The Last Reason You’ll Ever Need to Think Twice About a Dinner Roll

You’ve probably noticed a lot of sensationalism around avoiding “carbohydrates” or “low-carb” diets in the past few years.  Maybe to the extent that you’ve moved on from paying attention and are enjoying a bagel and cream cheese while you read this.  To be fair, the gross generalization of an entire macronutrient group is not much different than the gross generalization of an entire ethnic group or population.  Both are products of flawed or biased logic and often are plain wrong.  One main reason behind the increased attention to carbohydrates has to do with sugar (sadly one of the most widely consumed carbohydrate sources in the U.S.).  As discussed in Fed Up, over 80% of the food items at your local grocery store have added sugar, making it nearly impossible for the average person to avoid it, consciously or otherwise.  While sugar is still a big part of the problem, a lesser discussed topic, but arguably more important, is the farming practices behind crops that fall into the carbohydrate category (which happens to account for virtually all crops including fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains in case you didn’t know).

This morning, an article was shared with me that sheds light on a farming practice in wheat production that should be cause for concern for every consumer.  If you don’t want to read the entire article, in a nutshell, the research cited poses that the majority of the wheat products we eat at restaurants or buy at the grocery store (assuming conventional and not organic) are likely being treated with Roundup, not to ward off insects that kill crops, but to increase production yield.  The research behind how pesticides and herbicides impact our human biology is arguably in its infancy as this practice only recently became mainstream following WWII when byproducts of Agent Orange were observed as effective pesticides/herbicides, primarily by the organization Monsanto, a former wartime Government contractor that spun off as a separate, independent agricultural company in 2002.

As articles about nutrition often do, this one sent me down a rabbit hole researching the impact of pesticides/herbicides on crop production, farming practices, and human biology.  The original article posits that the chemicals being used in farming are having a detrimental impact on our microbiome, and more specifically our gut bacteria (in this context “gut” often refers to the stomach, large intestine, small intestine, and other key organs of the digestive system). Perhaps not so coincidentally, microbiome research has garnered as much or more attention as carbohydrates have in the past few years.  So much so that some organizations are trying to democratize the testing of the microbiome to identify potential disruptions that may have far reaching effects on the rest of our body or lead to more serious diseases in the future.  I’ve yet to test out one of these services as I prefer to wait until the kinks are worked out before making a determination on their efficacy, but it has certainly been top of mind as it’s one of the few areas of my biology I haven’t measured (my last blood panel would make your head spin).

One of the more interesting pieces that came out of my research was a 2012 article from the BBC on the use of GMO crops.  To me, the “aha” moment in this article was the mention that many of the weeds that pesticides were originally designed to kill have now built up a resistance and are winning in the battle against the food crops farmers are attempting to grow.  In response, chemical companies are researching the introduction of new chemicals to fight this issue and are seeking approval on the use of these chemicals, per the article.  Personally, this makes me want to drive my head through drywall.  With zero formal education to point to on agriculture or the use of chemicals in that sphere, common sense logic tells me that this is Mother Nature’s way of saying “f!@# you”.  So why aren’t we getting the picture?  My take and the reasoning for it can be summed up through an experience I had visiting an organic coffee farm in Costa Rica.

In the interest of time, I’ll oversimplify the experience.  My visit to El Toledo in Costa Rica shed light on a number of realties that often don’t get discussed because of the political and socio-economic implications that lead to uncomfortable situations with friends and coworkers.  At this farm, it wasn’t just the coffee that was produced organically, but every single crop that grew on the farm.  I ate the freshest banana I’ve ever tasted picked right from it’s source while touring the farm and to this day haven’t found anything close to it at a grocery store or anywhere in the states.  It was explained during the tour that, through the use of permaculture, they are able to produce crops without the use of ANY pesticides.  The farm was initially one of a coalition of roughly twenty five farms that united around the idea that organic farming was more responsible, better for the environment, and better for the consumer.  Sadly, the original coalition of twenty five has been reduced to four.  The reason? Organic coffee isn’t a big seller in Costa Rica and as the disparity in profit margins between conventional and organic coffee became slimmer, there was less incentive to produce the crop organically.  Hence, many of the farmers abandoned the organic practices in the interest of profit and, in their defense, supporting their livelihood.

If you’re skeptical about the fact that I just correlated an anecdotal experience visiting an organic farm in Costa Rica to a sweeping issue with crop production in the U.S., I encourage you to challenge my logic.  You can poke holes in my theories and opinions all you want, but my gut tells me that often the answers we are looking for are far simpler than we make them out to be and when we douse weeds in chemicals only for them to come back taller and more resilient, it should serve as a strong indication that it may be time to revisit more traditional approaches to production that put the wellness of the consumer first versus the the profits of the producer.  As the BBC article appropriately concludes: “Ironically, the future of GM may well depend on re-incorporating some of the older skills that the technology once threatened to replace.”

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