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Sunday, July 8, 2012

28: An Argument for Organics

Several months ago, I received an email forward, a YouTube clip of a third-grade student presenting a science project. This eight- or nine-year-old girl had undertaken to grow sweet potato vines at home. Her project ended up morphing into something quite different—and quite sobering.

She told how she and her grandma had bought a sweet potato at a grocery store and tried to sprout it in a jar of water. In three weeks’ time, nothing had happened. They bought another, thinking there must be something wrong with the first. Again, nothing. They went back and talked to a man in the produce department. He said, “These will never grow vines. At the farms, they’re treated with a chemical called ‘Bud Nip.’” Instead he got her one from the organic section.

Over the period of a month, the new potato grew some “wimpy little vines.” Then the girl and her grandma went to an organic food market and bought yet another sweet potato. This one took off and quickly surpassed the growth of the second.

She googled Bud Nip. “They also spray it on blueberries,” she says, “carrots, onions, spinach, tomatoes, beets, and cranberries.”

Just for fun, I, too, bought a sweet potato at my local grocery store and another one from an organic outlet in Edmonton. The picture above shows what they looked like after sitting in water for two months. (Apparently my potato from the mainstream store was not quite as dead as the little girl’s first two efforts.)

And I, too, googled Bud Nip. It also goes by Chlorpropham and at least ten other names. Its regulatory status is such that products containing it must bear the signal word “Caution.” (Hello? Have you ever seen any such label in any produce department?) It is used for pre-emergent control of weeds in the various crops that the young girl mentions above and is also sprayed on, post-harvest, to prevent sprouting and to increase the shelf-life of root vegetables—plus legumes, seeds, and pretty much every kind of produce except for leafy things like spinach and lettuce. (Leafy stuff has its own chemical issues.) Chlorpropham penetrates through the entire vegetable, so washing it doesn’t help.

It is shown to be toxic to honey bees, which are crucial to the pollination of these crops, and to amphibians (like frogs) and other aquatic life.

Chlorpropham can cause irritation to the eyes or skin. Symptoms of acute toxicity in lab animals include listlessness, uncoordination, nose bleeds, protruding eyes, bloody tears, breathing difficulties, exhaustion, inability to urinate, high fevers, and death. Autopsies reveal permanent degenerative changes in the liver and kidneys, as well as congestion of the brain, lungs, and other organs. A farmer working with this chemical could be at risk for the degree of exposure that would constitute acute toxicity.

Chronic toxicity, a little bit over a long period of time (ie, from eating the produce), can lead to anything from retarded growth to cancer. This chemical can also cross a mother’s placenta into the developing fetus.

This is a pretty horrifying profile, and it’s just one of thousands of chemicals we’re unwittingly exposed to: just one good look at a single herbicide, never mind the myriad of other herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. The accompanying photograph alone is enough to make me want to eat organic. Did you know that most pesticides, herbicides, and nitrogen fertilizers used today are by-products of the petroleum industry? I don’t want to eat that stuff!

But what I have come to understand in the past year is that eating organic is not just about avoiding what’s in our food that isn’t meant to be there, it’s also about getting what should be there and generally isn’t. Chemical farming is a double-edged sword.

Through the knowledge of some of the local Hutterites and that of my own dear husband, I now understand that our soils are so damaged by chemicals that they have become simply an inert medium in which to grow crops artificially.

Healthy soil contains tiny microbes that break down organic matter and convert macro-minerals, micro-nutrients, and trace elements into an ionic form that can be taken up by plants. Chemically abused soils are dead: they no longer contain these vital, living organisms. Hence, the crops grown in these soils do not contain the many nutrients they were designed to give us. We hear a lot of talk today about our depleted soils, but the fact is, even if the minerals might still there, we’re not getting them. The people who eschew nutritional supplements, saying, “I get everything I need from my food!” are sadly mistaken.

Thanks to chemical fertilizers, our produce departments abound with lush-looking vegetables. But it’s an illusion, a deception. Besides being laced with who-knows-what chemicals, they are nutritionally impotent.

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