other ways, increasing the plant’s ability to produce bioactive phytochemicals:
    • When these phytochemicals are consumed, they have been shown to prevent—and even reverse—cancers, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and neurodegenerative diseases
    • Phytochemicals also play a critical role in immune function.

Soils that are organically managed contain higher levels of microbial diversity. And foods that are produced organically have higher levels of bioactive phytochemicals than soils and foods that have been conventionally managed. 

Several basic principles of regenerative agriculture aim to improve these ecosystems

  • Eliminating inorganic fertilisers, herbicides and other toxic, synthetic inputs
  • Diversifying crop rotations
  • Promoting on-farm biological diversity
  • Implementing strategies to manage insect, disease and weed pressures that reduce or eliminate the need for chemical inputs
  • Maximising soil coverage and biodiversity through cover cropping and integrated livestock systems to maintain and improve soil health
  • Increasing soil organic carbon levels, which results in greater soil structure and water-holding capacity
  • Supporting the growth of diverse microbial populations in the soil. This reduces pest pressure and helps boost the plant bioactive compounds that have been known to provide health benefits and combat chronic disease
  • Adopting pasture-based farming systems improves nutrient cycling
  • Promoting and establishing conservation practices

You may also be interested in: Regenerative vs Sustainable Agriculture

The power of regenerative agriculture in restoring food nutrient levels

By combining eating better and farming better, we can improve human health in a number of ways. For example, if we improve the quality of the food we grow, then we can improve the quality of the food we eat. This can help reduce chronic disease and increase nutrient levels in our food. Additionally, if we farm better, we can reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, which is another way to improve human health.

Ultimately, agricultural production goals need to shift from only focusing on yield to a more integrated emphasis on crop quality. And this is where regenerative agriculture comes in.

Regenerative agriculture is not just a set of practices but a philosophy that encompasses a holistic approach to farming, which takes into consideration the interconnectedness of soil, plants, animals, and people. It seeks to build soil health, biodiversity, and resilience, and promote the welfare of farmers and their communities. In contrast to conventional agriculture, regenerative agriculture works in harmony with nature, rather than against it. It builds soil organic matter, sequesters carbon, and promotes water infiltration and retention, thereby enhancing the ability of soils to buffer against extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods.

In regenerative agriculture, farmers also use fewer synthetic inputs, which reduces their exposure to toxic chemicals and improves the quality of the food produced. By promoting the growth of diverse microbial populations in the soil, regenerative agriculture also enhances the nutritional quality of the food produced, resulting in crops that are richer in vitamins, minerals, and other phytonutrients.

Regenerative agriculture also has other benefits, such as:

  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions: By building soil organic matter and reducing the use of synthetic fertilisers, regenerative agriculture can sequester carbon in the soil, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Enhancing biodiversity: By promoting crop rotation, intercropping, and agroforestry, regenerative agriculture can enhance biodiversity, which is critical for ecosystem services such as pollination and pest control.
  • Supporting small-scale farmers: Regenerative agriculture can empower small-scale farmers by providing them with the knowledge and skills to produce healthy and nutritious food in a sustainable manner.
  • Improving water quality: By promoting soil health and reducing the use of synthetic fertilisers, regenerative agriculture can improve water quality by reducing the runoff of nutrients and pesticides into rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Taking action: 10 steps we can implement to improve food nutrition and farming practices

As we’ve discussed, we need to consider not just what we eat, but also how it was produced. 

“The way our food is grown and raised impacts not only our cellular health and immune systems; it has the potential to either harm or regenerate people, families, communities, and entire ecosystems.”

The following actions can help create meaningful change in our food and healthcare systems:

#1 An emphasis on education and collaboration

  • For medical professionals: more education on nutrition. They need to be made aware of the positive impacts of an organic, whole-foods diet produced using regenerative farming methods. 
  • For farmers: more education on regenerative techniques. They need to be made aware that the food they grow has the potential to contribute to revitalised human health.
  • For consumers: more education on how nutrition impacts their health and how farming practices impact the food they eat. They need to be made aware of how their buying habits influence the quality and availability of future resources. 
  • For policymakers: the need to support governmental programmes and policies that encourage positive changes.

#2 Integrate nutritional education into medical education 

The medical curriculum should include lifestyle medicine and clinical nutrition. Active healthcare providers should have the opportunity to learn about the science of plant-based nutrition.

#3 Consumer education

Consumers need to: 

  • Be made aware of the impact of their food purchases on their health
  • Understand their role as stewards of invaluable, limited resources such as soil and water
  • Be encouraged to purchase more products from local farms
  • Talk to their healthcare providers about the benefits of an organic, whole-foods diet

#4 More local, integrative health initiatives

We need more programmes that focus on increased patient access to fresh fruit and vegetables, such as:

  • Cash-back rebates for fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Fruit and vegetable prescription vouchers
  • Community gardens
  • Subsidised food boxes
  • Home-delivery meals for at-risk patients
  • Collaborative food pantry clinics
  • Hospital meals that utilise locally-grown food.

#5 Incentivise medical professionals 

Healthcare providers can be incentivised to implement lifestyle medicine practices. Innovative payment methods can also disincentivise medicine-based chronic disease management.

#6 Fund more research for organic farming and crop diversification

More research means more funding, lower costs, improved technology, improved access and buy-in to help shift production to a greater focus on fruits, vegetables, pulses and whole grains. 

#7 Incentivise organic and regenerative methods

Currently, most governments subsidise and insure conventional commodity crops. Instead, governments should look to incentivise sustainable agriculture—farms that capture carbon and provide other benefits through regenerative farming methods.

#8 Provide increased financial and institutional support 

Farmers transitioning to organic and regenerative practice could benefit from:

  • Payments for ecosystem and carbon sequestration services
  • Grants and loans specifically for organic and regenerative farmers
  • Funding for infrastructure such as certified organic grain elevators
  • Training of more organic inspectors
  • Providing grants for young farmers beginning regenerative operations

#9 Encourage food companies to support regenerative farmers

  • Helping to fund certification costs
  • Paying premium rates during the transition periods from conventional to organic farming
  • Offering long-term contracts to farmers
  • Providing markets and infrastructure for the distribution of more regenerative and organic products

#10 Improved traceability and transparency 

Food traceability is of utmost importance as it empowers consumers to make informed choices and encourages farmers to enhance their farming practices. With the aid of handheld spectrometers and other traceability technologies, consumers can access detailed information about the origin, quality, and production methods of the food they purchase. This transparency enables consumers to select products that align with their preferences, such as organic, sustainably sourced, or allergen-free options. By demanding traceable food, consumers create a market-driven incentive for farmers to improve their farming techniques, adopt sustainable practices, and prioritise food safety. Farmers, in turn, are motivated to implement better quality control measures, reduce the use of harmful chemicals, and ensure the nutritional value of their crops. 

Building a sustainable future through regenerative agriculture

Climate change is on the rise. Chronic conditions are on the rise. We have less arable land available to us. We can’t wait much longer to find new ways to feed the world and improve human health.  We are collectively facing an epidemic of diseases related to diet and lifestyle. These diseases are straining healthcare budgets and eroding individual health and prosperity around the world. At the same time, we are depleting Earth’s precious, limited resources. We need to stop perpetuating this cycle of global degeneration. 

The answer lies in a regenerative, sustainable vision for the future that acknowledges and harnesses the interconnectedness of soil, plants, people and the planet.By prioritising soil health and implementing sustainable farming practices, South African farmers can not only improve the nutrient content of their crops but also promote the long-term sustainability of their farms. At RegenZ, we focus on “soil and plant health for human health.” For three decades, we have been forging the future of regenerative farming throughout Southern Africa. We provide agricultural technical services and facilitate the supply of sustainable agricultural inputs.

Our mission is to improve human health and nutrition by offering integrated products and services to the extended agricultural and horticultural communities of Southern Africa. Our focus is on sustainably and regeneratively improving soil health and plant health by applying innovations in crop production technology.

Get in touch with a RegenZ consultant today.

Profile Picture of Alex Platt

About the Author - Alex Platt

Alex is Business Development Manager at RegenZ. He's inspired by the potential of regenerative farming and takes a special interest in the technology and products that are moving agriculture in a more sustainable direction.