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!

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Glyphosate in your Food

There’s been a lot of concern about the amount of Glyphosate (Roundup) we are exposed to in foods. There have been many questions raised in recent years about the health consequences of exposure: it is a suspected carcinogen, endocrine disruptor and implicated in infections caused by its antimicrobial action on gut bacteria.

Much more study is needed, as we simply don’t know what the consequences – to human, animal, soil and planetary health – will be of all these years of breathing, eating and drinking this pesticide.

As many people know, Glyphosate is used in GMO “Roundup-Ready” crops. It is also used pre-harvest on conventionally grown grain and cereal crops (allowed in Canada since 1992).

Monsanto’s selling point originally was that it was a ‘safe’ pesticide and claimed that it biodegraded harmlessly after killing weeds, and didn’t remain in the soil. Monsanto was successfully sued by French environmental groups ten years ago for these false claims, and the suit upheld on appeal.

Glyphosate has never simply disappeared after application. It has been found in breast milk, women’s blood, urine, animals’ organs, air, rain, and streams, and has crossed the placental barrier in animals. The Detox Project is doing valuable work in trying to establish how widespread the contamination is in humans by inviting people to participate in its study.

Meanwhile….

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has found glyphosate residue in just about one-third of 3,188 food samples tested (fresh produce, processed fruits and vegetables, grain products, juice and other beverages, bean-pea-lentil products, soy products and baby food). Nearly half of the pea/bean/lentil samples contained glyphosate residue; grain products and soy were also high; safety levels were exceeded in 4% of grain and 1.3% of all foods tested. One-third of the baby foods tested contained glyphosate, although none scored above the levels considered safe.

This of course doesn’t address the toxic load we all carry in this contaminated world. A safe level of one toxin may accumulate over time and possibly interact with other toxins we ingest. And we don’t know what else is in Roundup as the adjuvants (other ingredients) in patented formulae don’t have to be disclosed in the interests of protecting the profit margins of the manufacturer. And the CFIA has decided not to disclose the details of the foods they tested – brands, varieties, anything we might want to use to make better food choices – “for confidentiality reasons”.

So for me, certified organic food continues to be the best choice, wherever I can afford it.

Nutrition for Farmers!

My work at Haliburton Community Organic Farm in beautiful Victoria, BC has evolved in interesting directions over past the nine years. After completing my studies in holistic nutrition, I established my nutritional consulting business there, thinking it would be a great fit with a certified organic farm.

Last year I began running the farm’s weekly CSA (food box) program, sharing recipes and nutritional tips with around 50 subscribers to our Spring and Summer program –now accepting 2017 subscribers 🙂

And I ran some food-related programming for last summer’s interns, including this fun fermentation workshop!

This year looks like the most exciting yet. The farm’s latest initiative is the Haliburton EcoFarm School, launching in March 2017. We’ll be training students in certified organic farming practices, biodiversity & ecosystem restoration, and– holistic nutrition! As one of the core educational leads, I will be providing nutritional coursework and food preparation workshops to a new crop of organic farmers.

Think you know someone who wants to put certified organic farming together with biodiversity and nutrition? Email the EcoFarm School for more information, or to register. We’re only taking 10 people this year, and the program will cost less than in future years, so check out our amazing program!

Keeping Clean – Pesticides and Produce in 2016

organic-infographic-canada-654The 2016 Environmental Working Group‘s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce is out. This is the guide known as the Dirty Dozen/Clean Fifteen, helping consumers to understand which foods contain higher and lower levels of pesticide. It was intended to help us know which foods had the highest pesticide residues, where it would be most important to buy organic, and which had less risk because of lower residues.

You’ll hear people argue that the amount of pesticide residue found on conventionally-grown produce is tiny, and within allowable limits.

But consider these tiny, cumulative elements consumed three (or more) times a day over a lifetime, combined with other environmental toxins. According to Mt Sinai Hospital,

Over 4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals are released by industry into the nation’s environment each year, including 72 million pounds of recognized carcinogens.

Of the top 20 chemicals discharged to the environment, nearly 75% are known or suspected to be toxic to the developing human brain.

Many of these chemicals are not adequately tested before release. We have no idea how these chemicals interact with each other in our bodies. What we do know is that many, if not most pesticides have neurotoxic effects, meaning they affect our brains and neurological systems – more so the vulnerable developing brains of children – and many are known or suspected carcinogens. Reason enough to be very, very picky about what we eat.

The EWG’s report had some interesting findings. Strawberries have bumped apples off the Number 1 position of the Dirty Dozen list, so be sure to buy or grow those organically.

It will come as no surprise to readers of Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire that the average potato “had more pesticides by weight than any other produce”.

The cleanest food on the EWG’s list of 48 was the avocado. Next cleanest was sweetcorn – with one large disclaimer: corn is a major genetically-modified crop.

About 80% of maize, or field corn (the unsweet corn used in processed foods like cornstarch and high fructose corn syrup, fed to animals, and used for popcorn) is GM. Maize is usually modified with Bt, a bacterium that kills caterpillars who ingest any part of the plant. It may also be genetically modified to be Roundup resistant, meaning it will have been sprayed with glyphosate. Glyphosate is under increasing scrutiny for its damaging health effects. In 2011, Monsanto began producing GMO sweetcorn, the kind humans eat. GM sweetcorn is still a small proportion of what’s on the market, and non-GM sweetcorn is low in pesticide residues. So you need only ask the farmer or market you buy it from if it is in fact genetically-modified, and don’t buy it if it is. Asking this question lets producers know you don’t want it and keeps it out of our kitchens.