Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Part II: Prurient Interests and Not-So-Veiled Threats

by Michael Astera

Part I ended with the promise of an appeal to prurient interests, loosely defined here as greed, power, status, and sex appeal. The promised threats will consist of the opposites: poverty, servitude, failure, and general unattractiveness. How am I proposing to make an arcane concept like soil minerals into such a combination of carrot and stick? Read on...

The basis of social standing is that what you have is better than what I have; the next step being that you have more of what is better than I do. The more of whatever is "better" that you have than I do, the more powerful you are, the higher your social standing, and the more sex appeal you have. So the challenge is to show how growing, selling, buying, and eating superior food can help to make you healthy, prosperous, and attractive while messing around with inferior food will do the opposite.

The essence of Part I was that our food is generally pretty crummy, regardless of the ideology and methods of the growers and producers. A theme running through this screed is that the main reason our food is mediocre or even bad is because of a false dogma, to wit: That volume of production achieved with the least input and sold for the highest price is the best possible outcome. It doesn't matter which ideology the farmers or gardeners I talk to or read follow, they either brag about how many tomatoes or bushels of corn they grew or they complain about not growing enough. When we see photos of successful gardens they are of giant cabbages and orchards laden with branch-breaking fruit yields. We do not have "sweetest and most flavorful" pumpkin growing contests, we have GIANT pumpkin growing contests. Again, appearance counts, and volume counts, but where does quality fit in to this?

As noted, I haven't yet had great success convincing growers to actually adopt the soil mineral balancing approach. It's not because people don't get it. Even non-gardeners get the concept easily enough: The key to flavor and nutrition in the food is the minerals available to the plants. Hopefully Part I at least made an impression on those who still believed that more organic matter or scattershot rock powders were the answer. Those who are not yet convinced I encourage to check out the bookstore's Eco_Agriculture section, particularly the books by Albrecht, Walters, Kinsey, Zimmer, and Andersen. If your local library can't get them you will have to buy them I guess, or you can access quite a lot of free info at this author's website, The Interview with Agricola is a good place to start.

Assuming that the audience is more or less convinced of the soundness of the soil minerals = soil fertility and crop quality concept, the problem of compliance still remains. Most people are not going to go to the trouble unless they see some sort of personal gain by doing so, or alternatively they see the potential of harm coming to them if they don't. Either one works, both at once is best. Wouldn't you agree?

Okay, enough dilly-dallying. What I am proposing are food quality standards. If you as that big-time produce buyer in Chicago had the choice of buying a known product of guaranteed quality versus an unknown, the choice would not be difficult. Even a price disparity could be overlooked, if you as the middleman knew that your customers would be willing to buy the product because of its superior quality, and you could also be assured of fewer losses due to spoliage. Well grown produce does not easily rot, it dehydrates. You can take that to the bank.

Realistically, only a minor portion of the populace is likely to seek out food simply because it is more nutrient-dense, and even fewer will be willing to pay a premium for it. (Not that nutrient-dense food need come at a higher cost; more on that later) If these quality standards are going to fly, they must appeal to our sensual selves. Luscious sweet fruits, zingy tomatoes, rich and flavorful nuts, cheeses, breads. People going "WOW!" when they taste the food. Who doesn't want that? What restaurant owner, home cook, produce department manager, farmer, or home gardener doesn't want to go Wow! when they taste their own food or wish to hear it from others?

So we must appeal primarily to the senses of taste and smell, and sight of course. The product must still be big and beautiful, but it must also be obviously superior in flavor and aroma, which can only be achieved by scientifically (!!) balancing the soil minerals, thereby providing the crop with every element it could possibly need to fulfill its genetic potential. The consumer need know little of this aspect. They will appreciate the flavor and quality; the health benefits will be a stealth effect.

At this point we need to introduce the concept of Brix or degrees Brix, for those to whom it is not already well known. Brix is the measure of dissolved solids in a liquid. A simple example would be a solution that was 10% sugar and 90% water. That solution would measure 10 degrees Brix (10* Brix or just 10 Brix). If the solution weighed 100 grams, it would contain 90 grams of water and 10 grams of sugar. Winemakers, grape growers, and brewers have used the Brix scale since the 1800s to measure the level of fermentable sugars. Originally this was done by floating a long, weighted glass tube called a hydrometer, like a large thermometer, in a container of liquid. The higher the concentration of dissolved solids was, the denser the solution, and the higher the glass tube would float. The glass was calibrated with markers according to degrees Brix.

These days Brix is measured with a refractometer, a simple instrument that looks like a short telescope with an eyepiece at one end and a glass prism at the other. One puts a drop of plant sap, juice, or any other solution on the face of the glass prism and then looks through the eyepiece while holding the prism up to a light source. The higher the concentration of dissolved solids in the solution, the more the light passing through it is bent, or refracted.

A refractometer:

View through a refractometer eyepiece:

Here is a list of Brix readings for fruit and vegetables, from poor to excellent:

Refractometers provide a handy snapshot of what is going on with the crop. Various plant saps and juices will vary from 2* to 30* Brix, even in the same type of plant, under different growing conditions and levels of soil fertility. It's easily understood that a fruit or vegetable that measures 15* Brix contains three times as many nutrients as one that measures 5* Brix. The refractometer measures the total of all of the components in the juice or sap, not just sugar. Proteins, amino acids, vitamins, lipids, aromatics, and minerals will all add to the total amount of refraction. As these all add to the flavor and nutrient value of the food, there is a pretty close correlation between the Brix number and the quality and flavor of the crop.

Refractometers are becoming more and more common in commercial agriculture as well as becoming popular with home gardeners and even consumers. Not long ago they were quite expensive; these days one can find a good quality refractometer online for $30 to $40. What you want is one that reads 0* to 32* Brix and is automatically temperature compensated, ATC. 32ATC is the item.

There are plenty of web sites that discuss the role of Brix and refractometers in agriculture so we needn't go into detail here other than to tie the idea in to our proposed food quality standards. High Brix = high nutrient content, even if the only nutrient present in any quantity is sugar, which is usually not the case. Most crops require a very fertile, biologically active, and mineral-rich soil to achieve high Brix.
Hybrid sweet corn is an exception; one might measure a Brix of 20 or more in the juice from hybrid sweet corn kernels while the sap in the stalk a few inches away might only measure 4 or 5 Brix. Most crops require a high Brix in the sap of the stems and leaves in order to yield a high brix in the edible parts, and in the case of lettuce, asparagus etc the stems and leaves are the crop.

The Brix level of the plant's sap is also closely associated with resistance to insects and disease. A common claim is that insects will not attack a plant of a given species when the sap Brix is above a certain level.

So we have our first simple and affordable tool to measure nutrient levels in a crop. Getting back to the produce buyer in Chicago, assuming that you now knew and understood Brix, and knew that a poor quality tomato averaged 4* Brix while an excellent one would read 12*, you could ask your potential suppliers what their tomatoes measured. If a grower promised to supply 10 Brix tomatoes you would know what you were getting, and be able to check their veracity when the shipment arrived. The produce department manager at any grocery store could quickly check the Brix of all incoming crops and accept or reject them on the spot. Any consumer could take their refractometer along with them to the produce stand and ask to check the Brix before they laid their money down.

We are starting to see the potential for personal gain or loss in the food standards concept. If you as a grower can consistently supply 12 Brix tomatoes, 18 Brix carrots, or 20 Brix oranges while your competition can't, who are the buyers going to wish to buy from?

Is it easy to grow high-Brix crops? It's not difficult when all of the pieces are in place, but it's impossible if they are not. High Brix is just not attainable without abundant and balanced soil minerals in combination with a biologically active soil. Some of the major players are the elements Calcium, Magnesium, and Phosphorus. Of those three, only one, Phosphorus, P, shows up on a fertilizer label, chemical or organic. Nitrogen, Phosphate, and K, potash, in abundance may well grow a huge crop, but without a full and balanced supply of another 15 or so soil minerals one will not realize the plant's full genetic potential or high Brix.

The claim has often been made that high Brix is a guarantee of high levels of minerals in the crop. Is this true? Unfortunately we don't know. It would be nice if that were the case, but the testing has simply not been done. The only person I know of who has actually published the results of a test to correlate Brix with minerals is Jon Frank at the web site. Jon compared green beans from the grocery store that averaged 4.2 Brix with immature green beans from his own mineral balanced garden that averaged 6.1 Brix. After measuring the Brix, he sent samples of each to a soil testing laboratory for a plant tissue analysis. The beans from Jon's garden tested 85% higher in Calcium, along with 66% more Magnesium, 100% more Phosphorus, 200% more Potassium, 300% more Copper, 220% more Zinc, and 60% more Iron than the grocery store beans. Jon also notes that his beans were planted late and had less than ideal growing conditions. A Brix reading of 6 is considered an "average" number for green beans. What would the difference be if the sample had been green beans that measured 10 Brix? Well we don't know. Jon's test is the only one I know of, sad to say. Check out the essay he wrote about his experiment here:

We will get back to the high-Brix = high minerals subject in a bit, but first a word from out sponsor:

Just kidding. We don't have a sponsor. Dang.

I spent a bit of time today doing searches at a couple of major gardening magazine web sites, http:/ and My search words were "minerals" and "minerals in vegetables". Organic Gardening yielded one hit, an article on soil pH. That's all,folks. Mother Earth News was a bit better; there I pulled up ten pages of articles that mentioned soil and food minerals going back to the 1970s. Unfortunately only one was of any value to our discussion here, a June 2006 article by Steve Solomon on how to make your own mineralized organic fertilizer. The only others that even touched on the subject were hit pieces telling me what I already knew, that industrial agriculture and plant breeding was giving us less nutrients in our food.

Moving along, I thought I'd try the Natural News site, We are again told that our soils and foods are mineral depleted. The suggestion is made to buy organically grown food. Natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions and floods are noted for their contribution to soil fertility. In several articles sea salt is recommended as a source of soil minerals. Again not much help.

I recall a couple of years back Mother Earth News had an article about the mineral content of organic produce. The writer had discovered, as many others have, that there really is no good evidence for higher mineral or nutrient content in organic produce. The upshot was that they were planning on doing some research themselves, and invited anyone interested to sign up for updates. I did of course, even sent a follow-up email a few months later asking what was going on but got no reply. Based on my search today, not only wasn't the research done, but they have even taken the original article out of the database.

Anyone who has read this far, and sees the importance of soil minerals, can also see that we have a problem. How many billions of dollars are spent on research into curing diseases? How many billions on health care, treating diseases of malnutrition and deficiency? How much is spent on developing hybrid and GMO crops that can still produce a yield on worn-out soils as long as they are fed chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides? How many articles, books, workshops, and college courses are focused exclusively on the organic portion of the soil, as if that were going to solve a mineral deficiency? How many websites that are devoted to organic and sustainable agriculture focus entirely on compost, manure, compost tea, manure tea, fungi, bacteria, and the soilfoodweb? Thousands. How many sites decry the mineral depleted state of our soils and food? Tens of thousands. How many websites actually address the problem, as in which minerals do what and how to get them into your soil in a balanced and available form? One. What is with that? I guess it's good to be in first place on any google search for soil minerals, garden minerals, organic garden minerals and on and on, but we wouldn't mind some competition. The goal is to get the message out.

Enough whining about what isn't happening; we are talking about how to make it happen. Specifically I am suggesting that those who are intrigued with the idea that they can attain high Brix and superior nutrition in their crops, and thereby gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace as well as personal health, work together to set some achievable goals. The initial goals that I am suggesting would be crops that measure good to excellent in Brix according to the chart here: and have mineral levels at least equal to the average mineral content found in crops from the USA in 1940. Those who wished to participate would need to invest $30 to $40 in a 0-32* Brix refractometer and be willing to spend another $40 or so to have a laboratory plant tissue test done on at least one crop.

The plan would be to measure the Brix level of the crop and then send a sample of the same crop for mineral analysis. The tissue test results would then be compared to the mineral content of crops measured by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1940. 1940 seems to be the year when US food crops began their serious decline in nutrients. If we can achieve or better those mineral levels from 1940, along with superior flavor, we will have the basis for new food standards, the first food standards for fruits and vegetables in the history of the world, as far as this writer knows. Provably superior food. Think some people would sit up and take notice? I do. The next time one of us read a health, nutrition or gardening magazine or web site whining about declining nutrients in our food, we could write them and say "Not in MY food!" Those of us engaged in growing food for a living would have some serious bragging rights and a strong marketing advantage. What's not to like? Well perhaps those who don't or can't achieve high Brix and high mineral content will have something not to like, but we will be smiling, and we will be doing a great thing for the health of people everywhere.

There must be a catch, right? But of course. Isn't there always? In order to achieve either high Brix or high mineral content, all of the minerals must be present in a biologically active soil, available to the plants, and in balance with each other. Maybe I'm wrong about this, but I don't think so. I'll pretty much guarantee, though, that the goal will not be achieved just by adding more organic matter to a mineral depleted soil. The sacred C.O.W. (Conventional Organic Wisdom) will need to change once there is an established high quality standard to strive for. Organic alone will not be good enough. "Conventional" chemical agriculture will have to wake up and change too. High Brix and high nutrient content is not achievable simply by pouring NPK fertilizers on a dead soil

The up-front payoff for going to the trouble of growing superior food? Health and wealth, of our soils, our plants, our animals, and ourselves. Those are attractive advantages. Once there is a known standard of quality, all food will be compared against that. Crops that don't meet or exceed the new quality standards will be considered second-rate, and as the knowledge and methods of how to grow superior food spread, more and more growers and consumers will come to expect high quality nutrient dense food.
No more BS claims that "organic" has more minerals. No more need for a debate between chemical agriculture and organic. The growers would have to put up or shut up, and when consumers are given the choice to buy food that is superior in flavor, aroma, and keeping qualities combined with a proven high nutrient content as opposed to an unknown, which will they choose? Which would you choose?

In Part III we will discuss how to grow high Brix nutrient dense food, see why doing so is not more costly than present systems and may be even less expensive, and demonstrate the ecological soundness and long-term sustainability of the concept. As a bonus, we will see how we can feed the whole world better on less land than is being cultivated today.

Michael Astera

Part III: The Recipe


Allan Balliett said...

Cuttin' to the Chase, Michael!

Thanks so much for your good work.

It is the right thing and now is the time.

Remembering Terrance McKenna, keep your head down!

psychegram said...

Excellent. A lot of time between posts here but that just makes them all the more worth reading. Your work is a blessing on the world.

Jade said...

Steve Solomon does talk about this a lot in his books. I recommend his books highly.

m_astera said...

Hi Jade-

Steve S is well aware of these essays as they are also being posted to the soilandhealth yahoo forum he moderates.

I also highly recommend his books.


tilting@windbags said...

Are you familiar with the work of Dr. Westin Price? I believe you would find an enthusiastic audience for your ideas amongst his followers.

Thank you for your work - great information.

m_astera said...

Weston A Price is one of my great heroes. His book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration is sitting on the desk next to me right now.

Unfortunately it has been my experience and that of others that many of his followers are not open to the mineral message, preferring to believe that buying "organic" produce or adding organic matter to the soil will solve all problems.

If you know of a way to get the message through to those at please let me know.