You probably have a good idea of what nutritious food is: vegetables, whole grains, lean/ plant based proteins, and moderation. You may also be aware of how farming practices (such as pesticide sprays and GMO crops) can impact the quality of your food. But what you may not know, because it rarely makes news, is that before a seed even hits the soil, before a farmer has the chance to spray it with chemicals or not, the maximum level of nutrition that a seed can produce is already written into its genetics.
Each vegetable, fruit, or grain variety we eat comes from a long line of breeding work. In the case of GMO commodity crops, that work is done in a high-tech lab. Almost everything else is the product of one of two types of traditional plant breeding: hybridization or open pollination. Both of these breeding techniques are used in conventional and organic farming, each with its distinct set of costs and benefits.
All types of plant breeding have the same goal: to improve the plant. Plant genetics are rich with possibility and the breeder’s job is to make choices, all of which are informed by the outcomes that the breeder (or his/her employer) deems important. The story of agriculture and the story of our modern food supply are written by those choices - and they have not always taken our species’ best interests into account.
Plant Breeding in the Modern Era
At the turn of the 19th Century, the seed industry was comprised of numerous small companies competing against one another to impress home gardeners and family farmers. In the last sixty years, that industry has shifted towards a handful of mega-corporations designing and monopolizing the conventional agriculture system – one that puts its own needs before those of its end user. Modern, industrialized agriculture favors varieties that are the right size for the machines that harvest them or that hold up best in global shipping networks over those that taste delicious or that do a particularly good job of delivering life-enhancing nutrition. In fact, most plant breeding programs are so unconcerned with flavor or nutrition that the researchers don’t even taste their test subjects until the project’s final stages.
"Flavorless fruits and veggies inspire few people to eat them—and even when they do, those eaters are rewarded with fewer nutrients per bite."
By prioritizing production over things like flavor and nutritional quality, conventional agriculture succeeds at the detriment of eaters. While there are many reasons such a system does not serve human or environmental health, perhaps the most basic among them is this: flavorless fruits and veggies inspire few people to eat them—and even when they do, those eaters are rewarded with fewer nutrients per bite.
Breeding the Nutrition out of Food
When it comes to plant breeding, you can’t have it all. Since plant characteristics are comprised of dominant and recessive genes, singling out one trait or set of traits means suppressing others. Rather than an attempt at perfection, plant breeding is an exercise in compromise, and success depends largely on limiting your desired outcomes.
In the world of industrial agriculture, bigger is almost always prioritized as better: bigger yields per acre are better than smaller ones, bigger apples bring in more profit per apple plucked, getting more from the same (or less!) work means growth and growth is good. But in this quest for increase we’ve shortchanged ourselves. A growing body of evidence suggests that bigger yields come at the cost of nutritional quality, that larger apples mean we have to eat more calories to get the same amount of nutrients, and that the chemicals and machinery that allow fewer farmers to do more work are depleting our soils. It’s not that someone made a point of breeding nutrition out of food, it just so happens that the choices that benefited industrial agriculture were particularly detrimental to nutritional quality.
Investigative journalist, Jo Robinson, points out in her book Eating on the Wild Side that farming itself is, in many ways, the enemy of nutrient density in plant foods. Robinson outlines how agriculture has altered plant physiology in significant ways over the millennia, favoring attributes that please or convenience us above those that keep us healthy. Robinson doesn’t mean to suggest that spinach salad is a pointless endeavor; any vegetable eaten is better than a vegetable not eaten. Yet her compilation of research does illuminate the unsettling fact that spinach today is less healthy than spinach was a thousand years ago, and, even more significantly, that one variety of today’s spinach (or apples, or lettuce, etc.) can be much healthier than another.
Her work is useful because it expands our understanding of what we stand to gain or lose through plant breeding, namely the powerful (and often powerfully flavored) phytonutrients that wild plants produce in abundance. Take corn, the ancestor of which grew wild in what is now Central America. Ancient farmers began transforming the small, wispy heads of wild maize into the starchy staple whole societies depended on. Modern breeders have transformed it still from a vitamin- and protein-rich sustenance food to a “vegetable” so sweet and void of nutrients (some varieties are nearly 40% sugar) that it’s functionally dessert.
How Organic Farming Boosts Plant Nutrition
As organic products increase in popularity, there is a higher demand for organic seeds. Unlike conventional breeding, organic breeding tends to value traits of flavor and nutrition as highly as those that benefit production because consumers of organic products value (and, importantly, will pay more for) flavor and nutrition.
Organic farming systems help those seeds bred for higher nutrition to reach their potential by building healthy soils and keeping nitrogen inputs on the lower side (high nitrogen is adverse to nutrient quality). Curiously, the higher instances of damage to crops from insects and diseases that occur in organic systems also seem to increase nutrient quality. Many of the substances a plant makes in response to the stress of insect bites or disease happen to be particularly powerful phytonutrients.
Organic yields tend to be smaller than those from conventional farm systems, but they come at less long-term costs in the form of human and environmental well-being. And, more often than not, they contain the same – or greater – nutrient levels, each bite delivering that much more healthy goodness.