Why Micronutrients Are So Important

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Let’s talk about micronutrients – copper, magnesium, iron and zinc – that are among the essential elements for building phytochemicals, enzymes, and proteins in plants. They’re also important for our own bodies. Researchers have connected a wide range of human health problems with deficiencies in these minerals. Copper, for example, is essential for hemoglobin to function properly and assists normal bone formation. Magnesium is a required element for a least 300 enzyme reactions – inadequate levels have been linked to a number of mental disorders. Iron deficiency leads to anemia and reduces a person’s capacity to learn or work. Zinc deficiency leads to increased susceptibility to infectious diseases. But today our plants are deficient of these important building blocks. For example, between 1978 and 1991, zinc levels in fruits and vegetables dropped 27 and 59 percent respectively. Similar drops are documented for copper, magnesium, iron and other trace elements. Why is this happening?

When you feed a plant copious amounts of synthetic fertilizers, it gets lazy. It doesn’t have to work nearly as hard to survive. Roots don’t grow as deep and strong, and the plants stop exudating sugars (carbohydrates) to feed the microbes in the soil that are capable of making these trace elements available in forms that plants can uptake. In addition, our focus over the last half-decade has been to produce crops that are larger with more edible parts. The outcome is crops with greater biomass and lower concentrations of minerals. We’ve diluted, so to speak, the mineral strength or intensity in our crops. Dr. William Albrecht, a true visionary in understanding plant physiology and agriculture (and a favorite of mine) predicted calorie-rich, nutrient-poor foods would be the outcome of modern agricultural practices.

What should we do? Let’s start with the simple step of improving soil fertility. When a plant has access to biologically active soils – soils with intensive microbial communities – they become stronger and have a greater capacity to resist pathogen and insect pressure. When a plant has to work for its inputs, it feeds the rhizosphere via root exudation to gain access to macro- and micronutrients. Many of these elements exist in nature in combination with other elements, like oxygen, to form relatively insoluble compounds. The only way to access them is by improving soil fertility, which leads to larger and more diverse microbial populations that are capable of breaking down these compounds into forms that plants can process. The result: healthier plants and, hopefully, healthier humans!