Sunday, November 8, 2009

Part I : The Problem

Part II: Prurient Interests and Not-So-Veiled Threats
Part III: The Recipe
Part IV: A Call for Volunteers

by Michael Astera

When was the last time you bought a really sweet melon, or a tomato bursting with flavor and zing? I don't know about you, but I pretty much gave up on even buying grocery store melons or tomatoes years ago.

When you go shopping for fruit and vegetables at the grocery store, produce stand, farmer's market, or local food co-op, how are you to know the quality of the food you are buying? Pretty much by appearance alone, yes? If it looks good, buy it. If it doesn't, don't. In most cases you are not allowed even a taste, and only after you get those nice-looking carrots, apples, or tomatoes home do you find out whether you even want to eat them. Have you ever bought luscious looking fruit, taken it home, eaten one bite and then thrown the rest in the compost bucket or the garbage because it is tasteless, sour, or bitter? I have, and more than once or twice. Have you ever bought vegetables that rotted in the refrigerator within a few days and had to be thrown out?

Imagine you were a produce buyer for a large chain of grocery stores in the upper Midwestern US. Every day you were ordering many tons of fruit and vegetables from far away places like California, Florida, Mexico, or Chile. What assurance would you have that the produce you were buying was sweet, flavorful, or nutritious? None. And as we have all experienced, this produce from far away is, as a rule, not sweet or flavorful. "Cardboard" is one of the frequent adjectives used to describe most commercial produce.

We are not just talking about agribusiness grown chemically fertilized produce; the poor flavor and keeping qualities are just as prevalent in certified organic fruit and vegetables, in my experience at least. It seems that appearance alone is not a very good indicator of quality. So what other criteria do we have to evaluate the quality of the produce we buy? Again, none. I don't know of any quality standards for produce other than a limit on the amount of pesticide residues for chemical agriculture crops and a list of what may or may not be used on USDA Certified Organic crops. There are no rules governing flavor or nutritional quality. Why? Perhaps because no one has yet instituted any quality standards?

There has been a lot of talk over the past ten or so years about "nutrient dense" food. For much longer than that, those who care about nutrition have decried the lack of minerals in our food. With all of this talk over all of these years, what has been done to change things, to ensure that our food is nutrient dense and chock-full of essential vitamins and minerals? Nothing. Not a thing. Sure, one can now buy "certified organic" food in most any large grocery, but that says nothing about nutrients or flavor. Certified organic means only that certain poisonous chemicals have not been used. That's it. Certified organic crops can be, and some are, grown on very depleted and imbalanced soils. No one checks for nutrients, the only rule is what is NOT allowed, nothing about what is required.

Yet the myth persists that "organic" crops are more nutritious. What proof is there for this belief? Little or none. A few studies claim higher levels of this or that in organically grown produce. Such studies are few and far between, and the ones I have seen are not very convincing. The fact is that eliminating the use of poisons and refined chemical fertilizers does nothing to guarantee increased nutrient levels, and neither does just adding more organic matter to the soil.

80% to 95% of fresh organic matter or compost is water. Of the remaining 5% to 20%, 95% to 98% is composed of three elements that the plants get from air and water: Carbon, Oxygen, and Hydrogen. What is left after the water and carbohydrates are taken away? A tiny percentage of minerals. The minerals that our bodies need, the minerals that are necessary to make all of the proteins, amino acids, complex sugars and starches, and vitamins that must be there if we are to be healthy and not malnourished. Minerals are what make up the matrix of our bones and teeth, carry the oxygen in our blood, bring energy to each living cell, and serve as the templates for our DNA.

In 1999, after being a dyed-in-the-wool organic gardener since the early 1970s, I stumbled across the somewhat astounding concept that if the minerals are not in the soil, they will not be in the food. Amazing, no? And if the essential minerals are not in our food, we can reasonably expect poor health and deficiency diseases. The simple and obvious solution is to make sure that the essential minerals ARE in the soil so that they CAN BE in the crop. To that end, I have spent the last 10+ years studying and experimenting with mineral nutrients and soil mineral balance and doing my best to get the mineral message out to as many as would listen. I started a web site, and put up hundreds of pages of free information on soil minerals. I even wrote a book, The Ideal Soil, to get the message out to as many as possible and to show anyone with an interest how they could balance the minerals and grow highly nutritious nutrient dense food in their own gardens, fields, and pastures. I spoke at colleges and meetings, talked to every gardener and farmer I met, and I continue to do that still. My success in getting the mineral message out to the farmers and gardeners, sadly, has not been very good.

I have to admit to being discouraged at times. This seemed so obvious to me; almost everyone who cared about health knew that our soils and crops were mineral deficient. The concept that if the mineral is not in the soil it CAN'T be in the crop isn't hard to grasp. So why were so few who supposedly cared about health and nutrition willing to do anything to make sure that the essential minerals were in their soil? Several reasons.

The first, which I touched on above, is the myth that by adding organic matter, e.g. compost and manure, to the soil, they were supplying all of the needed minerals. Simply not true. Let's look at one example of why not:

Calcium is the mineral nutrient that our bodies need in the largest quantity. It is also the mineral nutrient that a healthy soil needs in the largest quantity. Many soils need more calcium, especially in rainy climates. It's not uncommon to find a soil that needs 3,000 lbs or more of Calcium per acre in order to be in balance. How much compost would that take? On average, plant ash is around 2% calcium; the way things work out, in order to add 3,000 lbs of calcium per acre, we would have to apply around 12,000,000 lbs, twelve million pounds, of average compost. Per acre. That works out to something like ten feet deep. Isn't going to happen. Even if it did, we would at the same time be applying around 12,000 lbs of potassium, when the average soil only needs 200 to 400 lbs per acre of K.

Another reason for resistance to the idea of balancing the soil minerals is the myth that all the soil needs is some "generic" minerals, as in "glacial" rock dust. No doubt rock dust is good stuff, especially if your soil happens to need the minerals that are in that rock dust. A typical glacial rock dust analysis that I pulled up on the internet shows about 4% calcium. How much of that rock dust would we need to supply our 3,000 lbs of Ca per acre? 75,000 lbs per acre. But it gets worse; that same mineral analysis tells us that this rock dust is 7% iron, and that 75,000 lbs of rock dust would be adding 5,250 lbs of iron, around 5,000 lbs too much. Glacial rock dust is not going to do what we want.

So what do we want? We want high-calcium limestone, 40% Ca by weight. 7500 lbs of that will give us our 3,000 lbs of calcium and be doable and affordable. For a smaller garden that works out to 170 lbs per 1000 square feet; again doable and affordable.

The biggest point of resistance, however, is the concept that in order to balance the minerals in the soil, one first ought to know what minerals are already there. Wouldn't you think? Not a real good idea to go guessing what the soil needs and maybe throw things completely out of whack. Unless one has a full soil testing laboratory at home, that means taking a soil sample and mailing it off to a laboratory and waiting for the results. The lab will charge $20 to $30, plus one will have to pay the postage and wait about a week. A $25 expense and a week's wait seems to be a pretty big hurdle to most, even to those whose living depends on growing a crop. Still, if that is all it took, many would be willing, but when the results come back one still has to know how to read them and decide what to do, or find someone who does and probably have to pay them. Again, that's why I wrote The Ideal Soil. But one still has to READ it and LEARN a few things. It's all seemingly just too much trouble,

So we continue on our merry way, spouting off about nutrient dense food and the shocking lack of minerals in our soils but doing nothing about it. More compost, more manure, let's add some beneficial microbes and fungi and brew up some aerobic compost tea and maybe throw on a few pounds of Dolomite lime (wrong move there).

Mr or Ms average grower is not seemingly all that interested in learning something new or spending more money on soil amendments, so the produce they grow continues to be of fair to mediocre quality unless they are lucky enough to have naturally mineral rich and balanced soil The diseases of deficiency and malnutrition continue to take their toll. The fruits and vegetables in the stores remain tasteless and have poor keeping qualities, and the produce buyers, big and small, have no way of knowing what they are getting for their money.

What to do? Obviously appealing to common sense and such altruistic motives as making the world a better and healthier place is not enough to overcome the comfort zones of the sacred C.O.W. (Conventional Organic Wisdom), nor is it sufficient to motivate growers to learn about things like soil mineral chemistry. It seems we will have to appeal to more prurient interests like greed and social standing, with a liberal dash of competition and threats to one's livelihood thrown in. Whatever it takes; it's for the greater good, after all. Will the ends justify the means?

Coming up in Part II: Appeals to prurient interests and a few not-so-veiled threats to one's social standing and livelihood.

Michael Astera

1 comment:

David said...
a call to action