Finland, famous for saunas, Sibelius and the world's most successful mobile phone company, gained a less enviable label in the late 20th century: as the CVD (cardiovascular disease) capital of the world and the reason, in part, lay in the soil.
What the Finns reaped in human misery and a massive public health bill, they had also sown in farmland chronically deficient in the trace element selenium, which is thought to have contributed to a massive one in three chance of a middle-aged man dropping dead of heart failure by the time the government acted in 1984. The story of how the Finns cut their mortality rates by 76% in 20 years is not just a sharp lesson in how direct intervention in the food chain and a major education programme can help impact on public health, but it has also been a catalyst for food producers to go, quite literally, back to their roots.
Biofortification or the enhancement of food crops with trace elements through conventional plant breeding, genetic modification, or soil enrichment programmes, is the new "natural science". Billions of dollars are being pumped into research around the world, targeted mainly at helping developing countries where nutrient deficient diets are a major source of disease and where the distribution of supplements is unreliable and uneconomic. But with processors in the West currently tearing up the twin highways of enhanced nutrition and 'clean' labelling, biofortification is playing well to less altruistic interests, too.
In Turkey, the genetic home of wheat on which much of the western world relies for its calories, researchers are busy trying to pump up zinc levels through fertilizer applications. But it's selenium, an antibody booster and key player in heart health and fertility that has attracted most investment.
"The case can be made for a lot of elements, such as magnesium, iron and zinc, but selenium is the best example of a developed-world situation where there's a deficiency," says Professor Martin Broadley of the plant science division at the UK's Nottingham University, part of a government-backed LINK project looking at enriched wheats. And it's sufficiently commercially interesting to entice upmarket retailer Marks & Spencer to partner agronomists in developing selenium-fed grain for bread - a key source of the mineral in the UK diet until millers reversed the ratio of imported to home-grown grain used in the grist and, unwittingly, helped cut the nation's selenium consumption to almost half of what it should have been.
"We're not advocating nationwide biofortification," stresses Broadley, but in Finland, where the government made it mandatory for fertilizers to contain selenium after dietary intake levels plummeted to less than 25mg/day against a recommended 60-75mg/day, there was a five-fold increase in the average Finn's consumption with little, if any, opposition to the "Big Brother" policy by industry or consumers.
"It's like the fish oils in school argument," says Broadley. "We are basically dealing with an ethical experiment. It's unethical not to do it and, it could be argued, it's unethical to do it."
The UK government, which part funds the project, maintains it has a purely academic interest in the outcome. But it is worth remembering that the Food Standards Agency's advisors are backing calls for mandatory fortification of flour with synthesised folate to reduce the comparatively small risk of neural birth defects, while direct intervention in food development to achieve public health goals is still a live debate at European level. EU-supported work on plants producing omega-3 fish oils (the Lipgene project) is a case in point.
Pentti Aspila of MTT AgriFood Research Finland, who was involved in the selenium project during the 1980s and 1990s, recalls the public panic that followed headlines linking low levels of the mineral with heart disease and the relief among consumers when government took decisive action. "All kinds of people were making selenium preparations and we almost lost control of it," he says. "Some people might have had too much and others not enough."
The decision to legislate on enrichment of crops at farm level wiped out any competitive advantage for manufacturers selling selenium-fortified products, but it also relieved them of the burden of storing highly toxic materials - a concern that has been raised in relation to folate.
The European Food Safety Authority recently concluded it was extremely unlikely that people could overdose on selenium. But it's powerful stuff. It took just 5-10g per hectare to significantly boost the concentration in 125 Finnish foodstuffs, including meat, dairy and fruit, with a 10-fold increase in wheat.
They might be a quick solution to a dietary disaster, but even at a teaspoonful per hectare, fertilisers are an expensive fix. Selenium-rich mushrooms, recently launched by Hughes Mushrooms of Ireland, 80g of which are said to meet the recommended daily intake, will carry an organic-sized premium, while potatoes with 16% extra selenium from enriched soils in East Anglia, were introduced at Sainsbury for a trial period in January. They sold at slightly more than normal spuds, but did well enough for the retailer to plan reintroducing them later this year.
Professor Margaret Rayman, of the University of Surrey, who carried out a bioavailability study on behalf of Hughes, believes the mineral could have a major impact on public health, particularly in relation to disorders connected with the immune system and cancer, for which there's powerful published evidence. "But we're producing premium products. It might not have the public health outcome we desire because it's the better educated, better-off who buy them," she says.
HarvestPlus, on the other hand, an international alliance working with 63 institutions and more than 100 researchers on increasing bioavailable amounts of zinc, iron and vitamin A in crops such as rice and maize, believes the real advance will come from breeding in powerful amounts of essential nutrients from the start.
Now in its second year, its field-to-plate project monitors nutrient levels of grains genetically prone to access and store higher levels of nutrients in their edible portions. A surprise outcome of the selective breeding programme has been discovering a genetic link between individual varieties of the same crop and retention of nutrients during processing.
"We're trail-blazing here," says HarvestPlus communications manager Bonnie McClafferty. "You may have a variety of orange-fleshed sweet potato which has the same amount [of nutrients] as another but doesn't retain them as well during processing. So retention now becomes a breeding objective."
Biofortification through breeding would not be any more expensive for the farmer or the processor, she argues, although identity preservation within the food chain has yet to be explored. "The development costs are already absorbed. It's just adding another trait, like drought resistance. It doesn't take any more input than any other crop and there are no recurring costs. You put in the seed and it replicates itself."
But, surprisingly, the food industry has shown very little interest so far. "There's lots for the food industry to gain by partnering up with a food initiative like this," argues McClafferty, but she acknowledges there may be consumer barriers to overcome. One of the project's first challenges was persuading people to accept orange-coloured bananas enriched with beta-carotene.
"From a marketing and messaging standpoint, the public sector is so Babes in the Wood. There's a lot we could learn from the Coke folks," she says. "And if they can assign a value to ending hunger, then this is something they could bring into the fold, working with their parallel programmes to achieve similar ends."
As far back as 1992, the consequences on the food chain of severe mineral depletion of the world's soils had reached the radar of the Rio Earth Summit. According to a US Senate report, Europe had lost 72% of its minerals, and North America 85%.
But curiously, the sea remains a reliable source of all 60 elements essential to the human body, which led one doctor to ponder the effect of growing crops in a solution that replicated the ocean.
Most minerals are as essential to plant health as they are to the human body, so it was little surprise that users of his OceanSolution liquid fertiliser reported healthier, more uniform shaped fruits, salads and vegetables. But they also proved tastier and, of equal importance to the food industry, had a markedly longer shelf life.
"The problem is, getting farmers to use these things when prices are generally pretty low is hard," says Oliver Dowding, an organic grower who holds the licence for distribution of OceanSolution in the UK and Europe. He's pressing for large-scale trials, which he believes will demonstrate crops grown with fertilisers enriched by sea minerals are more nutrient rich than those raised in conventional soils."It doesn't come up with a beacon on your forehead that you've not had enough magnesium or whatever in your diet today. It's long-term attrition and it's something the public health service should address."