Communal Beat

The Limited Theory of Nutrition By Barbara Odegard

The Limited Theory of Nutrition

Barbara Odegard

One of the pleasures of my work life is that it allows me time to ponder on issues that concern me and the world I live in. I have always been curious and wondered if there is any one thing that can pinpoint where a certain thing began.

Sustainability has become a main topic of concern. Not just locally but globally as well. How do we feed the world’s people and why haven’t we accomplished it yet? I always find it helpful to understand the history of something as I contemplate possibilities.

At the turn of the 20th century the world was on the brink of rapid changes and discoveries in science and statistics. They were being readily embraced as the new realisms. These are based on numerical facts and order, something governments embraced as tools to manage and create policy to govern nations.

Food was subjective up until the time that.  Atwater, a scientist, discovered a technique to quantify food. The calorie as a numerical expression of food changed everything. The calorie is the measure of energy contained in food, an amount sufficient to raise the temperature of a kilogram of water by one degree. We now knew how much food was needed to adequately fuel a human. Atwater declared the calorie would determine the “food supply of the future”.

Categorized lists ranked grain, meat and dairy goods as important national resources, while fruits, leafy vegetables and fish registered such slight nutritional value that they could scarcely be classified as food. Tea, coffee and spices on which whole material systems had once depended, had no value at all. The central component in every diet was nitrogen, the element that lent energy value to meat, milk and wheat. This limited theory of nutrition superseded whole systems of colonized knowledge of useful plants, spices and native diets from around the world. Westerners could be reassured that their nitrogen rich diets were the finest of any country in the world.

In 1943 the FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organization) was formed. Its mission was to balance mass production against the “mass buying power” of the world’s farmers. Famine was defined as a “caloric deficit” rather than a localized event. Famines became emergencies that were responded to with mandated policies. “Food Aid” became surpluses shipped from donor countries. Wheat, corn and soy are the principal caloric commodities and continue to justify crop subsidies in wealthy nations.

None of this explains how we intend to feed the world’s people but it does shed some light on how we got here and that it isn’t working.

By assigning numerical and scientific management to all we do, we have essentially wiped out generations of subjective knowledge and ability to look after and feed ourselves well. We are now seeing the consequences of what happens when a generation or two of people is uprooted from their historical ways of living and knowing a place. When people are no longer able to make a living off the land they leave the land or succumb to inadequate diets and nutrition. This is no longer just a problem of third world countries but of our own as well. There are now more health issues related to too much poor quality food than not enough.

Nutrient deficiency has become one of the greatest health concerns of our time. How do we get better nutrition without needing to be a scientist? The simplest answer I can give is that it ALL starts with the soil. Talk to your local, organic farmers.  They are better educated than ever before to understand that NOTHING is more important to our health and the planet’s health than the soil our crops are grown in.

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