I recently read about Michael Pollan’s new book, In Defense of Food--currently the second best-selling hardcover in the nation. Like many others, I was inspired by its famously lean tagline: “Eat food. Not much. Mostly plants.” I love how Pollan’s work has inspired so many of us to eat organic food grown closer to home. But in truth it was a lesson that took me a long time to learn.
When my three daughters were small, I didn’t go to great lengths to feed them organic food. It was the 1980s, and it was hard to find organic produce in our New York neighborhood then. Besides, my husband and I come from long-lived, robust families, and we were confident that we passed on vibrant genes to our children.
Two things happened in the ensuing years to change our point of view. A greater cultural awareness emerged about the toxins lurking in pesticide-laden food. And I got diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999--something I am convinced can be traced in part to environmental causes.
Now my daughters are much more aware of the role diet plays in maintaining health. They are more focused on eating organic food and exercising than I was at their age. But on the other hand, they feel like there is a hammer hanging over their heads waiting to drop.
That is what we have left the next generation--this anxiety about health. You can add that to the global warming tab we are leaving them, and the costs seem awfully high. The question resting on Baby Boomers’ shoulders is: are we going to help our children make the future safer or leave them with the mess?
The answer is simple for me, as it is for any parent: we have to break the links between food, toxins, and disease. Food should sustain and nourish us. Not endanger our longevity or the environment.
Here are three things we can do to protect our own health and the health of the next generation.
- Eat local. I have driven through California’s Central Valley and been overwhelmed by the scale of what Pollan calls the vegetable-industrial complex. How can you know what was sprayed on your spinach (and by the way, you can’t wash pesticide residue off spinach leaves) when it has passed through so many mechanized stages before it got to your sink? Never mind what happens to garlic or tilapia between China and your stove. When I go to the green market around the corner from my office and buy organic spinach grown two counties away, I am much more confident that it is safe and healthy. Find out how you can eat local here.
- Inform yourself. My awareness about the health hazards hidden in foods came late, but I am making up for lost time. I use the Internet and books like Pollan’s to educate myself. And now when I go shopping, I carry this wallet card that lists pesticide-heavy foods. I also read labels and remember that old adage: if you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t eat it.
- Demand more protections. This week, NRDC had to sue the EPA to stop it from testing pesticides on human beings. This is a stark breach of ethical standards. But in a sense, all of us are guinea pigs in the face of absent or grossly lax standards for toxics. When laws are passed, they are poorly enforced: In 1996, Congress forced the EPA to assess the health risks of various pesticides, but the agency ignored the deadlines. The end result is that food in our grocery stores still carries pesticide residues that don’t meet safety standards for children that are required by law. We must demand more of our government. Urge your representatives to push for more testing of pesticides, stricter standards for their use, and more explicit labeling of where food comes from.