For the last few days I have had a very earthy food at the front of my mind- potatoes, ever since I traced a weird kitchen smell to an old onion in the back corner of the basket of root vegetables that sits in the bottom of the pantry. While I was searching for it I also found a decent number of potatoes that had put out nice healthy strong roots from their eyes, so past their best eating days. Now, these weren’t any old potatoes, they were all organic, and of a few different varieties.
These days I try to incorporate as much organic food into our diet as I can, but like most of us, am constrained by things like the cost and availability. But I have been gradually making the switch from normal produce over to organic fruit and veges for a long time now and potatoes are one vegetable that I now always buy organic. Root vegetables were one of the types that I started to change fairly early on as I figured that they were sitting surrounded by soil that was full of chemicals for all their growing life so maybe that meant they carried more of the pesticides. Now however, I am aware that potatoes, along with various other vegetables like carrots (another of those root vegetables) and celery, is one of the “Dirty Dozen™” – the produce that is deemed to have the highest levels of residual pesticides. The Dirty Dozen™ is a list that is produced each year by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), and while it is compiled in the USA and relates to USA produce I have no doubts that it is also a reflection of commercial farming practices here in Australia.
I have just finished reading the excellent “Botany Of Desire” by Michael Pollan in which he examines the notion that plants use man to further their own survival just as much as man uses plants. He does this by telling the story of four different plant species that have benefited by our desire for what they offer, namely, the apple for sweetness, the tulip for beauty, cannabis for intoxication and the potato for control. I found it an enthralling read.
The potato has come a long way from its early existence on the slopes of the Andes of South America. In recent times it has been targeted for Genetic Modification and Monsanto produces genetically modified strains that have been widely grown for many decades.
Pollan decided to plant some of Monsanto’s GM potatoes alongside ‘normal’ potatoes in his own garden and then to compare the differences bewteen the two types over the same season. His research took him into organizations such as Monsanto, the FDA, the EPA, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. It also allowed hin to visit three Idaho farms (Idaho is an area of arid scrubby desert where farming is only possible with the aid of irrigation).Two of the farms he visited were growing a mix of Genetically Modified and normal commercially grown potatoes and one farm was organic. The comparisons were striking.
Now I have a real problem with eating any GMO foods and do not consume them knowingly. My preference would be first organic, then commercially grown and last GM. What absolutely horrified me though, as I was reading about the potato in Pollans’ book, was the extent of the fertilizer and pesticide regime that the farmer outlined as the normal program he uses on the commercially farmed crop. The spraying program is huge. It begins in early spring with a soil fumigant and followed throughout the growing season with pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers both sprayed and introduced through the irrigating water.
But two of the practices that the farmer mentioned he would not change were really concerning. The first was that from mid summer the crop needs to be sprayed every two weeks with an organophosphate called Monitor to prevent a virus that causes small brown spots appearing on the tuber. The spots are purely cosmetic, but the Fast Food Companies are far and away the largest buyers of all potatoes grown and they don’t want brown spots on their long, golden, perfect fries, so the crops need to be sprayed. Monitor is deadly, in fact it is so toxic that the farmer and his staff will not enter the field for any purpose for five days after the spraying. This is an arid, irrigated area and even if the irrigation system breaks down he will not go into the field… he would rather lose the whole crop than risk contact with this deadly chemical. Not all potato varieties are susceptible to the virus and so not all are sprayed with Monitor, but this is an example of the extreme danger associated with chemicals that are widely and routinely used both in potato and other food crop production.
The other telling practice that Pollan reports was that in the farmers domestic garden where he grew the food for the family’s own consumption, many of the plants, including the potatoes, were grown organically, and he admitted that when they purchased any commercially grown vegetables from the market they ‘wash and wash and wash’ them before eating them.
Pollan makes the interesting observation that organic farming is much more than simply substituting good for bad. ‘The organic farmer’s focus is on the process rather than on the product’. This process is built on maintaining balance and harmony with the environment.
Having read the details of the strength of the chemicals used in farming potatoes as well as the huge extent of the program, I now have a firm resolve to avoid anything but organic potatoes. I have gone from an ‘it’s a good thing to eat organic potatoes’ to ‘I definitely will eat only organic potatoes both at home and when I am eating out’ attitude thanks to this book. This will be better for all my family.
The EWC has just released the 2012 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™ in the last few weeks and it is well worth taking a look to see for yourself just which foods belong in the ‘Dirty Dozen Plus™’ this year and which ones are in the ‘Clean 15™’. If like me you like to include as much organic foods in the family diet as possible but cannot manage to go totally organic then this might help you decide where to make the best changes to build your family’s better health.
And as for the potatoes I planted, I needed to get them into the ground very quickly in between rain bursts, so I did not actually do any of the soil preparation that I normally would do before planting at all. In fact, I simply popped them into slots I dug in the middle of a weedy slope of heavy clay soil. New growth on potatoes can be quickly and easily decimated by winter frosts but hopefully the new growth on these plants will be nicely protected from the frosts that roll down our hillside through July by all the weeds that I left in the ground above them, and come spring the luxuriant growth of the potato plants will in turn smother those very same weeds. And as a bonus the potatoes should break up that heavy soil sufficiently for me to follow them later with another different but fussier crop. I will keep you posted.
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© Catherine Bullard and Happy Holistic Health, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Catherine Bullard and Happy Holistic Health with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.