Fresh Vegetables and Staple Crops are Turning into Junk Food

Even when it’s plants, bigger is not necessarily better. (Wikimedia photo)

A small but growing number of beleaguered researchers is challenging the mightiest financial powers on earth to proclaim an increasingly obvious fact: worldwide pollution is robbing all growing crops of their nutritional value. It has been well known for a while — and argued vehemently by climate change deniers — that elevated levels of carbon dioxide pollution in the air stimulate the growth of plants. (“See?” the deniers said gleefully, “pollution is good for you!”) But what is now becoming apparent is that at the same time the carbon dioxide stimulates plant growth, it reduces plant nutrition.  More, it turns out, is not necessarily better. Who knew?

The man who is now the leading proponent of this idea, Irakli Loladze, is now at Bryan College of Health Sciences in Lincoln, Nebraska. He first stumbled on the concept in 1998 when he was a doctoral candidate at Arizona State University. He encountered some biology researchers who were finding that when they stimulated the growth of algae in a closed system, the zooplankton, the little critters that fed on the algae, did not flourish, but actually declined. Loladze desperately wanted to find out why, to see if the problem had wider implications, but there were two big problems.

First, nobody wants to hear about the limits of growth,or the problems associated with growth. Second, Loladze he was a mathematician, and as such was not entitled to know anything about biology. “It was year after year, rejection after rejection,” he said. The funders of mathematical research said there was too much biology in his proposals, and the funders of biological research said there was too much math. (If you didn’t know that the funding of scientific research is about as rational and helpful as the funding of political candidates, I’ll give you a moment here to breathe into a brown paper bag….)

Loladze was warned, but, as they say now, he persisted. He began to get funding, do research, and publish papers. Others, intrigued by what he was finding, joined in, even the U.S. Department of Agriculture (wait, does Donald know about this?). They have now pretty clearly established that during the past 30 years, 130 varieties of plants (the so-called C3 plants, most important to human diets) have lost eight per cent of their mineral nutrients and have started to produce more sugars (carbohydrates) and less protein. In other words, growing rice, corn, wheat and vegetables, organic or not, are slowly turning into junk food in the field, whether it’s an industrial field or a home garden plot. And these changes have tracked with the increase in carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere.

Let’s be clear. It is not the case that climate change is the  cause, or a cause, of this problem. Rather, carbon dioxide pollution, which is a primary cause of climate change, is also the primary cause of this problem.

How could it be a surprise to anyone, even a highly educated scientist, that excessive growth is harmful? We have engineered chickens to grow faster for eight weeks so we can have big-breasted broilers, and what we got are chickens that cannot live longer than eight weeks because they can’t carry their hideously enlarged breasts and their cardiovascular system can’t keep their living bodies from starting to rot.

We have worshipped endless, faster growth in our population, our economic system and our egos, until we stand at the utter limits of our planet’s ability to sustain our lives. And now we’re surprised that endlessly growing pollution is not good for us?

Even a mathematician knows better than that.


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26 Responses to Fresh Vegetables and Staple Crops are Turning into Junk Food

  1. Max4241 says:

    The hideously enlarged big-breasted broilers with the rotting cardiovascular systems, is that a cryptic metaphor depicting the current Dow -and other, artificially juiced-to-the-max financial markets?

    Engineered. Not necessarily a dirty word. The Romans engineered some useful stuff, and so did the Injuns. For instance, in the early 1600’s, John Smith reported to the Crown that he could ride a horse -without ducking once!- from one end of Virginia to the other, all underneath a man-made tree canopy.


    I would have loved to watch that mega-project unfold. All that inter-tribe, cross-generational planning an co-operation, all that (..boring..) humdrum planting, all those tens of thousands of precisely controlled burns! But alas, I would’ve had to have been God (of course), because the Virginia Project took many centuries to complete.

    Note: Or not complete. For all we know, the Peoples were interrupted just as they were gettin’ started.

  2. Chris says:

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks for writing about this. We are also facing ever reducing levels and diversity of minerals and life in the soil. Every time food is sold off the farm and away from the local area where the food was grown, minerals are transported away from that area – and the minerals usually end up in the ocean. And plants (and animals) require a diversity of minerals. What could possibly go wrong with such a system?

    That is one of the reasons I moved to a rural area and grow a lot of my own produce, but of course your article pretty clearly states that even that activity is subject to limits.

  3. Clive Elwell says:

    Tom, you say “organic or not”. Were tests done specifically on organically grown crops, to your knowledge? And if so were orgainic/non organic results compared?

    • Tom Lewis says:

      Don’t know the answer to your question. but I do know they tested goldenrod, to make sure that no farming practices of any kind influenced the results, which were the same. This happens, I gather, independently of anything else done to the plant.

  4. David Veale says:

    The move to prefer hybrid crops has had the same effect; the open pollinated variety of field corn I grow produces less yield than modern hybrids, but runs about 11% protein vs 9% for the hybrids, and I’d be willing to guess that other nutrients are similarly affected. Greater yields come at the cost of lower quality.

  5. Liz says:

    The Cabal couldn’t have come up with a better constraint on the rest of us. Micro-nutrients – so critical to health, so hard to sense or measure. There’s only a limited amount of them available, so they ration them out in what appears to be enough food. Inflation for the food world. Brilliant!

  6. Tom says:

    Yes, Mr. Lewis, once again we are shown that we aren’t as sapien sapiens as we thought. More, better, faster is a mantra for going crazy rather than improving our lot. We’ve been declining for decades, if not centuries due to pollution – all of it, from fossil fuel burning CO2 to radiation, overuse of fresh water to overuse of phosphates and nitrogen, and from the advent of oil to the wide-spread use of plastic – it’s all come back to haunt us for not conserving.

    The main problem, of course, the driver behind it all, is HUMAN overpopulation, that no one wants to admit or even talk about. Our vast horde of industrial leeches continues merrily along pillaging the very host of our sustenance – until we can’t. We aren’t going to make any changes to the way we do things here on Earth until we absolutely HAVE to, at which time it will be far too late (as it already is for climate change mediation, political cooperation and social well-being for all) to do any good or have any lasting effect.

    We were “gifted” with large brains, but we failed to fully examine the ideas they produced
    (from what they entail to what is produced to where it all ends up and their collective impacts on our habitat). Instead, we blindly go where the new ideas take us, embracing “new” as “better” without regard for any other species and heedless of impacts to ecosystems, the biosphere and resource depletion.

    We’re basically blundering idiots who don’t care beyond the present moment about our own comfort, joy and wealth. From food production, education and health care we see the same results of our “modern” worldview is turning the planet into a wasteland, even without the help of nature, which is only reacting to our continual chemical pollution of every aspect of the planet’s ability to sustain life.

    Thanks for this essay, Mr. Lewis, highlighting the result of CO2 on crops, opening the door to many wider implications that I’ve only highlighted in my response.

  7. Max4241 says:

    Bees. I saw my first one of the summer on Sunday, sitting on my golf ball in the middle of a fairway bunker. I thought, dumb-ass, why did you fly across acres of grass and 3 meters of sand to land on polyurethane?

    The course is surrounded by cornfields. Have you gone insane, bee, or just lost your way?

    A mosquito bit me in July. I remember it well. I was wearing grey. He was on lone patrol at mid-evening. Our paths intersected. What are the odds?

  8. Dennis Mitchell says:

    As if the SAD diet could get worse. More worrisome than the effects on human health this could strike at the foundation of ecosystems. How does this affect microbes in the soil? Could it hurt insect populations? Birds? These systems are already being challenged by pollution, habitat loss, climate disruptions, and invasive species. Remember the hurricanes and forest fires fall under climate.

    • colinc says:

      If you read the full article on Politico (1st link in above article), you will find that, indeed, this degradation of nutrients is already affecting bees, as alluded by Mr. Lewis in his reply to Clive, above. I also have to presume from that article that other species of invertebrates are similarly affected and that this will result in a cascade collapse up the food-chain. Imagine removing a bearing-wall on the 1st floor of your 2-story house 1 stud at a time without any supplementary supports. Not much happens until the last 1 or 2 studs get knocked out… then the upper floor smashes you flat.
      Furthermore, continuing to scroll down past the end of that article on Politico’s “Agenda 2020” series will reveal several other articles of potential interest.
      Lastly, while not directly relevant to the above article and ensuing discussion, some may find this article “interesting.”

  9. Brian says:

    When people have been taught to equate food with fuel how could such an outcome be avoided? “Better living through chemistry” has by now established enough of a track record that it might be due for a re-examination. I think a quote from the inimitable Wendell Berry would be appropriate here!

    “There are kinds and degrees of ignorance that are remediable, of course, and we have no excuse for not learning all we can. Within limits, we can learn and think; we can read, hear, and see; we can remember. We don’t have to live in a world defined by professional and political gibberish.
    But… our ignorance ultimately is irremediable… Do what we will, we are never going to be free of mortality, partiality, fallibility, and error. The extent of our knowledge will always be, at the same time, the measure of the extent of our ignorance.
    Because ignorance is thus a part of our creaturely definition, we need an appropriate way: a way of ignorance, which is the way of neighborly love, kindness, caution, care, appropriate scale, thrift, good work, right livelihood…
    The way of ignorance, therefore, is to be careful, to know the limits and the efficacy of our knowledge. It is to be humble and to work on an appropriate scale.”

    If only…

    • Tom Lewis says:

      Damn well said.

      • Brian says:

        The entire essay is worth reading, reflectively and savouringly. There is a lot of (now heretical) wisdom in it.
        On another note…
        Full disclosure: I’ve raised those hybrid broilers you mention here on my own little homestead. They are an abomination. If I were religious, I would say they are an insult to creation. The poor damned things (they ARE sentient) epitomize the mental paradigm of the “control imperative”, of “inputs-in and outputs-out” industrialized farming.
        So why, you may ask, have I done it? For years I raised so-called “heritage breeds” and tried to sell them to my friends and neighbours, but they don’t mature into the rotund, plasticine meat-bombs that consumer expectation has now almost exclusively come to expect. In other words, people have been divorced for so long from the sources and origins of their own sustenance that they no longer know what a damned chicken “should” look like. Hybrid broilers are suppsedly bred for maximum “feed conversion”, but in the final analysis they are no more economically efficient than old-fashioned chickens because most of their chicken instincts (like foraging) have been bred right out of them. Furthermore, being a “technology” rather than an organism (in the old sense of the word) they facilitate centralization of control. Nobody without exclusive rights to “intellectual property” can breed them.
        If you want to peer into the abyss of what I’m talking about have a look here, and then do a double-take. No, this is not an enterprise that manufactures semiconductors or the like; it’s a transnational “player” in the market of global poultry genetics.

  10. Clive Elwell says:

    Sorry, I can’t see how to respond to a particular post in the thread, but this reply is to Tom when he says:
    “The main problem, of course, the driver behind it all, is HUMAN overpopulation”

    I beg to differ Tom, there is a much more fundamental cause of this problem, and it is the same cause of ALL human problems. YOu are closer to the real issue when you write:

    “We’re basically blundering idiots who don’t care beyond the present moment about our own comfort, joy and wealth”

    Surely the basic problem is the state of human consciousness? I have written on this before, and will not repeat myself now, but unless we see the REAL issue facing mankind, we can’t even begin to apply our energy and capacity to solving any human problem, can we?

    Without an understanding of our own psychological nature, how can we understand anything?

  11. SomeoneInAsia says:

    Quote:How could it be a surprise to anyone, even a highly educated scientist, that excessive growth is harmful? (End of quote)

    The questions I would like to ask are (1) how it could have ever occured to anyone that endless growth could be something possible and desirable, and (2) why those who are supposed to be in the know, such as the scientists, never bothered to come out and condemn this monstrosity (with the exception of Prof Albert Bartlett)?

    Regarding (1), could it be that the West suffered from some deep spiritual malaise caused by the gradual ebbing of the credibility of the Christian religion in the past few centuries? Some deep spiritual thirst, some hollowness in the heart, which the West then sought (in vain, of course) to relieve herself of through the endless pursuit of secular wealth and power?

    Regarding (2), why do we find people knowledgeable in science vehemently casting vitriol at things like the paranormal and creationism, but hardly ever raising a finger at the entire ideology of endless growth, a far worse liability facing humanity? Why don’t we find people like Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku or Carl Sagan condemning the said ideology? (Or did they? If they did, I never noticed.) If, for all their knowledge, they still don’t see fit to condemn this godforsaken ideology, then just how much respect do they deserve?

    But perhaps trying to find the answer to these questions is just a waste of time in view of what we all currently face. One recalls the blurb for the old sci-fi movie The Cube: ‘Don’t look for a reason. Look for a way out.’

  12. Max4241 says:

    Turkey Point was forced to scram on the 12th. Who -or what- hit the Red Button has yet to be determined.

    Man or machine. Looks to me like we have a situation where the NRC and Florida Power and Light can’t decide between the two of them which will sell better to the public.

    Take your time, people, for it is a deeply fascinating question. Which really is more adaptable to playing profit driven chicken, a human, or a computer?

  13. SomeoneInAsia says:

    Quote: We have engineered chickens to grow faster for eight weeks so we can have big-breasted broilers, and what we got are chickens that cannot live longer than eight weeks because they can’t carry their hideously enlarged breasts and their cardiovascular system can’t keep their living bodies from starting to rot. (End of quote)

    I feel sorry for those chickens. Really do.

    More determined to stick to vegetarianism now.

  14. Chris says:

    Hi Tom,

    Forgot to mention, but a diet higher in sugars will make a person more acidic which provides a good environment for attack from fungi (and perhaps other hungry creatures). I’d call that a feedback.