Microbes, antibiotics and *YES* you should still eat organic

A few months ago, I attended an updated talk – to one presented a couple of years ago – by Victoria gastroenterologist Dr Denis Petrunia. For the most part, Petrunia has what seems to me a very enlightened view of the interior life of his patients, in that he is a firm believer in the power of beneficial bacteria upon health.

Coincidentally I was sent a link to this talk on the microbiome and aging, which mentioned one of the books that is a bit of a touchstone for me on the role of antibiotics on health. In Missing Microbes, Martin Blaser explains how medical demolition of H. Pylori – linked to stomach cancer and ulcers – may be causing multiple other problems, as we don’t fully understand the role H. Pylori has played in its coexistence in the human gut for over 5,000 years.

It’s a book I often recommend (including on this blog) as Blaser’s idea stands as a  strong example of how a single well-intentioned procedure can have far reaching and potentially catastrophic effects on human health. Or, as I think every scientist and engineer ought to have tattooed on their hearts: Humans just don’t know enough to properly mimic nature.

I also think Blaser’s observations about the over-use of antibiotics on children are incredibly valuable. We know these wipe out beneficial as well as pathological bacteria. So doing this with abandon to youthful microbiomes that are at a particularly vulnerable stage of development is inevitably going to adversely affect those functions that beneficial bacteria perform on our health. These include (but won’t be limited to!) weight control, immunity and mental health. We need to remember how recently we’ve learned about the microbiome, and how much more we are learning about its role in our lives, with every day and research paper being published.

At his talk, Petrunia brought another book to my attention this time: 10% Human: How Your Body’s Microbes Hold the Key to Health and Happiness, by Alanna Collen. Another fascinating read. And it did raise a disturbing issue: that antibiotics from factory farming are finding their way even into organic vegetables, through the use of non-organic manure by organic farmers.

There is a loophole in organic farming in Canada, whereby if you document your failed efforts to find organic manure, you may then use manure from conventionally-reared animals. These may or may not have been factory farmed, or dosed with antibiotics, antifungals or other pharmaceuticals. The farmers I have met go to some lengths to document, from the animal owners, the use of pharmaceuticals (e.g. worming treatments in horses) on the source of the manure.

But according to Collen, animals (who are given anywhere from 50 to 80% of the antibiotics made or imported to Canada, depending on whose numbers you use) excrete in their urine and manure around 75% of these antibiotics. That manure, even after composting, can then produce food plants that contain antibiotics.

Unfortunately, Petrunia used this as an argument not to bother eating organic food. It’s an argument I’ve heard from many in conventional medicine who seem willfully uninformed as to the nature of what goes into conventionally grown foods, and the reasons people choose to buy organic. At least it sounds so to me, who probably knows too much, as I keep updating my course materials for CSNN‘s EcoNutrition class, and spend a lot of my spare time on projects for the certified organic Haliburton Farm.

Here are some reasons I think you should try to keep eating certified organic foods, as much as you can manage:

And as for the antibiotics: this is why we vote and lobby our governments for ever-stricter limits on use. Antibiotic resistance is already one of the key medical problems of our time, and it’s not going to get any better. Developing stronger antibiotics is only postponing, not solving, the problem.

Contact your local, regional and national government reps today!

Greenwashing 101

SpinningFoodA new report on the expensive art of greenwashing (PR tactics designed to convince you that black is white, in the world of health, agriculture and foodstuffs) has been released by Friends of the Earth. It reveals many interesting ways agri-food industries seek to manipulate public opinion. The aim is to continue and expand profitable business practices that are, in a nutshell, killing us and deadening the future of a planet on which future generations – of all species – will struggle to survive.

“Rather than responding to changing market demands by shifting the way they do business, these companies are trying to preserve market share and win key policy battles by using “tobaccostyle” PR tactics.”

Mainly it’s a story of money. Great big buckets of money, poured on an overwhelmed and confused public, at the expense of the health of our soil, our ecosystem and our water supplies. Basically it’s encouraging an utter violation of our duty as custodians of this planet.

Here are the key strategies identified in the report, as used by pro-industry campaigners. Please watch for them, and teach your friends and family how to spot them. (Learning basic internet research is a key skill for untangling the source of questionable information sources. The authors of misinformation count on public apathy and gullibility in order to land their messages.)

  • Deploying front groups who appear to be independent, but are in fact made up of industry or PR professionals to promote their messages with consumers and the media
  • Targeting female audiences by trying to co-opt female bloggers, elevating female spokespeople and promoting messages to disparage “organic moms” as elitist bullies
  • Infiltrating social media and creating seemingly independent social media engagement platforms, such as GMO Answers, that are in fact run by industry PR firms
  • Attacking the credibility of scientists, advocates, consumers and journalists who raise concerns about industrial food production’s methods and impacts
  • Partnering with prominent media venues on “native advertising” disguised as real news content that promotes industry messages
  • Using third-party allies to foster an echo chamber of carefully crafted talking points to frame the story of food in favor of chemical intensive industrial food production.

I would encourage anyone involved in education at any level – including those of us trying to educate our elected officials – to read the report and circulate its findings as widely as possible.

It hardly bears repeating, but I will do so anyway, that ample evidence exists, and is building, on the disastrous effects of industrial operations on our ability to feed ourselves well and sustainably. I refer you to my Eco-Nutrition page on this website for a list of resources which do not bear the taint of agri-food PR budgets.

American Campus Breakfast

IdahoBreakfastLast night I arrived at the University of Idaho campus for the environmental literature conference ASLE 2015. For many years I’ve marvelled at the disconnect between conference themes and the food served. Here’s today’s example: the first meal encountered at a conference that champions sustainability and environmental responsibility.

For our US$7.50 we could grab a paper plate and some plastic cutlery and help ourselves from the breakfast buffet. Our journey begins with two colours of yogurt whose shine screams “low fat” – and low fat results in a flavour/texture deficiency that requires copious sweetening to balance – and indeed my dining companion discovers the white version to be heavily sugared and inedible. Alongside lurks a container of surprisingly tasteless cottage cheese (probably made from rBGH dairy), canned fruit cocktail in a sugar syrup, and some lumps of what must be heavily sweetened packaged granola.

We next pass a transitional display of long-life muffins sealed in cellophane, followed by two kinds of sweet (white flour) pastries for the continental set. Michael Pollan’s advice (don’t eat food that won’t rot) rings in my ears as I move on.

On the hot buffet we can choose pancakes (white flour), Tater Tots, scrambled and hard boiled (battery chicken) eggs and sausages. Toast? asks my friend – and behind us we spot an unopened white bread sandwich loaf accompanied by a butter-like substance and a bowl of what could be maple-like syrup. The pancakes and bread, in addition to their general ill-effects (such as total lack of fibre and their disastrous effects on blood sugar), would probably have been made from wheat treated with Roundup as a pre-harvest desiccant, and likely dosed with fungicides as well. Tater Tots, contain white flour, are larded with trans-fats, and would have been made from conventionally-grown potatoes that are heavily dosed in fungicides and pesticides, as Michael Pollan explained to us long ago.

The cereal selection, as shown in the photo, consists entirely of sweetened carbs, with the possible exception of Cheerios (– ohhh, nope, we find modified cornstarch (gmo) and sugar in the breakfast of champions). There is no full fat milk, only skim, 2% and chocolate to put on these things, all of which can be presumed to be rBGH; plus two dairy-free alternatives (I would guess the choices are sweetened and chocolate gmo soy milk).

I bypass the juice (the usual sugary suspects), and of course an array of soda pops for those who needed that extra boost to get them going. Coffee and hot water urns with some Numi tea selections – the only organic substances in the room? – round out the fare.

There is, to be fair, some fresh fruit (slightly battered bananas, oranges, apples – Macintosh? – and red grapes) none of could be expected to be organic, no surprise there. But apples of course are number 1 on the fruits with highest pesticide residues, and grapes rank #5. But non-organic banana production is pesticide-intensive, and conventionally grown oranges are treated with fungicides and pesticides and should be on that list as well.

Once you have your breakfast, you can, if you wish, take your plate and park yourself in front of a large screen TV and enjoy a generous volume of ESPN while you enjoy your meal, although this morning the prime viewing seat was already occupied by a student slumped over his ipad.

Admittedly, this would probably not be an unfamiliar morning ritual for Canadian university students, and indeed pretty much anyone mired in an institution in North America. It is astonishing how slow things are to change when we as a species know better.

This kind of array – I hesitate to call it food – explains much about the health problems that will follow these students through their adult life. We have known for decades the health effects of lack of fibre, presence of pesticides and other contaminants, and extremely high quantities of sugar. I am truly grateful that my university residence days are lost in the mists of a slightly healthier time.

Thanks to our provisioning stop at the Skagit Valley Co-op on our way here, we are buffered from future breakfast visits, but dreading the other two meals. Cooking ourselves is an option, though our dorm’s “full kitchen” comprises a fridge, freezer and microwave, with no implements or dishes of any kind. Sad as I was to see paper and plastic used at breakfast – in the fantasyland of my imagination these may have been compostable – I was grateful we could snag some of these for our personal use. Survival and foraging instincts on high alert.