Saturday, 30 December 2017

Endangered Species: Examining the Numbers

How many animals in New Zealand are actually endangered, and how much can poisoning our environment save them? A Facebook friend posted a comment on one of my Facebook posts today citing the sometimes-touted "fact" that 11% of the world's endangered species are endemic to New Zealand. I am skeptical--the world is a big place, and NZ is a small one--so I went looking for some numbers. Here's what I found:

Archie's Frog, an ancient species. Photo from DOC.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists 2464 endangered animals worldwide. Of the world's top 100 most endangered species, including plants, on the IUCN red list posted on Wikipedia, only Archie's Frog is endemic to New Zealand. (That would be 1%). But Archie's frog is an odd pick for the Top 100. After an 80% decline in the Archie's Frog population last century, possibly due to disease/fungus, Archie’s frog has now stabilized in three locations and they are also being successfully captive-bred—so is it really one of the world’s top 100 most endangered species? 

NZ's national heritage site lists 2788 endangered species in New Zealand including plants, insects, and fish. The top 10 most endangered animal species in NZ, according to a 2012 Herald article, are Maui's dolphin, the NZ fairy tern, the kakapo, the white heron (noted in the article as "common" in Australia), the black stilt, greater short-tailed bat, Bryde's whale, southern elephant seal, and the NZ sea lion (there are also populations in Australia).

Maui's dolphin, photo from Wikipedia
New Zealand's Endangered Species Foundation (ESF), in conjunction with the NZ Department of Conservation (DOC), compiled their own list of the 10 most threatened New Zealand species. These are the Maui’s dolphin, Canterbury knobbled weevil, Mokohinau stag beetle, quillwort (an aquatic fern), fairy tern, limestone cress, Chesterfield skink, coastal peppercress, eyelash seaweed, and the dune swale Daphne. The ESF claim there are 4000 New Zealand species “in danger of being lost”. Their website gives cost estimates for saving each of the top-10 species, and it's not trivial money; they’re a non-profit organisation raising money for “targeted intervention”.

When you really start looking at the actual lists of endangered species, they’re all over the place. A lot of animals and plants are cited as "possibly extinct", so the "most endangered" list becomes somewhat meaningless as these are rarely included on those lists. These are animals like the Haditha cave fish (only in Iraq--nobody's monitoring at the moment), and Bachman's warbler (US/Cuba).

Public profile matters a lot too. In New Zealand we hear a lot about kiwi being at risk (estimated count around 100,000) and wood pigeons (not threatened, no number available), but not so much about fairy terns (40 individuals) or the Chatham Islands oystercatcher (est. 300 birds) or grey ducks (“nationally critical” but no estimated headcount available and they're legal to hunt). Could the skew be due to a desire to emphasize forest birds over shore/sea birds promotionally because poisoning the forests--ostensibly to kill the feral mammals and “save the birds”--is a big industry in New Zealand? Could it be that easily-recognized, appealing species perceived as at risk are more likely to generate cash donations and government conservation money than weevils and quillwort?

Incidentally, and just as an ironic side note, the IUCN lists the southern bluefin tuna as "critically endangered" (on their "red list"). The NZ commercial annual catch quota of southern bluefin tuna is set at 1000 tonnes; Australia's quota is 5665 tonnes, similar to Japan’s. I guess a "critically endangered" label doesn't seem to count for much if there's money to be made. (Rhino poachers and conservationists in Africa would agree.)

Clearly, these lists and numbers are somewhat arbitrary. For most species, there is no clear idea how many individuals are remaining in the wild. Mostly lists don’t include probable extinctions, and some include plants and animals that are being successfully bred in captivity. Some endangered species, like the tuna and the grey duck, are actively hunted/harvested. Some New Zealand lists of endangered animals include species that are also endemic—and not so endangered--elsewhere, like the white heron and the New Zealand sea lion.

So…does New Zealand really have 11% of the world’s endangered species? I didn't find  11% mentioned anywhere, and I don’t believe that figure for a minute. Can we “save” our most vulnerable species by dropping 1080 or brodificoum poison in our forests? Given most of our endangered species are not forest dwellers, that seems unlikely, even supposing poisoning an animal's or plant's environment is helpful--and that's a pretty big supposition.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

When There's Something in the Water

The drinking water on the Kapiti Coast is fluoridated and chlorinated. This time of year (summer) it smells like a swimming pool. Numerous health studies question the benefits of these chemicals for human health, and many suggest these chemicals are actively harmful. Studies show drinking chlorinated drinking water, for example, significantly increases your cancer risk, and I’ve blogged about the problems with fluoride before, see here.

When I lived in the Hutt Valley, I brought home drinking water from the artesian aquifer taps in Petone and at the Dowse, even though the tap water in the Hutt valley tastes pretty good. Hutt Valley water is fluoridated, but you can’t taste that. Now that I’ve moved to the Kapiti Coast, the Hutt Valley community taps are too far away for routine pick-ups. I’ve resorted to buying bottled water for drinking.

There are, of course various problems with bottled water. Not only are you paying for it, but the amount of plastic generated from numerous bottles of water used over a week is seriously disconcerting. And studies suggest plastic isn't a healthy container choice for your food or water. There has to be a better way.

One option would be a home water filter system, not so much to catch the bad bacteria that can lurk in our municipal water, but to filter out the chemical additives that make it “safe”. I had heard about stainless steel Burkey water filters, made in Texas, that sit on your kitchen bench and filter a couple of gallons of water every couple of hours. I know several health gurus absolutely love them (see Chris Wark’s video here, as an example). So I spent some time researching the Berkey site, and reading the data and filter results, and customer comments. Burkey claims their filters screen out not only bad bugs, but over 95% of chlorine and, if you add a fluoride filter, over 95% of fluoride. Berkeys are gravity-fed so don’t depend on electricity to run. Two filters are good for cleaning about 6000 gallons of water. What’s not to like?

Never one to rest on company data and promotion, I flicked over to Amazon and several other sites to read user reviews. I learned that filters need to be primed well, leaks sometimes occur if washers and nuts don’t make a tight seal (you assemble it yourself), and one reader was unhappy that her product from Amazon arrived with a dent in it. There apparently has been a problem in the past with the glue used on the filters failing, which Berkey says they have rectified. Some users conducted their own tests of water purification, and all seemed pretty happy with results. Overall, lots of 5-star happy purchasers.

I love the idea, and would appreciate the convenience of just using my tap water and getting a safer (in my mind) product with fewer chemical contaminates, and no plastic bottles. So what’s the catch? I started by looking for a NZ supplier. A google search (“Berkey water filters NZ”) kicked up TruWater who want NZ$469 for a Big Berkey with 2 black filters plus 2 fluoride filters. Serious moolah here!

Having never heard of TruWater, I wondered where they are located. The website showed an Auckland phone number but no address. I google again, and discovered their office is in New South Wales. On product review for Tru Water, I found 118 people rated them as “terrible” and 12 people rated them as “excellent”—only 4 sort-of in-be-tweeners rated the company as “bad”. Do they have 12 company shills? Um. Uh, nah. Not going there.

Maybe—I thought—I could just get a Big Berkey from the US through Amazon. Price check: US$416 including shipping and import fees. With the current currency exchange, that’s NZ$595. That’s even more serious moolah. Gah!

It seems to me that there must be a massive market for units like this. So many people like me want clean, fresh water without chemical additives, and without adding more plastic bottles to the recyclers, or having to have easy access to an artesian well. The units could also be used for purifying rain water from the roof, or well or creek water. If some enterprising Kiwi—and aren’t we known for our #8 wire mentality?—went into the business of creating home water filter units based on the Berkey concept, I’m sure they could undercut Amazon and have a very ready market. 

Meanwhile, I’m still buying supermarket water in plastic bottles (sigh!), and when I have an excuse to go to the Hutt Valley, I fill up my big glass bottles. I will start looking at jugs next...Seychelle maybe? But they're not easily sourced in New Zealand either, and the filters (expensive) have a really short life (150 gallons) compared to Burkey filters. Sigh again. Bit of a mine field, really.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

School Possum Hunt Fundraiser and Drowned Joeys

The drowning of baby possums, allegedly by children/teenagers, as part of a school fundraiser, was reported in national news media this week in New Zealand. It has generated a good deal of discussion—some of it quite vitriolic—on Facebook and talk-back radio.

Possum joey in pouch, from this webpage
The fundraiser was a local wild possum hunt held by Drury primary school near Auckland. Over 1100 wild possums were shot over three nights, with the money from fur sales going back to the school. As possum joeys (babies) are of no commercial value, these were allegedly pulled out of possum pouches by teenage volunteers and drowned. This video shows the genial, convivial, almost carnival atmosphere around this clearly family event (no animals are seen actually being killed in the video, although there are plenty of dead ones), and the “Dueling Banjos” riff—not, I think, inappropriate—makes me chuckle, wryly. I've seen "Deliverance". 

When an animal rights activist Lynley Tulloch waded in and started a petition protesting school possum hunts in general (this wasn’t the first in New Zealand), the SPCA got involved and threw their focus specifically (and only) on the inhumanity of drowning the joeys.

The issues here are numerous, and on several levels.

Firstly, a little possum background. Brushtail possums were brought to New Zealand from Australia in 1837 to start a fur trade. They thrived here, better than in their native Australia, and in 1946 possums had become enough of a problem (mostly to farmers) that they were declared a “pest”. I wrote about possums in another post some years ago. Today they are active “pest” targets. Vast government poisoning campaigns using toxins such as 1080, brodifacoum, and cyanide to target possums (and rats) raise controversy over environmental ethics and animal rights. Traps are also popular control methods, and shooting. Possums that aren’t poisoned have high-value pelts and fur, and the meat could be used (and occasionally is) for pet food. Poisoned animals are of no value to anyone, and are left to rot (slowly, as animals and insects that feed on the carcasses are also often killed by secondary poisoning).

The SPCA issue of whether the baby possums were killed humanely by drowning them in a bucket of water is, to my mind, a bizarre side track. Ultimately, with the mother possums shot, providing a quick death for their babies—deemed of no “value”—seems the kindest thing. While death by drowning might not be nice—what sort of death IS nice?—it is far quicker and less distressing than death by poison (acceptable, apparently) or by trapping an animal—leg perhaps caught in a painful vice grip trap, perhaps for days, before the trapper dispatches the possum with a blow to the head. The SPCA says their preferred method of killing possums is shooting them, which presents a problem given a joey may be small enough to fit into the cup of your hand.

More disturbing to many is that such a cavalier attitude to killing animals is the backbone of a school fundraising event. Schools help our youngest generation learn adult values. Of course “adult values” are not uniform across our culture; they vary from one community to another. Clearly—just watch the video—the values in this community are family-oriented and education-supportive. As some commentators have pointed out, possum hunts like these are far “greener” ways to eliminate possums and better for the environment than poisoning with the likes of aerial-dropped 1080.

All of this, of course, pre-supposes that possums are a menace that needs to be dealt with in the first placed. While research shows possums to be almost exclusively vegetarian, anti-possum promoters often expound on their danger to native birds, often supported by this single staged photo. In actual fact, analysis of possum stomach contents reveals a varied plant diet with virtually no indication of bird or egg predation.

There have also been arguments raised that possums eat the foliage of native trees (true, what else would they eat?), that they carry TB, and—their most heinous crime of all—possums aren’t native to New Zealand. Thus, like rats and stoats, magpies and peacocks, they are relegated into the “pest” category. And what a powerful word that is. Pest. It conjures up images of cockroaches and wasps in the house, and weeds growing rampant in the garden. Originally, the word comes from pestilence, most specifically the Plague. And in our culture, a “pest” is something so totally unwanted, so awful, it can be demolished without feeling or consideration. Certainly it can be dispatched without respect. The world is--by definition--better off without.

I think this whole issue is far more a moral and ethical issue than it is about conservation or fundraising (I almost typed "funraising" there, a punnishly curious Freudian slip). Our country, like all countries, is made up of various communities which do not share a universal perspective on many issues, even seemingly fundamental ones. We teach our children as we are, to share our personal, parental values. Our personal values mostly come from our community, and these may reflect guidance from government, science, religious leaders, economics/finances, and heart instinct.  In this case, the New Zealand government and the conservation science it promotes actively encourage the removal (i.e., killing) of possums in the wild environment. In that context, a possum hunt (more humane and environmentally “safe” than 1080 poison forest bombardment at the very least) as a school fundraiser makes sense. Drowning the joeys of the dead mums makes sense.

For those with a heart instinct that feels this is fundamentally wrong, that the wonton killing and blatant disregard of the welfare of an animal for no purpose but to get rid of it, the idea of a school fundraiser based around possum killing is simply abhorrent.

Two extremes.

We all draw animal rights lines in the sand. For some, the misery visited upon dogs destined for the meat markets of Asia is beyond the pale, but a t-bone steak (cow) for dinner is absolutely fine. The thought of the anguish of newborn calves being removed from their mothers so we can drink the cows’ milk makes some folks so uncomfortable, they become vegan. For others, hunting wild game is not only an enjoyable recreational pastime but also a good way to stock the freezer, and many hunters do so with a sense of appreciation—even honour and respect—for the wild deer or pig they kill. Some people are so oblivious to the connection between the meat they eat and the animal that dies to provide it--meat just comes hermetically sealed in a plastic coffin at the supermarket, what's the issue?-- that these conflicts don’t even register. 

And some enjoy killing just for the sake/fun of killing. (And there’s research to suggest that those in the latter camp are often more callous towards other people too, and we all know New Zealand has a pretty abysmal record of family violence and abuse.  But that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax that  I’m not actually going to get into.)

The truth is, most Kiwis probably haven’t even noticed this relatively minor news story about a possum-kill school fundraiser, and if they have, it has no more meaning or significance to them than news of a mumps outbreak in some town other than where they live. That's the "norm". 

Such is our society.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Assumptions in Conservation: New Zealand

Animal pests are a major threat to New Zealand’s native species. Controlling these pests is essential for the survival of our special native plants and animals,” writes the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) on their website.

These statements are presented as facts, but just how true are they? If you want to talk about prove-able true, they aren’t. These are assumptions: beliefs that are presented as facts, and often understood as facts, but they are, in truth, just beliefs. There is no hard science behind them, and no hard evidence. 

There are a few real-life examples where some native species have been encouraged to thrive in a pest-eradicated environment. Locally, Kapiti Island and Zealandia come to mind. In both cases, ongoing supervision is essential and vigilant, and the public are only allowed into these areas on a ticketed basis. These "successes" are “soft” science at best. And they are not self-sustaining, because these are islands (real and metaphorically), bastioned by man against the randomness of Nature. 

On the other hand, studies like this one show invasive species (in this case, honeysuckle) can often be beneficial for both native fauna and plants, and should have us asking if removal of many invasive species is harmful rather than beneficial. This morning I noticed a whole flock of tiny native silver-eyes feasting on the flowers of a winter-blooming Australian bottlebrush, and I thought "These birds don't care if the plant is a foreigner--they're just grateful for the winter tucker."

In New Zealand, which is currently working on an initiative to become “predator free” by 2050, the idea is to completely eradicate some invasive animal species, defined as “pests” and “predators” (as if these two words were synonyms) from the entire country. In the direct firing line are rats, Australian brushtail possums, and stoats, with allowed/encouraged bykill of other animal pests including feral deer, goats, cats, and horses, plus hedgehogs, rabbits, even rainbow lorikeets (who have the audacity to be of Australian origin!).

In the plant department, pine trees that grow wild and random rather than in neat rows in a farmed plantation setting are first-line targets for poison. Also on the Dirty Dozen hit list put out by DOC are wild ginger, English ivy, woolly nightshade, buddleia, banana passionfruit, and honeysuckle. That's just the tippy top of DOCs list of 350 “environmental weeds”. These are naughty plants! Pines dare to grow where farmers want grassland. Ivy, passionfruit, and honeysuckle dare to be vines in the forest where their presence may smother native plants. Buddleia dares to “exclude native species” (DOC’s words, not mine). 

I find the attack-imported-species approach to conservation reductionist and limiting. Unlike Man, Nature does not single out specific species as good or bad, useful or unwanted. She is holistic, and allows plants and animals to thrive in appropriate ecological niches, recognizing their value. If a niche is vacant, she fills it so the whole ecosystem can function effectively.  When an ecosystem is thrown out of kilter, Nature adapts.  She has to. The success of an ecosystem is dependent upon the many roles and functions fulfilled by a wide variety of plants and animals, as well as the environment they inhabit. We as a species are just beginning to learn about all these connections.

New Zealand is a country of farmers and gardeners, plopped like Adam and Eve into the Garden of Eden of God’s Own Country. And, to be fair, this is an agricultural country with many highly-productive farms and some truly glorious gardens. But the concept of land management now goes way beyond the farm fence and the backyard garden into our supposedly-wild spaces. Where once Kiwi settlers brought their favourite plants and animals from “home” so they could enjoy them here, the “new age” thinking/fashion is to eradicate all those imported plants and animals to create a sort of mythical pre-European-human wilderness utopia. (Note, that's not pre-Maori;  early Maori burned off much of the country’s forests and are credited with 38 bird extinctions.)

Never mind that some of the native plants and animals that once thrived in New Zealand are now gone (the browsing moa, now replaced ecologically by deer and goats, is the largest and best-known example), or that the “best” and most habitable lands have been taken over by agriculture, criss-crossed by roads, dotted with towns and cities, splattered with windfarms, and altered forever. Never mind the mounding piles of plastic rubbish and old tyres, the air pollution from cars and trucks and woodfires, the phosphates and nitrogen runoff from the fertilizers and dairy cow poos and wees sinking into the soil and running down into our streams and rivers. Never mind the environmental impact of climate change. 

Our world, and this country, is not what it was 100 years ago, 300 years ago, 500 years ago, 1000 years ago. Like it or not, the old pristine New Zealand wilderness is fast disappearing even in the very few places where it still, sort of, exists. We are in the process of terraforming a new landscape. The new, current goal is to create a landscape without “imports” (unless they're farm animals and plants firmly contained on farms). Plants and animals that have, like us, integrated into the new landscape and filled ecological niches, are no longer wanted. Unfortunately, the most powerful “tool” available for the goal of eradicating all these imports is poison. Hence regular aerial drops into our forest of killer poisons like 1080 and brodifacoum. Hence the rampant use of poisonous weed killers like glyphosate (Roundup), Interceptor and Versatil.

I’ll flick back to the beginning idea here. These are key assumptions:

1                       Pests are a major threat to New Zealand’s native species.
2          If pests are eradicated, New Zealand’s native species will thrive.

Are both of these statements true? Is either of these statement true? Are they true even if their environment is whittled away and poisoned? Even if ecological niches are left unfilled? 

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Eating Meat

I want to start this post by saying that I am not a vegetarian. I grew up eating meat, all of my family eat meat, and most of my friends eat meat. A decade or two ago, I rarely thought about the meat I was eating. As a child I was uncomfortable with, even repelled by, the sight of deer carcasses hanging from the tree in the yard, but I always enjoyed the roast venison and succulent stews. My father killed them, my mother cooked them, and we had food on the table, for which we were grateful. I did not hunt myself.

Later, living on a lifestyle block in New Zealand, I hated the autumn kill day when our 6-month-old lambs began their inevitable transition from paddock to freezer, but I was happy enough to eat the barbequed lamb chops and those glorious, melt-in-your-mouth glutinous lamb shanks, slow-roasted in a rich tomato and onion gravy, served with a heap of buttery mashed potatoes and a side of peas. Ah! See how easy it is to transform oneself from animal carer to foodie in less than a sentence? (And we will choose to forget the cries of the ewe mums standing at the fence in the paddock adjacent to the killing pen, mourning the loss of their babies. It is what it is.)

But as I grow older (certainly), and wiser (perhaps), I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with the dilemma of caring for and about animals, and seeing them as intelligent and sentient beings with as much right to live—and potentially as much meaning in their lives—as I do/have, and then eating them. Meanwhile, the historically-touted health benefits of meat consumption have dwindled down in modern times to nearly—if not totally—negligible. Meat consumption is linked to heart disease, diabetes, and several cancers, especially bowel cancer, and concerns grow regarding industrial farming methods and the use of GMO feeds and livestock feed additives, antibiotic use, animal welfare issues, water contamination, and animal waste.

“Does a cow value its life more than I enjoy a barbeque?” asks conservationist Damien Mander in this TED talk, and I think this is a question worth pondering. Because that’s what it comes down to.

More simply, a small child stages an act of defiance, crying “I won’t eat animals” and offering the persuasive argument "they don't really like being cooked" in this popular you-tube clip. (It's cute. Watch.)

Me? I don’t eat much meat anymore. I don’t even like it much anymore. I can no longer totally divorce in my head the meat on my plate from the animal that was killed to become this food ingredient I don’t need for my own health or survival or well-being. Still, when eating with friends, perhaps at someone’s house or at a restaurant without appealing vegetarian options on the menu, or when travelling, I will—mindfully—enjoy that roast lamb or Thai beef salad or cassoulet with chorizo. I am a bit of a “foodie” after all. And I’m not giving up my occasional (once a month or so) fish’n’chips anytime soon, though I include fish in my head as “animals”. But my own meat consumption is definitely down to “occasionally” and “mindfully”. It’s a compromise position.

Just my thoughts. Each of us will make our own choices, after all. 

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

When Language Gets Hijacked

In New Zealand at the moment there is a big ecological push to flush out and exterminate the country’s “predators”. I put the word in quotes because, by dictionary definition, a predator is “an animal that hunts, kills, and eats other animals.” Animals like lions, tigers, wolves, hawks, and owls might spring to mind. Implied in the word is a connotation of “dangerous” and “bad”.

Brushtail Possum, photo from Wikipedia
In New Zealand, however, the word “predator” is coming to mean any animal not native to New Zealand, regardless of its diet, which is assumed to be harmful to New Zealand’s indigenous flora and fauna. This, oddly enough (if you honour the traditional definition) includes brushtail possums, rats, deer, feral pigs, and magpies, as well as stoats and feral cats (which are “true” predators), but NOT native hawks or owls or tuatara or insect-eating fantails and weta (large indigenous insects themselves) which are also “true” predators.

It bothers me when a word is hijacked by politicians or marketers and given a new meaning that is simply accepted by the public, usually opening up opportunities for somebody to make a whole bunch of money. In this case, it’s the chemical poison industry, who get to drop tonnes of 1080 baits over New Zealand’s forests every year, and manufacture and lay brodificoum and cyanide ground poisons. That’s great for not only production but also employment—people’s jobs are on the line. The latest political splash, which has gained some notoriety around the world, is a plan to make New Zealand “predator-free” by 2050—and they’re not talking about lions and tigers. Or tuatara or wetas or native hawks.

I have some pretty strong thoughts on the roles of various animals in natural ecosystems, but this post is about language use, so I’ll leave that issue for another piece of writing. Instead, I’d like to bring up another personal language “peeve”.

Photo from CBS article linked in text.
The word “antidepressant” first appeared in 1959 in the New York Times to describe two new drugs, imipramine and ipronazid, which appeared to ‘reverse psychic states’. This appealing word took the world by storm, and was soon on the lips—and in the advertising--of every pharmaceutical marketer wanting to market new drugs. Clinical trials, almost all run by the drug companies who make the drugs, all showed limited benefit over placebo (a fake “med”) of their “antidepressants” and often a bevy of side effects to boot, but when a drug was marketed as an “antidepressant”, both patients and doctors were eager to buy and try. After all, nobody wants to be depressed, right? Today we know that antidepressant drugs can make depression worse in the long term, and can even cause suicidality, but the power of the word, and the idea that something can easily fix depression is so powerful that few people can even grasp the idea that an “antidepressant” may not be—in dictionary terms—an anti-depressant at all.

These examples aside, I accept and appreciate that our language is an evolving entity, and that dictionary definitions are not created by word police but by us, ourselves, with our language usage. I’m not bothered by new words that creep into everyday conversations and, eventually, make it into dictionaries like lol, app, and google as a verb. Nor am I usually bothered by words whose meanings change, often dramatically; think gay, ace, cool, and hot for starters, though I still snag sometimes at mother.

On this theme of our changing language, and to end this post on a positive and more generic note, this link goes to an interesting list of 20 common words (i.e., nice, awful, fizzle, wench) whose meanings have significantly changed over time, and an excellent TED talk on language change from Ann Curzan. 

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Gut Bacteria Influences Health and Well-Being

Gut bacteria photo from the article on the link between
anxiety and gut bacteria (linked left)
There were several posts that came up on my Facebook feed this morning about gut health and various illnesses. One linked bipolar “disease” to an unusual and deficient gut biome while another one explored the link between the gut biome and Alzheimer’s. Neither of these diseases were common 100 years ago. And here's a slightly older story on the link between gut bacteria and anxiety.

So what is happening in our digestive tract now that wasn’t happening in the past?  It’s fairly obvious that we have a lot of processed foods in our diets that our grandparents and great grandparents never ate. Food additives—artificial colours, artificial flavours, flavour enhancers, preservatives, mouth-feel/texture ingredients—are often identified by numbers on food packets, or disguised as something else. “Flavour” sounds less alarming than “artificial flavour,” “brown rice syrup” sounds healthier than “sugar”, and hydrolyzed vegetable protein sounds fairly benign but it contains MSG (monosodium glutamate), a “nasty”.  Those are fairly obvious things.

Then we have packaging. Everything these days seems to come in plastic bags or wraps: snacks, breakfast cereals, pet foods, fresh meat, fresh vegetables. We have plastic-lined cans, plastic lined boxes, plastic milk containers and plastic juice containers. Buying a cooked chicken at the supermarket deli? Bet it comes wrapped in hot plastic. Yes, we even cook in plastic, from microwaving in plastic containers to frying meat in Teflon pans and baking muffins in pink silicone “tins”. Besides being a disaster for our landfills and rubbish dumps, there is growing concern about the impact of the leaching of harmful molecules from plastic food wraps, containers and cookware into our food and bodies. The jury is still out, but long-term accumulation of toxins from plastic in the body seems likely.

Meanwhile our commercial food crops are grown with a bevy of toxic chemicals: weed-killers and pest-killers are scattered and sprayed over crops, sometimes shortly before harvest. For example, some farmers actively spray their wheat and potato crops with glyphosate (RoundUp) before harvest to make harvesting easier and more profitable. They call it “desiccation;” which sounds less ominous than poisoning--the power of vocabulary. The plants take up these poisons systemically and retain it, and it doesn’t wash off. Even the chemical fertilizers used to encourage growth in tired soils are toxic.

Think meat and dairy products are better options? That all depends upon what the animals have been eating. GMO corn and soy are common ingredients in animal feed (probably including what you’re feeding your dog or cat), and even “grass fed” beef and sheep are sometimes grazed on sprayed pastures. Food animals are also treated with antibiotics, chemical wormers and drenches, and some may be given growth hormones.

Our water, too, is contaminated with chemicals. Chlorine (which kills bacteria, including the bacteria in your gut) and fluoride are the two most talked about chemical additives in our tap water. Chlorine kills not only the bad bacteria, like e coli, that may be lurking in our water, but also the good bacteria in our digestive tracts.

And the pills we take to fix our various ailments also alter our gut bacteria. Antibiotics are notorious, of course (killing bacteria is their job), but most drugs alter the gut biome.

Our whole economic system is geared around making a profit, not around enhancing human health, and the chemical companies reign. While most foods and products we buy are not toxic in a single-serving sense, years of accumulated toxic load on our systems may affect all of our organs, and even single servings may have temporary or longer-term effects on gut flora and fauna. And we need all those eager little gut bacteria to stay healthy and digest our food. 

There are, of course, a few things you can do right now to make a difference. Buy organic food products as much as you can or grown your own food. Avoid “junk” food and highly processed foods. Do your own cooking. Don’t cook in plastic, and limit the amount of plastic used in contact with foodstuffs. Use filtered water if you can. Don't take drugs you don’t really need. Avoid, or at least limit, your own chemical contamination.

Ultimately, though, the system needs to change if we want to live in a world where making healthy, natural choices isn’t dependent upon personal awareness, education, and financial situation. Awareness is growing. And that’s a good start.