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Happy Earth Day!

I woke up to discover that today is Earth Day, but had a vague sensation that it had reappeared remarkably quickly. Earth Day was founded in 1976, but apparently on two different dates. San Franciscan, John McConnell very logically chose the Spring Equinox, March 21, to raise awareness of the need to protect our planet. For reasons unknown to me, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson chose April 22. Both men acted out of concern for our planet 46 years ago. I’m thinking it doesn’t hurt to raise awareness twice.

When we left our BC desert paradise last weekend, the fruit trees were in full bloom. While we fished for trout on our lake, we listened to that familiar 90’s tune, Peaches: ”Millions of peaches, peaches for me.” However, when we consider the nutritional value of those peaches, we may be shocked to learn that the mineral content of fruits and vegetables have declined by 5 to 40% since Earth Day was established![1]

This is the first sad side effect of using chemical fertilizers that concerns me. Chemical fertilizers disrupt and deplete the mineral content of our soil, and consequently the vitamin and mineral content of the foods we grow. After analyzing more than 2,000 soil samples from the Mississippi River Basin, University of Waterloo Researchers found evidence of significant build-up of nitrogen far below the soil surface at depths of 10 inches to 3.2 feet.[2] Disruption of the soil may seem like a small price to pay for fat, nutrient-depleted, cheap produce, but as Road 13 Winery has aptly put it: “It’s All About the Dirt.”

"In numerous publications spanning more than 100 years and a wide variety of cropping and tillage practices, we found consistent evidence of an organic carbon decline for fertilized soils throughout the world," says University of Illinois soils scientist Charlie Boast.

This not only means less organic matter for plants to absorb through their roots, it also means a huge increase in carbon emissions! The carbon that belongs in our soil is ending up in the air we breathe. This was brand new information for me:

“Soils around the world have lost, on average, at least 1–2 percentage points of organic matter in the top 30 cm since chemical fertilizers began to be used. This amounts to some 150,000–205,000 million tons of organic matter, which has resulted in 220,000–330,000 million tons of CO2 emitted into the air or 30 percent of the current excess CO2 in the atmosphere!”

It's estimated that one-third of the surplus carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stems from poor land-management processes that contribute to the loss of carbon, as carbon dioxide, from farmlands. “Cutting out chemical fertilizers could reduce annual global greenhouse emissions by as much as 10%.”[3]

Excess phosphorous, nitrogen, and other chemicals also run off from the soil into streams, lakes, and rivers where they cause unnatural algae blooms that in turn kill fish and water life, producing what scientists call “dead zones.” One of the largest in the world is in the Gulf of Mexico. These chemicals poison soil, air and water before they even enter our bodies to poison us.

When we add pesticides to the mix, the damage is greatly intensified. It has now been determined that co-formulants of glyphosate herbicides are endocrine disruptors[4], as well as “probably carcinogenic to humans” according to the World Health Organization. Glyphosate (or, do I need to say its name? Roundup), currently the most widely used pesticide in the world, is pretty much found in everything that has not declared to be non-genetically modified on its label. It wreaks havoc on our bodies, the soil, the air, the water, and the plants themselves.

Not only are our non-organic plants declining in macronutrients like protein and micronutrients like minerals, they are also declining in phytochemicals, the tiny powerhouses that help us destroy free radicals and fight off disease. This isn’t only bad news for us; it is bad for the plants themselves!

When a plant is attacked by a bug in nature, it produces phytochemicals to protect itself, phytochemicals that also protect us, incidentally. When we spray that plant with a chemical to repel that bug, that plant’s phytochemical production is correspondingly reduced.

  • … A plant’s roots go from being a vital, two-way trade zone to one-way straws sucking up fertilizers.

  • … Faced with an all-you-can-eat buffet, that’s exactly what a plant’s green body sets out to do. They shunt a good deal of the energy they make through photosynthesis to building biomass, short-changing themselves on the energy they need to make phytochemicals.

  • Ramping down phytochemical production depletes a plant’s homemade arsenal and pharmacy, making them as vulnerable as a sick animal within sight of a predator.

  • “ … NPK fertilizers translate into lower phytochemical levels. When plants grow explosively they tend to cut back on making phytochemicals.”[5]

Wild dandelions contain seven times more phytonutrients than spinach; purple potatoes native to Peru contain 28 times more anthocyanins than russet potatoes grown conventionally in North America.[6] We have sadly bred and fertilized those anti-aging, disease-defying phytochemcials right out of our produce!

Heavens to Murgatroyd, we need 2 Earth Days! Forty years down the road we are much, much worse off than when Mr. McConnell and Senator Nelson sought to bring attention to the dire need to protect our planet. It is time for consumers to take our health and the health of the planet into our own hands. If you go to Starbucks today, buy Yukon Gold coffee beans (the only organic variety they sell). If you go to the grocery store, head straight to the organic section and buy as much heirloom produce as you can. Even better, grow your own! Pay a few pennies (okay, we don’t have those anymore) more for organic, free-range eggs. Buy organic pasta (okay we don’t eat carbs anymore either) over non-organic pasta, or anything else you can find, because it is currently our only guarantee that we aren’t contributing to the destruction of the soil, air, and water that we inherited from our grandparents. Our power to heal the planet is in our purse. We can do this! Happy Earth Day!

[1] Nature Education Knowledge 4(3):1HortScience February 1, 2009

[2] Environmental Research Letters March 15, 2016

[3] May 25, 2013

[4] International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 2016, 13, 264; doi:10.3390/ijerph13030264

[5] IFL Science July 4, 2014

[6] May 25, 2013

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