The recent news about glyphosate and cancer only highlights a broader problem with our system: our obsession with killing the natural world is poisoning us
EXCERPT: Instead of trying to control our farming environment by killing things off and wasting our greatest fertilizer (poop), we should be cultivating a system that nurtures healthy and diverse soil that actually improves over time.
From chicken to tomatoes, here's why American food is hurting you
The Guardian, 28 May 2019
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* The recent news about glyphosate and cancer only highlights a broader problem with our system: our obsession with killing the natural world is poisoning us
The recent headlines announcing billions of dollars in damages to people who have gotten cancer after using Roundup are just the tip of a very large iceberg. There are over 1,000 lawsuits against Monsanto’s parent company, Bayer, waiting to be heard by the courts. Beyond concerns about that specific glyphosate-based weedkiller, we should be talking about the innumerable other potentially punishing chemicals in our food system.
After all, our food and our health are deeply connected. American healthcare spending has ballooned to $3.5tn a year, and yet we are sicker than most other developed countries. Meanwhile, our food system contains thousands of chemicals that have not been proven safe and many that are banned in other countries.
How did we get to this point? Unlike much of the developed world, the American regulatory system doesn’t operate on the precautionary principle. In other words, instead of potentially hazardous substances being banned from our food, as they are in, say, Europe, chemicals of concern are typically considered innocent until proven guilty. As a result, we are the guinea pigs in our own experiment. And our desire for food that is fast, cheap and abundant only compounds the speed with which we are introduced to new, untested substances.
It has been a deadly race to the bottom. For decades we’ve operated on the principle that if we can selectively kill off the unwanted parts of the natural world, we can control our futures. Farmers operate that way, but also homeowners, highway crews and landscapers. We spread herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, and various other toxins which kill everything around. Even good things.
We’re becoming aware of the loss of what we can see: bees, butterflies, the diverse plant life of our ecosystems. We also need to worry about the invisible microbiome and fungi in the soil that nurture life above, store carbon and absorb water.
In an effort to control and kill nature, we’ve increasingly lost control of it and hurt ourselves. By trying to control crops with herbicides, antibiotics and pesticides, we’ve actually bred bugs, weeds and diseases that are resistant to our control.
And our chemical onslaught will have long-term effects. Our fertilizers and pesticides leach into groundwater and streams, head out to sea and create dead zones and red tides. They also leach into our drinking water. Take Atrazine, a weedkiller made by the Swiss company Syngenta (and also banned in Switzerland), which is found in wells all across America. The list of potential health risks of Atrazine causes is too long to list in its entirety, but it includes cancer, poor birth outcomes and developmental defects.
So how do we reverse this plummeting decline in the quality of our food and health? The food system is a vast, complicated interconnected web – slow to move and prone to inertia. In order to change the outcome, we need to change the paradigm.
You may be surprised that it might start with rethinking our feelings about poop. In a radical departure from modern western medicine, fecal transplants are being developed as a treatment for everything from Clostridium difficile – a deadly infection facing a large number of patients – to food allergies. After decades of hospitals trying to sterilize every living thing, it turns out that, like the soil, we need a diverse microbial system to create and maintain health.
What does this have to do with our food system? The Rodale Institute has been studying conventional and organic agriculture for over 30 years and found that a manure-based organic system is the most productive, most efficient and most healthy way to farm. A manure-based system composts animal wastes and returns it to the land. In a conventional system, animal manure is disposed of – often in toxic pools which pollute the air and water – and purchased chemical fertilizers are used instead.
Instead of trying to control our farming environment by killing things off and wasting our greatest fertilizer (poop), we should be cultivating a system that nurtures healthy and diverse soil that actually improves over time.
In trying to improve our food system, the institute has also been working on a new standard for farming: Regenerative Organic Certification. (Full disclosure: my father coined the term “regenerative organic agriculture” in the late 1980s.) Overseen by the Rodale Institute, regenerative organic practices involve meeting the federal standard for organic, but also animal welfare, the fair treatment of workers, and long-term soil health.
By reimagining our food and our health in the context of a thriving system, we can create a whole new paradigm where instead of trying to kill and control things, we are creating a vibrant, abundant food system that can nourish us long into the future.