New Green Revolution: Adding Micronutrients

February 18, 1997

SEATTLE -- U.S. agriculture, which helped start the Green Revolution 30 years ago, should start another revolution that links food-based crops to worldwide health and nutrition, Cornell University experts said today (Feb. 18).

Noting that many Americans' diets lack adequate amounts of essential micronutrients and may be contributing to illness on a large scale, the Cornell scientists are leading an effort to develop agricultural systems that explicitly improve human health and to develop policies that favor such an approach.

"Today, in the United States, we have the safest, most abundant and nutritious diet in the world," said Ross Welch, Cornell professor of soils, crops and atmospheric sciences and a scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research service. "But it's not good enough. If everyone started today to eat more cereals, more fruits, more vegetables -- as recommended -- our U.S. agricultural system currently may not be able to meet the demand. So we need to find a way to make the foods we eat -- much of it empty calories -- more nutritious and healthy. That's a sustainable 'food systems' approach."

If agricultural research pays off, staving off certain illnesses -- like heart disease and cancer -- may be less than a generation away. For example, agricultural researchers are delving into breeding human disease-preventing crops as part of a total "food systems" approach to link agriculture to health and nutrition, the Cornell scientists said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Welch and his colleagues, John M. Duxbury, Cornell professor and chair of soils, crops and atmospheric sciences, and Gerald F. Combs Jr., Cornell professor of nutritional sciences, organized and will speak in a symposium, "Creating Healthful Food Systems: Linking Agriculture to Human Needs," beginning at 8:30 a.m. Feb. 18. They called on their colleagues in agricultural science and food policy to adopt this approach, which would change agricultural systems in ways that enrich the availability of micronutrients that now are sorely lacking.

One essential micronutrient is iron. Twenty percent of women of child-bearing age are iron deficient in the United States, while 25 to 30 percent of African-American women suffer from iron deficiency, Welch said. Most men have an over-abundance of iron due to a diet heavy with red meat.

This type of iron (hemoglobin and myoglobin iron) may be a factor in accelerating heart disease and some cancers. A food systems approach may be an answer to the reduction of such health problems, Welch said.

About 20 percent of American heart disease could be avoided with dietary changes -- a disease costing $56.6 billion annually, according to the Economic Research Service (ERS) of the USDA. The American Cancer Society estimates health costs of $104 billion in this country to treat cancer, but the ERS says that could be reduced by 35 percent by "practicable dietary means." Almost $20 billion is spent on stroke, but the American Heart Association estimates that 20 percent of stroke deaths can be avoided with dietary changes.

In a food systems approach, iron nutriture could be balanced among men and women. Plant breeders could begin examining ways to increase non-heme iron into staple crops such as rice, wheat, maize and cassava. The payoff, Welch explained, would be a healthier American diet and healthier diets for people in developing countries as well.

Worldwide, the problem of iron deficiency gets worse. The World Health Organization estimates that 2 billion people -- one-third the global population -- are iron deficient. Iron deficiency can lead to impaired body temperature regulation, detrimental behavioral changes and faulty psychomotor development.

A food systems approach also could help alleviate malnutrition. After the Green Revolution in the late 1960s, longitudinal research compared the dietary energy supply to the amount of iron density in the diets of south Asian cultures. Between 1970 and 1989, the number of average calories consumed each day increased almost 200 calories, but the iron-to-calorie ratio fell from 6:2 in 1970 to 5:7.5 in 1988.

Other nutrients are important as well. Osteoporosis, caused by a calcium deficiency, costs the American health-care system about $11 billion annually, Welch said. Zinc deficiencies have been linked to stunted growth; vitamin A deficiency causes eye problems; and selenium deficiency has been linked to juvenile cardiomyopathy (Keshan disease), and chondrodystrophy (Keshan-Beck disease), and it may impair thyroid hormone metabolism and help prevent certain types of cancer.

Welch and his Cornell colleagues argue that the American diet -- lacking in key micronutrients like iron and zinc -- needs a food systems approach which clearly links to agricultural production to human health issues.

That means a wholesale revision of the way Americans think about their normal diet, Welch said. The researchers believe that with education and a move toward dietary reform, Americans could fill their micronutrient needs with the help of agriculture.

The Cornell scientists called upon their colleagues to adopt this approach, coupled with an education and information campaign to promote it. They called for the U.S. government to develop policies that influence consumers' choices -- which urge consumers to buy micronutrient-rich food and help farmers to meet that demand.

"Instead of medicine trying to solve all of our health problems, perhaps it's time to let agriculture examine how it can help," Welch said.

EDITORS: Ross Welch can be reached at the AAAS meeting Feb. 16-18 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, (206) 464-1980. After Feb. 23, he can be reached at (607) 255-5434. Larry Bernard of the Cornell News Service can be reached in the AAAS newsroom or at the Sheraton Seattle, (206) 621-9000, Feb. 13-18, or at (607) 255-3651 after Feb. 18.
-end-


Cornell University

Related Heart Disease Articles from Brightsurf:

Cellular pathway of genetic heart disease similar to neurodegenerative disease
Research on a genetic heart disease has uncovered a new and unexpected mechanism for heart failure.

Mechanism linking gum disease to heart disease, other inflammatory conditions discovered
The link between periodontal (gum) disease and other inflammatory conditions such as heart disease and diabetes has long been established, but the mechanism behind that association has, until now, remained a mystery.

New 'atlas' of human heart cells first step toward precision treatments for heart disease
Scientists have for the first time documented all of the different cell types and genes expressed in the healthy human heart, in research published in the journal Nature.

With a heavy heart: How men and women develop heart disease differently
A new study by researchers from McGill University has uncovered that minerals causing aortic heart valve blockage in men and women are different, a discovery that could change how heart disease is diagnosed and treated.

Heart-healthy diets are naturally low in dietary cholesterol and can help to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke
Eating a heart-healthy dietary pattern rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, legumes, vegetable oils and nuts, which is also limits salt, red and processed meats, refined-carbohydrates and added sugars, is relatively low in dietary cholesterol and supports healthy levels of artery-clogging LDL cholesterol.

Pacemakers can improve heart function in patients with chemotherapy-induced heart disease
Research has shown that treating chemotherapy-induced cardiomyopathy with commercially available cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT) delivered through a surgically implanted defibrillator or pacemaker can significantly improve patient outcomes.

Arsenic in drinking water may change heart structure raising risk of heart disease
Drinking water that is contaminated with arsenic may lead to thickening of the heart's main pumping chamber in young adults, according to a new study by researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

New health calculator can help predict heart disease risk, estimate heart age
A new online health calculator can help people determine their risk of heart disease, as well as their heart age, accounting for sociodemographic factors such as ethnicity, sense of belonging and education, as well as health status and lifestyle behaviors.

Wide variation in rate of death between VA hospitals for patients with heart disease, heart failure
Death rates for veterans with ischemic heart disease and chronic heart failure varied widely across the Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system from 2010 to 2014, which could suggest differences in the quality of cardiovascular health care provided by VA medical centers.

Heart failure: The Alzheimer's disease of the heart?
Similar to how protein clumps build up in the brain in people with some neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, protein clumps appear to accumulate in the diseased hearts of mice and people with heart failure, according to a team led by Johns Hopkins University researchers.

Read More: Heart Disease News and Heart Disease Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.