“Do you know that most of us today are suffering from certain dangerous diet deficiencies which cannot be remedied until the depleted soils from which our foods come are brought into proper mineral balance?”
These words were spoken by Rex Breach, a gentleman farmer from the state of Florida, in his 1936 address to the US Senate. Mr. Breach was there to present the findings of Dr. Charles Northen, a pioneer in micronutrients and soil health.
“The alarming fact is that foods – fruits and vegetables and grains – now being raised on millions of acres of land that no longer contains enough of certain needed minerals, are starving us – no matter how much of them we eat!”
Dr. Northen began his career as a medical doctor in the American south at the turn of the 19th century and was one of the first to explore the relationship between mineral nutrients (i.e. micronutrients like iron, copper, zinc, etc,.) in food and human health. He was also one of the first to notice that extensively farmed land produced fruits and vegetables that were deficient in the same minerals absent in the soil.
“You’d think, wouldn’t you, that a carrot is a carrot – that one is about as good as another as far as nourishment is concerned? But it isn’t; one carrot may look and taste like another and yet be lacking in the particular mineral element which our system requires and which carrots are supposed to contain.”
Over years of experimentation, dozens of crops grown in a variety of soils all across the US, Dr. Northen was able to develop methods to reintroduce these vital micronutrients back into the soil.
“Bear in mind,” says Dr. Northen, “that minerals are vital to human metabolism and health – and that no plant or animal can appropriate to itself any mineral which is not present in the soil upon which it feeds.”
While this may seem like common knowledge in today’s day and age, in the 1920s this revelation had a huge impact on human health. At the time, Mr. Breach claimed that as much as 99% of the U.S. population was deficient in at least one vital mineral which manifests in a number of health problems.
Rickets, bone deformations, and bad teeth were associated with a lack of calcium. Anemia, which is caused by an iron deficiency, was a common ailment particularly among women. Insufficient levels of iodine found in the soils of the great lakes region caused widespread thyroid problems which led to the region being dubbed the goiter belt. And even some behavioral problems were blamed on a lack of magnesia.
As medical science progressed and the effects of these mineral deficiencies were slowly being discovered, doctors of the time found them difficult to treat. Technology of the early 20th century was limited, and attempts to create mineral pills or supplements were met with marginal success. This was largely because the inorganic minerals used in supplements could not easily be absorbed in the human body.
The solution, according to Dr. Northen, was simple; put the minerals in the soil. Let the plants absorb the minerals, process them and store them in an organic form that can easily be absorbed into the human body.
“Nature can and will solve it if she is encouraged to do so. The minerals in fruits and vegetables are colloidal; i.e., they are in a state of such extremely fine suspension that they can be assimilated by the human system: it is merely a question of giving back to nature the materials with which she works.”
Nearly a century after Dr. Northen’s work was first presented to the US senate, micronutrient deficiencies in many soils are producing fruits and vegetables with less essential minerals than in years past. This is highlighted by a study published in the British Food Journal that compared mineral nutrient levels in 40 different fruits and vegetables between 1930 and 1980 and found that of the seven minerals tested, six of them had been reduced in quantity (see appendix 1 at the bottom of the article for details).
While medical science has advanced a thousand fold since the 1930, and all essential minerals are available as pills or powers, there are still large populations around the world who suffer from basic mineral deficiencies which can be overcome by reintroducing these micronutrients through specialty fertilizers.
Of particular note are zinc deficiencies which are all too common in many developing nations and may affect as many as 2 billion people around the world. Rural areas where farmers subsist mostly on a diet of wheat, corn or rice – crops with low natural concentrations of zinc – are particularly susceptible.
Zinc deficiencies are associated with a litany of health problems, ranging from hair and skin disorders to stunted growth in children, compromised immune systems and impaired cognitive functionality.
However, over the last decade several organizations have take a page straight of of Dr. Northen’s playbook, including the HarvestZinc project (www.harvestzinc.org), which have been developing micronutrient fertilizer mixes for these regions which are designed to increase the levels of zinc in these staple crops through a process called biofortification. The project has achieved a good deal of success in fighting zinc deficiency by producing zinc-enriched grains.
Of course these micronutrient laced fertilizers have an added bonus; these crops also receive a significant yield boost from the fertilizer mix. This boon was known to Dr. Northen back in the 1930s who stated, “…crops grown in a properly mineralized soil were bigger and better; that seeds germinated quicker, grew more rapidly and made larger plants; that trees were healthier and put on more fruit of better quality.”
Ultimately, Dr. Northen’s groundbreaking research has never been more relevant. As consumers are becoming more and more conscientious about the relationship between high quality food and good health, Dr. Northen’s words are just as true today as they were in the 1930s, “Sick soils mean sick plants, sick animals and sick people” he states. “It is simpler to cure sick soils than sick people – which shall we choose?”
Mayer, Anne-Marie. (1997). Historical changes in the mineral content of fruits and vegetables. British Food Journal. 99. 207-211. 10.1108/00070709710181540.
Rex Beach, “Modern Miracle Men”, Document No. 264 in Senate Documents, 74th Congress, 2d Session, vol 18-48, United States Government Printing Office, Washington, 1936, p. 1-9.