Agribusiness and “Original Sin”

 

What was the “original sin” of agribusiness?  The short answer: promoting settled agriculture as an (almost) universal cultural trait of our species.  Perhaps surprisingly, there have been some adverse consequences of this monumental cultural change.

 

In contemplating dietary vitamin supplements I had a rule of thumb, or perhaps an attitude, that if we could have benefited from more of a particular vitamin than was supplied from available dietary sources, evolution would have devised some strategy to avoid destroying it or refrain from excreting it so promptly.  This attitude didn’t help in explaining how 0.4 mg of folic acid given daily to pregnant women prevents 50% of neural tube defects (a common type of congenital malformation) in their babies.  This amount of folic acid happens to be the amount of folic acid in the extra nuts, roots and vegetables consumed by our paleolithic ancestors instead of the cereal now a major fraction of all civilized human diets (1).  Some other problematic effects of cereal consumption follow.

Milling of cereals is needed to get their food value even with subsequent cooking.  White flour was not devised to make angel food cake and donuts. The original motive was to improve the shelf life of wheat flour---successful incidentally (or inevitably) in making it less nutritious to varmints and everybody else.  The removed wheat germ contains much of the protein and thiamine (vitamin B1) originally present in wheat.  Our thiamine requirement is proportional to the carbohydrate content of our diet; so it was especially appropriate to enrich white flour with thiamine a generation or so ago.  Wheat protein is a good source of tryptophan, an essential amino acid that, in the presence of niacin deficiency, can be converted in our bodies to niacin (vitamin B3).  Corn happens to be low in both niacin and tryptophan explaining why southern US diets high in hominy (which is derived from corn) were associated with pellagra, the disease caused by niacin deficiency.

We taught medicine in Afghanistan from 1968-70 and noticed that pellagra was prevalent not in people of the lowest socioeconomic stratum who ate chickpeas, the cheapest staple food on the market, but in the next to the lowest stratum of society.  These people could afford corn, but frequently refused to eat chickpeas because it was beneath them.  Chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, have much more protein and niacin than corn.  It took much educational effort to get these pellagra patients to eat lower on the food chain.  The upper classes ate rice, lamb, and vegetables and had excellent nutrition.  It is good public policy to fortify staple foods with vitamins likely to be deficient in many citizens’ customary diets as chosen.  We have long done this in our country with thiamin in flour and vitamin D in milk.  Folic acid enrichment has come along much more recently.  Also by diversifying our food choices, as our paleolithic ancestors did, we can regain the health we have forfeited.  This works because a larger group of regularly eaten foods is less likely to be deficient in any particular nutrient especially if few of them are manufactured foods.  Eating some chickpeas in addition to corn illustrates the point. 

Manufactured trans-fatty acids are another sin of agribusiness.  They are created in manufacturing margarine and other solid vegetable shortenings by partially hydrogenating (adding hydrogen catalytically) vegetable oil.  (The catalyst and heat activates all the carbon to carbon double bonds—those not hydrogenated switch from the cis- isomer to the more thermodynamically stable trans isomer).  Totally saturating some of the vegetable fat with hydrogen and adding it to some of the unmodified oil can solidify the fat without the harm of trans-fatty acids.  New York City is now prohibiting manufactured trans-fats in restaurant food.  The city probably would have done it to foods sold in grocery stores but lacked the authority.  For obvious reasons New York City restaurants are permitted to serve the small amounts of natural trans-fats in the meat and milk of ruminant animals; their rumen bacteria create the trans-fats.  Ruminant animals chew cuds and include cattle, sheep, and goats.

 

Of course agriculturalists received no specific instruction “not to eat from a particular apple tree” as did Eve, but the metaphor does accurately predict that the “original sin” of agribusiness will haunt mankind more or less indefinitely.  No preternatural atonement is at all likely to intervene, so we will have to depend on numerous individual and collective epiphanies to induce more consumption of vegetables locally grown and prepared from scratch when at all convenient.  Already a trend toward more small gardens among householders is encouraging.  This could even result in community gardens on the green roofs of high-rise condominiums.  Even soft drinks have a place when consumed by the designated drivers at parties.  (Personally, I find that tonic water without the gin or vodka tastes more like a party when I drink it only on such occasions---otherwise I use almost no carbonated beverages.) 

Agribusiness is beginning to do some secular penance for their “original sin.”  They will do more with an educated public to watch them.  The legislators who prescribe the penance also need watching.  Taxation of sugared beverages, gentle at first, to reduce consumption is under consideration. Sugar free pop has its own problems and should also be taxed.  For details of these problems see “How Did You Get Your Sweet Tooth?” on www.frantzmd.info.  

 

More secular penance: research in replacing annual crops with equivalent perennials is under way---now we grow 80% annual crops like corn and soy beans and only 20% perennials like alfalfa.  We can reverse the percentage, but it will take a few decades.  Perennial rice has already been developed.  Further success will save much soil erosion, fossil fuel (for the extra soil preparation), and fertilizer because annuals aren’t continuously there to utilize it efficiently as already mentioned.  Getting the surplus fertilizer out of our water supplies and reducing energy use in its manufacture are even more important than the money saved.   See  www.greenlandsbluewaters.org       

 

Meanwhile agribusiness has salvaged some good nutrition from sources formerly wasted.  For example, whey a generation ago was fed to pigs or even spread on fields as fertilizer in spite of the fact that it contains the best protein in milk.  The protein is called lactalbumen and has all the essential amino acids in the most nutritious proportions equal to egg protein and 20% better than red meat.  Now much of it is dried and used in manufactured foods.  Formerly whey was lost for human consumption except for the small amount used for making ricotta cheese.  So, the salvation for agribusiness is to be led in many similar “paths of righteousness.”

 

John A. Frantz, MD,  May 16, 2009, revised April 12, 2010

 

Reference (1) Daly LE et al. 1995. Folate levels and neural tube defects. Implications for prevention. JAMA 274:1698-1702