Sunday, March 1, 2009

Survival Gardening Part 1: Got Food? Real Food?

March 1, 2009

Survival Gardening, Part I:
Got Food? Real Food?

by Michael Astera

Those who have not spent the last couple of years floating in an isolation tank are aware that the world economy is not doing very well and shows no sign of improving any time soon. Worldwide food shortages are likely in the coming years, and a shortage of money to buy food may be just as likely. Much has been written about storing food and garden seeds, but little has actually been written about growing high quality food in a survival situation. As this is written, in early 2009, it is still relatively easy to learn what is needed and to set one's self up to grow enough high-quality food that hunger and malnutrition need not be a concern. Whether that will be true a year from now is anyone's guess.

If one is going to grow food to feed one's self, one's family, or the animals one cares for, the sensible thing to do is to grow the most nutritious and highest quality food possible. If it is possible to grow two potatoes of the same size and weight, one of which will have five or ten times as much nutrition or food value as the other, which would you rather spend your time, money, and effort growing? Beyond growing food that is nutrient-dense, it is of even more importance to be able to grow food that contains all of the nutrients needed for robust health. In a "grow your own food or don't eat" situation one will not be able to rely upon vitamin and mineral supplements to fill in the gaps.

Dr. William Albrecht classified foods into two simple categories: "Go" foods, those that primarily provide energy, and "Grow" foods, those that give us the building blocks for strong healthy bodies. "Go" foods are simple carbohydrates and lipids: ordinary sugars, starches, and fats. These are relatively easy to find and easy to grow, as they are simple combinations of the air and water elements Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen. Plants make "Go" foods out of these elements using the energy from sunlight, the process known as photosynthesis. "Grow" foods are complex carbohydrates and fats, as well as proteins and vitamins. Plants require a much broader range of elements to make the "Grow" foods, either as part of the food nutrient itself, or as a necessary catalyst for making the nutrient.

An essential nutrient is one that we need to live, but that our bodies don't have the ability to make themselves. There are two or three essential fats (essential fatty acids), eight essential sugars (saccharides), and ten essential amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Vitamins are also essential nutrients; we must get them in our food as our body doesn't have the ability to synthesize them. Lack of any of these essentials will cause the body to use up whatever stores of them it has on hand, including breaking down and scavenging its own muscle, bone, and internal organs. The body will cannibalize itself to maintain life.

All of the minerals that the body uses are also essential; no one has yet shown that any living thing has the ability to make a mineral element. The human body needs at least thirty and possibly as many as ninety mineral elements for growth, repair, and to maintain full health. Just like the essential fats, sugars, amino acids and vitamins, lack of any needed mineral will force the body to use up its own stores and then start breaking down its own tissues to supply the missing element.

Common examples of the results of mineral deficiency are tooth decay and porous bones, osteoporosis. Bones and teeth are mostly made from the minerals Phosphorus and Calcium. Phosphorus is also needed to produce energy in the living cell, while Calcium transports sugars into the cell, the sugars that the cell burns for energy. Further, Calcium is also needed to buffer the pH of the blood, and to transmit nerve impulses.

It gets interesting here: Why does a diet high in refined sugars and starches cause tooth decay and osteoporosis? Mostly because the refined foods are lacking Calcium and Phosphorus. The body burns refined sugars and starches just fine, but it needs Phosphorus inside the cell to do so, and it needs Calcium to carry them in and out of the cell. Burning these refined carbs also creates acids that the body must neutralize with more Calcium. Because the body also excretes Calcium and Phosphorus every day, and needs a fresh supply every day, if there is not enough Calcium and Phosphorus in the diet, the body will start breaking down its own stores of those elements: the bones and the teeth. In theory, one could eat all of the white sugar one wanted with no ill effects on the teeth or bones if the diet contained enough Calcium and Phosphorus (along with a number of other minerals). Actually, many people do get enough Phosphorus in their diet, but lack a balancing source of Calcium. Calcium is alkaline, Phosphorus is acid. Look at the label on most carbonated soft drinks and you will see phosphoric acid as one of the ingredients. It's in there to give the drink a tang, a bite on the tongue. Problem is, this phosphoric acid needs to be neutralized in the body, and the element the body uses to do that job is Calcium, taken from the teeth and bones.

Getting back to the subject of growing food, we come up against a rather strange situation here. Anyone who has ever looked closely at a package of plant fertilizer will have seen three numbers on the package, such as 10-10-10. These numbers stand for the percentage of 1. Nitrogen, 2. phosphate (a form of Phosphorus), and 3. potash (a form of Potassium). Notice anything missing?

The body needs more Calcium than any other mineral element. Have you ever seen Calcium listed on a bag of garden fertilizer? Are there any gardeners out there who know how much Calcium is in that compost, manure, or mulch they are applying? Guess what: There isn't much.* Not nearly enough. Is there some sort of disconnect going on there? Are we trying to play a sonata without first checking to see if we have all the strings on our piano?

Here are a few other essential minerals you won't find listed on a fertilizer label: Iron, Magnesium, Copper, Zinc, Boron, Iodine, Selenium, Manganese, Chromium, Chlorine, Silicon, Molybdenum, Nickel, Sodium. And depending on who you are listening to, quite a few more.

If these are all essential mineral nutrients, and they are not in the fertilizer we are using on our gardens and fields, where are they supposed to come from?

The obvious answer is that they are supposed to come from the soil.

Those who plan to do more than grow some salad greens, who may be thinking about the necessity of feeding their family, would be wise to give some serious thought to the mineral content of whatever soil they think they may be growing food in. Right now most of us get our food from the grocery store, and the grocery stores bring it in from all over the country or all over the world. It may not be the best food, but a mineral deficiency in a potato grown in Idaho may be compensated for by the minerals one gets from broccoli grown in Mexico. If and when one is limited to food one grows themselves, if the minerals are not in the soil, the body will sooner or later start breaking down. The deficiencies will show up as lack of energy, lack of mental clarity, loose teeth, weak bones, bad hair (!!), and eventually disease and death. Starvation comes in different forms, and lack of any essential nutrient will cause the body to starve as surely as a complete lack of food will.

There is no mineral shortage on planet Earth; the problem is that the minerals aren't very evenly distributed. The solution to health and sustainable agriculture is simple: Take the needed minerals from the places that have high concentrations of them and put them on our farm and garden soils where they are lacking. All humans need the same essential nutrients, and our food plants will provide those nutrients to us if the minerals are available in the soil. We don't need doctors, nutritionists, drugs, or supplements nearly as much as we need balanced, mineralized soil. Soil fertility = minerals. Compost, organic matter, and soil biology are important, but they are of secondary importance. No amount of organic matter can make up for a mineral deficiency.

Over the next few weeks I will be going into some detail about growing highly nutritious food, and about the realities of growing enough high quality food to feed yourself and those you may be responsible for. The main focus will be on soil minerals, as that subject is not well covered by any other blogs that I am aware of, but we will also be talking about what to grow, where to grow, and how to grow real food.

Those who would like a bit of a head start on things are invited to my main web site, where you will find a wealth of information on, you guessed it, soil minerals and health.
*Even a loose sandy loam requires at least 2,000 lbs of Calcium per acre for best growth. What if we measured the minerals and found that we needed to add 1,000 lbs of Calcium? How much compost would that take, at a typical 11 grams per 100 lbs (50kg)of fresh compost? I'll spare you the arithmetic: It would take about 4,000,000 lbs/acre (4,500,000kg/ha). Four million pounds of 75% moisture content compost per acre to add 1,000 lbs of Calcium. Wait, it gets worse: While we were adding that 1,000 lbs of Calcium we were also adding almost 4,000 lbs of Potassium, far too much. Well balanced soils need about 1/7th as much Potassium as Calcium, so this soil that needed 1,000 lbs of Calcium would call for about 280 lbs of Potassium per acre; we would be adding over 3,700 lbs too much, assuming that we were crazy enough to try adding four million pounds of compost anyway. Compost and Minerals