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Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has also appeared in The Christian Science…

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Biofortification: A Risky Fix for Depleted Soils

  • Biofortification is a set of approaches to boost nutrients in food that have been lost due to industrial agriculture practices.
  • Biofortification risks making our current industrial agriculture system even more fragile and dependent on long supply chains and complex technology.
  • A better solution to the problem of nutrient loss in food is to farm in a way that builds soil fertility and nutrients and widens the array of crops grown.

Many health-conscious people already know that the nutrient value of foods has been dropping since the introduction of industrial agriculture. The causes include loss of nutrient-rich topsoil due to erosion brought on by frequent plowing and therefore loosening of the soil. Farmers also often fail to plant cover crops to hold soil in place when the growing season is over. Another cause is the reduction in the biological diversity and density of the soil brought on both by frequent plowing and by the constant barrage of synthetic chemicals, both fertilizers and pesticides, used in industrial agriculture.

Now, the same people who brought you the industrial food system want to bring you biofortification, a term which refers to a set of approaches to boost nutrients in food—nutrients lost due to the very techniques used in industrial agriculture.

It should come as no surprise that one approach being discussed is genetic engineering of crops to increase nutrient levels. For those of us who find the idea of yet more genetically modified crops in the food supply unappetizing as well as dangerous, there is an alternative. This one encourages conventional plant breeding, the rebuilding of soil, and the planting of a more diverse set of crops. The reasoning is that part of the nutrition problem is that people don't get a rounded diet that includes the diversity of foods which have the diversity of nutrients their bodies need. (This piece in The Guardian provides a reasonably good summary of the discourse around biofortification.)

The proposed biofortification fix, however it is done, runs the risk of making our current industrial agriculture system even more fragile. The agricultural chemical and genetically modified organisms (GMO) industry thinks the solution is more inputs into an already unwieldy and precarious system that by its nature undermines the very loss of soil nutrients it trying to address. Beyond more GMO crops, the agricultural industrialists propose adding minerals directly to the soil to make up for their loss and even putting them directly into seeds.

Of course, all this makes modern industrial agriculture even more dependent on long supply chains, complex technology that can have unintended effects, and potentially wasted resources. After all, why not just give people low-cost or free vitamins and minerals directly rather than put them on the soil where much of these nutrients will be washed away from overplowed fields and degraded by exposure to sun and heat?

Another problem is that it is probably impractical to apply the wide range of nutrients which people need that degraded soils now lack—which suggests once again that handing out free vitamin and mineral supplements is probably a much cheaper and more effective approach.

But, of course, the use of supplements is itself an industrial response to the loss of nutrients in food. We should keep in mind that we humans most likely have only a very partial understanding of our complex nutritional needs which well-tended plants in healthy soils provide to us in a wholistic manner without struggling over test tubes in a laboratory.

The best "fix" for loss of nutrients in soil would be to farm in a way that builds soil fertility and nutrients and widens the array of crops grown to provide the diverse nutrients people need. That would almost surely mean having many more people involved in the growing of food. And, that suggests a social and political question: Can such regenerative agriculture be made attractive to enough people to incentivize them to choose agriculture as a career?

The answer is almost certainly no under a system that prioritizes profit and externalizes costs. These costs include the poisoning of the air, water and soil due to agricultural chemicals and the costs of depletion of soil, of nonrenewable fertilizer (mined phosphates) and fossil-fuel based nitrogen fertilizer, and of fossil fuel energy resources used to power the farm. As long those costs are foisted on the public and not accounted for in modern farming, it will be hard for regenerative agriculture to compete. That implies a need for a legal framework that "subsidizes" regenerative agriculture or forces industrial agriculture to absorb the true costs of the damage it is doing to the environment and human health every day.

Neither seems likely anytime soon. But some people are forging ahead anyway and there is a modicum of hope in that.

By Kurt Cobb via Resource Insights

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