When it comes to a healthy diet packed with nutrients and vitamins, simply eating your veggies might not cut it anymore. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that nutrient levels in crops have continued to go down in the past three decades, raising concerns for farmers and consumers alike. At the same time, controversy over genetically modified crops continues to brew, as some advocacy groups argue the risks associated with the technique have not been properly studied. In honor of Earth Day, the Hopedale Unitarian Parish is offering in April several programs to raise awareness of several environmental debates that could impact our health and wallets, and what we can do to grow the best food possible.
News From the Field
Are organic foods more nutritious than conventionally raised ones? Stanford University scientists cast doubt on that concept last year in a widely publicized report. But the gritty little secret is that whether your apples and spinach are organic or not, nutrient levels can vary dramatically depending on growing conditions, such as soil type and quality, temperature, and days of sun versus rain. As a consumer, you have no independent way of verifying that you have chosen a superior batch. But what if you had a handheld scanner that would allow you to check nutrient density? “You could compare carrots to carrots,” says Dan Kittredge, executive director of the Bionutrient Food Association, which is raising the funds to research such a device. “If this batch is a dud, pass. If the next one is good, that's where you spend your money.”
The world record yield for paddy rice production is not held by an agricultural research station or by a large-scale farmer from the United States, but by Sumant Kumar who has a farm of just two hectares in Darveshpura village in the state of Bihar in Northern India. His record yield of 22.4 tons per hectare, from a one-acre plot, was achieved with what is known as the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). To put his achievement in perspective, the average paddy yield worldwide is about 4 tons per hectare. Even with the use of fertilizer, average yields are usually not more than 8 tons. Sumant Kumar’s success was not a fluke. Four of his neighbors, using SRI methods, and all for the first time, matched or exceeded the previous world record from China, 19 tons per hectare. Moreover, they used only modest amounts of inorganic fertilizer and did not need chemical crop protection.
Dan Kittredge is trying to change the way the world eats, and he’s starting right here in New England. The North Brookfield resident is the executive director of the Bionutrient Food Association, a 501(c)3 whose mission is “Increasing Quality in the Food Supply.” Kittredge grew up on an organic farm in Barre and has been a professional organic farmer his whole life.
Though anything but a soils science expert, as a premed student some 25 short years ago and after a year as a farm intern, I felt I knew enough biology and farming to attempt a six-month bio-nutrient soils study on an organic farm. Jeffrey Colle' of Colle' Agriculture, green lit the project and David Retsky, owner of County Line Harvest Farm in Thermal, CA, provided the test plots for the six crops he was about to plant. Ignorance is bliss and little did I know what I was in for.
Dan, in a wide-ranging interview with Alan Chartock on WAMC radio this June.
What if the criteria for success in agriculture were the nutrient content of produce, rather than quantity of yield per acre? Farmers growing high-nutrient crops could command a higher price by delivering greater value, and consumers would reap the healthful benefits. This might seem like a dream—but for Dan Kittredge it’s a vision and a passion he works at daily. Remarkably, his seven-year journey to realize this vision all began with one simple, pragmatic decision: he just wanted to be a better farmer.