Avoid the Dirty Dozen
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People often ask me, “What foods should I make sure are organic?” What they are really saying is that they don’t want to eat only organic food because of the expense, but realize there are some foods that are more heavily sprayed with toxic agricultural chemicals and that they’d like to avoid them.
Well, okay. There are many lists calling themselves “The Dirty Dozen” most-sprayed crops, but here are 15 foods most of these lists agree on. It’s not just insecticides that dump conventional foods onto a list like this, but also the heavy use of fungicides, herbicides, antibiotics, hormones, and other disruptive chemicals. Some of these foods carry a load of many chemicals. Strawberries, for instance, can be treated with more than 50 agricultural chemicals. So here are the dirty 15. Read it and weep, because many of the most pleasurable foods we have are here:
- Red Raspberries
- Bell Peppers
- Spinach and Leafy Greens
My advice, though, is to eat organic food only, because even if a food is not on thus list, that doesn’t mean it’s been grown without agricultural poisons. It may not be as loaded with toxics as these foods, but conventional agriculture means that chemicals are used to farm, even if it’s just the chemical fertilizers used to fertilize the fields. Any way you look at it, conventional agriculture is destructive of the natural ecosystems it affects; harmful to the animals it raises; dangerous for the farm workers, their families, and the farmers; uses up precious resources like topsoil, and is controlled by huge corporations that are interested chiefly in making money no matter what damage they do.
In a recent blog, I told you about the dangers of the herbicide called Round-Up, and the frightening discoveries of Don Huber, a retired professor at Purdue. Since then, some new revelations have come to light concerning Round-Up. It turns out that chemical industry regulators have known for years that Round-Up causes birth defects, but have hidden that information from the public, according to a new report recently released by Earth Open Source.
The report was written by a group of scientists and academicians listed, along with the full report, at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/57277946/RoundupandBirthDefectsv5.
The report, “Round-Up and Birth Defects: Is the public being kept in the dark?” found that regulators knew as long ago as 1980 that glyphosate, the chemical on which Round-Up is based, can cause birth defects in laboratory animals.
But despite such warnings, and although the European Commission has known that glyphosate causes malformations since at least 2002, the information was not made public. Instead, regulators misled the public about glyphosate’s safety. Although glyphosate was originally due to be reviewed in 2012, the Commission decided late last year to delay it until 2015. The chemical will not be reviewed under more stringent, up-to-date standards until 2030.
“Our examination of the evidence leads us to the conclusion that the current approval of glyphosate and Round-Up is deeply flawed and unreliable,” wrote the report’s authors. “What is more, we have learned from experts familiar with pesticide assessments and approvals that the case of glyphosate is not unusual.
“They say that the approvals of numerous pesticides rest on data and risk assessments that are just as scientifically flawed, if not more so,” the authors added. “This is all the more reason why the Commission must urgently review glyphosate and other pesticides according to the most rigorous and up-to-date standards.” The report recommends the removal of Round-Up from the market.
Researchers have also found that genetically-modified crops created to withstand Round-Up are being colonized by a pathogen that may cause animal miscarriages. Don Huber, professor emeritus at Purdue, wrote an open letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack requesting a moratorium on deregulating crops genetically altered to be immune to Round-Up.
Huber wrote, “It is well-documented that glyphosate promotes soil pathogens and is already implicated with the increase of more than 40 plant diseases; it dismantles plant defenses by chelating vital nutrients; and it reduces the bioavailability of nutrients in feed, which in turn can cause animal disorders.”
Coming Next Week: Must We Kill to Live?
Your Body Is an Organic Landscape
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Scientists have a term for the bacteria that colonize your skin—commensals. A great majority of these aren’t disease-causing germs; they are health-promoting bacteria that perform needed tasks. They coat the body as part of the human biome—a term that means all the organisms that live on us or within us. You may wash yourself with soap and water, but there will still be about a million bacteria on every square centimeter of your body.
Dr. Julia A. Segre of the National Human Genome Research Institute and her colleagues recently reported in the magazine called Genome Research that that they’ve discovered six different tribes of bacteria that inhabit each niche of the human ecosystem. Each tribe has a specific function to perform. For instance, one tribe inhabits the skin in the crook of the elbow, moisturizing the skin there by processing fats exuded by the skin.
Dr. Segre’s team is part of the Human Biome Project, an effort to catalog and describe the functions of the microorganisms that colonize at least 20 sites on the human body, and maybe many more. Interestingly, the composition of the bacterial colonies changes from site to site on the body and from person to person at the same site. That means that the colonies in the crook of your elbow differ from the colonies on your forearm, and while the same may be true for your friend across town, the tribal composition of your elbow crook will differ from the tribal composition of her elbow crook.
By far the majority of bacteria in the human biome live in the human intestine where they work to break food down into nutrients to be absorbed to feed the body, among many other functions. We’ve known for years that our physical bodies—our eyes, ears, muscles, and other tissues—are constructed from about 10 trillion cells, but that there are 100 trillion cells in the human intestines. So that means that nine out of every 10 cells in our bodies are gut bacteria. We’ve also known that the bacteria in the human biome have 100 times more genes than the 20,000 genes in the human genome.
Now researchers have discovered that gut bacteria fall into categories, too—three categories to be precise. These categories are called enterotypes, which means types of gut bacteria. They are differentiated by what they do and the enzymes that they produce. The enzymes are particularly important, because these catalytic substances aid in the dismantling of our foodstuffs and the creation of vitamins and other nutritionally important substances for us. Without them, we might become deficient in one or more of these important vitamins. So, the relationship between our body and its intestinal flora is symbiotic. We give them a place to live and food to work on, and they produce valuable nutritional substances that keep us healthy. The enterotypes share many functions, but are categorized into three types by how much of certain enzymes they produce:
Enterotype 1 produces more enzymes for making vitamin B7 (biotin), and includes high levels of bacteria called Bacteroides.
Enterotype 2 produces more enzymes for making vitamin B1 (thiamine), and includes high levels of bacteria called Prevotella.
Enterotype 3 produces more enzymes for making vitamin B12 (cobalamin), vitamin K, and includes high levels of bacteria called Lactobacillus acidophilus.
So what’s all this have to do with organic food? Well, we learn from the practice of organic gardening and farming that to feed our plants, we need to feed the soil microorganisms in the soil. And to feed ourselves properly, we need to feed the intestinal bacteria that perform the same function in our intestine that soil microorganisms do in a good organic soil. In fact, many of these microorganisms in intestine and soil are the same critters, doing the same work to enhance health. And what do these microorganisms like? The answer is fresh and raw organic matter uncontaminated by agricultural chemicals.
We also know that if a field—the skin of the earth—is plowed up and doused with herbicides and pesticides, the first creatures back are not beneficial plants and insects. The first creatures back are the opportunists that cause disease—rough weeds like green briar and plant-eating insects. It’s only when there are enough plants and bugs to eat them that the beneficial, insect-eating bugs can return.
Washing yourself with antibacterial or antiseptic soap destroys the colonies of beneficial bacteria on your skin. The surest way to smell bad is to use deodorants that wreak havoc on your skin bacteria, because the first organisms back are going to be those that feast on sweat and dead skin cells, creating body odor. When you take a course of antibiotics by mouth, you are dropping bombs on your intestinal flora. There may be reasons to disinfect your hands—if you’re a surgeon, for instance—and take antibiotics, such as when you have a nasty infection. But do it only when necessary, and then re-establish healthy skin and gut colonies by using gentle soap and eating organic food.
The bottom line: wash your body daily with plain soap, such as Dove. And if you must take antibiotics, eat plenty of fresh raw fruits and vegetables and take a probiotic that resupplies your intestine with gut bacteria, such as organic yogurt or acidophilus milk. Natural pharmacies also carry probiotics.
Think of your body as an organic farm for bacteria and other microorganisms and treat it that way.
The Magical Substance Called Humus
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Humus is what’s left over after soil organisms finish digesting the remains of plants. Its presence in the soil is an indication of the soil’s health. It is black, crumbly, and spongy. If you garden and add mulch and compost to your soil, you are increasing its eventual supply of humus, and building the health of the soil and the plants that grow in it. And humus is magical stuff.
Humus particles are very small—the size of small cracker crumbs. But if you had a piece of humus the size of a Volkswagen beetle, you’d see that its surface was not smooth, but the opposite of smooth. It would be entirely ridged, folded, with deep channels running into the interior. If fact, if you laid the surface of the particle out flat, it would cover an area the size of a football field.
This humus surface carries a negative electric charge, which gives humus one of its most beneficial properties for the gardener. It is the prime mover in what soil scientists call the Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) of a soil. Here’s how it works. You’ll remember from high school chemistry that when a soluble salt is dissolved in water, it becomes ionized. It comes apart, into positive ions (cations) and negative ions (anions). For an example, table salt (NaCl) becomes Na+ and Cl-. The cations are often metals like potassium, zinc, and magnesium. Or they are gases like hydrogen and nitrogen, or substances like phosphorus and carbon. All these cations and many others are needed by plants to build their tissues.
The Cation Exchange Capacity of a soil is a naturally-occurring system whereby these fertilizing elements reach a certain saturation in the moisture in the soil, and are held at that level. When a plant takes up a cation of potassium, for instance, the CEC takes another cation of potassium from storage and floats it into the soil moisture, keeping the saturation steady. And where are the cations stored? On the negatively charged surface of humus particles. Remember that humus particles have an enormous surface area for their size, and can store trillions of cations in a bucket of good, organic soil. Thus the CEC keeps the soil solution, as soil moisture is called, well stocked with all the elements plants need for healthy growth. And these elements are recycled in an organically-fertilized soil by the actively decaying organic matter of composted plant remains, stored on the surface of the humus produced from those plant remains, and held in just the right amounts in the soil solution by the CEC. The only thing an organic gardener or farmer has to do is to add compost to the soil on a regular basis. Nature has strong systems in place to do the rest.
Now consider what happens under conventional agriculture. Chemical fertilizers are composed of just three elements: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These are in soluble form. There is no organic matter in a bag of chemical fertilizer, and thus no humus forms. The natural CEC is non-functional. Rains wash the soluble fertilizers into the ground water and the local aquifers. The nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium fertilize ponds and lakes, causing eutrophication, the process by which a body of water becomes polluted with nutrients from chemical fertilizers, thereby encouraging the growth and decomposition of oxygen-depleting plant life like algae, and resulting in harm to other organisms—like the whole watery ecosystem from fish to fowl. Much of the expensive and fossil-fuel-based chemical fertilizers runs off without reaching the crops it’s intended for, causing great environmental damage.
But that’s not all. Humus is spongy and holds water—a great deal of water. Studies have shown that organically-managed soils can sail through periods of drought by relying on the water held by the spongy humus and decaying plant matter. Conventional crops have no such advantage.
Further, the application of chemical nitrogen turns off one of nature’s most beneficial soil systems—the ability of certain bacteria to take nitrogen from the air and convert it into organic fertilizer. These nitrogen-fixing bacteria do the job for free. But they are sensitive to the amount of nitrogen in the soil, and only make as much fertilizer as needed by the plants. When soluble chemical nitrogen fertilizers like ammonium nitrate are used, they flood the soil with nitrogen. The nitrogen-fixing bacteria say, in effect, “This soil doesn’t need any more nitrogen,” and they stop working. And once such bacteria turn themselves off, it’s off for good. And so a perfectly good, natural, free system of supplying plants with nitrogen is replaced in conventional agriculture by one that disengages the CEC, turns off the nitrogen-fixing bacteria, forces plants into quick, weak, unhealthy growth, and runs off to pollute the environment.
So why does Big Ag continue to do this? Because you can sell a bag of chemical fertilizer, while many of nature’s systems are free.
Why Farming Must Become Organic in the Future
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When most people think of farms and farmers, they think of a bucolic landscape with bright, sunny skies, fields of corn, and pastures of plenty. It’s a healthy place, full of life, hard work, and down-to-earth people.
That’s so 19th Century. Sure, there are still farms like that—in the Amish and Mennonite communities, and scattered here and there arounjd the country. But for the most part, farms aren’t like that anymore. Small family farms were pretty much driven out of business by Big Ag in the 1970s. If you’re old enough, you may remember the suicides, heartbreak, and tractor assaults on state capitols by family farmers in those days as Big Ag drove them to ruin and then bought up their farms at fire sale prices.
Today’s factory farms are cut from the same bolt of cloth as Big Oil. We run our cars on fossil fuels, with all the rapaciousness that follows: “Drill, baby, drill,” Saudi funding of Islamist extremism, wars for oil, oil spills like the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico—one can go on and on.
Factory farms are based on fossil fuels and are just as rapacious in their own way. The toxic chemicals used to kill insects, weeds, and funguses; the petroleum used to make chemical fertilizers; the hazardous working conditions for farm workers, and the bottom-line demands of corporate agriculture all conspire against the environment. Soil erosion is rapidly depleting America’s fertile heartland. Toxic chemicals flow into the Mississippi River and create havoc with wildlife as contaminated water drains into the Gulf of Mexico. Factory farmed food is depleted of nutrients and full of toxic chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones, causing health problems for human beings.
Meanwhile, the world’s population is exploding and is estimated to reach 10 billion people within a few decades, if not sooner. They have to eat, and they will have to be fed.
But factory farming is not sustainable. The harder we farm the arable land in the world with factory techniques, the more we exacerbate the problems these techniques cause. We need to think about farming in a more sustainable way.
Enter organic farming. Rather than depleting the soil, organic farming actually improves the soil as it grows crops. That’s because crop wastes and cover crops grown in place as green manure are recycled, through the composting process and by disking cover crops into the soil, back to the land. This actively decaying organic matter causes an explosion of benign microorganisms in the soil, resulting in many tons of soil life in every organic acre. A soil rich in organic matter is far less prone to erosion than a depleted soil with hardly any spongy organic matter in it. Such a rich soil also holds water, making organic fields less vulnerable to drought. And the foods grown on organic farms are free of toxics, contain more nutrients, and tend to taste better. As for the bottom line, once soil has made the transition to organic, yields of major crops like corn, soybeans, and hay tend to be equal to or higher than the yields of factory farms.
Factory farming is just not going to be able to provide for the future needs of mankind without causing irreparable damage to the earth. Organic farming will provide, and will improve the earth as it does so.