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Gardening For Life: Why heirloom vegetables are important for proper nutrition

In my research on heirloom vegetables I kept running into information on nutrition. Eventually, I researched the subject and put together a small file. I started adding nutritional information in my presentations on heirloom vegetables. I have heard it said that the best way to ensure you are getting all the vitamins and minerals you need is to garden, garden, garden.

While the number one reason given for growing your own vegetables is probably for the taste of the fresh produce, nutrition should, in reality, be the biggest reason for backyard gardening. Nearly 2,500 years ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates made the statement “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Unfortunately, in our quest to produce more bushels per acre we are breeding nutrition out of much of the food we grow commercially.

The reasons for this diminishing nutritional content of our food can be primarily attributed to two factors, one of which is environmental dilution. A 1981 review in “Advances in Agronomy” discussed the widely cited “dilution effect,” in which methods of increasing yield through advances in such things as irrigation and fertilization may actually decrease nutrient concentration.

Another primary reason why we are losing nutrients in commercial farming is called genetic dilution. Billions of dollars are spent in research every year to increase our commercial food supply. But this is all about the yield, not about nutrition. Consequently, while we are indeed increasing our production of food crops in the U.S., we are serving up food that has less nutrition. The vitamins and minerals contained in the food we grow commercially has not kept up with the increased yield.

I have often stated that while I have many questions, I do not necessarily have many answers. Some of our desire to produce more and more crops with commercial farming methods comes from a desire to provide more food for a hungry world. Of course, closely tied in to this idea is the ever present profit motive. While it is necessary to have some profit in whatever we undertake — to at least provide for the status quo — for too many people the almighty dollar becomes the end all, be all.

Do I not want to have a fairly low cost and plentiful food supply for this country or for the world? Of course I do. I want everyone to have access to an abundant food supply. But this abundance comes with a cost. I don’t think we realize what that cost may be. Diet and health are closely related, and the average American diet today is something we all should be concerned about. With increasing problems with obesity and diabetes, we should all be concerned about how our modern diets may be contributing to these problems.

This brings us back to the home garden. Common sense dictates that a small plot of land might be better managed in regards to pest control, fertilization, watering, etc., than a 200-acre field, but more important is what you can do in your garden in regards to promoting a healthy soil that might increase the nutrients in your harvest. Through the addition of different types of mulch, cover crops and careful crop rotation, the health of your soil can be maintained and even improved indefinitely.

Of course, you need to make sure you plant seeds that are known to have healthy mineral and nutritional genetics. That is a good reason to plant heirloom varieties, since many heirlooms have far more food value than a many of the more recent hybridized varieties.

This blog is not intended to ruffle any feathers from the commercial farming community. I come from a long line of farmers (as many of us do) and I have friends and relatives who make a living farming. I am not proposing they start pulling weeds out by hand or start walking around their fields looking for bugs. Much of our problem comes from over population in the world. But that cat has already been let out of the bag and there no going back. Actually, the future could have different ideas on that, too.

I suppose the gist of this is not just about the diminishing nutritional value in much of the grocery store food we buy, but also that so often we do not think for ourselves; we all need to do a little more research in areas that are of great importance to us. We should not just accept what is popular, easy or cheap.

I do not have an answer to many of the problems we face in this world. But I do know of a way we might at least diminish an increasingly unhealthy diet. If we can go back to having more appreciation for the nourishment we take into our bodies, if we can become more aware of how important our daily sustenance is to our physical health as well as our mental health, we might even realize a more abundant life. And isn’t that something we all seek?

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