Is Agribusiness Lowering Nutrient Content?

American agribusiness is producing more food than ever before, but the evidence is building that the nutrient content in that food is declining.

| June/July 2004

American agribusiness is producing more food than ever before, but the evidence is building that the nutrient content in that food is declining. Eggs from free-range hens contain up to 30 percent more vitamin E, 50 percent more folic acid and 30 percent more vitamin B-12 than factory eggs. And the bright orange color of the yolk shows higher levels of antioxidant carotenes. (Many factory-farm eggs are so pale that producers feed the hens expensive marigold flowers to make the yolks brighter in color.)

Once upon a time, most of us ate eggs from free-range chickens kept by small, local producers. But today, agriculture has become dominated by agribusiness. Most of our food now comes from large-scale producers who rely on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and animal drugs, and inhumane confinement animal production. In agribusiness, the main emphasis is on getting the highest possible yields and profits; nutrient content (and flavor) are, at best, second thoughts.

This shift in production methods is clearly giving us less nutritious eggs and meat. Beef from cattle raised in feedlots on growth hormones and high-grain diets has lower levels of vitamins E, A, D and betacarotene, and twice as much fat, as grass-fed beef. Health writer Jo Robinson has done groundbreaking work on this subject, collecting the evidence on her Website, and in her book "Pasture Perfect."

Similar nutrient declines can be documented in milk, butter and cheese. As one researcher writing in the Journal of Dairy Research explained, "It follows that continuing breeding and management systems that focus solely on increasing milk yield will result in a steady dilution of vitamins and antioxidants." (Today's "super-cows" are bred and fed to produce 20 times more milk than a cow needs to sustain a healthy calf.)

How much, and why, the nutrients in vegetables and fruits may be declining is less clear. Comparisons of 2004 data from the USDA's National Nutrient Database, with numbers from 1975, show declines in nutrients in a number of foods as well as some increases. When reports of apparent downward trends in nutrient content in vegetables and fruits appeared in 1999, we wrote to then U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman for an explanation: "Is the drop linked to preventable factors, such as American agriculture's dependence on acidic nitrogen fertilizers and the effects of acid rain? Will you ask your top scientists to give us some direct answers?"

Writing on Glickman's behalf, Phyllis E. Johnson, director of the USDA's Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Md., confirmed the findings. "It is true that in many (but not all) cases, the apparent nutrient content of these vegetables decreased," Johnson said. She went on to list variables that might be related to the apparent decline, but she offered no indication that anyone at the USDA would be studying the issue further.

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