Food, technology and health not in sync

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It is said that the only constant is change. Even in a time when the ideology of progress is an American fundamentalism asserting that things change over time for the better, some things are not getting better.

The latest announcement is that foods, even basic foods such as potatoes, have been losing nutrient value and now have lower levels of vitamin and mineral content. The reason should surprise no one. American agriculture has focused on growing more food more cheaply, not on growing better food. It has been reasonably successful at what it is trying to do and a predictable failure at enhancing the quality of food plants. Some people assert that the revolution in agriculture was the most wonderful thing that ever happened, but most of us would probably agree it is not a good thing when the quality of the food declines.

The degeneration of food quality has been happening since the 1830s and the onset of the industrial revolution ? which it made it possible for many fewer people to raise much more food. In fact, the shift to mechanized agriculture was one of the major factors that allowed people to leave the farms and move to the city where, we are told, they took up factory jobs and urban life. The invention of the McCormack reaper made it possible for farmers to harvest vast quantities of wheat, and other machines soon followed. The price of wheat declined in the decades before the Civil War. Young farm workers left the farms. This was a great boon to the North during the war when factories were a major factor in the North's advantage over the South. Their soldiers marched on biscuits and bacon, while the South's ate goober peas (peanuts) and often went hungry. A nation which was once 90 percent rural transformed in a matter of decades to a nation 90 percent urban. It was, in every respect, a revolution.

Among the things that changed was the American diet. At the beginning of the 19th century, a major American grain was corn, and beans were a significant part of the diet. The corn they ate wasn't the corn we know today, nor were the beans. Both were varieties developed by American Indians. They were varieties we today would find inconvenient because they took so long to cook and produced low yields. The emphasis of the industrial revolution was on convenience, and quick foods won the market battle over slow foods. Beans were selected which cooked quickly, and those which didn't were left behind. Wheat became king, especially with the advent of steel rolling mills which could process flour in previously unimagined speed. When electricity was introduced, mills grew up near its sources at Niagara Falls, N.Y., and the picture on the box of shredded wheat symbolized the falls. The age of highly refined foods had arrived.

Within a few decades, another agricultural revolution took place, this time in Europe. Europeans had been farming the same soils for thousands of years and were experiencing declining yields. Scientists and farmers noticed that when certain chemicals were added to the soil, plant yields improved. This led to soil science and eventually chemical fertilizers. Once chemicals were in the garden, it was an inevitable step to turning their use to pest and disease control.

The revolution in food production was extremely dramatic, although no one could say it was planned. The foods which were common in 1830 had largely disappeared. The energy which the plant formerly used to compete with other plants and life forms has been channeled to producing more fruit and all the other problems the plant has are addressed by the farmer. The vast majority of North American farmers farm large acreage with powerful and expensive machinery. Most rely on a phalanx of technical and marketing advisors who offer chemicals to improve the soil and control plant diseases and hybridized seeds capable of producing more fruit per plant and specialized chemicals to kill whatever pest invades the growing space. Increasingly the trend has been toward plants that have been biologically altered. The biology of the plant is less and less a factor in its survival. The result, as I said, was to produce the most for the fewest dollars. It is the genius of capitalism, and it works for widgets and refrigerators. But does it work with food?

Well, it does if you factor out the human element. Human beings evolved over millions of years. Over most of the world for almost all that time, people ate wild food. Agriculture has been around for a relatively short time. For most of that time, the foods that people grew were little changed from that provided by nature. All of nature's foods are so-called "slow foods." They are less convenient because they generally take longer to cook, and they digest in the human body more slowly than the commercially created foods. These latter foods produce dramatic rises in blood-sugar levels and contribute to a range of changes which people who lived before the 1830s almost never experienced. These chemical changes in the body render it vulnerable to things which human evolution never prepared for.

There is today a worldwide epidemic of tooth disorders, diabetes and circulatory diseases. Epidemiologists have been aware of how these patterns evolved since the late 1920s. Wherever modern highly refined foods have appeared among populations which were previously not exposed to them, new disease patterns emerge. This has been especially noticeable among indigenous peoples whose introduction to dietary changes is recent and relatively easy to document. Peoples in such places as Alaska and Australia began to exhibit dramatically increased tooth decay shortly after the dietary change. Not all of these populations changed their diet all at once. Those who stayed behind and continued with their ancestors' diet did not get tooth decay or diabetes. In some instances, people with diabetes who returned to their traditional diet reversed the disease.

Around 350 million people are diabetic worldwide. There is evidence that some populations are more susceptible than others. Some native populations see more than 50 percent of adults over age 50 with the disease. However, all populations are affected. The production of more food at lower costs is tremendously attractive, but it has its own costs. And the move toward biological alteration of food plants continues the trend. Our species and the plants that sustain us are entering a brave new world. The greatest certainty is that there will be unintended consequences. Is it rational to alter food plants in ways that reduce their nutritional value and can harm people? It depends on whether we're talking about economics or human biology.

Still believe in the limitless intelligence of the market?

John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New York at Buffalo.