The Science of Nutrition emerged nearly full-blown in the 1980’s to better deal with the problems of the Western diet. You might think that a national fixation on nutrition would have led to measurable improvements in public health after nearly thirty years. Using the deeply flawed approach of studying one nutrient at a time, this has seldom been the case.

Monoculture foods and the science of nutritionOnce fresh, whole food was all you could get, but today there are lots of other edible food-like substances in the marketplace, making what’s for dinner? a question we have been led to believe requires the expertise of science. This reductionist approach has largely been co-opted by the Scientific Method and is currently being used by the industry to sell more pseudo- food and — even more dire — to undermine the authority of traditional ways of eating.

Just what do we know about diet and health in the USA today?

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, says we know that people who eat the way we do in America suffer with much higher rates of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Just moving to America will cause these "diseases of affluence" to be acquired, and he cites statistics to back it up. No one likes to admit that their best efforts have actually made the problem worse and that our pleasure in savoring a good meal has diminished while doing little or nothing to improve our health. Food has been turned from a valued relationship into a snack-and-go thing. A founding text of organic agriculture stated in 1945 that we would do well to regard the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal and man as one great subject. Our personal health is inextricably bound up with the health of the entire food web — eaters and whole foods, not nutrients.

Even though we are offered what seems an astonishing variety of foods in the supermarket today, the actual number of species available in the modern diet is shrinking drastically. The economics of food processing requires that just a tiny group of plant species — corn and soybeans chief among them — make up the majority of Agri-biz offerings. That’s right: if you’re not careful, only four crops comprise two-thirds of the calories you eat.

This is all about monoculture farming:

A farming system given over exclusively to a single product. Its advantages are the increased efficiency of farming and a higher quality of output. Disadvantages include a greater susceptibility to price fluctuations, climatic hazards, and the spread of disease. []

Historically humans ate some 80,000 edible items, of which 3,000 were in widespread use, so this drastic over-simplification of the "food web" is danger of the highest magnitude. The vast monocultures of little or no plant species diversity now feeding this nation require tremendous amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep from collapsing. It’s not hard to conclude that we cannot obtain all the nutrition we need based upon a diet comprised mostly of processed soybeans, corn, wheat and rice.

What’s the answer to this Science of Nutrition monoculture eating? It’s simple enough, and something that you can control — get more varieties of whole foods in your meals!

Contributing Author Lynn Cameron owns the website and has conducted her own research into the complementary health field since the early seventies.

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5 Comments for "Food Variety and the Science of Nutrition"

  1. James H.

    How can you get more different types of food when you just stated that the united states agro-biz has monopolised the market with the four aforementioned species and the people affected reading the article are suburban employee’s with no farm land?

  2. Diane Vigil

    Actually, that is a good question.

    The agri-biz folk appear to specialize in certain types of food. As Lynn said, "The economics of food processing requires that just a tiny group of plant species — corn and soybeans chief among them — make up the majority of Agri-biz offerings."

    So, if you have, say, a meal with corn tacos and Fritos, then those are two portions are corn.

    But limited agri-biz offerings are not the only foods available in the U.S. The idea is to branch out some. There are different meats, vegetables, etc. available from supermarkets. That said, if you’re lucky enough to have decent organic markets (or local farmers) in your area, they’ll also have a variety of non-processed meats, vegetables and fruit — and these are, in my view, of a substantially higher quality even before the lack of pesticides, herbicides, hormones, etc. are taken into account.

    Nothing wrong with corn and the like. They just shouldn’t be the bulk of one’s diet. And we would all do well to avoid pesticides and the like.

  3. Diane Vigil

    Added: this idea of diversifying our food intake is also supported by Andrew Martin’s article in the New York Times: Fuel Choices, Food Crises and Finger-Pointing.

    I’d read an article a few months ago regarding the huge impact that the shortage of corn in Mexico was having upon poor Mexicans. Essentially, the move to selling corn (at higher prices) for biofuel meant that the cost of their basic food staple, corn, was skyrocketing, if they were so lucky to be able to obtain it (or much of it) at all. I can see it from the farmers’ point of view too, but it’s a tough choice: make more money by selling your corn produce for biofuel, or make far less but provide a basic food staple to the people?

    Back then, Lynn had commented to me about this situation as well. Unfortunately, she’s right. According to Mr. Martin:

    The idea of turning farms into fuel plants seemed, for a time, like one of the answers to high global oil prices and supply worries. That strategy seemed to reach a high point last year when Congress mandated a fivefold increase in the use of biofuels.

    But now a reaction is building against policies in the United States and Europe to promote ethanol and similar fuels, with political leaders from poor countries contending that these fuels are driving up food prices and starving poor people. Biofuels are fast becoming a new flash point in global diplomacy, putting pressure on Western politicians to reconsider their policies, even as they argue that biofuels are only one factor in the seemingly inexorable rise in food prices

    It’s pretty sad. Read the article.

  4. Lynn Cameron

    We have become complacent and dependent on our industrial food system. Losing our fear of food-borne illness is just one of the many advantages of eating locally. The vast majority of contaminated food comes directly out of the industrial food system, not local markets.

    Of the nearly 40,000 food items found in the average supermarket, 50 percent of them are produced by 10 companies. Just three companies control over 75 percent of the beef produced in the U.S. I was shocked to learn that even organic food that is processed in any way is controlled by just two global companies.

    Of course, the big cash cows of the corporate food industry, organic included, return less income to local farmers and communities and way more to the corporate officers that aren’t out there doing the actual work.

    This is why it is crucial to weigh in about the American Farm Bill before the scheduled vote day after tomorrow on May 2nd. This huge, all-encompassing monstrosity of a legislative document covers everything from farm subsidies to food stamps and has been tied up in committee for months and months. Folks in urban areas especially need to make themselves heard – they are often discounted by the lobbyists, the Farm Bureau, and the rest of the Big Ag pressure groups.

    Here’s what to encourage your representatives to support: more inspectors and budget increase for the USDA; a cap on farm subsidy payments that go to the largest farms and a price safety net so small farmers can survive; insist that ALL imported food be inspected; support organic standards that mean something, local food initiatives and fair monetary return for farmers and ag workers.

    WE are the beneficiaries OR the victims of our food system depending upon our choices, and, according to Mary Elizabeth Lease, a tireless supporter of the National Family Farm Coalition, we need to “raise less corn and more hell.” Let’s get busy out here – we already have enough corn!

    Right now you can go here:

  5. Weekend adventure in eating! « Il Bel Far Niente

    […] – We Want Organic Food […]

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