She said that she had always wondered why it was that when we go to
Mexico as tourists, we can’t eat the fruits and vegetables, but when
they are imported to the United States, they don’t make us sick. How
is that possible? Tough standards for imported foods. Inspections.
Systems and procedures that actually work. Her point was that it isn’t
impossible for other countries to grow good, safe, organic food, but it
just didn’t seem likely that China was there yet.
But here’s where it got really interesting. Pollan told the story of a guy (a farmer? I missed a few words at this point, so don’t quote me) who received a shipment of produce (or something) from China that was covered in dirt. The guy thought, "Hey, I’ve got a soil sample from China." He had the stuff tested, and it was incredibly high and cadmium, a carcinogen produced mainly in China for various industrial process.
This points out a weakness in the organic program. There is no requirement that the soil be free of heavy metals, or that the irrigation water be safe. That’s not just true of imported produce, it’s true here at home, too, where we have our fair share of contaminated soil and water.
And speaking of home, if the thought of cadmium-enriched strawberries convinces you that the real solution is to grow your own, consider this article published a few years ago in Science News. It reports that the soil in vegetable gardens in Chicago had surprisingly high levels of lead. Consider this:
The Environmental Protection Agency considers 400 ppm lead as the
upper concentration that might be safe for dirt in which children play.
The Northwestern engineers found that more than 75 percent of the
garden soils they sampled had contamination exceeding this
concentration. In many of the tested gardens, lead tainting ranged from
1,000 to 4,500 ppm.
"You’d have thought that lead levels that are so toxic to
humans would stunt the growth of plants," Gray says. "But they don’t."
Indeed, in many of the most contaminated gardens, plant growth was
lush. What this means, she says, is that there’s no way a homeowner
will know whether the heavy metal is present—short of sending the soil
out for testing.
Moreover, the researchers had suspected that soil adjacent to
painted, wood-exterior homes would have higher lead concentrations than
soils around brick apartment buildings do. In fact, Gray’s team found
no difference. She now suspects that this is because even brick
buildings have substantial painted trim and their yards are subject to
lead fallout from fossil fuel combustion.
This is no idle issue for a handful of urban gardeners–none other than Ralph Nader has taken up the cause of testing gardens for lead. Check out his piece on a new initiative to test the soil in community gardens in Connecticut. As he says:
This is not a fishing expedition. Preliminary findings, in 2006, have
already shown elevated levels of lead, arsenic and other heavy metals
in soil samples taken from 12 out of 17 initial collection sites,
compared with background levels. Three of these sites exceeded the
state lead guidelines, while one of them reached the definition of a
hazardous waste site.
Lovely. Anybody had their soil tested for heavy metals? Anyone? Anyone?