“How old are you?”, a Malayalam movie with an English name, is a small budget movie with a simple story line. Yet it is a powerful movie with strong messages that question status quo and challenges prevalent norms at multiple levels. At one level it challenges patriarchy and its subtle pressures on women to give up their dreams for the family and then gets back at her for her lack of dreams or modern individuality.
But that is not my focus here. The movie has another highlight. It challenges us and provokes us to relook at our consumerism when it comes to food intake. The protagonist in one of her punching speeches talks about the chemicals that are pumped into the fruits and vegetables before they reach us and the harm they cause,ranging from frequent illnesses among children, infertility and depression to the widespread of cancer and other terminal illnesses.
Her solution is simple – a kitchen garden in every home – in the terrace or balcony or land, to meet the needs of the family. She challenges those of us who say we do not have time or capacity to do it saying, “If you say you have no time to take care of the kitchen garden, remember it will take less time than you spend in hospitals for treatment and investigations. And if you say you do not have money to invest in setting up a green house or kitchen garden, remember it will cost much less than the cost of exorbitant medical bills.” She ends with the slogan, ‘In your house, in your surroundings, healthy vegetables and food for your children.’
Yes it is a movie and it has its dramatization and a beautiful ending when all comes together. But is the presence of chemicals in vegetables something we need to worry about, and if we do is there something we can do about it?
Food we consume the farmer will himself not eat! Once when my cousins had came visiting, the kids wanted to see a vineyard, so we took them. The vineyard workers showed us around and the purple grapes looked so romantic and tasty hanging from the vine. We took our photos and then the kids plucked a few to taste. As they were doing that one of the workers came to us and gently whispered that if it were him, he would not eat those. On being asked why, he said they spray many chemicals on them to keep the insects away, to ripen them right, and to stop them from going bad. So if you do want to eat it wash it well and eat at your own risk was the advice. When quizzed about what they eat, they said they have separately grown chemical-free ones for home consumption. This is not a scene from a movie but our own personal experience. Yet we continue to eat these fruits and veggies since everyone else does.
Pesticides & Herbicides The term pesticide covers a wide range of compounds including insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, rodenticides, molluscicides, nematicides, plant growth regulators and others. Ideally a pesticide must be lethal to the targeted pests, but not to non-target species, including humans. Unfortunately, this is not the case, so the controversy of use and abuse of pesticides has surfaced. The rampant use of these chemicals, under the adage, ‘if little is good, a lot more will be better’ has played havoc with human and other life forms.
Studies also reveal that they can also contaminate soil, water, turf, and other vegetation. In addition to killing insects or weeds, pesticides can be toxic to a host of other organisms including birds, fish, beneficial insects, and non-target plants. Insecticides are generally the most acutely toxic class of pesticides, but herbicides can also pose risks to non-target organisms. They contaminate surface water, ground water, soil and air.
The pesticides and herbicides currently being used on many non-organic crops are exceptionally toxic to humans and can build up in the human body contributing significantly to disease. For example:
- The herbicide, glyphosphate (also known as Roundup from Monsanto) which is commonly-used is extremely toxic and scientists have issued a warning about its use. Chemical companies have often used their influence with the authorities to increase the already high “acceptable levels” of glyphosphate in foods.
- Glufosinate (also known as Basta) is currently used in non-organic sugar beets and canola. It is also exceptionally toxic and is known to cause birth defects.
- Malathion is a pesticide that has been linked to numerous serious health effects.
There are many other toxic pesticides that end up in foods. Some of these pesticides have been banned in the U.S., but chemical companies sell them for use on crops outside the U.S. The pesticides and herbicides in current use can be expected to cause or contribute to a huge increase in serious chronic diseases unless people try to avoid these foods and switch to other options. Sometimes a story will appear stating that almost all foods test within “acceptable levels” for pesticide residues. What is really happening is:
- The chemical companies have successfully lobbied government officials to raise the “acceptable level” limits to enormous levels. That way these companies can sell large amounts of these chemicals. Saying that pesticide residues are within “acceptable levels” is now meaningless.
- Many of these “tests” are limited to certain pesticide residues while most other toxic pesticides are ignored.
Effects of pesticides and other chemicals on our bodies Chemicals such as pesticides, antibiotics and hormones are used in plant and animal farming to boost production and ensure adequate food supply. The use of pesticides can dramatically increase crop production and ensure a higher quality of produce. However, pesticides are also toxic chemicals designed to kill agricultural pests, and some can cause problems if they are consumed by humans in large amounts. So the more you consume and the longer you consume, the residue of these chemicals in our body increases and so does the risk of harm. Which also means every fruit or vegetable you grow and eat you reduce the residue of chemicals in your bodies.
Pesticides and other poisonous chemicals used in growing fruit and vegetables could be putting young children at risk of developing cancer in later life, say scientists. The chemicals found in food included the metals arsenic, lead and mercury, pesticides chlorpyrifos, permethrin and endosulfan, persistent organic pollutants dioxin, DDT, dieldrin and chlordane and the food processing byproduct acrylamide.
Pre-school children are in particular danger of exposure to the dangerous compounds, a U.S. study found.A study of children found safety consumption benchmarks were exceeded for arsenic, dieldrin, DDE and dioxins. Pesticide exposure was particularly high in tomatoes, peaches, apples, peppers, grapes, lettuce, broccoli, strawberries, spinach, dairy, pears, green beans and celery.Study leader Dr. Rainbow Vogt said: ‘We focused on children because early exposure can have long-term effects on disease outcomes. The results of this study demonstrate a need to prevent exposure to multiple toxins in young children to lower their cancer risk.‘
Organic farmers also use pesticides That organic farmers do not use any pesticides is a myth according to several reports. The organic farmers use both synthetic and natural kinds of pesticides€”with approval. Some specific chemicals are not approved for use on organic farms, including organophosphates, glyphosate, atrazine, and methyl bromide. But a surprisingly high number of pesticides are allowed. The standardization of organic foods and what kind of pest control they use is highly dicey. So, “is all food labeled ‘organic’ completely safe?” is again being debated by scientists and activists across the globe.
Is there a way out? So what are our options?The option is not between cheaper food that is harmful and organic food that is unaffordable (when we do not even know if their claims of being chemical-free are true). There is a third option as the movie points out – grow your own veggies for your family.
At the onset it feels like it is impossible and we do not have the time and space for it in our lives and apartments. But that is not true. It is possible and it should be done. If we want to escape the fungicides, pesticides, insecticides, hormones and steroids that are pumped into our children through the fruits and vegetables from the market, we need to get our hands into the soil, plant fruits and vegetables in your terrace, balcony or garden. With little care and effort you can harvest enough for your family’s needs. Each vegetable or fruit you can grow reduces the chemical intake. Hence every small effort matters as it is the cumulative effect of the toxins that causes more harm.
Our own vegetable garden Over the past few years we have lived in various rented housing and in all these places without much effort we have grown veggies and even fruits like strawberries. In pots and bags on the balcony and terrace we have grown tomatoes, cauliflowers, brinjal, spring onions, ladies finger, spinach, curry leaves, papaya etc. All this with only daily watering and putting vegetable waste from the kitchen. We did not use any chemicals. Now that we have moved to the outskirts of the city, we have a bit of land around the house, so we have planted banana, mango, pomegranate, guava and tapioca. We are yet to start a full-fledged vegetable garden, but we are getting there slowly. We have just planted patches of seeds of tomatoes, carrots, radish, lettuce, spinach, beans, ladies finger and brinjal. Many of these listed above are low maintenance, keeping them well-watered and using kitchen vegetable peels as supplement will do.
Make a Beginning The challenge is to believe you can do it and to get started. Start with a few pots or a small patch. Plant a few greens like spinach or lettuce along with some tomatoes, spring onions, etc. Later, ones you get some hands on experience, you can expand. If you want to go big,you can start a green house or patches of different vegetables. If you need more information, there are many resources online to help you get started.
Once you get around to it you will not be able to stop. The experience of watering the plants, see them grow, harvest our own produce and cook it brings such joy and a great break from the stresses of life. Do it as a stress buster, and do it as a family. Let the kids experience planting a seed and seeing it through to harvest.
We have reached nowhere near self-sufficiency in our vegetable growing, but I am now committed to do more and do regularly not just as a hobby but to grow food for the family.As my younger son once said, “if plants take in the carbon dioxide we breathe out and give the oxygen that we need to live, should we not have plants all around us, everywhere?” So have plants all around your house and make those plants veggies so they also give healthy vitamin and mineral-filled veggies” not chemical filled ones. And the bonus is your stress reduces, your family can do this together and bond, and it gives some physical exercise away from all the screens at home! What more motivation do you need? Go get started and don’t give up.