I just read an article at the Hobby Farms website, Grow Smart: Keep Food Safe. I was frustrated with it for a number of reasons, but the underlying theme of this article was that we should be scared to raise our own food. What better way to keep the food production in the hands of the big agricultural corporations than to instill fear in those of us that would challenge them? I would recommend reading this short article first (follow this link), and then come on back and see what I have to say about it.
The article documents an interview with Roy Ballard, Purdue Extension educator for agriculture and natural resources. The Extension Services were meant to disseminate information to local farmers and home producers to make their lives better. Unfortunately, it seems that they are becoming just another mouthpiece for Big Ag. Here are a few of his quotes and my issues with them:
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a commercial wholesale grower, hobby farmer, home gardener or direct marketer, the risk of food-borne illness is the same and the precautions that need to be taken are very similar.”
Really? Does he really believe that the risk of my eating a handful of blackberries I picked from the canes growing up the wall in my garden with nothing ever sprayed on them and never even being irrigated is the same as eating blackberries imported to the U.S., which were grown in Mexico, grown under who knows what conditions, sprayed with a variety of chemicals, and then shipped to the local grocer, stocked, and sat on the shelf for a few days before being bought? This fails the common sense test, and unfortunately, I think he really believes what he said.
“Most home gardeners are very cavalier about food-borne illness in the garden. People eat veggies right out of the field or rub off a tomato with a bird dropping on it and then eat it. Some who are at highest risk could even die from related illness.”
This bothers me for a few reasons. First, his comment about “people eating veggies right out of the field”… yeah, I do this. I have no issue with it. I know how I raised my plants. I know what is clean and not clean. Snapping off a floret of cauliflower from your heirloom variety and eating it a half second later is one of the joys of raising your own food. As a physician, I am dumbfounded how people think that the “modern” way of doing things is so vastly superior to how humans lived for thousands of years. I often ask, “Isn’t it amazing that the human species has survived so long without [insert modern item/technique here]?” It is depressing how often people don’t realize I am being sarcastic.
Second, he lumps eating “veggies right out of the field” with “Rub[bing] off a tomato with a bird dropping on it” and then eating it. These two are not the same thing. Eating bird feces is stupid. Eating a fresh, clean tomato just picked from under its shelter of leaves is delightful. To lump these together is to make the uninformed reader pair these practices in their mind. It causes a person to have just a tiny bit of doubt about the food they are raising. If they are not raising their own food, then it adds a gross factor to gardening. It discourages that person from ever starting a garden. It causes them to feel just a little more protected by the industrial food complex who must know more about keeping fruit and vegetables clean than they do, since they never really thought about it before in the first place. Subtle indoctrination is what I call it.
Third, he doesn’t stop at the subtle. Mr. Ballard then drops the “some who are at highest risk could even die from related illness” comment into the article. Here is the flat out fear-mongering approach to keep a person from starting a garden. Who is at highest risk? He doesn’t say. Is it me? You? Our kids? Gosh, I don’t know? Maybe we should just let the “professionals” raise our food for us and keep us safe! This is exactly what we should NOT do. We do not need to be relying on multi-million and multi-billion dollar agri-corporations who utilize and take advantage of anonymous farmers and farm workers from around the globe to keep us safe. If we want more food security, if we want more food safety, then we need to be growing our own food. We need to be buying locally from farmers we know and trust.
“Really think about all the places where microbes can contact your food all along the production, harvest and preparation process. That chain of quality, safety and cleanliness has to remain unbroken from start to finish.”
It’s not that I completely disagree with this statement, but coming on the heels of what was said previously, I need to point out that our food does not need to be sterile. We don’t need to spray all our vegetables with bleach, and then rinse all the bleach off with previously boiled water, and then cook our food until all the nutrients are destroyed, just to make sure we don’t accidentally ingest a few microbes. Our bodies are amazingly able to handle many of those dreaded microbes, and in fact, our bodies would not work as well without some of them. We need to fight the notion that all bacteria and fungi are bad for us. We need to fight the notion that modern science and medicine have it all figured out. One hundred years ago, who would have thought we would be giving bacteria pills (probiotics) to patients with gastrointestinal issues? Of course, they probably didn’t need them then, but the point is that we still have so much to learn about how the body functions. To push an idea (the unbroken “chain of quality, safety, and cleanliness”) that is probably needed (due to the large-scale, internationally shipped, food system) and discourages alternatives (locally grown or home grown food) is the height of arrogance and foolishness. We need to change this.
“Municipal is best, groundwater second-best and then surface water.”
This quote was in the discussion on irrigation water. There is no way we can accept such a generalized statement. There are too many variables. If your groundwater has contaminants, and we should be regularly testing our well/groundwater, then obviously we should avoid using it on our fruits and vegetables. Most municipal water is going to be treated with chlorine and fluoride and may contain residuals of hundreds of other chemicals that have been deemed to have a low enough concentration to be safe. That doesn’t sound like the best choice to me. However, I do agree that surface water is the last choice for irrigation of fresh fruits and vegetables. Ideally, fresh rain is the best irrigation source, followed by stored rain water that has an initial run-off redirection system in place to keep the stored water uncontaminated, then depending on local conditions either well/groundwater or municipal water. But I shouldn’t be the one needing to point this out.
In conclusion, I need to be fair and state that there are some good comments on contamination avoidance, but the article is so besot with fear and generalizations, that I cannot recommend it. Hobby Farms is a good magazine, but they should do better than print an article of this caliber.
John Kitsteiner, MD