One of your 10-a-day: the root of our veg problem

New research suggests that we should be upping our veg intake from 5 to 10 portions a day. But is it all about quantity, or should we be looking closer at the quality of our veg?

In the news recently, it has been announced that rather than the recommended daily fruit and veg intake of 5 a day (which had been advocated in the UK since 2012 by the UK Department of Health) we actually should be aiming for a daily intake of 10 portions of fruit and veg. It was in fact a piece of research conducted by the University College of London back in 2014 which originally suggested that 5 a day was not enough and that a healthy diet should consist of 10 portions (or 800g) of fruit and veg a day.

According to the studies, the benefits of such a diet include reducing the risk of things such as heart disease, strokes and cancer, and it could even prevent up to 7.8 million premature deaths worldwide every year. This is because vegetables are rich in micronutrients such as calcium, iron, phosphorus, protein, riboflavin and vitamin C, which all help to maintain bodily processes.

However, whilst I am happy to support any initiative that seeks to make people healthier and more educated about the food they eat, I can’t help but feel that this is tackling the problem at the wrong end of the supply chain.

The way our food is produced, as many people know, has ramifications for the environment, for communities, for farmers and animals. However, perhaps what is often overlooked is the impacts of modern agricultural techniques on the produce itself.

Varieties have been chosen and cultivated for their yield, not their nutritional content. Resource intensive practices designed to increase the speed at which crops are grown and how big they grow have meant a compromise in their nutritional quality. Pesticides and fertilisers are injected into the process to make up for the fact that farming (along with other human activity) is increasingly destroying the environmental services that would have performed the roles of pesticides and fertilisers originally.

Food miles can also be seen to be playing a part in this nutrition drop, as we are increasingly eating food from further away and produce is spending more time being transported and stored. In attempt to deliver the produce to the consumer before the food spoils, crops are harvested prematurely which means that they have not had chance to develop their nutritional levels to their full potential.

However, perhaps what is most fundamental in this change has been the change in the quality of our soils. Plant health, like human health, depends on the availability and consumption of certain nutrients. Modern farming has meant that soils have become increasingly stripped of their nutritional content. This has a multitude of consequences, one of which being the transfer of nutrients into plants. For many decades, it was believed that plants only needed three minerals to grow-nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. This was convenient, as it meant that farming methods could be made more efficient and therefore cheaper. However, the research failed to consider what minerals were needed for humans to grow.

Research shows that because of soil depletion, crops grown decades ago were much richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us get today. And if the nutrition is not in the soil, then it isn’t going to be in the food grown from it either, resulting in less nutritious fruits, vegetables and grains.

Consequently, each successive generation of crops is nutritionally inferior than the last. In Britain, a study of nutrient data from 1930 to 1980 published by the British Food Journal found that across 20 vegetables that had been tested, calcium content had declined by 19%, iron by 22%, and potassium had declined by 14%. Another study concluded that one would have to eat eight oranges today to derive the same amount of Vitamin A as our grandparents would have gotten from one.

Therefore, simply asking people to consume more fruit and veg is like bailing out a boat with a holey bucket. The root of our food problem goes back way beyond our own consumption levels, and we cannot address this problem without radically changing our modes of production.

Although some may argue that declines in nutritional value have been cancelled out by the fact that there is more fruit and veg available today than there has been in the past, this does not justify ignoring the problem. In a world where food security is a growing issue, effort must be made to ensure that crops are delivering the best nutrition possible using as environmentally-sound techniques as possible.

Therefore, it is not only about the quantity of food which we produce, but the quality and diversity of that food. Traditionally, nutrition has been the work of health professionals. However, in order to tackle the nutrition problem we face today, a more holistic approach is necessary. Agricultural activities need to be considered in future nutrition strategies if we really want to create change, and soil must be re-positioned as a key ingredient in future nutritional diets.

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