No, farmers are not selling vitamins, at least directly, but the health of our food system does depend on decisions farmers make, often before they even plant crops.
Recently, I read a statement from someone at POET that said, “Biofuels are a catalyst for successful agriculture. Successful agriculture is a key to solving climate change, poverty, hunger and disease.” Today we focus on the disease aspect of that statement. Every week during the COVID-19 pandemic, I sent a note to all of the employees at our company, updating them on what was happening with the outbreak, along with tips on how to stay healthy. These tips each week included get a great night’s sleep every night, wash your hands constantly, social distance, exercise in moderation, and then these 2 very important things: eat a well-balanced diet and take your vitamins.
My Grandpa Nils lived to be 91 years old. He was a huge believer in taking a vitamin every day. His brother, a well-renowned doctor, lived 83 years. He did not believe in taking vitamins, but simply eating a balanced diet to deliver all the nutrients a person would need. They both lived a long time, and they were both right, to some degree. As a field agronomist and crop specialist, I rarely consult for livestock producers. However, the one thing I often tell those who raise livestock is, “If your animals are short on any one nutrient, trace that back to your feed. If your animals are grass-fed or corn-fed, that’s telling you the grass or the corn is short on that nutrient.”
Here’s where this all ties in. Commercial fertilizer has only been popular and widely used in the U.S. for about 50 years, so we are really just in the infancy of it. The three nutrients most farmers have used during that time have been Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K). However, the multivitamin I take every day contains manganese, copper, zinc, selenium, calcium, magnesium, and a whole bunch of vitamins (A, C, D, K, etc.).
When farmers have at least some profit and good price levels, they have the ability to experiment and innovate. The use of soil testing and plant tissue analysis, as well as secondary and micronutrients beyond N, P and K, are all key to having more nutritious crops. On our farm, we raise corn and soybeans. The corn and soybeans in our region are used to produce biofuels, with the byproducts fed to livestock. What farmers are learning is that as they fine-tune their fertility programs beyond N, P and K, yields go up, plant health improves, and all parts of the plant are richer in vitamins and minerals that livestock and humans need.
When crop prices are low, farmers may need to trim expenses to stay afloat. When market conditions are good, we see more use of all the “other” nutrients besides N, P and K. That leads to more yield and healthier crops. Since more biofuel use often means higher crop prices that means biofuel use indirectly leads to higher nutrient content in crops. You may think that’s a stretch, but as an agronomist for 30 years now I can tell you that when times are tough, farmers cut secondary things like and micronutrients, soil testing and plant tissue analysis. I’m not saying we need $7 corn, but we certainly need price levels that are profitable for farmers. When we have good prices, farmers respond with a better balanced diet for their crops, which means a better balance of nutrients for everyone down the food chain.
While I still think it’s good to take a multivitamin, my grandpa’s brother was also correct in thinking if people simply eat a balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals, they will be more healthy, live longer, and fight off most diseases effectively.