We've all heard "you are what you eat," but Graeme Sait takes a more underground view of it than most. Literally. The health of our soils is intimately connected to the health of our people, he says - and it's time for modern agriculture to step up its game.
A globe-trotting health and agriculture expert from Australia, Sait will speak at the Healthy Living Show in Auckland as he embarks on a teaching tour in New Zealand. Sait has made a career probing the links between what's happening to human health and what's happening in the ground.
"There should be 74 minerals in healthy soils," Sait says. But standard farming practices "are putting back only NPK" (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium). By slipping up on the balance of soil elements, we are compromising our own health, he asserts.
Typical modern fertilisers don't give plants the full suite of minerals they need. These undernourished crops become vulnerable to pests and diseases, he argues. The result: not only do you get nutritionally incomplete food, but more synthetic pesticides are used on that food, ending up on your dinner plate, and "assaulting your immune system," he says.
There you have a perfect storm, Graeme Sait argues, a recipe for the chronic disease epidemics being seen now even in the "rich" countries, from diabetes to cancer.
Sait cites a recent major World Health Organisation study on human health. "They didn't find a single disease that didn't have a nutrition link," he says. While many people in poor countries suffer from 'type A' malnutrition (not enough food), the study concluded that economically well-off people still suffer from 'type B' malnutrition: a critical lack of the right vitamins and minerals.
Key trace elements such as selenium, magnesium and zinc run short in today's agricultural soils. Australia and New Zealand's soils register among the world's lowest selenium levels in particular. Selenium is crucial to a healthy immune system. So is zinc; and zinc deficiency, which is now the norm in adults, is also linked to prostate cancer. As for magnesium, Sait calls it "the master mineral" because it is involved in so many systems in our bodies.
Other conventional farming practices impact our nutritional intake in unexpected ways that are still coming to light. For example, recent research has shown that the widely used weedkiller glyphosate is not just more poisonous than previously thought; it also blocks the soil biological processes that help plants take up iron and manganese. Sait wonders if its use is linked to common iron deficiencies in humans, and whether manganese deficiency, which affects the mitochondria (the "energy factories" in our cells), could be stoking an epidemic of chronic fatigue. It's all connected.
Sait does not just talk about the problems, however. He's also on a mission to teach people to optimise their health, from the ground up. In many cases, he says, taking supplements may be necessary to get back to the levels you need. Rather than blindly downing mineral pills, he recommends "informed nutrition," using hair analysis testing, for example, to discover if you are lacking particular nutrients.
Healthy food alone may not be enough to correct your health immediately if you're already extremely deficient. But, ultimately, Sait believes, food should be our medicine. His seminars focus on teaching people to grow what he calls "nutrient dense" food. And it's not just for farmers. "The home garden becomes the ultimate wellness tool," he says.
Buying organic food is a start toward healthy eating, but not a total solution, from this "nutrient density" perspective. Although organic food is generally free from synthetic pesticides, no food is guaranteed to harbour the full suite of minerals, so the best way is to grow your own. Sait advocates testing your garden soil, and understanding how to achieve mineral balance in it.
Despite the state of things, Graeme Sait is a hopeful man. He's just returned from trips to South Africa and the U.S., where he's been meeting with major supermarket chains and large food companies who are keen to use his nutrient-dense food production strategies. "We're getting such large crowds and interest," he says.
To find out more about Graeme Sait's presentations at the Healthy Living Show, November 2-4, or buy tickets for the event, visit www.healthylivingshow.co.nz.