Does Organic Gardening Add More Nutrients?

SPRING is coming, and across the country experienced and novice farmers are poring over seed catalogs, planning their gardens for the season just ahead. Perhaps you're one of them. . .

-professor emeritus of agriculture, Andrews University at the time this article was written

SPRING is coming, and across the country experienced and novice farmers are poring over seed catalogs, planning their gardens for the season just ahead. Perhaps you're one of them.

Maybe you're planting a garden, hoping to avoid to some degree the spiraling food costs. Perhaps you know you need exercise, and gardening gives you double benefits—a more fit body and a savings on your food bill. In addition, you may enjoy gardening because it draws you closer to your Creator and brings peace to your soul.

Al! good reasons, but regardless of your motives, you certainly want to garden in the way that will reap the best produce possible.

But what if you have poor soil? Or what if your soil is good, but you just want to be sure you get a crop of superior vegetables and fruits? Should you use chemical fertilizer? Or organic fertilizer? Or no fertilizer? After all, you want a garden that produces food loaded with vitamins and minerals. How can you ensure this success?

Suppose, for instance, that you want to be sure your food has a good supply of that very necessary vitamin A. Can you accomplish this by carefully fertilizing the soil with good compost or organic matter, or with chemical fertilizer? No; not one of these practices will ensure a supply of this vitamin.

All the standard nutrition tables show that wheat, rice, white beans, coconut, oats, almonds, and barley do not contain any vitamin A. No soil treatment or lack of treatment causes these foods to vary in their content of this nutrient, a content listed as zero.

What must you do in this case? Simply choose some other variety of food. The foods mentioned above will supply protein, carbohydrate, minerals, and some vitamins, but not vitamin A. For that you must look to other foods.

The accompanying table gives the content of vitamin A in some common foods. 1

As you will notice, pink grape fruit contain forty-four times as much vitamin A as does white grapefruit. Can you change a pink grapefruit to white or a white grapefruit to pink by any type of fertilization of the soil? Never. You must plant a pink-grapefruit tree if you want a pink grapefruit. And you must choose pink grape fruit to eat if you want the one that has more vitamin A content.

In the case of sweet potatoes, the light-yellow and the deep-orange potato plants may grow side by side in the same soil, but there will be fifteen times as much vitamin A in the deep-orange-colored sweet potato.

Plainly, the variety makes much more difference than does the soil. Any alteration in these plants made by any type of soil treatment will range in amount from 10 to 20 percent. Thus the light-yellow sweet potato might be made to show a range of from 480 I.U. to 720 I.U. But this alteration due to soil treatment is still a far cry from the 10,000 I.U. of the deep-orange varieties of the plant.

But we have discussed here just one nutrient, vitamin A. Does this variety factor of the nutrient con tent hold true for other nutrients? This question is best answered by examples. (See table below.)

The important point is that these very large differences inherent in different foods persist regardless of the kind of soil or the type of fertilization. You may well ask how this can be when these plants are grown on a soil that is very deficient in minerals, as some of our depleted soils are. The answer is quite simple. The nutrient content of a plant remains about the same, but the yield of the plant is drastically reduced. A soil that has only 10 per cent of the calcium needed for optimum growth will grow only 10 per cent of the optimum yield. You will get ten almonds instead of a hundred almonds, but those you do get will have about 234 mg. of calcium per 100 grams.

This poses some questions. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has a definite health program. So far this program has not, officially at least, included the health program popular today under the name of "Natural Foods," "Natural Farming," or "Organic Gardening." Is the Adventist health program in complete or out of date? Is a vital component missing from the instruction we have been given? If the claims of the natural or organic advocates are correct, then we shall have to admit that our health program is in need of re vision, for it does not include the soil as a factor in the nutrient quality of our food. Nor does it include organically grown food as essential.

Some very strong claims are made about the health-giving properties of food grown organically, and at the same time there is vigorous condemnation of foods that are grown on depleted or worn-out soils, and especially of those foods that are grown with the use of the common chemical or commercial fertilizer.

The word natural has psychological appeal. When it is used in connection with our foods, we are favorably impressed. There is also some logical appeal in the statements of our "organic" friends. There is no question but that some foods are grown on depleted soils, and we naturally wonder whether a soil that lacks the necessary minerals will not produce a plant that is lacking in these nutrients. How can a plant get the nutrients that are not there?

Whether we grow our own food or purchase it at the supermarket, we want food that will furnish us with an abundance of nutrients essential for good health. If "natural" or "organic" food is better than food grown by the usual methods, we should make every effort to get it.

Before we consider adding this emphasis to our denominational health program, however, we must note some basic factors. The heart or core of the "natural" food pro gram is that soil is the determining factor in the nutrient content of foods. And right here is the Achilles heel of the "natural" food program. The soil is not the most important factor. The kind of plant (the genetic makeup) influences the nutrient content far more than any soil factor. The kind of seed that you plant is far more important than the kind of fertilizer you use.

When an agricultural experiment station in the United States wants to improve the nutritive quality of some plant, it does so by the use of the laws of genetics.

Purdue University dealt with the well-known problem of the protein content of corn. This food normally is deficient in some of the amino acids required by animals. By careful crossbreeding and selection, the researchers developed a variety of corn that has a much higher content of lysine, one of the amino acids. This is in dependent of the soil in which the crop is grown. 2 They also produced the Caro-red tomato, which has a higher carotene content than the average tomato. Corn has been bred with an oil content of as low as 5 percent and as high as 20 percent. 3 Another type of corn was bred for its special starch content.

All of these plants maintain the desired characteristic no matter what soil they are grown on. The soil may cause a slight variation, usually in the neighborhood of plus or minus 10 per cent, but this variation is so small compared to the variation that can be had by the choice of a given plant or plant variety, that the soil variation becomes quite unimportant. When the normal variation found in different varieties of plants ranges from 20 to 200 times (as indicated in the table on page 33), the one-tenth variation due to the soil is not significant.

At this point some may ask, "but what about the intangible factors that are present in 'natural' foods?" Those who stress the "organic" or "natural" way have answered these questions for us.

In 1938 the Soil Association, an organic group of Suffolk, England, purchased a farm and initiated what they called the Haughley experiment. Two sections of seventy-five acres each were set aside. One of these sections was farmed "organically." The other was farmed in the mixed way, which is the common way in both England and the United States. Three types of farm animals were placed on each section and were fed only produce from that section. Careful records were kept. In 1964, a forty-five-page report 4 summarized the situation after twenty-seven years of experimentation. In some instances the organic section proved better, and in some instances the mixed was better. The over-all picture showed no advantage for either method, with all the differences relatively small.

The one exception was the yield of milk, which was higher in the herd fed on the produce of the organic section. I noted, however, that the plants in the organic pasture were different from those in e the mixed section. I wrote inquiring about this factor and received the following statement from Lady Eva Balfour, one of the sponsors of the project. "It is perfectly possible that the qualitative difference in the temporary pastures of the two sections is a contributory factor in the difference in the milk yields." As any farm boy knows, the product of a given cow depends to a great extent on the kind of feed she gets.

Strong claims are often made that the organic method produces better health and freedom from plant diseases and insects. Items appearing in the 1962 Haughley experiment report, however, do not seem to bear this out: The chick ens in the organic section had a loss of two batches due to aspergillosis (page 26 of the report). There was a complete failure of the kale crop in the organic section (page 18). Alfalfa was attacked by wilt in both sections (page 13). Wheat in the organic section was attacked by bunt disease (page 5). Kale was badly damaged by the flea beetle in the organic section (page 12).

Some years ago Michigan State University used the Kellogg farm to carry out an experiment to determine the health of animals that were fed crops grown on depleted soil. No deleterious effects were observed in mice given milk from cows fed these crops, and three generations of cattle were raised on food from this soil. 5

But what about the use of fertilizer? Every thunderstorm produces nitrous oxides that are brought to earth by the rain. The lightning flash causes the combination of nitrogen and oxygen. The same process is used in fertilizer factories to produce our nitrogen fertilizer. What is the difference? 6

The organic people decry the use of phosphorus fertilizers produced with treatment of the phosphate rock with sulphuric acid. But in the soil the same process takes place. Organic matter containing sulphur disintegrates with the production of sulphuric acid in the process. This acts upon the mineral apatite in the soil, releasing the phosphorus in the same way as it is released in the fertilizer factory. 7 Organic gardeners apply wood ashes. Upon leaching by the rain, these ashes release potassium compounds the same as are found in the fertilizer bag. 8

In a fertilizer experiment, the Soil and Nutrition Laboratory of the United States Department of Agriculture, at the end of a twenty-five- year period, tested crops that were grown on soils fertilized continuously with chemical fertilizers, with manure, and with a combination of the two. Check plots received no fertilization. The plants grown were checked for two minerals and two vitamins. All variations in nutrient content were 10 percent or less. 9

Grow your garden "organically" if you wish—plenty of good organic matter, preferably in the form of compost, will greatly improve the texture and fertility of your soil. And it will increase the yields. But keep in mind that when subjected to analysis these large yields will not differ markedly in nutrient content from that of the same plants grown on depleted soil. To ensure an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals in your diet, follow Mrs. White's still-valid advice: eat a variety of foods. Then you can be assured of getting the necessary nutrients for good health.


1. Unites States Department of Agriculture, Composition of Foods, Handbook no. 8 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1963).

2. Howard T. Walden, Native Inheritance: The Story of Corn in America (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1966), p. 182.

3. Plant Science (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1969), p. 333.

4. The Haughley Experiment: The First Twenty-five Years—1938-1962 (New Bells Farm, Haughley, Stowmarket, Suffolk, England: Soil Association, June, 1962).

5. Nutrition of Plants, Animals, Man (Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University), p. 9.

6. The United States Department of Agriculture Yearbook, 1957, Soil (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office), pp. 87, 203; Buckman and Brady, The Nature and Properties of Soils, 6th Ed. (New York: MacMillan, 1968), p. 428.

7. Firman E. Baer, Soils and Fertilizers, 3d Ed. (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1950), pp. 65, 184.

8. Ibid., pp. 302, 303.

9. Soil Science, June, 1951.

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-professor emeritus of agriculture, Andrews University at the time this article was written

March 1974

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