Posts Tagged ‘Soil’

Feb26

Agricultural Population Growth Marginal as Nonagricultural Population Soars

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The global agricultural population—defined as individuals dependent on agriculture, hunting, fishing, and forestry for their livelihood—accounted for over 37 percent of the world’s total population in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. This is a decrease of 12 percent from 1980, when the world’s agricultural and nonagricultural populations were roughly the same size. Although the agricultural population shrunk as a share of total population between 1980 and 2011, it grew numerically from 2.2 billion to 2.6 billion people during this period.

The world’s agricultural population grew from 2.2 billion to 2.6 billion people between 1980 and 2011. (Photo Credit: UNDP)

Between 1980 and 2011, the nonagricultural population grew by a staggering 94 percent, from 2.2 billion to 4.4 billion people—a rate approximately five times greater than that of agricultural population growth. In both cases growth was driven by the massive increase in the world’s total population, which more than doubled between 1961 and 2011, from 3.1 billion to 7 billion people.

It should be noted that the distinction between these population groups is not the same as the rural-urban divide. Rural populations are not exclusively agricultural, nor are urban populations exclusively nonagricultural. The rural population of Africa in 2011 was 622.8 million, for instance, while the agricultural population was 520.3 million.

Although the agricultural population grew worldwide between 1980 and 2011, growth was restricted to Africa, Asia, and Oceania. During this period, this population group declined in North, Central, and South America, in the Caribbean, and in Europe.

In 2011, Africa and Asia accounted for about 95 percent of the world’s agricultural population. In contrast, the agricultural population in the Americas accounted for a little less than 4 percent. Especially in the United States, this is the result of the development and use of new and innovative technologies as well as the increased use of farm machinery, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation systems that require less manual labor.

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Nov21

Iroko Trees Fight Climate Change

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By Kristen Thiel

Iroko trees are native to the west coast of Africa. Sometimes called Nigerian teak, their wood is tough, dense, and very durable. Their hardwood is so sought after that the trees are often poached and are now endangered in many regions of Africa. But a new scientific discovery may aid in reforestation efforts.

Iroko trees can serve as long-term carbon sinks. (Photo Credit: DJ Obruni)

Oliver de Schutter, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, has found that Iroko trees can serve as long-term carbon sinks and can potentially play a role in the fight against climate change. Iroko trees and microbes can turn carbon dioxide emissions into soil-enriching limestone, a process that packs a one-two punch: carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere, and dry, acidic soil is made more fertile for agriculture.

When the West African Iroko tree is grown in dry, acidic soil and treated with microbes, it produces a very specific mineral. When the microbes are introduced, the tree combines the calcium already in the soil and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to produce a mineral limestone. This mineral limestone is then stored in the soil around the Iroko tree’s roots.

Normally, biomass (such as trees) does not store carbon dioxide—the gas is used in the process of decomposition. But carbon in the form of limestone has a staying time that may span a million years. This makes a great case, according to the Swiss researchers, for the preservation and sustainable management of tropical forests to fight against the greenhouse effect.

Iroko trees are just one of many species from Africa and the Amazon that can turn carbon in the atmosphere into mineral limestone. In this study, scientists looked at several microbe-tree combinations to identify which was best for locking up carbon dioxide as limestone, and the Iroko-microbe pathway showed the greatest results.

“By taking advantage of this natural limestone-producing process, we have a low-tech, safe, readily employed and easily maintained way to lock carbon out of the atmosphere, while enriching farming conditions in tropical countries,” said Dr Bryne Ngwenya of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences.

There is also great potential for reforestation projects to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the developing world. Reforestation schemes that involve the use of microbes and Iroko trees together could improve the carbon sequestration balance of carbon trading initiatives, improve soil fertility, and even promote the implementation of agroforestry projects to benefit rural communities.

Are you familiar with Iroko tree restoration efforts? Let us know in the comments section below!

Kristen Thiel is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture program.

Feb28

To Combat Scarcity, Increase Water-Use Efficiency in Agriculture

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By Sophie Wenzlau

This blog was originally published as part of an online consultation organized by The Broker  on the role of water in the post-2015 development agenda. Click here to read the original post. 

Photo Credit: World Bank

The South Centre has argued that “as oil conflicts were central to 20th century history, the struggle over freshwater is set to shape a new turning point in the world order.” Water scarcity, which already affects one in three people on earth, is set to increase in magnitude and scope as the global population grows, increasing affluence drives up demand, and the climate changes. According to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), “half the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress by 2030, including 75 to 250 million people in Africa.” In the Sahel region of Africa, desertification caused by overgrazing, unsustainable farming, and the collection of wood for fuel is already responsible for systemic crop failure, soil erosion, and devastating famine. Failure to act on water scarcity will lead to more of the same.

Though water scarcity will surely play a defining role in the 21st century, the assumption that ‘water wars’ are inevitable is overly deterministic and assumes the worst of people. Historically, the need to manage trans-group or trans-boundary water basins has actually tended to facilitate cooperation between groups with competing interests. In the last fifty years, there have been only 37 incidents of acute conflict over water, while during the same period, approximately 295 international water agreements were negotiated and signed. According to Nidal Salim, director of the Global Institute for Water, Environment, and Health, the potential to peacefully overcome water scarcity does exist; it depends on political will, trust between nations, and real manifestations of cooperation.

To peacefully overcome water scarcity, leaders at all levels must prioritize efforts to cooperatively increase water-use efficiency, reduce water waste, and manage demand.

Increasing efficiency in irrigation—which is responsible for the consumption of 70 percent of the world’s total water withdrawal—would be a sensible place to start. Improved water management in agriculture could increase global water availability, catalyze development, reduce soil erosion, and lead to increased and diversified agricultural yields, augmenting our ability to feed a population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050.

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Jan15

U.S. Ag Education Groups Make Soil Health a Priority

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By Carol Dreibelbis

In the United States, some agricultural organizations are beginning to recognize the value of training new leaders in sustainable farming practices. In the state of Nebraska, Nebraska Agricultural Education and the Nebraska Future Farmers of America Association (FFA) are in their second year of providing teachers and students with the skills they need to conserve and restore the local landscape, thanks to a three-year, $200,000 grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust.

Nebraska educators gain skills to take back to their classrooms as part of the Soils Project’s “Excellence in Ag Science Day” 20workshop. (Photo credit: National Cooperative Soil Survey)

With the awareness that the world may need to feed an additional 3 billion mouths by 2050, Nebraska Agricultural Education aims to “prepare students for successful careers and a lifetime of informed choices in the global agriculture, food, and natural resource systems.” The organization provides in-class and experiential instruction to more than 13,000 students in 148 schools each year.

With 93 percent of its land devoted to agriculture, Nebraska is one of the United States’ most productive agricultural areas. In 2012, it ranked first nationally in terms of commercial red meat production, the area of irrigated land harvested, and Great Northern beans production. In 2011, it ranked second in ethanol production capacity, with 24 operating plants having production capacity of 2.2 billion gallons (83,279,059,600 liters). In 2010, total cash receipts from farm marketings were over $17 billion, representing 5.5 percent of the U.S. total. In 2008, it was ranked eighth nationally in certified organic cropland acres (52,551 ha) and eighth in certified organic pasture acres (21,518 ha).

The Nebraska FFA Association supports Nebraska Agricultural Education’s leadership and career development roles, with the understanding that “today’s agriculture education students will be…responsible for ensuring a safe and stable food and fiber supply for the growing world.” The FFA reaches more than 6,500 high school students in Nebraska.

During the 2011–12 grant year, 100 schools in Nebraska received free soil testing kits and professional development training for teachers through the Nebraska Agricultural Education Soils Project. More than 100 FFA educators attended a two-day workshop in June 2011 on soil science, where they received soil guides and participated in field- and lab-based exercises to learn how to use the kits.

The soil quality kits, which include buckets, vests, gram scales, measuring wheels, soil probes, spades, measuring tapes, and other equipment, enable the educators to teach their own students how to assess important soil properties, including moisture, electrical conductivity, temperature, phosphate, nitrate and nitrite, pH, aggregate stability, organic matter, respiration, bulk density, and infiltration. Proper soil management can prevent land degradation (i.e. erosion), which can impact agronomic productivity, the environment, food security, and even quality of life. According to the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, “Global efforts to halt and reverse land degradation are integral to creating the future we want…Sustainable land use is a prerequisite for lifting billions from poverty, enabling food and nutrition security, and safeguarding water supplies. It is a cornerstone of sustainable development.”

The soil science workshop received overwhelmingly positive feedback from participants. “There is so much great information and materials to help me teach soil science. Thank you so much for allowing me to be part of it,” said Amber Endres, an agricultural educator in Hartington, in northeast Nebraska. Beyond the trainings, follow-up sessions provide resources and education to additional teachers.

Ed George, the Soils Project coordinator, views the initiative as a way to boost students’ confidence and engagement both in and out of school. He notes that the Soils Project enables students to recognize the impact that humans have on the environment, to engage with local environmental concerns, and to grow into “future leaders, with the skills to sustain Nebraska’s land productivity and soil health.

What is your region doing to develop future leaders in agriculture and conservation? Please let us know in the comments section below.

Carol Dreibelbis is a research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project.

Nov14

Five Rainforest Ecosystem Services that Nourish People and the Planet

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By Ioulia Fenton

From wetlands to coral reefs, the Earth’s diverse ecosystems support and regulate many of the planet’s most critical natural processes. They also contribute important cultural, social, and economic benefits to human communities. These contributions, known more broadly as “ecosystem services,” are estimated to be worth trillions of dollars per year.

Rainforests provide vital ecosystem services that sustain all life on Earth. (Photo credit: National Geographic)

The world’s rainforest ecosystem services—such as increased rainfall, soil stability, and a regulated climate—are integral to the successful production of food in many parts of the world. Rainforests in the Amazon and the Congo, for example, support rainfall in key, surrounding agricultural areas.

Today, Nourishing the Planet highlights five ecosystem services that rainforests provide to people and the planet:

1. Nutrient cycling and soil formation. According to the Rainforest Conservation Fund, many of the world’s tropical rainforests live “on the edge,” meaning that they receive very few nutrient inputs from the outside and must produce most nutrients themselves. When left intact, a rainforest acts as a closed-loop system, recycling the nutrients it has created; without tree cover, however, these nutrients would be lost and the forest would not survive.

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Sep26

Citywatch: Getting to the Right Question on the Nutrient Benefits of Organic Food

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By Wayne Roberts

Citywatch: Whether it’s action or traction in the food world, cities are stepping up to the plate. The world is fast going urban, as are challenges of social, economic and environmental well being. Citywatch is crucial to Worldwatch. Wayne Roberts, retired manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council, has his eye out for the future of food in the city. Click here to read more from Wayne.

Stanford recently released a controversial study comparing organic and conventionally produced foods (Photo Credit: Susan Troccolo)

The international media had a field day headlining a Stanford university study dissing the nutritional benefits of organic food. I hope it’s not too late for me to ask a few questions that might steer the debate in a more useful direction.

I would like the media to explain why a study that was not based on either original research or professional expertise was considered so significant.

The paper, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is strictly a “meta-analysis,” combining some of the findings of some 200 other scientists’ publications over the years. It is the ninth such paper to come out in a decade, and the fourth to turn thumbs down on organic claims to significant superiority in the nutritional realm – not exactly trail-blazing stuff. Nor, considering the ability of writers to cherry pick various findings from different individual studies, does a meta-analysis inherently prove much more than ability to cherry pick. That’s why new hard research, rather than summaries of old research, is usually the stuff of news stories.

I would also like to ask why no-one checked the qualifications of this 12-person team, which was granted immediate credibility, despite the absence of a professional nutritionist, agrologist or bio-medical specialist. One is a librarian, a few are graduate students,  several are medical doctors who specialize in such fields as infectious disease, bio-terrorism, diagnosis or HIV, one is a mathematician, one an administrator, one a research assistant.

The heavy-hitter on the team is Igram Olkin, an 88 year-old retired professor of statistics. Stanford University media releases cite his renown as a specialist in meta-analysis, without mentioning that his name is batted around as a paid witness on statistics for the tobacco industry. Given that the Stanford team’s use of statistics is subjected to withering criticism by organic advocate and academic Charles Benbrook, it’s odd no mainstream reporter checked to see if where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

It’s also a bit odd that no-one asked what an article on nutritional merits of organic foods was doing in a medical journal, given that doctors have minimal training, credentials or interest in this field – although maybe I’ve just answered my own question.

One of the first things I learned when researching for my first serious food book some 15 years ago was that the relation between organic and nutrition does not compute.

Nutritional levels vary according to a host of factors. One big one is the quality of soil long before anyone farmed it organically or conventionally (no history of volcanoes in New York means no rich volcanic ash in the soil, for example). Another factor that has little to do with organic or conventional is when the crop was picked (tomatoes get most of their vitamin C as they turn red, not when they’re hard and green, which is when they get picked by machines).

The list of crucial questions and variables keeps growing: how long was the produce in a truck or store, under what conditions was the food stored, how was the food prepared (some vitamins are destroyed by heat, some nutrients only become available when heated).

It’s quite likely that healthier and stronger plants grow on organically-managed soils, without any help from synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.  But that’s no guarantee that the plants bulked up on more nutrients. Organic or not, plants work to meet their own survival needs, not ours, and the optimum level of vitamin B needed by a particular plant may or may not work best for humans. That’s why people choose particular plants if they’re looking for high doses of particular nutrients.

Put the whole mix together, and a study based on analysis of a conventional ruby red tomato, lightly cooked immediately after picking, will probably show more nutrients than an organic tomato picked green from an industrial organic farm a week ago, hauled across the continent on a truck, and left to sit at a salad bar, for example. These are the kinds of things that affect nutrient levels, and anyone who knows more about nutrition than editors of a conventional medical journal would hear alarms ringing in their ears if writers started making a big case about nutrient differences with or without organic.

This is why nutrition expert Marion Nestle started her blog item on the controversy by saying “sigh,” as in “have I not explained this a hundred times already?” Organic advocates rarely make a nutritional claim, she points out. So the Stanford article is knocking down a straw man.

With dairy and meat, new evidence suggests that a key issue is how animals are treated. Still- controversial studies suggest that grass-fed animals have more nutritious milk and meat than animals fed corn and soy – no matter whether organic or conventional. That’s only logical, given that most animals evolved to eat grass rather than corn or soy, which are good for bulking up fast, but not necessarily so good for complex nutrients.

Organic scores well, even in the Stanford study, in terms of pesticide residue, which is as important to personal health as nutrients. Almost no-one is suffering from scurvy, rickets or wasting in North America or Europe, where the Stanford study got a lot of media, but breast, prostate, colon and bladder cancers have affected almost every family. A strong case can be made that toxic residues from pesticides, brought into the body by food, are implicated in these cancers. So this isn’t exactly a minor selling point for organics.

On the question of toxins, however, I’m also intrigued that there are any—not 30 per cent less, but any—pesticide residues on organic. That can only mean that the toxins from conventional fields migrated by air, rain or water table to organic fields, and who knows where else.

Why didn’t that set off media alarm bells? It means that people who pay extra for organic are still getting toxic residues that rightfully belong to the people who produced and bought conventional food.

This is an issue worthy of a meta-analysis. Are organic consumers dupes, taking the toxic bullet for people who saved money thanks to pesticides. Is it fair that some farmers get to cut their production costs by spreading toxins throughout the environment?

Since the Stanford team is asking whether organic costs more when it doesn’t deliver more nutrients, why doesn’t the team also ask the flip side of the question—whether conventional gets to charge less because the toxic load is passed on to everyone?

That question gets to the penultimate tricky question of agricultural prices. Why do some get to offload costs to the environment for free, while those who contribute to a safer environment get no fee compensating them for their extra work on behalf of the public good? If an environmental fee was paid to the farmer producing the environmental service, then all farmers would compete on an even playing field, and no academics would ever have to ask whether organic delivers more value for the money.

Why doesn’t the Stanford team, or any of the media following their study, ask that?  There I go again, answering my own question.

Wayne Roberts is on the board of Unitarian Service Committee of Canada-Seeds of Survival, which funds “cials” in Honduras, and he toured Honduras as one of their delegation.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.

Aug25

Saturday Series: An Interview with Sasha Kramer

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By Olivia Arnow

Name: Sasha Kramer

Affiliation: Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL)

Location: Cap-Haitien, Haiti

SOIL provides ecological toilets and transforms waste into compost for reforestation and agriculture purposes in Haiti (Photo credit: Architects of the Future)

Bio: Kramer is the co-founder and executive director of SOIL, a nonprofit organization in Haiti dedicated to protecting soil resources by providing ecological sanitation services and turning human waste into nutrient-rich compost.

How did you found SOIL? Was your organization founded as a response to the 2010 earthquake?

I’ve been in Haiti since 2004 when I was finishing my doctoral research. With my work focusing on ecology and human rights, I came to realize that the most prevalent human rights abuse is the inaccessibility to basic services that we take for granted. I had a previous interest in toilets from a nutrient-cycle perspective so in 2006 we founded SOIL and our EcoSan initiative in Cap-Haitien. After the 2010 earthquake we expanded to Port-au-Prince.

What are some ways SOIL’s efforts have benefitted local agriculture?

Right now we’re in the beginning phases of distributing our compost to local farmers and thus far have used it in some small-scale gardens and in our very own experimental garden. Our blog highlights some of the crops we’ve harvested using our compost, like cabbage and corn. We want to show the community how to use it and how beneficial it can be before we market it on the larger scale.

We’re excited about potentially partnering with the Ministry of Agriculture and other organizations to make connections with Haitian farmers and distribute our compost. The average nitrogen use of Haitian soil is about 1 kilogram per hectare compared to 200 kilograms per hectare in the United States so we realize that small changes in the availability of nutrients in soil can have a profound impact on agriculture.

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Aug02

12 Innovations to Combat Drought, Improve Food Security, and Stabilize Food Prices

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By Seyyada A. Burney

Soaring temperatures and low precipitation could not occur at a worse time for many farmers in the United States. Intensifying drought conditions are affecting corn and soybean crops throughout the Midwest, raising grain prices as well as concerns about future food prices. The U.S. Drought Monitor reports that 88 percent of this year’s corn crop and 77 percent of the soybean crop are now affected by the most severe drought since 1988. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is providing drought assistance to 1,584 counties across 32 states and warns of increased food prices in 2013 as a result of corn and soybean yield losses.

Drought is plaguing the United States, driving up food prices. (Photo credit: KPBS San Diego)

Corn is currently selling at around $9 a bushel, a 50 percent increase from June, while soybeans are selling at a record high of $17 a bushel as a result of drought-related losses in crop yields. The increased prices may benefit farmers in the short run, but consumers will experience the aftermath of price increases in the form of more money spent on poultry, beef, pork, and dairy products.

Nearly half of all domestic corn production is used as livestock feed, a trend that is now encouraging larger livestock producers to import corn from Brazil while smaller farmers must reduce herd sizes by sending more animals to the market. Most immediately, poultry prices are expected to rise 3.5 to 4.5 percent due to the animals’ more rapid growth and therefore more sudden response to higher feed prices. The price of beef is projected to rise the highest—4 to 5 percent by November—but at a slower rate, reflecting the longer growth period and higher feed requirements of beef cattle.

Higher U.S. grain prices could have an even greater impact worldwide. The United States is the world’s largest corn producer as well as a major exporter of crop-derived agricultural products. Declining domestic production could translate into exacerbated food security problems abroad. Countries that import corn and soybean byproducts or animal feed, such as Japan and Mexico, will be affected the most.

Climate change is making it increasingly important to protect local agriculture in the United States and address the issues underlying its vulnerability to natural disasters, such as drought.

The Nourishing the Planet (www.NourishingthePlanet.org) project highlights 12 agricultural innovations that can help make U.S. and global agriculture more drought resilient, as well as sustainable.

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Apr21

Agricultural Innovations that are Protecting the Environment On Earth Day

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For the last 40 years, Earth Day has been celebrated around the world to call attention to some of our most pressing environmental and social problems, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and dwindling natural resources. This year, the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet highlights 15 agricultural innovations that are already working on the ground to address some of those problems.

Agriculture is already working on the ground around the world to protect the environment, while improving people's livelihoods. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

The 15 innovations are used by farmers, scientists, activists, politicians, and businesses and promote a healthier environment and a more food-secure future.

Guaranteeing the Right to Food. Some 1 billion people worldwide experience chronic hunger, and 98 percent of these people live in developing countries. To combat hunger in rural or remote communities, the Brazilian government operates the Food Acquisition Program, which funds local organizations, including community kitchens, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and schools, to buy and distribute fruits, vegetables, and animal products from smallholder farmers in their region.

Harnessing the Nutritional and Economic Potential of Vegetables. Micronutrient deficiencies, including lack of vitamin A, iodine, and iron, affect 1 billion people worldwide and stem partly from a lack of variety in people’s diets. Slow Food International works to broaden diets, and preserve biodiversity, by helping farmers grow local and indigenous varieties of fruits and vegetables, organizing cooking workshops, and helping producers get access to traditional seeds.

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Apr07

William Albrecht: Unhealthy Soil, Unhealthy People

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By Jenny Beth Dyess

William Albrecht (1888–1974) cared about the link between soil health and people’s health. As he witnessed the rise of industrial agriculture, he became deeply concerned about the negative impacts of profit driven farming on the soil. Chairman of the Department of Soils at the University of Missouri in the 1950s, Albrecht desired, as a scientist, to understand the complexities of soil health and how that might impact humans.

William Albrecht was fascinated by the link between soil fertility and public health. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Fascinated by the link between the health of people and the soil, he reviewed the dental records of 70,000 U.S. sailors from the World War II era. Using cavities as indicators, he found that nutritional deficiencies, particularly in calcium and potassium, in the sailors’ dental health records correlated with insufficient fertility of the soil in the region of the U.S. they were from. For example, someone from the more weathered and nutrient deficient lands east of the Mississippi River had more cavities than someone from Hereford, Texas where soil nutrition was significantly higher.

While dental hygiene has drastically improved American teeth there are other health problems which may still be linked to the soil. In 2003, Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona stated that nearly two out of every three children are overweight or obese. Currently, 33.8 percent of American adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and numbers are on the rise. In 2000 no state had an obesity rate of 30 percent or more but by 2009, 9 states had obesity rates of 30 percent or more and in 2010 that number had risen to 12 states.

Compared with the early 1900s, not only has food per capita available to Americans increased, Americans are eating more nutrient dense foods. Meat consumption has quadrupled and cheese consumption is seven and a half times what it was in the early 1900s, but fresh fruit and home grown vegetable consumption have decreased. In 1919, about 25 percent of vegetables consumed were from a home garden, by 1998 that had dropped to less than 3 percent.

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