God’s original diet given in Eden— fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains— is the best for our bodies. The Bible says the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, so it is vital to protect our physical health, as this impacts on our mental and spiritual wellbeing.
utritionists tell us we should eat at least five servings of vegetables and two servings of fresh fruit every day, and so we strive to use this as a baseline for our diet.
However, fresh produce has its hidden dangers. A study of 15,000 people in Hawaii revealed that the more fruit and juice people consumed over time, the greater their risk of Parkinson’s disease. The culprit was not the fruit, but the pesticides on them.1
Chemical agriculture emerged in the late 1800s yet it wasn’t until the 1940s that it became the dominant method of farming as technological advances during World War II led to innovations in agricultural mechanisation and pest control. The United States Government also sought to find ways to off-load surplus nitrogen from military defence projects, and to provide a future for the
established synthetic nitrogen industry, resulting in a ready supply of chemical fertiliser2. The chemical revolution of the past 65 years, however, did not solve crop problems, but created new ones—including adverse effects on soil and plant health.
Crop losses due to insects have increased by around 20 per cent since 1950 despite a 3300 per cent increase in the amount of pesticides used3. In 1995 worldwide expenditures for pesticides reached $US37.7 billion.4
Although overall, crop yields increased with the new system of farming, the nutritional integrity of the crops greatly decreased. In the 1980s it was generally accepted that chemical agriculture had resulted in resistant weeds, diseases and insects; a polluted ecosystem and a poor food chain.5 The mainstream adoption of “Integrated Pest Management” as an alternative to intensive pesticide regimes acknowledges the need to reduce chemical usage in farming.
Many consumers peel their conventionally grown fruits and vegetables to help reduce pesticide levels, but this in turn depletes the best source of antioxidants6, and a good source of vitamins and fibre found in the produce. Maximum residue levels—“safe” levels—are set by the government for individual pesticides but these don’t take into account the “cocktail effect” in which even a few pesticides when combined at recommended levels multiply the toxicity a hundredfold.7
It isn’t only the presence of chemicals on our foods that do damage, but the absence of important nutrients.
Vitamin and mineral contents of produce in general has declined markedly since the widespread adoption of chemical fertilisers and synthetic pesticides from the 1940s onwards. A selection of produce in the USA contained 32 per cent less iron in 1992 than in 1963, 29 per cent less calcium over the same period, and a selection of produce in Britain revealed an 81 per cent reduction in copper from 1936 to 1987.8
Intensive agriculture and the use of chemicals on the soil result in depletion of nutrients and trace minerals. Thirty years ago the United States Department of Agriculture reported that the highest death rate areas in the US generally corresponded to places where agriculturalists recognised that the soil was depleted.9
Clearly, conventionally grown fruit and vegetables are not as healthy as they should be, but are processed foods any better for us than the pesticide-laden fresh produce? Processing of foods removes flavour and colour and so artificial food additives are routinely used.
It is estimated the average American consumes more than two kilograms of additives each year.10 Many of these additives have been linked with allergic reactions, asthma and hyperactivity in children. Despite the health risks, children are strongly attracted to artificial flavours; during the past two decades the flavour industry’s role in food production has become so influential that many children now like artificial flavours more than the real thing. But the words “artificial strawberry flavour” don’t indicate the more than 40 different chemicals mixed to produce that taste.11
Our affluent, “instant gratification” society has conditioned us to expect an abundance of exotic foods and fruits that aren’t in season—and they must be cheap as well! Peaches should glow, apples should shine and watermelon preferably should have no seeds.
This unrealistic expectation of “bigger and better” demands that farmers move from the traditional varieties and hybridise to produce the ideal specimen for the market. Breeding favours varieties that produce high yields and have a long shelf life, sacrificing flavour and nutrition. Each year tonnes of fresh produce are disposed of which doesn’t meet the aesthetic standards of the competitive wholesale markets. Tomatoes should be rosy red, but not be soft enough to be bruised in transport—so they are picked green to withstand repeated handling along the chain from grower to customer, and artificially ripened, resulting in a fruit that hasn’t developed its natural sugars, essential for health. Phytonutrients are usually synthesised during maturation of the plant, thus “green harvesting” deprives the fruit and vegetables of these.12
Fruit and vegetables harvested before maturity and transported long distances contain little or no vitamin C by the time we receive them at the supermarket.13 This nutritional depletion is the trade-off we get if we expect to have summer fruits in winter and vice versa as these are transported across the country to meet our demands.
Conventional farmers use massive amounts of chemicals on crops to prevent disease and pest infestation, yet their own health is prone to chronic illness and disease. In 2004, a group of Canadian doctors published research that linked cancers, nervous system disorders and adverse reproductive effects on farmers and their children due to occupational exposure to agricultural chemicals.14
It is estimated that in the USA, work lost due to esticide poisoning is equivalent to $US1.76 million each year, while the annual environmental and public health costs of pesticide usage at recommended levels impacts the country by $US9 billion.15 Should we support a system that expects farmers to sacrifice their own health in order to provide for our needs?
The industrialisation of agriculture in the Western world in the early 20th century triggered the start of “organic farming”; a reaction of agricultural scientists and farmers to the detrimental system focused on quantity rather than quality. Conversely, the organic farming philosophy, reliant on natural processes beneficial to the farm as a whole ecosystem, enabled damaged soils to renew and provide better plant nutrition.
Since the 1990s, certification standards have regulated organic production. After examining 400 scientific research documents, nutritionist Shane Heaton concluded that due to better soils and natural farming methods, organically grown fruit and vegetables have higher levels of nutrients.16
The United Kingdom’s Daily Mail newspaper ran an experiment with two families who exchanged their diets for a week. One family ate mostly prepackaged and processed foods, while the second ate only organic food. The first family noticed that after a week on organic food, an eczema condition was relieved and children’s behavioural problems lessened, as well as experiencing more energy.17
A report published in 1940 describes a New Zealand boarding school that began serving almost exclusively organically grown produce. Students had excellent health, reduced colds and flu, fewer sports injuries, clear, healthy skin and improved dental health.18
Just as Adam and Eve were placed in a garden and told to have dominion over all life, so we are to be good stewards of this earth, and preserve our environment.19 The biblical admonition to take care of the land by leaving paddocks fallow every seven years (see Leviticus 25) was not just a symbolic Sabbath for the land, but the means to avoid overexploitation of the soil.
A responsible approach to our diet must consider all the inputs that contribute to our food production, which include fair payment for produce, and sustainable farming practices that benefit, not harm our planet. Large freight distances add costs to the retail price of produce, as well as being a contributor to air pollution and depletion of our world’s fuel resources. Solutions include buying from local farmers’ markets instead of demanding interstate produce, and buying organic food.
Organic certification bodies regulate sustainable farming practices, prohibit the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers and promote soil and water testing to monitor the health of the farm. Avoiding mass herbicides and pesticides can mean controlling weeds and pests by mulching and weeding, labour-intensive methods that affect the prices of organic vegetables, but as most organic farmers say, organic prices are a more realistic reflection of the cost of farming, as opposed to the “quick-fix” philosophy of mass chemical agriculture.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) organisations sponsor farmers’ commitments to holistic farming practices through a subscriber system of customers, while providing a decent income for them. Simple measures in backyard gardening can also reduce the impact of chemical use, such as companion planting, the encouragement of natural predators for pests, and composting to improve the fertility of the soil, which in turn improves the nutrition of the plants.
Ellen White, one of the founding members of the Seventh-day Adventist movement, wrote that caring for our body through proper food was of utmost importance. “It is far better to have less expensive clothing and furniture than to stint the supply of food.”20
We often spend large amounts of money on good quality vehicles, furniture or electrical appliances, yet we do not place the same priority on our diet. Quality food can cost more but this is an investment for life. For the sake of our health, we should adopt a simpler diet with fewer processed or packaged items, and focus on nutritionally complete foods, whether they be grown in our own backyards, in a community garden or from organic farms.
The issue of natural farming versus chemical agriculture is not about“greenie” politics; rather, it is about stewardship and health—the health of consumers, the health of farmers and the health of our planet.