News & Media :: Press Releases
"Still No Free Lunch" Released
September 10, 2007
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contacts: Chuck Benbrook, The Organic Center
Brian Halweil, Worldwatch Institute
Still No Free Lunch Crops are getting less nutritious and farming methods are
partly to blame.
September 11, 2007, BOULDER, Colorado - Today's farmers raise more bushels of
corn, pecks of apples, and pounds of broccoli from a given piece of land than
they did decades ago. But those crops are often less nutritious, according to a
new report released today from The Organic Center, "Still No Free Lunch:
Nutrient levels in U.S. food supply eroded by pursuit of high yields."
"Our crops are more abundant [i.e., per acre yields are higher], but they are
also generally less nutritious," said report author Brian Halweil, a senior
researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and a member of the Organic Center's
scientific advisory board. Historical records from the U.S. Department of
Agriculture show that everyday fruits and vegetables - from collard greens to
tomatoes to sweet corn - often have lower levels of some vitamins and less iron,
calcium, zinc, and other micronutrients than they did 50 years ago.
The most compelling data supporting the general decline in nutrient levels in
crops comes from contemporary studies where researchers have grown modern plant
varieties side-by-side with historic, generally lower-yielding cultivars, using
similar production practices and levels of inputs, like nitrogen fertilizer.
Several such studies have found that the modern-era varieties produce 10 to 25
percent lower levels of iron, zinc, protein, calcium, vitamin C, and other
essential nutrients per pound of produce or grain.
For instance, looking at 63 spring wheat cultivars grown between 1842 and 2003,
researchers at Washington State University found declines in the concentrations
for all eight minerals studied, with an 11 percent decline for iron, 16 percent
decline for copper, 25 percent decline for zinc, and 50 percent decline for
"To get our recommended daily allowance of nutrients, we have to eat many more
slices of bread today than people had to eat in the past," said Halweil. "Less
nutrition per calorie consumed affects consumers in much the same way as
monetary inflation. That is, we have more food, but it's worth less in terms of
Because of the impressive and ongoing increases in per acre yields, the decline
in the nutrient content per serving of food or bushel of grain has gone largely
unnoticed by agricultural scientists, farmers, public health officials, and
policymakers. The decline in nutrients over the last few decades has unfolded
alongside significant changes in the composition of the average American diet.
Not only are consumers getting less nutrients per serving of food today, many
people are also consuming a far larger share of their daily caloric intake from
highly processed junk foods high in added fat, sugars, and salt. According to
The Organic Center's Chief Scientist Dr. Charles Benbrook, "Less nutrient-dense
foods, coupled with poor food choices, go a long way toward explaining today's
epidemics of obesity and diabetes."
Reversing Nutrient Decline
Plants bred to produce higher yields tend to devote less energy to other
factors, like sinking deep roots and generating health-promoting compounds known
as phytochemicals. Farming practices have worked hand-in-hand with plant
breeding in setting the stage for nutrient decline. Modern conventional
agriculture production practices, such as close plant spacing, heavy use of
chemical fertilizers, and reliance on pesticides, tend to produce fast-growing,
high-yielding crops, but also plants that do not absorb a comparable quantity of
many nutrients, and often have poorly developed and unhealthy root systems.
The good news is that recent research shows that existing varieties of a given
crop often vary widely in terms of their mineral and vitamin content, so it
should be possible for crop breeders to draw on the genetic diversity within
plant species to make our food more nutritious.
Moreover, backing a bit back down the yield curve through strategic changes in
farming systems should help reverse the decline in nutrient content. For
instance, although organic farming results in somewhat lower yields in many
cases, studies show that it also tends to produce crops with higher
concentrations of micronutrients, phytochemicals, and other health-promoting
Organic sources of soil nutrients, like manure or cover crops, offer more
balanced mixtures of nutrients, and tend to release nutrients more gradually. As
a result, according to Benbrook, "Plants develop more robust root systems that
more aggressively absorb nutrients from the soil, and produce crops with higher
concentrations of valuable nutrients and phytochemicals."
"This intimate relationship between soil quality, crop yields, and food
nutritional quality is farming's equivalent of no free lunch," Benbrook
continued. "This study highlights the benefits of building soil quality in
improving crop nutritional quality, whether on organic or conventional farms."
The nutritional advantage of organic food ranges from a few percent to sometimes
20 percent or more for certain minerals, and on average, about 30 percent in the
case of antioxidants. Some studies have reported even more dramatic differences
in concentrations of specific phytochemicals - for example, nearly twice as much
of two common antioxidants in organic tomatoes compared to conventional
"This advantage will vary depending on the crop, soil quality, and growing
conditions," said Halweil. "And there will be some cases where conventional
crops have higher nutritional quality than nearby organic crops, especially as
organic farmers find ways to push yields to or above the levels on conventional
Improving the nutritional quality of our crops on a per serving basis will be an
important part of addressing larger nutritional and health problems,
particularly as the baby-boom generation ages. This report and others from the
Center have stressed the benefits of food that delivers more nutrition per
According to Alan Greene, M.D., chair of the Center's Scientific and Technical
Advisory Committee, "For many of our most costly and common health problems in
the years ahead, progress in reducing the frequency and severity of disease will
depend increasingly on improving food nutritional quality and patterns of
dietary choice, rather than simply an ever-widening dependence on drug-based
therapies and surgery."
Editor's Note - The Center can provide photos and additional information, and
arrange interviews with key scientists. Contact Dr. Charles Benbrook at
541-828-7918, or via email firstname.lastname@example.org.
About The Organic Center The Organic Center is a non-profit organization
dedicated to understanding the health and environmental benefits of organic food
and farming systems. The Center's program of sponsored research strives to
better understand how organic farming can improve food safety and quality in
order to: - Document and quantify the current benefits associated with organic
food and farming systems; - Expand the scope and increase the frequency of
existing benefits; and - Create new benefits in the future.
The reports of the Center, including "Still No Free Lunch," are accessible free
of charge on our website: http:// www.organic-center.org.
For More Information Contact:
For more information on the work of The Organic Center, contact 303-499-1840.