POISONING PEI [Part 1: A Closer Look at Organic v. Conventional Food Production Methods]

PREAMBLE

It has long been known that crop pests and pathogens become increasingly tolerant to farm pesticides over time, and increasingly toxic poisons are required to maintain control over those pests and diseases.  Conventional farmers have been losing the battle against these evolving pests and pathogens, and increasingly toxic amounts and concentrations of poisons are being used with each new crop year as a dying system struggles to keep the industrial monocultural model with all its mechanized methods of food production on life support.

As farm chemical concoctions and pesticide regimes become more toxic and prolific within industrial agriculture – which will be examined in more detail in Part II –  governments have tended to become far less “open and transparent” about the volumes of those pesticides being used annually, as well as the increasing toxicity levels of those pesticides.

This is unfortunately the current situation here in PEI and it represents another serious example of a willful refusal to release critically-important information about the state of our environment to the public.

There has been NO ANNUAL PESTICIDE SALES DATA released by Government since 2013-14. That’s 6 years that the government has kept Islanders completely in the dark about the poisons being put in PEI at a time when those poisons are most likely becoming ever more potent and prolific.

I’ve been trying to get updated data for the past two years. When I started that quest, there were just 4 of the most recent years of data that had not yet been made public by the provincial government. Now there’s 6 years, so I decided it was time to share the story of how the PEI Government is stonewalling the release of that data and why certain bureaucrats within Government might be working to keep that information from public scrutiny.

Not knowing how much and what exactly is being put into our soil, water and air is especially concerning given the fact that some of the poisons being used widely in PEI have been deemed “harmful to human health” and have been banned from use in many other jurisdictions. That’s concerning, and will be examined further in Part II.

This is what those PEI Annual Pesticide Sales Data reports look like – this is the last one that was made public (2013=14):Annual Sales Data Pesticdes PEIsales data part 2

That chart is accompanied by one other document, a Retail Sales Data Report, with information about domestic use of pesticides, as well as cumulative non-domestic pesticide sales by category for the year:

non-domestic pesticides

Part 1 of this short series takes a closer look at something we probably all assume to be true: that food produced using industrial monocultural farming techniques is not as healthy as organic food produced without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Nonetheless, I suspect that very few of us realize just how significant the difference in health quality is for food produced using these two approaches.  It is not just about what may be in the food that is unhealthy, such as chemical and pesticide residue; it’s much more about what’s not in the food: the nutrients, trace minerals, etc. that are the constituent elements of healthy human growth.

An increasing number of food scientists are identifying connections between the rapidly worsening health of the general population steadily deteriorating over the past few decades and the continuously diminishing nutrient value of the food we eat daily.  The problem is not simply related to “junk” food diets vs. so-called “healthy” diets – the more hidden problem is the questionable health of much of what we assume is healthy food.

Hilal Elver, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, presented a special report to the general assembly dated 27 February – 24 March 2017. Though the United Nations has no power to impact pesticide regulations directly, it’s a major step to growing worldwide awareness of the issue, especially among influential world leaders.

“A 2013 report commissioned by the European Food Safety Authority reviewed 600 research studies on pesticides and found the strongest associations with certain cancers, asthma, childhood leukemia and Parkinson’s disease, but couldn’t draw any firm conclusions.”

I suspect that the implicit and essential links between (1) government policy decisions which determine the kind of food production system we should have in PEI,  and (2) the health of the food we eat, and the implications that the nutritional and health quality of food has on the health and well-being of our entire population, economy, and health care system areNOT being adequately considered by anyone designing and implementing agricultural policy in the PEI Department of Agriculture and Land.

A true “cost-benefit” analysis would likely reveal an urgent need to shift production methods away from conventional industrial farming heavily dependent on pesticides, and that’s about as likely to happen as Hon. Minister Myers voluntarily making the report on establishing a farmland bank in PEI I was paid $50,000 to research and write public, for pretty much the same reason.

When it Comes to Food, Appearances Can be Deceiving 

componests of soilThe industrial system of food production doesn’t adequately appreciate and respect the complex biodiversity requirements of healthy soil. It relies on chemical inputs that can be measured and controlled, and sees the soil primarily as “ground”  rather than living soil (humus):  as an outdoor factory floor providing a medium to stabilize plants as they grow to uptake carefully positioned pellets of synthetic fertilizers as nutrients for rapid growth, mapped out in grid layouts designed to accommodate large farm equipment.

The complex ecosystems of insects, birds, animals, earthworms, microorganisms and macro-organisms are mostly regarded as negative factors or even “threats” to be removed – often with massive doses of three types of farm pesticides: fungicides, designed to kill or prevent fungus infections such as potato blight; herbicides, designed to kill plants other than the crop plant, genetically-engineered to be tolerant to those toxins; and insecticides, created to kill insects considered pests to the particular crops being grown, but which often indiscriminately kill many other species of insects, many of which are beneficial to plant growth and a healthy soil ecosystem.

This form of agriculture is “imprinted” in our minds as the way to grow food.  It’s what we grew up with and it’s all we know. Yes, you can grow food using this method…the plants are huge and green and beautifully luscious; however, the nutritious value of the food grown can render vegetables that are more appealing in in appearance, completely different in terms of the nutrients and elements on the inside that we ingest into our bodies – the elements, minerals, vitamins, etc. that determine whether the food is actually beneficial for healthy growth and human development.

As stated in “Dirt Poor: Have Fruits and Vegetables Become Less Nutritious?“:

“Because of soil depletion, crops grown decades ago were much richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us get today”

With the focus on “appearance” rather than nutritional value, the “traits” that industrial agriculture have encouraged in plant breeding programs over the past few decades have not been traits to increase the nutritious value of the fruits, and vegetables, but have focused on traits that support the needs of the corporate industrial model, corporate food processing, and the global food trade:

“A landmark study on the topic by Donald Davis and his team of researchers from the University of Texas (UT) at Austin’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry was published in December 2004 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. They studied U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional data from both 1950 and 1999 for 43 different vegetables and fruits, finding “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C over the past half century. Davis and his colleagues chalk up this declining nutritional content to the preponderance of agricultural practices designed to improve traits (size, growth rate, pest resistance) other than nutrition.”

In the research article that looked at many other studies (a “meta-analysis”) titled “Nutrient Levels in Organic v. Conventional Food,” a more precise breakdown of the significant nutritious value of organic food was discussed in terms of various components of what makes for nutritious healthy food:

Vitamin C

“Organic agriculture does not avoid nitrogen application. It does, however, utilize nitrogen from sources that contribute different forms of nitrates to the plants. While conventional agriculture uses synthetic nitrogen that is rapidly available to plant tissues, organic agriculture uses nitrogen from soil, legume fixation, compost, fish emulsion and other more complex nitrogen systems. The impact on plant production of vitamin C is pertinent to both plant and human health.”

Antioxidants

“Numerous studies have found higher levels of antioxidants in organic produce than in conventional. Organic tomatoes contained 79% and 97% higher levels of quercetin and kaempferol, respectively, in a long-term study conducted at the University of California – Davis (Mitchell AE et al., 2007).” 

The conclusion drawn from this review of studies comparing the nutritional value of conventional and organic food was as follows:

Given this recent meta-analysis by Dr. Benbrook et al., there is credible evidence to direct patients to eat organic, plant-based foods because of greater nutrient density per calorie. Ounce per ounce, it seems as though organic foods can provide greater quantities of some nutrients. While this may be upsetting to the conventional food industry, or even simply be brushed off as cursory, further research is underway to look for more evidence of this exciting discovery.

What we refer to as “conventional farming” isn’t really that “conventional” in a big picture historical analysis of food production methods: industrial agriculture is actually a relatively new approach to food production that came into vogue only in the mid-20th century, with the proliferation of chemical additives (both synthetic fertilizers and pesticides), industrial automation, and increased reliance on farm mechanization and bigger and bigger machines to accommodate equally increasing “economies of scale” growth and concentration in the industry.  That too has been happening in spades in PEI as we continue to see a quite rapid elimination of thousands of small farms over the space of just a couple of decades.

For millennia, humans grew food without the use of any such chemical poisons. As Jane Goodale once commented: “How did we ever convince ourselves it was a good idea to grow our food with poison?”

That brainchild idea came from economists, not food scientists …they were only later hired by the corporate food giants to justify and publicly defend the industrial food production model and methods the best way they could.

Although relatively recent, this mode of farming is what we have come to know as “farming” and food production in PEI. We emulate this approach to growing food,  even in our gardening, without even realizing there is absolutely no need to use poisons at all to grow healthy food, as long as soil health and adequate Soil Organic Matter (SOM) is maintained.

I have never used a grain of synthetic chemical fertilizer or any pesticides. Healthy soil produces healthy plants. I’ve never had a problem with any disease or pest – except Colorado Potato beetles with organic potatoes, which have to be “picked” off the plants daily.

Why do so many Island gardeners whack so many poisons and chemical fertilizers on their gardens? Because they believe it’s necessary, because they see farmers using them in their monocultural operations.  We don’t “think” critically about what we’re doing, but just trust that farmers must know what they’re doing because they grow huge, successful crops.

We have to rethink imitating such behaviours and practices – if we don’t understand the reasons why farmers are doing what they are doing, we may imitate bad practices for no good reason.

A good example is how people tend to plant their gardens in “hilled” rows – like potato rows.  This is a really stupid idea – flat beds are far superior for equalizing and retaining moisture distribution between all the plants –  rain rolls down the sides of hilled-rows into the center and often runs right out of the garden, sometimes causing erosion in heavy rains, and far less available water actually soaks into the ground and stays around for plants. Plus it’s a huge unnecessary waste of garden space.  I plant in flat beds about 4 feet wide, which reduces the number of “between row/bed” walkways by at least half.

Yet most Islanders dutifully plant in hilled rows, not realizing that farmers don’t do this for any advantage to the plants or plant growth – it’s not actually the best for plants and water retention –  but only as a concession to accommodate tractor wheels! If you don’t garden with a tractor, stop making room for tractor wheels.

We are “Earth” people – Our Spiritual Connection with Land

I started my undergraduate degree in the Faculty of Arts at UPEI majoring in Religious Studies in 1976. After two years I was somewhat disillusioned with the hallowed halls of higher learning, and embarked on a different journey for a couple of years. I had met an amazing man while at the Trappist Monastery in Rogersville, N.B. – a medical doctor who had a successful private practice in the the U.S., nearly died, promised to work for God if he didn’t, didn’t, then went to Africa to work in the Missions.

While working as a missionary doctor in Africa, Brother Anthony experienced a call to a more solitary life of prayer and eventually found himself living as a Carmelite hermit “attached” to the Trappist Monastery in Rogersville, N.B. He provided free medical services to the community of monks, living in one of the three “hermitages” about 1/4 mile from the actual monastery, in a small cabin in the woods.

Brother Anthony and Kevin Arsenault, 1960

Brother Anthony M. Opisso, M.D., & Kevin J Arsenault (1980)

Long story short – I ended up becoming very good friends with Brother Anthony, and in consultation with the Abbot, it was decided that I would live as a hermit similar to Br. Anthony for a two-year experience.  My “work” was with Brother Anthony for half the scheduled work day (approx. 3 hrs.) and approximately the same 3 hrs for the Trappists, doing the early morning milking (3:30am) of approximately 60 Holstein cows.

Most of what I know about doing research – and gaining insight from information –  I learned from Brother Anthony. His area of expertise was Scripture. He taught himself Latin, Greek, Hebrew and spoke Spanish, French and English fluently.  I typed and edited one of his book manuscripts during that two-year experience titled, “The Book of Understanding.”  Another book he published was titled “The Revelation of the Son of Man,” and had a chapter on the nature of man as understood within the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

We’ve all heard the Biblical story of how God fashioned man from the dust of the earth…there is much insight to be gained about the true nature of humans in this story. As Anthony explains:

We are earth people

Adam – the first man – is a Hebrew word “taken out of” another Hebrew word – which isAdamah meaning “living soil” – in the same way that Adam the person was “taken out of” the  actual living part of the soil, the activator for the genesis of that new life being water.

We can see this same connection between “living soil”  and a grounded understanding of human nature manifested in other languages as well.

In Latin, the word “humus” is the word for that same “living part of the soil” existing near the top of the ground…topsoil.

Etymological dictionaries explain that the origin of the word “human” is the word for “living soil”.  Literally “…earthling, earthly being,” as opposed to the gods.”   Knowing that we are “earthlings” and not gods makes us “humble,” another word with its etymological roots in the same word meaning “living dirt”: “humble…from Latin humilis meaning ‘lowly, humble,’ literally ‘on the ground‘.

Modern Industrial agriculture has lost about the same amount of “humilius” as our soil has lost “humus“.

The intrinsic truths about who and what we are have been largely forgotten, as food is viewed as a commodity for sale in an economy, not the source of our physical life.  We’ve forgotten that we’re all essentially just mysterious piles of glorified humus. We’d be wise to recognize our vested interest in protecting the “humus” and living organic matter in the soil that gives us life before we destroy it completely – when we protect and enhance the health of soil, we’re really protecting and enhancing our own health.

In the New Testament Greek original manuscripts there is a careful distinction made in the use of several words that are unfortunately often all translated into the very same English word “good” in English translations of the New Testament, which obscures insight into the original meaning of the texts: one Greek word is “Agathos ” and the other is “Hōraioi“.

Agathos means something is “really” good – outside and inside: “of good constitution or nature; useful, salutary; good, pleasant, agreeable, joyful, happy; excellent, distinguished, upright, honourable.

Hōraioi means something is “really beautiful” – on the outside (appearance): “beautiful, handsome, excellent, eminent, choice, surpassing, precious, useful, suitable, commendable, admirable, beautiful to look at, shapely, magnificent.

In Chapter 23, verse 27, Jesus chastises the pharisees for being “beautiful” (Hōraioi) in appearance, convincing people they were also “good” (agathos) on the inside, when they were actually full of death:

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”

Industrial agriculture is the world’s modern form of Pharisaism.…”pretty” on the outside; not so good on the inside. Yet pretty is preferred thanks to confusion between “pretty” and “good” (and of course, tons of influential corporate advertising).

The amount of poison and empty nutrition hiding inside attractive looking produce we purchase is largely secret – it is information that is currently being protected and kept privileged.

Without healthy soil, it is impossible to grow healthy food.

Without healthy food, it’s impossible to be a healthy human being.

Summary

The current economic system guiding agricultural policy and practice in PEI aims to achieve ever-increasing yields and reduce input costs to maximize profits.  The factors which are given priority and always taken into account in planning are those variables that either increase or decrease costs and/or profits.

What’s valued as “success” in the industrial model of food production is to consistently increase yield-per-acre ratios to maximize the volume of product having all the desired traits that corporate purchasers want for processing or export retail fresh market sales around the globe.

Traits that relate to appearance, tolerance to handling and shipping, specific traits best suited to industry’s needs to process and/or export bulk product [e.g., genetically-engineered foods that offer longer shelf life but lower nutritional value (think big hard cores in tomatoes that make them durable but tasteless)] – not traits enhancing the nutritional value of the food.

The cumulative impact of generations of people consuming increasingly unhealthy food creates an unhealthy population.  When food is devoid of what the body needs for healthy development, what else would we expect?

Coupled with less nutritious raw food products is an increasing amount of toxic residues from pesticides, many of which are not simply topical, but “systemic” and enter the plants.

In the case of most soybeans and corn grown in PEI, it’s genetically engineered with a bacteria that transforms the plant into it’s own “pesticide-making” machine – every cell is actually producing poison. These seeds are not registered as “foods” with our Federal Government, but “pesticides”.

Most genetically modified (GM or genetically engineered) corn ends up as ingredients in processed food or as animal feed. Over 80% of the grain corn grown in Canada is GM with the BT gene. Almost all the canola grown in Canada is genetically engineered – approximately 95%, used extensively in food processing. At least 60% of the soybeans grown in Canada are genetically modified (GM or genetically engineered). Most of the GM soy grown in Canada ends up as ingredients in processed food or animal feed.

Part II of this short series will look at the rapid increase in “toxicity” with farm pesticides currently being used by farmers in PEI, both with the types of poisons being used as pesticide “applications” [at the time of seed sowing and throughout the growing season]  as well as the increased use of extremely toxic “pesticide seed coatings,” which is information that the PEI Government is not making public and is likely not even collecting.

 

 

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