Commentary: What Do Nutrition and Parking Garages have in Common?

Lead Author: Dr. Jeff Howe

Publish date: 01.23.2012

 

Currently there is a major disconnect between our land use policy, particularly that of agricultural land, and good nutrition. This is increasingly evident as our nation’s nutritional health declines in the face of the largest food supply on earth. It is clear that our current policies are not leading to a healthy population. The United States population ranks amongst the highest of any country in incidences of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and hyperthyroidism. A new way to look at the way we farm and eat is to consider nutrition rather than calories. This has the potential to significantly impact land use, especially the current separation of agricultural and urban land.

 

In his popular book, “Eat To Live”, nutritionist Dr. Joel Fuhrman suggests an alternative to calories as a means of evaluating the appropriateness and benefits of food products. He suggests that the correct formula should be “Health = Nutrients/Calories (H=N/C);” or “your health is predicted by your nutrient intake divided by your intake of calories.”[1] Using this approach, food products with high nutritional value per calorie rate high and should be a dominant part of the diet, and foods that rank low in nutrition per calorie should be a limited part of one’s daily intake or, in some cases, excluded altogether. Current staples such as white potatoes, white rice, processed wheat, and corn rank very low measured this way while crops such as green vegetables, fruits, and legumes rank very high.

 

Using his formula to evaluate health, Dr. Fuhrman concludes that to be healthy we need to consume 90% of our daily calories from fruits and vegetables. He suggests that a shift to a diet of this type can substantially reduce (if not eliminate) the incidence of a wide variety of illnesses that plague our country including all the ones listed above. Studies suggest that today most Americans consume less than 10% of their calories from fruits and vegetables. Part of that is due to the fact we eat too many calories in total, especially from very high caloric foods with no nutritional value (e.g. sodas), and part of this is due to the fact we don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables.

 

Whether you agree or not with all his conclusions, Dr. Fuhrman’s approach is thought provoking. There does appear to be increasing agreement among major groups (such as the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association) that the American population needs to consume significantly more fruits and vegetables than they do today and that these “healthier” foods need to replace excesses in meats, sweets, and traditional starchy staples such as corn, white potatoes, and refined wheat products. There also appears to be substantial agreement that a healthy diet and exercise can have a dramatic impact on long-term health costs.

 

Besides the nutrition and health impacts, on the other side of this discussion of food is the land use debate. Even a modest increase in the demand for fruits and vegetables in the United States could have striking implications for the environment and land use in this country. Changing our eating habits also has the potential to impact the economy, including prices for those fruits and vegetable lucky enough to become popular and the income of farmers smart enough to be growing those crops. What Dr. Fuhrman suggests is a dramatic increase (from 10% to as much as 90%) – and the consequences of such an increase could be staggering. Although it is impossible to accurately predict what a shift of consumption of this degree would imply for land use, it is interesting to look at the possibilities.

 

Today a vast majority of our food infrastructure (land, equipment, distribution) is dedicated to very few crops. According to the USDA,[2] the U.S. has about 310 million acres of harvested cropland in any given year (plus or minus 10 million acres). According to the U.S. EPA,[3] there are seven major crops that make up about 90% of that acreage: corn, soybeans, hay, wheat, cotton, sorghum, and rice.

 

Yet, when you look at the relative value of crops as measured by gross sales per county, the top five counties in the U.S. for crop sales are Fresno, Tulare, Kern, Merced, and Monterey…all in California.[4] Interestingly, of these counties only Tulare produces any of the “big seven” (cotton) amongst its top five selling crops. Together the top five crops from these five counties made up more than $12 billion in sales in 2009, of which fruits, nuts, and vegetables made up about $7.2 billion. A single county, Monterey County (which calls itself the vegetable capital of the world), produces about 60% of the U.S. lettuce crop. So not only are fruits, nuts, and vegetables apparently generating a higher value per acre, but intensive crop management (in terms of quantity and value) for these food products would seem possible.

 

So what are the land use implications of changing the U.S. diet to include dramatically more fruits and vegetables? It is unclear at this point. Is it conceivable that it would free up vast acreages? No, there are still billions of starving people for whom the staples are truly essentials. But, in the U.S. it is possible new regions (other than California) with sunshine, access to water, and the ability to recycle nutrients would have a competitive advantage, with vegetable crops in particular. It is also possible that many urban areas could be logical locations for high-intensity vegetable- and/or fruit-growing programs if paired with water and nutrient management systems.

 

Dr. Fuhrman’s research suggests that good nutrition and the modification of the average American diet to include significantly more fruits and vegetables can have a major impact on the health of individuals…and perhaps even virtually eliminate certain major causes of death in this country. It is worthwhile to consider whether or not this could positively affect land use and food distribution as well. Perhaps in the future there will be parking garage-like structures with floors of intensively managed crops in every major city - and fruits, nuts, vegetables and legumes will be a majority of every American’s diet. Maybe you’ll be able to check to see what is ripe on your way into work or pick up a bag of groceries as you head home. Where there is light, water, and nutrients, we can have food. Where will that be in the future? And where will you park your car then?

 

Dr. Jeff Howe

January 2012

 

[1] Fuhrman, Joel, M.D. 2011. Eat To Live. Little, Brown and Company, NY.

[2] Source: http://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/41964/30086_landuse.pdf?v=41143

[3] Source: http://www.epa.gov/agriculture/ag101/cropmajor.html

[4] Source: See California (http://www.seecalifornia.com/farms/county-monterey-annual-crops.html)