Organic Consumers Association

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What Happened to the Essential Nutrients in Our Food?

For related articles and information, please visit OCA's Health Issues page and our Organic Transitions page.

What carbon sequestration efforts in a Kansas corn field can teach us about getting essential nutrients back into our food.

Photo by Ben Collins. Wikimedia Commons

Scientists maintain that a mere two-percent increase in the carbon content of the planet's soils could offset a large amount of greenhouse-gas emissions going into the atmosphere. In his book, Grass, Soil, Hope (Chelsea Green, 2014), author Courtney White walks readers through a series of low-tech carbon sequestration efforts already in use to help limit these emissions. In the following excerpt, learn about one such effort-no-till farming. This practice can increase the amount of carbon in the soil and therefore stimulate the production of essential nutrients in our food we need to thrive.

Buy this book from Chelsea Green:
Grass, Soil, Hope.

Essential Nutrients

Cover Crop Workshop, Emporia, Kansas

It must have looked silly. Twelve of us were hunched over in a corn field under a blazing July sun, a few miles north of Emporia, Kansas, swishing butterfly nets among the corn stalks like deranged collectors chasing a rare breed of insect-deranged because it was a record-breaking 105 degrees! The federal government announced two days before I arrived that the Midwest was in the grip of the worst drought since 1956. Legions of farmers had begun plowing under or chopping up their stunted corn and soybean crops, already writing off the year as a complete failure. There we were, however, swishing our nets back and forth fifty times in a good-looking corn field owned and farmed by Gail Fuller, with nothing between us and the blazing sun except our determination to follow instructions and find spiders.

We found lots of spiders.

Back under the shade of a large oak tree, we handed our nets to our instructor, an affable entomologist with the US Department of Agriculture, who searched through them enthusiastically, pulling out spider after spider with his bare fingers (most spiders are poisonous, he told us, but very few can pierce human skin). Peering over his shoulder, I was amazed not only by the quantity of spiders in my net but by their diversity. I never knew so many odd-looking spiders existed! And who would have expected it from a corn field, in a record drought, during midday heat ... which was exactly the point of the exercise, of course.

In a conventionally managed, monocropped Midwestern corn field, planted with genetically modified (GM) seeds, fertilized with industrially produced nitrogen, and sprayed with synthetic chemicals, there would be no spiders, the entomologist told us- drought or no drought. There wouldn't be much of anything living, in fact, except the destructive pests that could withstand the chemicals. The corn field we had just swept, however, was different, and I knew why. Fuller's field was no-tilled, it had a cover crop (and moisture in the soil as a result), it didn't use GM seeds, its corn coexisted with a diversity of other plants, and livestock were used to clean up after the harvest-all the things I had learned in my travels so far. All in one field, all under a broiling sun.

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