Antibiotics with your Organic Salad?

Another great article forwarded by a friend this morning from Environmental Health News.  According to research at the University of Minnesota, crops fertilized with manure from animals treated with antibiotics can and do absorb those antibiotics.

The Minnesota researchers planted corn, green onion and cabbage in manure-treated soil in 2005 to evaluate the environmental impacts of feeding antibiotics to livestock. Six weeks later, the crops were analyzed and found to absorb chlortetracycline, a drug widely used to treat diseases in livestock. In another study in 2007, corn, lettuce and potato were planted in soil treated with liquid hog manure. They, too, accumulated concentrations of an antibiotic, named Sulfamethazine, also commonly used in livestock.

As the amount of antibiotics in the soil increased, so too did the levels taken up by the corn, potatoes and other plants. [Cimitile, Matthew. “Crops absorb livestock antiobiotics, science shows.” 1-6-2009]

Many organic and sustainable farms use manure as a source of fertility, and even with certified organic producers, the manure is often sourced from non-organic farms.

That’s partially because of the lack of organic livestock operations as a whole, and in the vicinity of organic row crop and vegetable farms, and due to the prohibitive cost of trucking manure from certified organic animals to the farms that would use it.

It’s also not cost-effective for big growers to collect cow pies or buffalo chips spread all over a pasture from (non-confined and eating a natural diet, so less likely to need drugs) grass-fed livestock.  It’d be much easier to rotate that pasture into crop production every few years, except now most farms don’t raise both crops and livestock (and some land isn’t suitable for both).

Should the USDA begin to restrict the use of manure from non-certified organic livestock operations for use in certified organic row and vegetable crop operations, fertility input costs would skyrocket, and so would the price of certified organic row crops, fruits, and vegetables.  While manure isn’t the only source of fertility available to organic growers, it’s a big one, and its use helps close the cycle and lessen agricultural wastes.

Of course, the antibiotics in manure doesn’t just affect organic growers and producers–when the price of petroleum-based fertilizers skyrocketed last season, many conventional growers were switching back to manure to contain their input costs.

(The Environmental Health News article claims manure is “widely used as a substitute for chemical fertilizer”–when of course manure came first–everybody poops, after all, and the chemicals were the “substitute.” )

So what’s a concerned foodie to do now that it looks like even organics might not be free of contaminants (in very small doses, of course–“Less than 0.1 percent of antibiotics applied to soil were absorbed into the corn, lettuce and other plants,” according to Cimitile’s article)?

The problem with antibiotic-laced manure (and therefore antibiotic-tainted fruits and vegetables) is a problem with the way our meat and dairy is raised–in confinement, in large concentrations, and with a diet that virtually guarantees health problems for the animals, thus requiring large-scale pharmaceutical intervention.

The pharmaceuticals then end up in our soil and water and now, it appears, in the crops the manure is spread on (because, remember, Nothing Goes Away).

While on the surface, it may seem counter-intuitive, the solution is simply to bring the animals closer to the vegetables–that is, to revive the concept and practice of the smaller, diversified (or “mixed”) farm or to encourage more than one kind of production in a region, and on a smaller scale.

Traditionally, a farm was not just for corn and soy, or for beef, or for chickens.  A farm was its own ecosystem, with the farmer helping to achieve and maintain a healthy balance that minimized pests and disease (or at least contained them to a smaller area), made use of its own by-products, and allowed the farmer and her family to feed themselves and make a living selling food to others as well.

One very effective way to bring back this safer, healthier, and more sustainable approach is to buy locally, and support farmers who are attempting to revive this tradition.

While the market may prefer the efficiency of huge feedlots and gargantuan acreages of row crops to feed the maw of the industrial food complex, efficiency should not be the goal of our food system–safety and sustainability and security are much better values to impose on a system that keeps us fed and (presumably) healthy.

Huge corporations and huge farms breed huge problems–like disease and contamination and waste, and with a huge supply network, those problems can be spread over a much wider area (the entire world, in the case of the melamine-tainting).

Those huge corporations are interested in efficiency and profit, and continually use their money and influence to weaken government controls overseen by regulators we pay to protect us from these behemoths.  The corporations’ job is not to provide us with a safe, nutritious meal, it’s to make money for their stockholders.

The government’s job is to ensure the corporations don’t endanger or poison us in the process of making that profit.  In spite of all the news stories of widespread contamination, they’re remarkably effective considering the massive scale of the system they’re trying to oversee, though that’s cold comfort to parents of an e coli-sickened child.

Since many of the big organic names have been bought out by their conventional bretheren, I feel little reassurance that even the USDA Certified Organic label can deliver what it seems to promise–clean, healthy, nutritious food that is free from chemicals, toxins, contaminants, guilt.

A factory-farmed, distance shipped, long-stored tomato, even if it is certified organic, is never going to be as good as the juicy, sun-warmed, soil-grown tomato fresh-picked from your or your neighbor’s garden.  That product of the industrial food complex may look like a tomato, but it’s never going to be as good, as nutritious, as satisfying, no matter how much money is spent on its “development,” no matter how many scientists try to tell us “a tomato is a tomato,” no matter how many bright colors or how much clever packaging is used in its marketing.

If your tomato is grown using sustainable practices–with inputs of local (little “o”) organic materials that are raised naturally, then you’re getting the best, healthiest, tastiest tomato you can get–one that delivers on all the promises of cleanliness, nutrition, health, and taste that the organic industry, by definition, cannot.

[Update: I spoke with one of my manure suppliers (who does not habitually dose his animals with antibiotics).  He read the above-quoted article and mentioned a Sharon Durham article in the November 2008 issue of Shepherd Magazine that dealt with the problem in a solution-oriented way: studies show composting or late fall/winter spreading of manure effectively reduces the presence of these drugs in the manure.  Shepherd Magazine is not available online.]


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